(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Orphan Angel combines elements of the historical romance and picaresque novel by bringing back to life, on the day he died, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and setting him on a quest across the United States to rescue a young woman.

The novel is divided into ten chapters, each of which is titled with a quotation from Shelley. The first chapter, “Western Wave,” pairs the Shelley character, named Shiloh, with David Butternut, a young, kind, but unsophisticated New England sailor. This chapter recounts the fantastic premise on which the historical romance is built. David Butternut, after killing a fellow sailor—in a fashion reminiscent of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd—rescues a man from drowning in Italy’s Leghorn Harbor. The young man is pulled from the shores of Italy at about the same time Shelley is said to have drowned, about 6:30 p.m. on July 8, 1822. Butternut believes that the rescue of the man, who resembles Jasper Cross, the scoundrel sailor he accidentally killed, atones for his own crime, and he vows to become the man’s loyal friend. Butternut, who would not have heard of the poet Shelley, mishears his name and calls him Shiloh (a nickname the Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, gave to Shelley). Shelley accepts the new identity and sails to Boston on the New England clipper ship Witch of the West in place of the dead Jasper Cross.

The picaresque element of...

(The entire section is 565 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cluck, Julia. “Elinor Wylie’s Shelley Obsession.” PMLA 56 (September, 1941): 841-860. Outlines the references to Shelley in two of Wylie’s novels and in her poetry. The first third of the article details the parallels in appearance, habits, attitudes, personal history, and language between Shiloh in The Orphan Angel and Shelley.

Farr, Judith. The Life and Art of Elinor Wylie. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983. Critical analysis of Wylie’s poetry and novels placed within the context of her life. See especially chapters 6 and 7 for discussions of Wylie’s interest in and of The Orphan Angel.

Gray, Thomas A. Elinor Wylie. New York: Twayne, 1969. Generally unfavorable critical evaluation of Wylie’s poetry and novels. Chapter 5 deals with the novels, including The Orphan Angel. Contains a chronology and a bibliography.

Hoyt, Nancy. Elinor Wylie: The Portrait of an Unknown Lady. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1935. Breezy biography by Wylie’s sister, seventeen years Wylie’s junior. Contains family photographs and poems from Wylie’s first, privately printed, book.

Olson, Stanley. Elinor Wylie: A Biography. New York: Dial Press, 1979. Detailed, well-researched biography divided into three sections: Wylie’s upbringing and her first marriage in the context of her prominent family (her grandfather was governor of Pennsylvania, and her father was solicitor-general under President Theodore Roosevelt); her ostracism from Washington society; and her enormous literary output in the 1920’s.

Tomalin, Claire. Shelley and His World. New York: Scribner’s, 1980. Brief biography providing the necessary information about Shelley for a reader to follow the parallels to Shiloh in The Orphan Angel. Includes a Shelley chronology, a select bibliography, an index, and numerous illustrations.