Robert (Schaeffer) Phillips Robert Emmet Long - Essay

Robert Emmet Long

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Land of Lost Content] comprises fifteen related stories about present or former inhabitants of Public Landing, an Eastern Shore community some 100 miles below the Mason-Dixon line and apparently based on Phillips's boyhood home in Sussex County, Delaware. A prologue called "The Happy Highway" introduces us to the area: the dreary stretches of flat, sandy fields and chicken farms; the crumbling colonial estates along the highway that have been converted into neon-lighted "fudge palaces"; the revival camp on the outskirts of town; the Baptist Church with its spire surmounted by an angel, lavishly illuminated at night; the fertilizer plant of "Mr. Sam," a local tycoon vigilant in keeping new industry out and wages down; the Bijou theater, with its balcony divided down the middle by a plywood wall—one half for white patrons, the other for blacks. It also appears that Public Landing has a scandalously high rate of alcoholism. Bleak as this community is (H. L. Mencken would have loved and applauded Phillips's depiction of the aridities of the New South), it is only a foretaste of the barren lives of its citizens.

Take, for example, Mr. Sam's widow ("A Lady of Fashion"), whose pathetic attempts to retain her youth end in painful self-recognition. Take Fulton Oldfield ("The Angel of the Church"), whose dignity conceals an inner sordidness, or the wife in "The Death of a Good Man," whose illusions about her husband are cruelly dispelled at his funeral. Other characters are outright grotesques—Nathan Fooks in "Obsession," Nora Lee in "The Lost Child." Phillips's characters grapple with destinies that are too much for them. He looks on with detachment, at times even with mocking amusement. One wonders which side of Phillips will prevail in the novel about Public Landing that he has completed but not yet published—the observer or the satirist. (pp. 42-3)

Robert Emmet Long, in a review of "The Land of Lost Content," in Saturday Review (© 1971 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIV, No. 18, May 1, 1971, pp. 42-3.