The use of Hal Brewton as the narrator in The Sea of Grass is extremely clever. He reminisces from the vantage point of being Salt Fork’s physician. He sees many changes in the nearly fifty years he lives there. He is the nephew of Colonel Jim Brewton, whose stoicism he admires, and hence he is sympathetic both to him and more gradually to Lutie, whose beauty captivates him. He is Brock’s cousin—nominally, at least—and therefore he narrates events in that conflicted youth’s short life with muted emotion. Best of all, since Conrad Richter chose to present a quarter century’s salient events in the lives of his triangle of central characters—Lutie, Brewton, and Brock—it is useful to have Hal periodically leave Salt Fork for schooling in the more settled East, so that, upon each return, he can observe dramatic changes and record them more emphatically. His objectivity, however, is tinged with melancholy; therefore his prose has lyric overtones, and his narration is often a kind of elegy. At the end of chapter 14, Hal imagines that Lutie is recalling Brock in her mind’s eye as a yellow-haired baby again, “in the candlelight of a world that had vanished like last year’s snow.” Richter, who was a well-read author, assuredly wants his readers to hear echoes in these lines of the fifteenth century French poet François Villon’s most famous line: “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” (But where are the snows of yesteryear?). Several critics have noted that Richter may also have been inspired to employ the kind of narrator he did by reading Willa Cather’s novel A Lost Lady (1923), the narrator and heroine of which are very much like those in The Sea of Grass.
This short novel is compactly structured, with three numbered parts of almost exactly equal lengths. Each part, however, has a different number of chapters, perhaps to indicate the fact that separate dramatic segments presented in them carry different weights of import. Part 1, “Lutie,” has five chapters; part 2, “The Colonel,” seven chapters; and part 3, “Brock,” three. Chapter 6, the shortest in the book, is also the most static. In it, Lutie leaves the town by train, and everyone else, including her husband, waits to see whether Brice Chamberlain will board it with her. However, nothing happens. The bleat of lambs in the shipping pen, though, reminds Hal of Lutie’s three abandoned children. Chapter 15, the last, is also the longest. It skillfully ties up every plot strand in paragraph after paragraph, often out of chronological order for heightened effect. This chapter presents a memorable contrast between the Old West and the new: Lutie rather frenetically insists that Hal escort her to mass before asking him for details about Brock, who earlier derisively noted that the only thing not riddled with bullets from the posse’s guns in his wretched hideout is a portrait of Christ.
Each of the three parts dramatizes a different kind of failure. Lutie, in part 1, fails her husband, for whatever reasons, and leaves him for her paramour, although she fails to find happiness with this man or even to set up a brief residence with him. The colonel, in part 2, prepares his loyal ranch hands to fight the “army” of nesters but fails to do so. Brock, in part 3, pursues a life with drinkers, town women, gamblers, and gunslingers, all of whom fail him, and he ends up being killed. The only other significantly active character, Chamberlain, relates to Lutie, the colonel, and Brock, but remains busy only in the shadows. He succeeds materially and professionally...
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by failing Lutie, by legalizing the cause of the ruinously encroaching nesters, and by failing his son Brock. This novel, however, is less about failure than it is about Colonel Brewton’s achieving tragically heroic stature through steady and responsible action. When Lutie leaves him, he tries to send her money for at least temporary help, and at the end he quietly welcomes her back into his life. (What marital success they may achieve is left to the reader to decide.) When the president sends the army to guard the nesters’ encampment, Brewton, a former soldier, puts loyalty to the expanding nation foremost. When Brock is dying, Brewton races straight to him, offers what comfort he can, and buries him—on his land and as his son. Richter presents Brewton’s reverence for the land sympathetically, but he shows it to be impractical in the face of inexorable Western settlement. Hence, there are two morals: One is romantic; the other is realistic. The romantic moral is that population explosions hurt nature. The realistic moral is that old ways must yield to the new.
Richter augments the unity of The Sea of Grass by repeating key words in describing characters, setting, and action. Lutie is lithe, slender, sparkling, with her head erect, and redolent of violet perfume. Almost monotonously, she is called gay—before that word lost its nonsexual meaning. Brewton is massive, dark, arrogant, implacable. His ropy, wine-dark hand and neck veins expand when he is outraged. Feisty Brock has feather blond hair and quick hands, whether he is playing the piano, dealing cards, or shooting. Richter stresses Chamberlain’s blue eyes, blond hair, long legs, and brown-checked Eastern suit.
Musical motifs of imagery also ripple through the text. Most of the numerous similes and metaphors appropriately derive from natural elements. Thus, Brewton is likened to a stallion, a steer, granite; his eyes are fiery, stormy. The nesters, who are regularly demeaned by being depicted in dirty clothes, resemble a plague almost biblical in its advance and devastation. The most frequently repeated metaphor is naturally the one comparing the almost limitless prairie to a rippling sea, a sea of grass. Ultimately, this proves to be a sad metaphor, because in time the grass—which Brewton and Hal love but which Lutie hates and hides from—will be, unlike the sea, gone.