Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Grove lived and taught among recent immigrants in the Big Grassy Marsh country for a few years. The experience occasioned several books, including nature sketches and novels. Grove, however, was not really interested in documenting pioneer life. It was his passion, rather, to hold high in the new country the ideals at the heart of a Judeo-Christian and Roman/Greek tradition, ideals that would stave off the encroaching materialism of the United States. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, among others, Grove focuses on the basic question of life’s purpose and meaning in nearly all of his writing. In his fictionalized autobiographical novel In Search of Myself (1946), the young hero searches for the eternal values of truth, justice, and goodness. In The Yoke of Life (1930), the radical response to material limitations is to transcend them toward a spiritual reality. In Fruits of the Earth (1933), the protagonist is mocked at the height of his material success by its hollowness. The Master of the Mill (1944) warns that a dream fastened to material gain turns into a monster that diminishes and destroys the dreamer. Only the striving after the unattainable, Grove insists in In Search of Myself, is a worthy human quest.

Settlers of the Marsh was intended as part of a trilogy, but publishers persuaded Grove to condense the three parts into one. Though critically acclaimed, it ran into censorship problems over Ellen’s frank discussion of parental sex, which at the time precluded it from becoming a popular success. Yet it poignantly dramatizes the worthiness of the dream that expresses the longings of the human heart and spirit, and the heartbreak that so often accompanies the effort to possess the dream. At Grove’s death, Northrop Frye, the renowned Canadian literary critic, observed that he was the most serious of prose writers and may well be one of the most important.