Howells and Twain praised Edgar Watson Howe’s novel, and one early reviewer believed that at last someone had created the “great American novel.” For the modern reader, however, its interest is historical rather than literary. Howe’s style is often cumbersome with frequent errors of spelling, word usage, and construction.
Many reviewers have noted the novel’s Dickensian tones. The most obvious influence is in the characters’ names—Jo Erring, Ned’s tragic, misunderstood uncle; the Reverend Goode Shepherd; the worthless but wordy philosopher, Lytle Biggs; and the boastful villain, Clinton Bragg. There is also the sense of melancholy Dickens gives to his child heroes. Ned resembles Pip and David Copperfield in the dismal circumstances of his early life. Dominated by work, death, religion, and rejection, Ned comes to a fatalistic acceptance that life is a wretched experience.
Unfortunately, the adult Ned is less interesting. His story is submerged as the book sinks into trite melodrama, and Ned remains important only as narrator of the misfortunes of Jo and Mateel. Another departure from Dickens is that there is no humor to relieve the book’s starkness. The gray, wooden church with its graveyard dominates Fairview, and the Indian graves of Twin Mounds oversee the meanness of small-town culture.
Howe implies that country living makes men cruel. Trying desperately to wring an existence from the dry soil, the characters...
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