The Tree of Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

What was it like to live in the Ohio wilderness in 1812—hunting, farming, distilling whiskey, swallowing folk remedies, courting a woman, seeing tomahawks impact with skulls, having erotic fantasies, dodging black jaws (a biting insect), connecting socially with other pioneers, and being an artist and poet encountering nature the way one supposes Lascaux draftsmen knew it, with savage apprehension and skill? This question preoccupied Hugh Nissenson during the seven years it took him to write The Tree of Life, the diary of Nissenson’s fictional character Thomas Keene, purportedly written between 1811 and 1812, in a calfskin ledger. It is a tour de force of verisimilitude, provoking in the reader the shock and surprise which he might be expected to feel were he to stumble upon such a volume, dusty and brittle, in a Cincinnati antique shop. Nissenson’s quest, however, is not so much to awe the reader with illusions of a period as to wrest a fabulously factual image of a fictional man, Keene, from a period encrusted with decades of film and television banalization. Such intention required substantial factual knowledge of everything in Ohio at the time, from what people were wearing to the varieties of corn being planted. As well, it required the talent to compose in an original form, which in Nissenson’s hands becomes, in places, as persuasively natural as the sound of birds singing and crickets chirping.

Anything made these days glints like a diamond in sludge; the craftsmanship of this book recommends it to the reader who has learned increasingly to adopt a distrust toward fiction. Nissenson has produced a book ostensibly written more than a hundred years ago: Such is his naïve assumption, upon which he builds Thomas Keene’s cabin, consciousness, and paintings, prints of which appear throughout the book. So strikingly made up, The Tree of Life proposes a sincerity about life which, in the twentieth century, is often only sensible in the form of the antique object.

Before writing The Tree of Life, Nissenson was lesser known as the author of short stories and novels and as a journalist—he covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial for Commentary. This latest work, however, not only received critical acclaim (and a nomination for an American Book Award) but also was included by both Time and People Magazine in their lists of best fiction of 1985. Connoisseurs may regard the latter as a dubious honor, but certainly it attests the book’s appeal as something original flowering in the bombed-out districts of deconstructionism.

Thomas Keene, Nissenson’s diarist, is a voice and sensibility speaking and feeling with his time’s condition bearing on every syllable. He has arrived in Ohio a few months previous to the diary’s initial entry. The loquacity of a Robinson Crusoe is not present, nor is Crusoe’s anxiously successful importing of all the prejudices of perception with which he landed. The transitional nature of life in 1811 America Nissenson brings out through Keene’s minimalist frontier-shocked record. That part of the Middle West which Nissenson’s readers cross on freeways was once all forest, stinging insects, fevers, strange animals only the Indians had named, and a hodgepodge of metaphysical orientations—animistic natives, Old Testament Methodists, Swedenborgian mystics, and shrugging unbelievers. This mishmash of culture and religion, and the corresponding agonies it engenders, is probably the book’s central image. The epigraph, a quotation from William Blake’s “The Human Abstract,” attests:

The Gods of the earth and seaSought through nature to find this Tree;But their search was all in vain:There grows one in the Human brain.

“The Tree of Life” which the gods seek in Blake’s poem is something they would eradicate if discovered, since it is the solid growing thing any particular brain becomes when its own abstractions, particularly religious abstractions about “the right way to do and see things,” forbid adjustment to and accommodation of all the overwhelming splendors and terror served up by the universe.

Keen is Nissenson’s liberated man, someone whose tree of abstractions has no fruit and few leaves. Seven years before arriving in Ohio, he was pastor of a church in Maine. He lost his faith when his wife’s death agony led him to conclude that the Savior was not answering prayers. Now, as an infidel, though still entangled in the roots of guilt his Protestant theology established, he gives forth benignly disillusioned and respectfully reticent observations of the various and often warring convictions of white neighbors and the Delaware Indian tribe led by Chief Armstrong. Also, as a painter and poet, Keene develops his own new and, Nissenson would have the reader believe, better mythology, an outlook more explicitly sympathetic with the Indian’s way of apprehending than with the white man’s.

Keene’s diary records the prosaic immediacy of his commercial ventures, social life, sexual fixations, and artistic concerns. Dated entries of business transactions, the state of his bowels after a several day-long drinking binge, snippets of dialogue between Keene and a neighbor (quoted directly), and educated but brief asides (Keene attended Harvard Divinity School) make up the random feeling of a life being lived. The book opens with Keene’s inventory of his business possessions. He owns a cow named Juno worth thirty dollars, the components of a whiskey still, 160 prime acres in Rich-land County, miscellaneous weapons, writing pens, india ink for drawings, and a ledger “bought of Levi Jones at his store in Mansfield.” Passing from entry to entry, the reader learns of Keene’s neighbors. John Chapman (the legendary Johnny Appleseed) slips without fanfare onto the stage in a recorded transaction—his apples for Keene’s cheese. The reader also learns the cost of things, as the diary is an account book as well as a journal; most of the characters do business with Keene, either through barter or by purchase. Tensions in the community are rapidly introduced. Trouble grows between the white settlers and the Delaware tribe after Phil Seymour and his father, holding a grudge for their mother and wife’s death at the hands of some drunken Delaware braves, profane the Indian’s sacred red cedar by burying a white man at its foot....

(The entire section is 2684 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXII, October 1, 1985, p. 192.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, September 1, 1985, p. 899.

Library Journal. CX, October 15, 1985, p. 102.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 3, 1985, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, October 27, 1985, p. 14.

The New Yorker. LXI, December 23, 1985, p. 89.

Present Tense. XIII, Autumn, 1985, p. 57.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, August 16, 1985, p. 63.

Time. CXXVI, October 21, 1985, p. 87.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVII, January 23, 1986, p. 30.