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Capitalist Pastorale

In a perceptive study called “Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Gene Stratton-Porter’s Freckles,” Lawrence Jay Dessner, dwelling on some of the book’s more conspicuous excesses, notes:

This relentless insistence, this lack of moderation, this sensationalism in [ Freckles ‘s] language is so customary, so seemingly habitual, that one feels the presence of presumably unconscious expressive needs. It is as if the novel’s intellectual and ideological muddle is merely a superficial layer of flotsam bobbing on a boiling sea of emotion.

Dessner adds, with nice dryness, ” Freckles is not a work to support a faith in the political progressiveness of popular fiction.” But Dessner’s image of a boiling sea of emotion as the element in which Stratton-Porter’s fiction is suspended offers a clue to its power. She often uses the phrase “she panted” instead of “she said,” and the novels themselves have the atmosphere of someone breathlessly running around inside them, ordering their cuckoo plots and scattering their pernicious notions in a kind of passion of uncontrolled and uncontrollable feeling. Her peaceable kingdom—where birds and moths and small mammals lie down with oil tycoons and lumber barons, and dainty bathroom fixtures and lovely things to eat and lawn dresses and eugenics and God and fringed gentians are all mixed up together—is the product of an imagination of an almost life-threatening febrility.

If a sense of “unconscious expressive needs” wafts out of all imaginative literature, it is rare to find it so floridly present in best-selling sentimental fiction. In an article called “The Why of the Best Seller,” published in 1921 in The Bookman, the critic William Lyon Phelps valiantly struggled to define the character of Gene Stratton-Porter’s achievement. He was reduced to saying, “She is a public institution, like Yellowstone Park,” and “If she is not a literary artist, she is anyhow a wonderful woman.” (This after deploring Her Father’s Daughter.)

In a memoir called The Lady of the Limberlost (1928), Stratton-Porter’s daughter, Jeannette Porter Meehan, defended her mother’s apparent mawkishness:

Mother knew both sides of life, but she chose to write only about one side. She knew the stern realities, the immorality, and the seamy, disgusting sidelights of life. But why write about them? Every one has his own trouble and heartache, so why not give the world something happy to read, and make them see visions of idealised life? Surely this does more good than sordid tales of sex filth that only lead to morbid and diseased thinking.

But in fact, read a certain way, the novels have much to offer dirty minds. For example, the way Dessner, under the sway of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, reads the queer stuff going on between Freckles and McLean (“the perfervid, the ecstatic—may one say the erotic?—relationship between Freckles and McLean”) and sees the stump of Freckles’s missing hand as a “shame-provoking, phallic-shaped member.” Stratton-Porter generally kept her interest in sex filth below the level of consciousness, but in The Harvester she allowed it to surface with almost embarrassing explicitness. The Girl predictably succumbs to the charms of her benefactor-decorator (Stratton-Porter liked to portray him asleep, looking like a Rockwell Kent Aryan hero, “his lithe figure stretched the length of the bed,” “the strong, manly features, the fine brow and chin” etched by the light of the moon)—but she is sexless. After one of her sad attempts at a kiss, he witheringly tells her, “That was the loving caress of a ten-year-old girl to a big brother she admired. That’s all!” and stalks off to talk to his dog Belshazzar about his sex starvation. Presently, he decides on a bold step: “Excuse me if I give you a demonstration of the real thing, just to furnish you an idea of how it should be.” After the demonstration,

she lifted her handkerchief and pressed it against her lips, as she whispered in an awed voice, “My gracious Heaven, is that the kind of a kiss he is expecting me to give him ? Why, I couldn’t—not to save my life.”

In the end, the Harvester accepts the counsel of a lewd old lady named Granny Moreland:

If you’re going to bar a woman from being a wife ‘til she knows what you mean by love, you’ll stop about nine tenths of the weddings in the world, and t’other tenth will be women that no decent-minded man would jine with.

Granny checks her facts with a doctor:

I told him you’d tell him that no clean, sweet-minded girl ever had known nor ever would know what love means to a man till he marries her and teaches her. Ain’t it so, Doc?”

It certainly is.”

(Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach takes a mordant look at the conduct of this pedagogy in mid-century England.)

In A Girl of the Limberlost, there is a scene of voyeurism so vividly rendered that I have retained a picture of it in my mind over the years, assuming that I was recalling one of the book’s art nouveau illustrations by Wladyslaw T. Benda. In fact, no such illustration exists—the image derives from my mind’s eye. What I see is a man in a tree on a dark night looking through a window into a lighted room, where a girl in a nightgown is reading at a table. In Stratton-Porter’s description:

He could see the throb of her breast under its thin covering and smell the fragrance of the tossing hair. He could see the narrow bed with its pieced calico cover, the whitewashed walls with gay lithographs, and every crevice stuck full of twigs with dangling cocoons…. But nothing was worth a glance save the perfect face and form within reach by one spring through the rotten mosquito bar. He gripped the limb above that on which he stood, licked his lips, and breathed through his throat to be sure he was making no sound.

It is a measure of what children pick up without knowing exactly what they are taking in that my uninformed ten-year-old self grasped and was excited by the scene’s obvious sense of sexual threat. Though not spelled out, the implications of “throb of her breast,” “within reach by one spring,” “licked his lips” were not lost on me. Of course, the rape is averted: Elnora starts talking to herself, as Stratton-Porter’s characters are given to doing when she needs them to, and her innocent babble converts the would-be predator into a blubbering sentimental fool, who restores the money he has stolen from Elnora’s hiding place in the Limberlost, and leaves her a note of warning against his fellow lowlifes.

A Girl of the Limberlost is Stratton-Porter’s best book. Alone among the novels, it escapes the wild veerings of her mind into strange, crankish byways. Its single touch of racism—and it is recognizable as racism only in the light of Her Father’s Daughter and The Harvester—is the drastic skin peel the reformed mother gives herself to remove the brown complexion she acquired while working outdoors without a sunbonnet; a white skin is part of her program of looking nice in front of Elnora’s classmates. And Elnora is Stratton-Porter’s best heroine. Her strict morality and goodness are accompanied by a straightforwardness, almost a brusqueness of manner, that sets her off from the saccharine heroines of conventional sentimental fiction. She has a lot to put up with, and she puts up with it with endearing good-enough grace.

Edith Carr, A Girl of the Limberlost ‘s bad girl, is another unusual creation. She is beautiful, rich, and spoiled, but has a dimension of neuroticism that sets her off from her conventional counterparts. There is an atmosphere around her—and her peculiar faithful follower Hart Henderson—that evokes the beautiful damned characters Fitzgerald created twenty years later. Philip Ammon (né Mammon?) is about as wooden as a character can get—but then Prince Charming is no Pierre Bezukhov, either. A Girl of the Limberlost ‘s strong mythic understructure, the Aladdin’s cave glitter it imparts to the modest material rewards of Elnora’s enterprise and hard work, secures it a special place in Stratton-Porter’s oeuvre—and in American popular art.

In 1922, Stratton-Porter wrote a long poem called The Fire Bird, about an Indian maiden who brings divine retribution on herself, in which she believed she had achieved the high art that eluded her in her novels. Her one fear, as she wrote to a friend, was that “it is one of those things so very high class, so for the few understanding ones, that I have the very gravest doubts as to whether I could market it if I wanted to.” The poem did get published, but has long been out of print. It isn’t as bad as you might think; it’s merely boring.

Stratton-Porter gave a party for herself in Los Angeles to celebrate The Fire Bird ‘s publication. She invited 115 people and wore “a new evening dress of orchid chiffon velvet, looking, my friends were kind enough to say, the best they ever had seen me.” (This is from a letter that Jeannette Porter Meehan quotes in The Lady of the Limberlost.) The house was decorated with red and white flowers and large branches on which stuffed cardinals, “insured at one hundred dollars each and loaned me from one of the museums of the city,” were perched. There was music (“‘The Pastoral Symphony’ with the bird notes done on a flute”), an hour-long reading from The Fire Bird, and a buffet supper of roasted turkey and spiced ham and salad and cake and ice cream. “A number of people who were present told me that it was the most unique and the most beautiful party ever given in Los Angeles.” (Freckles had clearly seen nothing when he rhapsodized about the Bird Woman’s party in Indiana.)

Two years later, Stratton-Porter was dead, at sixty; she was killed when a Los Angeles streetcar rammed into her chauffeur-driven limousine, one of two she owned. She had just finished The Keeper of the Bees at her new fourteen-room redwood vacation house on Catalina Island, to which she had retreated with a cook, a driver, two secretaries, and “a little Yaqui Indian” while awaiting the completion of an eleven-thousand-square-foot, twenty-two-room Tudor-style mansion in Bel-Air.

The book was dictated from a hammock slung between two oaks on a hillside and sometimes reads as if the author’s attention were elsewhere. At the start of the novel, its hero, Jamie MacFarlane, flees a veterans’ hospital at a California hot spring, where he has been unsuccessfully treated for his shrapnel wound (and from which he is about to be transferred to the dread Camp Kearney, where everyone is or will become tubercular), and makes his way to the seaside house and garden of a moribund beekeeper, who asks him to look after the bees when he collapses and is hospitalized. MacFarlane learns beekeeping from an annoying child called the Little Scout and gets mixed up with a woman called the Storm Girl, whom he meets on a rock jutting out of the Pacific Ocean during a storm, and obligingly weds the next day to give her unborn child (the Shame Baby) a name.

None of this is believable and much of it is tedious. Only when she is dealing with the minute and sometimes disgusting particulars of MacFarlane’s medical condition does Stratton-Porter fully draw us (and perhaps herself) into her story. As she scrutinizes her hero’s bloody bandages and traces his chronic infection to the germs bred by the “hot, chemically saturated boiling spring water” piped through the veterans’ hospital, she returns to the boiling sea of emotion that is the breeding ground for her inspiration. She invests the story of MacFarlane’s cure by bathing in cold Pacific water and never eating starches and meats in the same meal with a thrilling significance. Putting her characteristic feverish intensity in the service of the medical fads of her day, she once again strikes the note to which her contemporaries vibrated, and to which we ourselves may helplessly, if somewhat more mutedly, respond. Imagine a Jane Brody column written by Charlotte Brontë and you will have a sense of Stratton-Porter’s singular feat.

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