Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/94

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76
The Later Novel

All Eggleston’s essential novels are concerned with this phase of American life, whatever the scene: Indiana in The Hoosier Schoolmaster, The End of the World (1872), and Roxy (1878); Ohio in The Circuit Rider (1874); Illinois in The Graysons (1887); Minnesota in The Mystery of Metropolisville (1873). Light is thrown upon his aims in fiction by the fact that he subsequently aspired to write “A History of Life in the United States,” which he carried through two erudite, humane, and graceful volumes.[1] His Hoosier novels, simple in plot, clear-cut in characterization, concise and lucid in language, unwaveringly accurate in their setting, manners, and dialect, are indispensable documents, even finished chapters, for his uncompleted masterpiece. The Schoolmaster, as first in the field and fresh and pointed, still remains most famous; but Roxy is perhaps most interesting of them all, and The Circuit Rider the most informing. The Graysons deserves credit for the reserve with which it admits the youthful Lincoln into its narrative, uses him at a crucial moment, and then lets him withdraw without one hint of his future greatness. If the morals of these tales seem a little easy to read, they nevertheless lack all that is sentimental, strained, or perfervid. Without Mrs. Stowe’s rush of narrative, neither has Eggleston her verbosity. Even where, in his fidelity to violent frontier conditions, his incidents seem melodramatic, the handling is sure and direct, for the reason, as he says of The Circuit Rider, that whatever is incredible in the story is true. No novelist is more candid, few more convincing. With greater range and fire he might have been an international figure as well as the earliest American realist whose work is still remembered.[2]

It was perhaps a certain bareness in Middle Western life, lacking both the longer memories of the Atlantic States and the splendid golden expectations of California, that thus early established in the upper Mississippi valley the realistic tradition which descends unbroken through the work of Eggleston, E. W. Howe, Hamlin Garland, and Edgar Lee Masters.

  1. See Book II, Chap. XV.
  2. Mention should be made here of Col John W. De Forest (1826-1906), Who has not deserved that his novels should be forgotten as they have been, even Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), which survives only in the thoroughly merited praise of W. D. Howells (My Literary Passions, 1895,p.233), but which still seems strong and natural.