Text: John E. Reilly, “A Little More Down East,” Poe Studies, December 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 2, 16:p-p


[page 44, column 2:]

A Little More Down East

Donald A. Sears. John Neal. Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers, 1978. iv + 154 pp. $13.95.

Benjamin Lease and Hans-Joachim Lang, editors. the Genius of John Neal: Selections from His Writings. Frankfurt, Bern, and Las Vegas: Peter Lang, 1978. xxiv + 297 pp. $12.50.

In his review of Benjamin Lease’s That Wild Fellow John Neal (Poe Studies, 7 [1974], 52-54), Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV welcomed the book as “the first full-length study of . . . an interesting and important, and previously toolittle-attended figure in American literary history.” Among the virtues of the book singled out by Professor Fisher is “the wealth of areas it illuminates without exhausting [them], thus inviting further investigation.” Unfortunately, the “further investigation” anticipated by Professor Fisher has proved to be meagre. Aside from Benjamin Lease’s own brief elaborations on his 1972 study (see “John Neal and Edgar Allan Poe,” Poe Studies, 7 [1974], 38-41, and “Yankee Invasion: John Neal’s Campaign” in Lease’s Anglo-American Encounters: England and the Rise of American Literature [Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981], pp. 51-68), only two unpublished dissertations and a handful of essays on Neal in scholarly journals and Festschriften have appeared. In 1978, however, two books dealing with Neal were published that merit retrospective consideration, Donald A. Sears’ John Neal and an edition assembled by Lease and Hans-Joachim Lang, The Genius of John Neal: Selections from His Writings.

Sears’ monograph belongs to Twayne’s United States Author Series, a massive undertaking unavoidably uneven in quality but commendable at least to the extent that its contributors seem to have been left free to approach their subjects as they will. In the preface to his book, Sears, originally a “downeaster” himself, claims the special perspective of placing Neal “in the intellectual milieu of northern New England in the early nineteenth century.” But if this suggests that the focus of the book is upon Neal-in-Portland, then it is misleading, for what Sears has furnished is essentially a traditional, chronological survey of the life and works of Neal with some attention given here and there to such subjects as realism in Neal’s fiction, his interest in making his characters “talk on paper,” and his efforts at local color, especially in his fiction written after his return to Maine in 1827.

Sears’ opening chapter, “Yankee Genius as a Young Man,” covers Neal’s youth in Portland and Baltimore, that is, through 1823; and the second and third chapters, “Experiments in American Fiction” and “The Novel of Justification,” consider five novels Neal wrote during this period: Keep Cool, Logan, Randolph, Errata, and Seventy-Six, as well as Ruth Elder, a slightly later novel linked thematically to this group. Chapter Four, “‘Who Reads an American Book,‘” covers the three years which Neal passed in England (1824 to 1827), years during which he contributed regularly to Blackwood’s, published his novel [page 45:] Brother Jonathan, and became an associate of Jeremy Bentham. Chapter Five, “New England Fiction,” marks Neal’s return to Portland in 1827 and the publication of three more novels — Rachel Dyer, Authorship, and The Down-Easters — a play entitled Our Ephraim, and a number of tales and short narratives, among them Neal’s “David Whicher,” “Otter-Bag,” and “The Squatter.” Chapter Six, “Embattled Reformer” covers Neal’s lively involvement in social issues after his return to Portland, especially in woman’s rights, an issue which prompted his novel True Womanhood. The title to Chapter Seven, “Critic, Patron, Hack,” adequately identifies its content. Of special interest in this chapter is Neal’s short-lived editorship of The Yankee and the encouragement he gave to Whittier, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and, of course, Poe, though Sears has little to say about and nothing to add to what has long been known about Poe and Neal.

Sears’ final chapter, “Romantic Genius as American,” offers a general assessment of Neal and, perhaps inevitably, calls for the publication of “a collection of his best tales and articles.” The assessment is worth quoting:

John Neal was a force, a dynamism for those who followed: Longfellow, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Twain. He had carried literary nationalism into the journals of the opposition, to the British Isles themselves; he had demonstrated how to talk on paper in the real language of America; he had created an image of the American writer as one of individuality and originality; and he had helped to develop the mythical Yankee. In historical fiction dealing with material of the colonies, the frontier, and the Revolution, he was for a time the chief rival of Cooper. His accomplishments were wide, far-reaching, stimulating to others.

Sears has furnished his book with a helpful five-page “Selected Bibliography” of primary and secondary sources and with what seems to be a thorough index to his text.

Sears’ book will, by and large, serve as a useful introduction to Neal’s life and career, will serve, that is, if the reader has the patience to put up with Sears’ prose. It is almost unbelievably lacking in vitality, so much so that it seems to take the reader forever to slog through only one hundred twenty-eight pages. One suspects that somewhere in the course of the ten years Sears admits to having devoted to the project, he lost interest. And it shows! It shows especially in some of the boggler passages:

A bachelor until his mid-thirties, [Neal] had perhaps more than his share of romantic affairs. From these a certain amount of sexual guilt struggled against his New England conscience and his Quaker-born honesty. (p G2)

The three men had been former business partners. (p. 63) [Had they resumed their partnership?]

For a rime the narrator [of Authorship] lives and travels with the couple in an emotionally tangled ménage à trots. (p. 86)

On her side, Margaret Fuller had been drawn to Neal’s personality when they met in Providence in 1838, so much so that she let down her coils of hair and let him “read” the phrenological bumps of her head, twitting him on his return to Portland where as the great man of a little town” he could relax except for “Attending Portland sidewalks, chastising inhuman teamsters, prosecuting the study of Phrenology, Magnetism. . . .” (p. 100)

He opposed duelling both by speech and writing, especially in the pages of his first novel Keep Cool. (p. 105)

The White-Faced Pacer in 1863 was followed by The Moose-Hunter the next year, and Little Moccasin in 1866, the year that [column 2:] Neal lost his oldest friend John Pierpont to death. (p. 119) [The relevance of Pierpont’s death to the publication of Little Moccasin remains unexplained.]

Surely we can expect better things from an editor of CEA Critic and the author of The Discipline of English!

At the very moment he uttered it, Sears’ call for a “a collection of [Neal’s] best tales and articles” was being answered by Benjamin Lease and Hans-Joachim Lang in their The Genius of. John Neal: Selections from His Writings. The eighteen-page introduction furnishes the essential facts, that is, enough of the life and career of Neal to allow one to appreciate the collection itself. One minor irritation of the introduction is the author’s “It-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night” approach to Neal’s life instead of the straightforward chronological narrative which would have been more appropriate to the occasion. “In a wavering, scarcely legible hand — very different from his usual bold scrawl — John Neal wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow what proved to be a last letter to an old friend“ — here, in Neal’s eighty-third year, the introduction begins. Part II opens in the same style: “The place is the fashionable dining room of the Somerset House in London. . . .” Not until part III do we finally get around to Neal’s birth and childhood. A more troublesome feature of the book as a whole is its format: it is printed in offset apparently from a photo-reduced typed source with unjustified right margins (when was word processing invented?) and with marginal space so meagre as to exasperate the avid reader bent upon annotating his text. But these irritations vanish in light of the wisdom with which Lease and Lang have chosen the material they publish.

The selections are divided into four groups. The first, “Tales,” contains three of Neal’s finest, “Otter-Bag,” “David Whicher,” and “The Squatter,” as well as a rambling Poesque performance entitled “Idiosyncrasies.” The second group, “Extracts from Novels,” consists of a half-dozen to two-dozen pages from Seventy-Six, Randolph, Errata, Brother Jonathan, and Rachel Dyer. Though publishing extracts from novels is ordinarily a reprehensible practice, it is entirely appropriate with an author as erratic and uneven as Neal, whose long works often are bearable only over brief stretches. The third group of selections, “Essays and Criticism,” consists of eight items including comments by Neal on Irving and Cooper and notably his 1850 defence of Poe. And the fourth group, “Champion of Women’s Rights,” reprints four items which illustrate the depth of Neal’s active engagement in one social issue, though the narrowness of the common subject (presumably a concession to current interest in feminism) fails to convey the scope of a man who championed issues ranging from laying sidewalks and promoting gymnastics to banishing duelling and encouraging native American letters. Lease and Lang conclude their collection with brief explanatory notes to each item as well as a nine-page bibliography.

Neither the Sears biography nor the Lease and Lang collection will breathe much life into Neal studies. Sears’ book is at best a mediocre performance which will be sustained by its membership in the Twayne Series. In almost no respect is it preferable to Benjamin Lease’s That Wild Fellow John Neal. The Lease and Lang collection is perhaps [page 46:] the ideal format for “the best of John Neal” to enjoy being in print. But even here, the question of the audience (that is, publisher’s market) for a book like this arises. Minor authors such as Neal find almost no place in undergraduate studies, and certainly rare is the professor on the graduate level who will make enough room in a course on American literature to justify ordering this collection as a text. Perhaps we must face the fact that there are figures in our past who will survive largely in anthologies, in literary histories, and in footnotes to studies of those majors figures with whom they had the good fortune to be associated.

John E. Reilly, College of the Holy Cross


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]