Analysis of Frederick Philip Grove’s Novels

Among Frederick Grove’s (February 14, 1879 – September 9, 1948) primary themes, the foremost is the issue of free will. Through his characters, Grove asks how much freedom anyone has in the face of often accidental but usually overwhelming pressures of instinct and environment. Even as he dramatizes the complexity and frustration wrought by such pressures, Grove seems, paradoxically, to celebrate the determination of his heroic figures to act as if such pressures hardly exist. Of almost equal importance to Grove’s vision is the more existential question of where in time one ought to situate objectives. Although he can admire the person who plans and looks toward the future, he often exposes the illusions attending such an orientation. His novels also involve themes that develop out of the distinction made between materialism and a more transcendental value system, a distinction that his characters frequently fail to identify. The fact that Grove does not always favor his characters, even as he sympathizes with their search for an authentic New World, suggests the complex viewpoint and dilemma central to much of his writing.

Settlers of the Marsh
After publishing his two books of travel sketches, Grove moved into book-length and explicitly fictional narrative, retaining this critical stance toward the efforts of pioneers to conquer the plains. Although the detailed accounting of nature continues in Settlers of the Marsh, Grove’s sympathy with nature and his corresponding critique of man-in-nature are found in the novel’s characterization and plotting. The pioneering enterprise is questioned through the depiction of Niels Lindstedt, a young Swede who emigrated to escape the perpetual poverty meted him in Europe and to build his own fortune through hard work. Niels outdoes his neighbors and succeeds handsomely: He saves money, clears land, and harvests a bounteous crop. His crowning achievement is the building of a great house, in which he plans to live with Ellen Amundsen. Out of the presumptuousness and naïveté of Niels’s scheme, Grove constructs the complications of his novel.

A curiously antiromantic love triangle develops in the novel, which combines elements of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence with those of Gustave Flaubert. Niels is cast as impressionable and sexually vulnerable, not unlike Hardy’s Jude or the young Paul Morel of Sons and Lovers (1913). Just as Paul turns to an older, more aggressive woman when the younger woman of his choice rebuffs his sexuality, so Niels falls prey to the seductiveness of Clara Vogel—whose first name significantly matches that of her counterpart in the Lawrence novel. Grove’s Clara, unlike Lawrence’s and like Arabella in Jude the Obscure (1896), knowingly takes advantage of his ignorance and inexperience in sex. The literary triangle is completed in Ellen’s aversion to sex despite her affection for Niels; the complex psychology behind her refusal to marry him recalls the different but equally complex reasoning of Lawrence’s Miriam and Sue Bridehead.

To a much greater degree than Hardy or Lawrence, Grove limits sympathy with his central character. Although the reader sees the novel’s action almost exclusively from Niels’s viewpoint, and although Niels’s strengths are reported and his intentions are understandable, each of the two women in his life is given a position of equal validity to his, and Niels’s inability, or unwillingness, to appreciate that position constitutes a grave weakness. Ellen’s sexual problems stem from her having witnessed the brutal subjugation of her mother by her father—who forced sex on his wife when she was ill and pressured her to seek abortions when she was pregnant— and from having promised her mother she would avoid intimacy with a man. Ellen’s telling Niels all of this, even as she insists she admires him and desperately needs his friendship, shocked many of the novel’s first readers.

Niels cannot bring himself to accept a purely friendly relationship with Ellen, or to wait for her to feel differently about him—although subsequent developments suggest waiting might not have gone unrewarded. Instead, he ignores her plea for friendship and largely avoids her. His assumption that he can control his own sexuality backfires in his going to town in search of pleasure, in his succumbing there to Clara, and in—to her astonishment—his remorsefully insisting that they marry.

Despite Clara’s promiscuous past, it is mostly Niels’s blindness to the dullness of farm life for a city woman and his refusal to free her that lead to Clara’s actively seeking other men and to the climactic discovery scene in which Niels murders her. Just as Clara would not idealize sexuality, neither would she denigrate it, or try to compensate for it, as does Niels. His response to the compelling problems of Ellen and Clara reveal him to be more insensitive and more shackled by sex than either of them. Objections to the final reunion of Niels with a now-willing Ellen reflect readers’ uneasiness with Niels’s ultimately receiving rewards without acknowledging the legitimacy of the two women’s claims against him. Aesthetically pleasing injustice in a more-or-less tragic plot thus gives way to the jarring injustice of a romantic finale.

The problems of the novel’s ending are reinforced by Grove’s portrayal of prairie women as victims of male stupidity and insensitivity. If Niels’s friend Nelson enjoys a happy marriage because, unlike Niels, he pursues a simple, earthy type of women, Nelson is the exception. Otherwise, Grove surrounds Niels with consistently unhappy marriages, where the blame rests mostly on husbands whose wives are burdened with hard work, too many children, and too little sympathy. Grove finds the problem not to be so much marriage itself but specifically marriage between unequals to which the male pioneer aspires and in which the wife becomes simply another beast of burden subordinate to the husband’s selfish ambitions. Grove ironically compounds the human toil of such selfishness in the case of Niels, who has a measure of sensitivity not shared by his fellow settlers. Niels mistakenly acts as if this sensitivity translates into completely good behavior. Having sought a land of freedom, Niels increasingly wonders if he is not, in fact, enslaved. Never, though, does he fully put together the puzzle of his failures. Through one of its gentlest members, Grove thus indicts a whole pioneer movement.

A Search for America
A Search for America proved to be much less offensive and much more popular to its first readers than Settlers in the Marsh; in fact, it became the most popular of Grove’s books. Rather than a narrative of constriction, it offers a story of discovery, of an opening up to the positive possibilities of life in America. In Phil Brandon, the narrator and protagonist, Grove presents his true adventurer, who reveals the moral ambiguities of the feverish activity characterizing North America at the turn of the century. Until recently, readers saw the narrative as thinly disguised autobiography; certainly Grove encouraged this notion by inserting parts in In Search of Myself. So convincing are many of the novel’s scenes and incidents that even now, after the serious inaccuracies in Grove’s account of his early years have been exposed, one believes he must have experienced most of the encounters and difficulties Brandon describes.

The literary antecedents of this book are, on one hand, Walden (1854) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and, on the other, a string of later immigrant narratives, from Jacob Riis’s affirmative autobiography, The Making of an American (1901), to the fictional and more skeptical Rise of David Levinsky (1917) by Abraham Cahan. How much of this immigrant writing Grove himself had read is unknown; Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain he cites explicitly. To all of these he adds, as the narrative progresses, strains of Thomas Carlyle and Leo Tolstoy: he takes the injunction from Sartor Resartus (1835) about increasing the “fraction of Life” by lessening the denominator as the basis for his turnabout in the middle of his “search,” and in the final section compares the magnificent hobo Ivan in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karénina (1875-1877).

Phil Brandon is a young man from a wealthy Swedish family whose father’s financial crisis drives him to Canada. From Toronto, where he finds work as a waiter, he moves to New York, as a door-to-door book salesman; to the Midwest, as a drifter on the Ohio River; and finally, to the Dakotas, where he works in the great wheat harvest. Although Grove cut his original manuscript in half, the published narrative is frequently rambling and episodic. Nevertheless, it continues to have a legitimate appeal.

The novel features the memorable episodes and characters for which Grove is known, from the cultured young European’s encounter with the strange and raw people on his first train trip in the New World, from Montreal to Toronto, to Brandon’s being tossed out of a Western town as a radical agitator trying to defend immigrants’ property rights. Along the way he meets restaurant employees who cheat in various ways, the rich and the poor on whom publishers try to foist books, a riverman so taciturn Brandon mistakes him for a deaf-mute, a village doctor completely trusting of the down-and-out, a millionaire landowner fascinated by radical political talk, and many other notable figures.

In Frederick Philip Grove (1973), Margaret R. Stobie points to the dreamlike quality, as well as the double movement, of Brandon’s quest. Grove extends his story beyond the limitations of immigrant initiation by moving Brandon from a geographical to a psychological quest, from seeking an America outside himself to finding those “American” values in himself that lead to a vocation. Although the result for Brandon is the decision to become a teacher aiding the newly arrived immigrants, the meaning of this decision and the shift of objectives preceding it even speaks to readers solidly established in American society. Grove parallels this shift with the development of the distinction between the superficial America—represented in the novel’s first two books by the petty fraud of business—and the “real” America promised in book 3, when Brandon travels the countryside by himself, and in book 4, when he reattaches himself to humanity. He becomes convinced that, his misadventures notwithstanding, there are “real Abe Lincolns” out there, worth seeking and worth cultivating.

Grove’s narrator-protagonist comes to devalue “culture” in the European sense, as prefabricated and fragile, and to appreciate the need for developing one’s personal culture. Grove’s affinity with Thoreau and Twain, as well as with Henri Rousseau, shows especially in Brandon’s discovery of a new relationship with nature, responding to the commonplace in nature. Nature suggests to Brandon not only the insignificance of the past—which his flight from European artifice may have already taught him—but also the virtual irrelevance of the future, as he learns to concentrate more on his present situation and less on what it might be. Repeatedly, Brandon wonders at the nature of being, at where he is through no effort or intention. The novel’s basic optimism is underlined by the possibility for positive unforeseen events, which softens the determinism of much social thinking in the novel. If the European immigrant’s experience during the 1890’s seems remote today, Grove’s warnings about a culture mired in materialism and separated from its roots in nature still have force.

Fruits of the Earth
Continuing the ideological tendencies of Grove’s earlier fiction, Fruits of the Earth is not only his most satisfying and moving novel but also arguably one of the two or three finest works to come out of the American frontier tradition. Strictly speaking, it does not concern the frontier so much as the painful transition from pioneer to modern life on the prairie. Abe Spaulding represents one answer to Phil Brandon’s search for the authentically Lincolnesque American. Grove describes Spaulding’s experiences and development from 1900, when he arrives from Ontario to clear a piece of land near a remote Manitoba village, to the 1920’s, when—in his fifties and having achieved patriarchal status among his neighbors—he wrestles with the moral dilemmas posed by community growth, related pressures of mass culture, and his own children’s coming of age.

Grove divides his novel into two principal sections. The first traces Abe from his start as a young homesteader through his remarkable economic success, which culminates in his building a great house on the site of his beginning. Paralleling this ascent is his rise in the school district and the municipality, where he is respected for his sagacity and honesty and is ultimately elected reeve. Early in the narrative a conflict develops in Abe, by which feelings for his family—to a lesser extent for his wife, who is ill-suited for prairie life, and to a greater extent for his son Charlie, whose sensitivity Abe comes increasingly to value—detract from his sense of external success. Such success is superseded, in Abe’s and the reader’s minds, by the accidental death of Charlie midway through the novel.

Grove ascribes Spaulding’s success largely to the preeminent strengths he brings to the challenge of homesteading. Repeatedly, the secondary characters and events testify to Abe’s intelligence and shrewdness, of which his imposing physique is emblematic. He nurses the pioneer ambitions to escape a constricting life, represented by the small family farm he had sold, and to pursue what Grove terms “a clear proposition,” unencumbered by complexity. Such a plan rests on the premise that such objectives are inherently good and satisfying, as well as obtainable. Abe soon begins to suspect the fallaciousness of his premise when other values detract from the satisfaction of his success. Grove significantly casts Abe’s happiness in the past, so that he rarely experiences it except in memory. His growing property holdings are accompanied by a sense of diminishing economic returns and by a feeling of increasing enslavement by his acquisitions. Even as he builds the magnificent house, Abe feels powerless; house construction, like the prairie itself, is beyond his grasp. Like Hardy and many naturalists, Grove portrays his protagonist in rather unflattering terms against the backdrop of nature. Abe seems never very far ahead of the natural forces he tries to control, and therefore he is unable to enjoy any real repose.

All of these characteristics emerge in the novel’s first part. Charlie’s death, which coincides with Abe’s greatest public triumphs, brings out a latent dissatisfaction with such triumphs. Abe sees in the death an ominous sign of his inability to capture what he has belatedly recognized as more valuable than material or external success. Charlie’s death reinforces a depressing sense of fatality, of an irreversible and unmodifiable commitment to decisions made and courses taken many years earlier. Having attended increasingly to Charlie, not only to atone but also to make up time he had believed he was losing, Abe retreats into himself once Charlie is gone.

The second part of the novel, titled “The District,” depicts various changes brought on by the postwar era. Against this background and despite his skepticism regarding “progress”—a skepticism explicitly echoed by Grove—Abe allows unscrupulous political enemies to rob him of power and to proceed to transformthe district in the modern commercial spirit he despises. The novel’s first part centered on the suspense of when and at what price Abe would realize fully the conflict of values in himself; in the second part, Grove turns the issue to whether, having recognized that conflict, Abe will succumb to a paralysis of will.

Abe, however, ultimately chooses to assert whatever limited influence he may have and to take a stand despite his awareness of his power’s limits. Grove indicates that Abe’s heroism comes from that awareness rather than from the skills that helped him fashion out his estate or the sensitivity brought out in his relationship to Charlie. Having learned that life’s “clear propositions” tend to be elusive and fundamentally unsatisfying, Abe in the end rises from psychological and moral torpor to act with genuine courage.

Grove’s artistic successes have helped extend frontier realism beyond the dimensions it is usually accorded. Like his more celebrated American counterparts, Grove marked the ambitions, hopes, and disappointments attending pioneer life around the turn of the twentieth century. He also marked the ways in which such universally destructive aspects of human behavior as greed, jealousy, and snobbery found their way into a frontier experience, which had promised escape from them.

Grove’s novels came too late to put him in the forefront of frontier realists. Nevertheless, his novels’ tardy appearance permitted a perspective of which the other frontier realists were rarely capable. Grove was able to capture not only the futility but also the ultimate immorality of much pioneer venturing. His best fiction records the compromise of simple virtue and pleasure demanded by the misleading complex life on the prairie. This ethical perspective deepens as Grove follows his pioneers beyond World War I and even into the 1930’s, where pioneer and modern notions of progress clash openly.

Significantly, Grove shows women and children suffering the consequences of commitments made solely by adult men. Yet, even the hardy pioneers in Grove’s world sense the inherent limitations of the economic and social system to which they commit themselves and their families. In depicting their failures, economic and moral, as inevitable, Grove is a pessimist, particularly as he assigns a measure of responsibility to the pioneers themselves. In continuing to insist, however, on the ability of humankind to recognize good and to act on that recognition, Grove avoided naturalistic determinism and offered a measure of hope to the twentieth century.

Major works
Principal long fiction Settlers of the Marsh, 1925; A Search for America, 1927; Our Daily Bread, 1928; The Yoke of Life, 1930; Fruits of the Earth, 1933; Two Generations, 1939; The Master of the Mill, 1944; Consider Her Ways, 1947.
Short fiction: Tales from the Margin: The Selected Short Stories of Frederick Philip Grove, 1971 (Desmond Pacey, editor).
Nonfiction: Over Prairie Trails, 1922; The Turn of the Year, 1923; It Needs to Be Said, 1929; In Search of Myself, 1946 (fictionalized autobiography); The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove, 1976 (Desmond Pacey, editor); A Stranger to My Time: Essays By and About Frederick Philip Grove, 1986.
Children’s literature: The Adventure of Leonard Broadus, 1983 (in The Genesis of “The Adventure of Leonard Broadus”: A Text and Commentary)

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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