Dennis Barone [USA]
By chance I recently read Brian Evenson’s new novel The Open
Curtain and then a Green Integer reprint of William Dean Howells’s 1895
novella The Day of Their Wedding.
Both fictions describe particular aspects of American religious
culture. Evenson offers the nightmare
of the cult whereas Howells provides a picture of religious sect as sylvan
In Evenson’s novel a young Mormon boy, Rudd, has to do a high
school research paper. I laughed
reading the teacher’s use of a three-part writing prompt for it sounds like an
idea right out of a how-to-write-a-paper textbook: choose a hero, a place, and
a time. Rudd has difficulty choosing a
hero perhaps because his father committed suicide. He does have better success with the other two, and he picks New
York City (it is far away from Utah) and the early twentieth century. At the library he scans microfilm reels of The
New York Times and discovers a gruesome murder from that time and
place. The perpetrator of the crime:
grandson of Brigham Young, Mormonism’s founder and first leader.
Rudd becomes obsessed with this history. History in Evenson’s work is often timeless
in the way that it is in Hawthorne’s.
One generation’s crimes haunt subsequent generations. Rudd also has come to believe that he has a
half-brother, Lael, living nearby. One
has intimations at times that this half-brother is but a projection of Rudd’s
neurosis – or psychosis. The Mormon
perpetrator of the early twentieth century crime claimed to have had an
accomplice. Lael and Rudd mirror this
relationship. They repeat the early
twentieth century history in the early twenty-first.
This is horror fiction, deeply psychological yet with a
surface realism and a compelling plain-style prose narration. Some very odd things occur, including Rudd’s
traditional Mormon marriage ceremony.
Be advised: in this novel, as in Evenson’s Lies of the Fathers,
institutional religion does not offer sanctuary.
William Dean Howells’s novella of one hundred and eleven years
prior shows a less dystopian, more utopian view of American religious
groups. Here the Shakers are our
representative church. A young man and woman,
Lorenzo and Althea, have left their community so that they can marry. Remember: Shakers lived communally, but did
not marry and prohibited all sexual contact.
This “angelic” life proved to be a less than effective way to perpetuate
the earthly church. I believe I read
that the last two ancient Shakers, two women in rural Maine, died a few years
Howells very sweet young couple spend a day in Saratoga, New
York, very much a bustling commercial resort town at the end of the nineteenth
century. They have tender and amusing
trouble negotiating “the world outside,” from struggling to avoid the perceived
oddness of their Shaker locutions to understanding the custom of tipping
waiters and others. During their day
they meet a number of memorable and decent townspeople, especially a carriage
driver and a minister. With the former
they see the sights, including the many luxury hotels (this brief narrative is
a fascinating study of early consumer culture) and with the latter they discuss
theology. After some doubts, they do
get married. Yet, almost no sooner do
they do so than they decide to leave “the world outside,” renounce their
marriage vows, and return to the celibate and separate, yet communal and
sheltered life of the Shaker community.
Sometimes I offer students my
half-hearted truism that the greatest discoveries are made by pure chance, not
by studied intentionality. I’m not
being completely truthful when I say this.
I, for example, study with very clear and distinct direction every
day. Yet, what a joy it is when
something does occur somewhat improvised and beyond the practiced harmony of
scales. These two fictions – Evenson’s The
Open Curtain and Howells’s The Day of Their Wedding – offer a reader
wonderful reading pleasure and also strike at the core issue of American
religious history since the time of the first Great Awakening. Are American religious traditions dangerous
enthusiasms or the embodiment of heavenly design here on earth? Remember, in one of the very first American
novels, Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland (1798), this debate forms its
very modus operandi – a debate between Awakening enthusiasm and
Enlightenment reason. (In another early
American novel, The Coquette , Hannah Foster modeled her villain
after one of theologian-philosopher Jonathan Edwards’s sons.) Whether 1798, 1895, or 2006 – we see such
issues unresolved, though in the pairing of Howells, whose novella leaves us
smiling and saying something like “how charming. God bless,” and Evenson, whose frightening novel leaves us with
recurring bad dreams, the latter wins this round of debate. It is the more powerful (if less pleasant)
of the two. America and American
religious history is no tender land and far from paradise.
Copyright ©2007 by Dennis Barone
Barone is the author of several books of fiction and poetry, including The Returns (Sun & Moon Press) and Precise Machine.