BOOKS JULY 3, 1915
A Far Country, by Winston Churchill. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50 net.
In "Mr. Crewe's Career" it is the hero's father who is a part of the political and corporation machine. As soon as the hero has thoroughly grasped the aims and consequences of this activity he condemns it. In Mr. Churchill's new novel, "A Far Country," the hero, Hugh Paret, is himself a most effective part of a machine which has its way with state legislatures and city councils, and sends to Washington a senator, kindly and able, who has done his share toward keeping corruption in existence, who has profited by his labors, and who has remained what used to be called personally incorruptible.
We make Hugh Paret's acquaintance when he is still a small boy, living in a medium-sized city for which young Pittsburgh might have served as a model. Hugh's is an unawakened boyhood, filled with longings which his highminded and scrupulous Presbyterian father does not understand and represses. At school Hugh does his lessons so badly that when school days are over, and many of his friends are going to Eastern colleges, he is put into the wholesale grocery business. Here he does his work well, determined to satisfy an ambition which has suddenly come to him, arid of which a determination to show Nancy Willett what is in him is one of the causes. This ambition has, however, nothing to do with wholesale groceries. With the aid of a tutor Hugh gives his evenings to study, passes his examinations for Harvard a year after leaving school, and is allowed by his father to see what Harvard will do with him.
At Harvard, a rather unreal and imperfectly realized Harvard, he discovers in himself, with the help of an instructor who has a keen eye for the real thing, an aptitude for writing. For a while the flame burns brightly, until Hugh meets an old friend, a successful corporation lawyer from his own city. Hugh admires the ease with which this man imposes himself upon the rich Easterners who surround him, and a new and fiercer ambition drives out the old. Even when he was a small boy, discerning elders noticed a streak of unscrupulousness in Hugh. He makes up his mind to succeed.
Success comes to him. After leaving the Harvard Law School he enters the office of the friend whose success determined Hugh's choice of a profession, keeps his eyes open, and learns things. Gradually he arrives at a perfect understanding of the forces really in command of his city. "I remember well," he says, "an old-fashioned picture-puzzle in one of my boyhood books. T he scene depicted was to all appearances a sylvan, peaceful one, with two happy lovers seated on a log beside a brook; but presently, as one gazed at the picture, the head of an animal stood forth among the branches, and then the body; more animals began to appear, bit by bit; a tiger, a bear, a lion, a jackal, a fox—until at last, whenever I looked at the page, I did not see the sylvan scene at all, but only the predatory beasts of the forest. So, one by one, the figures of the real rulers of the city superimposed themselves for me upon the simple and democratic design. …”
Hugh is astute in his conduct of the negotiations entrusted to him. By being faithful over a few things he comes little by little to be ruler over many things. He knows the ways by which legislatures, city councils, governors and judges can be made to do what the growing and always hungry corporations want, he is apt at devising laws and other schemes by which the corporations can gain their ends. He gets money and power and reputation.
Meanwhile, having failed to marry Nancy Willett, the woman he loves best but not enough, Hugh has married Maude Hutchins, and three children are born to them. He neglects his children and his wife. He has almost no genuine friends, men whom he is willing to waste time with, disinterestedly. He never reads books. His attention is concentrated upon success.
After Nancy has married for money, and has established herself securely at the very top of the social heap, Hugh's love for her comes to life again and takes possession of him. Their love story is less conventional, except in details, than any other that Mr. Churchill has imagined. Hugh's conversion, too, marks an advance both in truth and in art. Many causes contribute to it—the state of mind into which he is thrown by the sudden ending of his love affair with Nancy, the death of Herrmann Krebs, the radical lawyer with whom Hugh has all his life from time to time been confronted, and each time with forward pointing significance. But the deepest cause of Hugh's change is also the simplest. He is not, he never was, the kind of man to be permanently satisfied with the life he has led so successfully. This life has indeed been lived in a far country, and his true home is elsewhere. In an American novel, when you find the field of conversion narrowed, when you find a convert converted from a faith he was constitutionally unfit to live by forever, you have reason to be thankful.
It is a pity that Mr. Churchill's attitude toward the opinions which the years bring to Hugh should resemble Hugh's own attitude so closely. Hugh believes he will find his highest satisfaction in devoting himself to his children, in giving them a wiser education than his own, in doing what he can to keep them from repeating his errors. He believes truth is something that his parents didn't know and that he may learn by study. He sees the struggle between privilege and the critics of privilege as in itself it really is. His eyes behold a harmony between all that is truest in religion and all that is newest in natural science. Such an attitude, natural enough in Hugh, is credulous in Hugh's creator. One longs for a hint that Hugh's children may some day try to keep their errors from being repeated in their children's lives. One would be grateful for a hint that M r. Churchill sees Hugh's new truths as possibly nothing more than "a wind of doctrine." A man of action is bound to act as if his present belief were final, but a novelist, especially one who describes past changes so well, would gain for his story an imaginative background if he hinted that the future might be equally changing and fluid.
Mr. Churchill has never drawn women so well as men. His love scenes are nearly always his least good scenes. The love passages in "A Far Country" are very curious. They sound as if Mr. Churchill were still a believer in several conventions about sex. They are wholly passionless, a little bookish, poor in their words. But this, you object, is probably what a great many love scenes are like? Possibly, and if Mr. Churchill's attitude toward them were a little different all would be well. You suspect the author of sharing an emotion he attributes to the lovers. You accuse him of being the dupe of his love scenes. By treating his lovers as if they too spoke dialect, as if he were aware that even sincere love may have its comic side, Mr. Churchill would give his love scenes a different value, would mitigate the demand they now make to be taken with literal good faith.
Mr. Churchill is not at his best when he paints "sympathetic" characters, their relations, or their inner life. He is at his best when he paints portraits of a community, of the life led in an American city during the late seventies and early eighties, by pioneers growing old among their traditions, among scruples dying without issue. Equally good is his picture of the city's growth, of its transformation into an industrial city which the corporations rule, of the reaching out and combining of these corporations, of the kind of man who makes them and serves them and buys what they need from legislative and executive and judicial officeholders. Another picture, less detailed but as vivid, shows us revolt in its infancy. Mr. Churchill has given us in "A Far Country" a lively sense of the historical march of things. He is alert, observing, kindly, humorous, intelligent, but neither reflective nor searching. His is a descriptive and narrative talent. He is an admirable painter of the passage of time over American states and cities, of their abiding and changing characteristics.
This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.