Posts Tagged ‘The Sea of Grass’

The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter ~ 1936. This edition: Knopf, 1973. Hardcover. 149 pages.

Writer Conrad Richter, 1890-1968, occupies a place in the pantheon of lesser American literary gods just a little below Willa Cather, so any critique flavoured with negativity feels slightly blasphemous; we feel we’re supposed to kneel down and enthusiastically worship, not surreptitiously peer at the idol for a glimpse of feet of clay.

But autre temps, autre moeurs, as the saying goes, and times are different now, and some writing hasn’t aged well. The vaguely embarrasing lush prose and predictable plot line of this short novel being a case in point.

A hint is given in the dust jacket teaser:

Narrated by a nephew of the leading male character, this novel – novella? – is passionately presented, though sketchy on background details. It reads like the screenplay for a old-style Western movie, and by golly! – lookie there – it was indeed filmed, in 1947, with Katharine Hepburn playing erring wife Lutie, and Spencer Tracy the stoic cattle baron James Brewton.

The film seems to have received mixed reviews. Though successful from a box office perspective, director Elia Kazan, thwarted in his creative desires throughout the filming, was disappointed in the final version and reportedly advised his friends against watching it. This contemporary film review from March of 1947 is an interesting read.

The novel’s plot is simplistic enough. New Mexico cattle baron James Brewton runs an immense operation, mostly consisting of government-owned rangeland, which he oversees as if it were his very own. Prospective homesteaders crowding across the state line and their political sponsors have their eye on Brewton’s private domain, and a certain Judge Brice Chamberlain has set his sights on knocking the region’s wealthy ranchers down a notch or two.

Enter Lutie Cameron, James Brewton’s ladylike citygirl bride, who disembarks from a train to be met by Brewton’s callow and resentful nephew. Tripping daintily up the dusty cowtown street in her high-heeled shoes, utterly ignoring the stares of the local layabouts, ducking under the feet of the hanged man gracing the water tower, Lutie brings a breath of perfumed air to enhance the local scene, and soon-to-be-nephew Hal is utterly smitten.

James and Lutie wed, and for a while it looks like all will be well. They’re apparently in love, though neither say so much aloud, James because of his leathery stoicism, Lutie because of her reticent ladylikeness, but children start to appear, so something’s going on. A girl, a boy, and another boy, this last child bearing a strong resemblance to – oh my! can it be?! – James Brewton’s arch-nemesis Brice Chamberlain.

For Lutie has apparently slipped quietly off the marital rails. So much so that next thing we know she is boarding that same train that brought her into town, to return to the bright lights of the city. It’s an open secret that Brice Chamberlain will be accompanying her, so when he stands Lutie up at the station, and she departs with head held high and eyes bright with unshed tears, the gossip swells to epic proportions.

Not to worry, she’ll be back, wafting in some years later once her estranged husband is on the verge of losing his ranch, while her child-of-(presumed)adultery is succumbing to gunshot wounds sustained during a brush with the law, for he has gone very much to the bad.

A marital reconciliation takes place over the dead body of the young man, then the scene fades to grey, and we are left with the image of the once-vibrant ranch house falling into decay, James and Lutie vanished to who-knows-where, and only Hal left to cherish the memories of what-once-was.

As a period piece this slender book both satisfies and disappoints. Occasional detailed and evocative descriptive passages bring the physical scene vividly to life, but the over-the-topness of much of Richter’s prose makes me grit my teeth.

Example, as Lutie prepares to board the outbound train:

And now I was sure that all those happy friends were frantically playing a part and that they really had no more belief that Lutie Brewton was going to St. Louis than I had. And when I stumbled by as if I noticed nothing, I saw that for all her gay animation, her high lace collar was a pale branch whipsawing in the pounding stream of blood at her throat and that the veins on one of my uncle’s hands stood out like long-suppressed whipcords of blue lightning.

I couldn’t have gone now if I had wished. I could see the grim bulge in my uncle’s coat of gray broadcloth and an untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke, flaring in his dark eyes. Several loafers had risen to their feet licking their lips. Following their eyes, I glimpsed up the street the unmistakable tall figure of Brice Chamberlain in a new brown suit coming out of the Exchange House and pausing for a moment on the high stone steps, a Mexican behind him with a pair of gripsacks. Then both approaching figures were blotted out by the gray clot of rounded emigrant canvas.

“Whipcoards of blue lightning”! “Grim bulge”! “Untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke”! Oh, my. Fanning myself wildly – those are stirring words. Is it just me or is it getting hot in here?!

Richter’s characterizations in this novel are stock, clich├ęd, so that one can’t believe in them as real people, who might have lived. They do everything so much to pattern, stepping through their choreographies of behaviour so rigidly, so predictably, so reminiscently of so many off-the-shelf novel and movie characters that one can’t get past that deadly over-familiarity.

Now I’m going to change gears, and say that though I am dreadfully cruel in my assessment of this extremely dated novel, it wasn’t all that bad. Conrad Richter’s sincerity shines through the deficiencies of his prose and plotting. He had a story to tell, and he told it. A point to make, and he hammered it home.

That point being, once all the romantic brouhaha is cleared out of the way, that the great American grasslands were never suited to the plow, that homesteading brought a fatal destruction of the eons-old sod, and that the epic tragedy of the 1930s’ “dust bowl” of the North American prairies was brought about by human ineptitude.

Probably worth a read, this novel, for cultural literacy reasons, if nothing else.

The characters – well – I got a lot of perverse enjoyment out of mildly despising each and every one of them, for being such cardboard cutouts, and for bringing on their own various downfalls. Lutie in particular. Oh, she annoyed the heck out of me!

And where did she go after abandoning her silent but infatuated husband and her sweet children, and being abandoned by her callous lover? She reappears a good ten years later, still beautiful and well-dressed, still exuding that “fragrance of violets” so beloved of Victorian-and-later writers, still capable of winning hearts with the merest glance of her “liquid eyes”. She’d turned down James Brewton’s financial support, she’d set herself outside of society’s pale, so where was she? How did she feed and clothe herself? Who financed her costly wardrobe, her daintily feminine personal needs? Radio silence!

Okay, rating. How about a 6/10. The Sea of Grass had its moments, and it was fun to growl at as I read it through. Nice and short, too, so it wasn’t like I wasted that much time on its reading. Appreciated the eco-message, good for Conrad Richter on putting that out there.

 

 

 

 

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