Friday, July 25, 2008

"Stride of Man" by Thames Williamson

I admit it: I have a fascination for things which are under appreciated or outright forgotten. Maybe someday I'll figure out what such things appeal to me, but for now I'll just revel in it.

While going through old New Yorker magazines, I read tantalizing book reviews about authors who you never hear about now; some of them were up-and-coming stars who never realized their potential, others were one-book-wonders, and a few wrote well-regarded fiction of a sort which just doesn't resonate nowadays. In the latter category I put Thames Williamson.

If you can find substantial information about Thames Williamson on the internet then you're savvier than I am. Myself, I read a review of "Stride of Man" in a 1929 issue of The New Yorker, and it sounded strangely intriguing. One trip to abebooks later and I had a second edition copy in my hands, complete with ratty page trimming and a gorgeous art nouveau cover.

Then I read it, and...well, they just don't write books like this anymore.

It's an "epic," tracing the life of fictional Daniel Patterson -- distant relative of Daniel Boone -- from his humble beginnings to the height of his career as an automobile king. That element is straight-forward enough, but the book is really an allegory for American migration, invention, and ambition.

Patterson begins as a pre-teen orphan, living off the land west of the Rocky Mountains during the beginning of the civil war. As he moves east he learns about steamboats, he hunts buffalo, he falls in love, he boards his first train, he tinkers with bicycles...then he migrates to the prairies and tries to eke out a living, before travelling further east to Chicago where he labours in a factory. He deals with unions, he dreams his dreams, and then -- finally -- he starts work on the invention that will make him rich: the automobile.

Through all this he matures as a sort of Ayn Rand hero: serious, fair, able to juggle his workers with his down-to-earth reasoning skills, born of wildness and never tamed by the city or by the demands of high scoiety. It all comes across as terribly contrived...because it IS, and it's meant to be. It's a totally unsubtle pastiche of American-innovator stereotypes, meant to encapsulate the stages that the United States went through in order to become an industrial giant.

Fortunately Thames Williamson is pretty level-headed through most of the book, presenting both the pros and cons of every stage of Patterson's (and America's) development. At the end, however, he introduces a "practical art and culture" character in the form of Patterson's son Brand, who -- after going through the first world war -- decides that it's time for America to leverage its infrastructure toward creating...well, art, or culture, or something.

Through most of the book Patterson argues against anarchists and artists, chastising them for being all "idea" with no "plan." But somehow Brand's arguments eventually sink in, and since Williamson's writing is so non-judgemental, it's hard to know what point he's making. Is he telling us that Brand's ideas are correct, and that in 1929 it's really time for America to plot out a Grand Cultural Roadmap? Or is he saying that Brand has somehow distracted his father, perhaps implying that American businesspeople are likewise being co-oped and distracted by the younger generation?

I don't know, and that's the frustrating thing about "Stride of Man." After 300 pages of lean, quick prose, it descends into pseudo-intellectual babble about destiny and maturation, the kind of talk that the Patterson character had been mocking since the beginning of the book.

Anyway, I DID enjoy the book, and it's certainly like taking an undiluted sniff of Pure '20s Optimism. But if Williamson's other novels are like this I can see why he's been totally forgotten.

PS: The back sleeve of the book advertises MacKinlay Kantor's "Diversey," that damn book that I scorned but which continues to haunt my life. I WILL TRY TO READ IT AGAIN, if just to stop it from tormenting me in the future.


jj said...

I admit it: I have a fascination for things which are under appreciated or outright forgotten

Simple. To know that a rose bloomed in the desert and that it smelled sweet and that people knowing or not knowing about it does not/did not make any difference to its fragnance, that makes the rose smell sweeter. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Is that your metaphor or did you steal it?

It's certainly true.

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, the sound it makes is particularly interesting. :)

jj said...

I hope I came up with it. :) I didn't like the excessive sentimentality of the rose metaphor but I decided that this weakness is necessary in order to have the merit of paralleling that famous crack about what's in a name. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Awww JJ, you're just a sentimental fool!

Though I'm not so sure about roses growing in deserts. :)