People used to read more. According to an article in The Atlantic in 2014, the number of American non-readers has nearly tripled since 1978. I may sound like a cranky old lady, but in the days of twentieth-century “print media,” when dozens of magazines like McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, The Atlantic, and Harper’s published short stories and poetry in every issue, Americans took for granted a rich cultural treasure trove of literature.
Was fiction better then? Well, I think so. I have been slowly making my way through a three-volume set of Short Stories from The New Yorker, published on the 25th anniversary of the magazine. In this wonderful anthology I have read brilliant stories by neglected writers like Kay Boyle, Nancy Hale, and Tess Slesinger.
One of the many forgotten New Yorker writers who has fallen off the literary map is Victoria Lincoln (1904-1981), a novelist and biographer. There is very little information about her online. According to her obituary in The New York Times, she was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, attended Radcliffe, and was best known for her 1934 novel, February Hill, ”a harum-scarum story of an enchanting family that lives by its wits and the grace of the local police force outside Fall River.’
I am all for harum-scarum, so I ordered a cheap hardback copy of February Hill at Amazon. The pages are brittle and tanned, but I am delighted to have found it at all. This quirky, well-written novel is part comedy, part Gothic romance. Think Faulkner’s poor white trash characters, only matriarchal, crossed with the “loam-and-lovechild” types made famous by English writer Mary Webb.
This story of this shiftless but genial matriarchal family is charming and fast-paced but also poses philosophical questions. What is morality? What is loyalty? Do these qualities have to do with the law, or survival? The Harris family is poor but lively and contented. Grandma, an ex-prostitute who wears a startling curly chestnut wig and sings old Vaudeville songs, moved north from Georgia when authorities became too interested in her activities. She thinks it’s a miracle that the police and social workers have not interfered with them in Fall River. Her cheerful, party-loving daughter Minna, a prostitute, supports the family, with a small contribution from her oldest daughter, Dottie, a factory worker. Minna’s husband Vergil, an alcoholic ex-Harvard scholar, stays home and pretends to read Greek while he drinks himself into oblivion. Two of their children, Jenny and Joel, have dropped out of school before the legal age, but the schools seem not to have noticed: Jenny, an unusually pretty girl, takes day-long walks, hitchhikes, and steals frivolous “presents” for her family. She lies and plays a character when she cadges food off a farmer’s wife, but part of this is spinning the fantasies of an adolescent. Joel is very close to Jenny, and often articulates her feelings through his quoting of Shakespeare. Like his father, he is studious and weak. Their sturdy younger sister Amy sits on Grandma’s lap and asks for songs, but “talks tough” and shocks visitors with her casual references tos “sonsovbitches.”
Their ramschackle house reflects the personality of family.
The Harris family lived in a shanty, but it was a good, tight, waterproof shanty, and if you called it a house you might have found yourself some justification, chiefly in the assured though rakish air with which it wore an indubitable front porch. But for my part, I withhold the term, front porch or no; for it was a brazen slattern of a place if ever there was one, and its porch, of which the balustrade was broken down for fully half its length, was like a toothless leer upon its dirty face. The shabby tangle of young maple and birch that screened it from the road could not hide its disgrace. It was blatant of shamelessness and discreditable poverty.
Is morality determined by convention or class, law or family loyalty? When Jenny marries Berkley Howard, the grandson of a rich socially prominent farmer, he is so ashamed of her family he forbids her to see them. And yet he himself works as a “rum runner,” but has a double standard when it comes to prostitution. Jenny remains loyal to her family, because she knows they are intrinsically good.
Dottie, who marries a French-American factory worker, despises the family as much as Berkley but her hatred backfires. And Joel is sent to live with his father’s rich mother in Maine, but this is also a mistake.
Minna makes such an impression on one of her clients, a rich businessman from Texas, that he asks her to marry him. She could leave February Hill. But how much can a person do for money? Where do her loyalties lie?
A fascinating novel, a little shaky at times, but overall one of my favorites of the year!
And, by the way, it was adapted for the stage as Primrose Path, and made into a movie with Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrea.