First published in the Sewanee Review, vol. 54, no. 2, Spring 1946.  Copyright 1946, 1974 by the University of the South.  Reprinted with the permission of the editor.
In Angel in the Forest, Marguerite Young has found a strikingly regional subject matter, one transcending regionalism, to express both her wit and fantasy to the fullest, to illuminate the American scene with vision. Her region is nearly that of, though it purports to be concerned preeminently with the Indiana corn field and the cultural factors diversely at play there, the lost Atlantis, the city of Campanella, other  marvelous  matters.  The dual  intention,  reality  and  unreality, is made clear from the first page-when you cross the Wabash to that land by a “creaking ferry,” the other passengers being only two blind mules.   Here, myth extends its many branches like an octopus, along with the filling station, along with hollyhocks and “spinsters numerous as hollyhocks.”   The subtitle, A Fair Tale of  Two Utopias,  is thus a meaningful indication of surrealistic  and  realistic  events  in a  pat­ tern of infinite motion.  New  Harmony,  Indiana  village,  laboratory, and nameless graveyard of man’s aspiration  for the ideal  happiness, both social and individual, both of heaven and earth, becomes, under Miss Young’s eyes, the one gloomy, the other prismatic, a spectacle of the world at large, contradictory as the human soul, even more contradictory, since it takes in harsh aspects other than the soul-for instance,  the climate,  its  extremes  of  hot  and  cold.  A  view of  life as homely as that of James Whitcomb Riley, Hoosier poet, is combined with a view of life as unhomely as that of Swedenborg or Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne, John Locke’s mind, born into the world as a blank page-here frequently discussed-takes on the wild, eccentric coloration of E. T. A. Hoffmann, German fairy tale writer. There are all kinds of conspiracies going on within a text which escapes its boundaries.

“What dream among dreams,” Marguerite  Young asks, “is reality ?” Such a question sets the key for the entire procedure.

032At the  beginning  of  the  last  century,  two  divers  dreams,  ancient in origin, converged on the banks of the Wabash far away,  Father Rapp’s golden New Jerusalem, a city foursquare as measured by the burnished reed-both Biblical  reed  and  Jimson  weed  which  grow today in a still unlegislated country; and Robert Owen’s equally unrealizable  rectangular community of reason.  Father Rapp, founder of the  first Utopia,  a  Scriptural  communism,  promised  bliss  eternal in heaven, “when this green earth should be destroyed by violence, by poisonous hailstones.” Robert Owen, his successor, founder of the second Utopia in a village deserted by the Rappites, made the more difficult promise of bliss eternal on earth, which paradoxically enough was very gray in his era, though he held it to be indestructible. For Father Rapp, the earth was in its springtime–for Robert  Owen,  the earth was in its autumn.  The Owenites had not even enough  energy to harvest the hops in that field where, so short a time back, the angel Gabriel had promised that men should be a “confluence of bright sunbeams.” The Owenites were easily discouraged, having  no  angel. Father Rapp, long-bearded patriarch from cloudy Wurtemberg, a businessman par excellence, both “mystic and murderer,” planned for his not-too-distant heaven by means of hard labor, the whiskey trade, strictly  enforced  celibacy  on  all  but  pigs,  sheep,  goats,  the  animal kingdom (on which celibacy Lord Byron watching from afar, wrote a caustic  canto,  “Don  Juan”).  Robert  Owen,   father   of   the   British labor movement and many societies for the real advancement of  the human race, visualized an Eden of  Children, such as he had established at  New  Lanark  cotton  mills,  shorter  and  shorter  working  hours, mental independence, a  triumph  over  all  mythologies.  The  Devil (perhaps in league with the shades of Father Rapp and company ) was preparing “a hole deep in the polar ice to swallow Robert Owen’s soul,” according to one of the many popular  rhymes  on  the  subject  of Elysium.

sewanee.angelBoth  Utopias  failed  dismally–Rapp’s  being  a  financial  success  but a spiritual loss, Robert Owen’s being a financial loss  though,  in the last analysis, perhaps not a spiritual loss. The  paradox  suggests  a poem of Browning’s. At any rate, the exodus of the Rappites was followed by the disintegration of the Owenite settlement before it was hardly established in what was perhaps “a fatal atmosphere.” For instance, the germs of malaria had already been released. Our heroes are not, in fact, Rapp and Owen-but populations, inclusive of the Rappite hens and roosters who dwelt outside Utopia, inclusive of the community of drunks which built its citadel at the gates of Owenite Utopia, inclusive even of “the little goat who, in 1940, cried and cried with its fleece caught on a thorn bough.” All that remained  of  New Harmony, in 1940, was human nature and the spectre of two enchanting dreams which, Jehovah’s and Rousseau’s, could not pass away. An angel’s footprints in stone, the maze where the Rappites had wandered, the black locust trees which the Rappites had left standing as their most macabre monument.  Of the  Owenites,  fewer  relics, fewer monuments, since their contribution to society had to do with legislation and government in all nations. Of the Owenites, only the golden rain trees which were to cast their shadows over “a new moral world,” when there should be  neither  crime  nor  punishment-  not one  sentient  creature  crying.  “Utopias  of  the  past  seemed,  in  spite of their shade trees, not so tangible, finally, as Miss Hobbie and Miss Duckie, old sisters carrying their  feather  pillows  to  the  show where the seats were hard to set on-sneaking in to see Clark Gable. All mankind seemed not so real as one lonely, frostbitten  character, like the man who died with his feet in the ashes of  the cold  stove last winter, or was it winter before last ?” People were still betting on imaginary  horses-like  those  at  the  race  track   at  Dade  Park,  like those  of  the  Apocalypse,  too. Roosevelt  was  a  white  man  riding  on a  white  horse.  Hitler  was  a  brown  man  riding  on  a  brown  horse.


In fact, the phantasmagoria  of  life persisted, above and beyond the crystalizations of  lost Utopias.

040Marguerite Young does not relate the dilemma of two Utopias  for the sake of an easy maxim. Life is viewed in its irrational diversity, and no judgment is passed. The narrator of an epic, cosmic and psychic, she speaks and sings her tale, words and visions rising and falling with the rhythm of life, which has,  she implies, more agents, seen and unseen, than can be mentioned in even this spacious contest. We must consider, for example, in  considering   New  Harmony­ whether the whale swallowed Jonah or Jonah swallowed the whale-the effects of such translucent matter on the present fluctuation of Wall Street. We must consider the woman “who buried her baby, no bigger than her hand, in a hollow tree stump, filled with old cocoons and autumn leaves.” ‘When she came  back  next  spring, they  all  were gone. From the shadows who people  New  Harmony  in  1940, from “the walking dead,” rise, by subtle, implicit innuendo, the living shapes and voices of a still persistent past, bevies of kings, emperors, clowns, cotton lords, cotton workers. Human progress is shown in  many shapes, through Father Rapp’s golden rose  of  Micah,  to be  enjoyed only by the dead, through Robert Owen’s toy pyramids which rep­ resented, he said, the edifice of human society at that date, his toy blocks which represented human society when it should be conducted according to the light of reason only. “Alas, however, for the best of plans! We are all, finally, perhaps the best of us, mistaken human beings, like our human life, which  may  be  another  mistake,  due to the aboriginal whirlwind.” Father Rapp spent his old age as a million­ aire growing peach trees.  Robert Owen  spent  his  old  age discoursing with those spirit voices whose existence he had previously denied, in arguments  with  Coleridge at  Manchester.

iowaThe level of  perpetual  change is  expressed  in  Indiana’s  shifting landscape, one of many symbols.  “For thousands of years, what is now the state of Indiana was a vast plain of granitic rock covered by a deep, salt, tideless sea.”  When man arises at last, he is “already old and corrupt, like the earth before him-a creature with a history.” There was “never a first dawn”-“never a pristine Eden but that where the ants performed their marriage flight and lost their wings”-a state­ment which profoundly expresses the basic conception of the cost of life.In juxtaposition  with the lost sea of Indiana, we witness moments no less ghostly, drawn from the  largesse  of  time  and  space: old, deaf, blind, dreaming George III, playing a harpsichord  or rather a series of   harpsichords–or  barking  like  a  mad  dog  at  Windsor; the unacknowledged death of Anne Bronte in a seaside hotel; the Pope of Rome dressed as the Pope’s valet and become, by this shift in costume, God’s truest representative on earth ; the fat Emperor of Russia, entertaining “a cancerous tutor or a ballet  dancer  from  an­ other sphere,” Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Frances Wright, Audubon, Raffinesque, John Quincy Ada ms, Coleridge, Shelley, many other notables ; indeed, many disrelated  people  and events drawn into a complex system which seems, in each instant, unity.

a in fValues fluctuate; effects may precede cause; there is the fact  of chaos, negative and positive. There is  always  a  question  mark  and what Margueri te Young calls “a joker in the philosophic pack.” She does not see life as, in fact, a given system. Yet by  doubting each accepted value, each norm, each convention, by  examining the fragments and splinters, she creates out of a manifold diversity of impressions and artistic unity, a roundness of strange beauty, a most distinguished work of art. Her vision is, for all its strangeness, not willfully solipsistic, the refuge of an unfounded individualism. As evidenced by her poetry, lmmoderate Fable, a fable moderate because it omits narcissism, her thinking has been conditioned by philosophers­ Democritus, for example, Locke, William James, many others to whom she makes, indeed, a constant though unobtrusive reference. Fewer idealists than skeptics. She has humanized,  however,  the  unhuman fable.  What  may  in  Angel  in the Forest  appear  to the  unschooled or biased reader a singular display of mental acrobatics for their own sake must seem, to the schooled, the generous, the end-result  of amoral  mental  discipline.   Only an artist of her stature can  afford to clothe her keen, realistic, nudist deductions in the glittering brocades of such a baroque, unreal, out-of-this-world fantasy. She philosophizes with her tongue in her cheek.

MY.1To combine cold, unsentimental thinking with quick, lively tragi­comedy, the commonplace like the old outhouse with beautifully mad imagery like “the asexual angel Gabriel in a hop field”-therein lies the genius of the adventuresome performance. The book is, as so many critics have pointed out, “wild,” perhaps because made up of “wild” data, angels, drunks. The writing seems free of literary scheming, too, as if the writer needed no sly skill.  Readers looking for neatly swept sidewalks, road signs, traffic lights, will find themselves engulfed in a precolonial wilderness, a fertile abundance of many-faced trees and flowers-in the hollow of every tree, a man, on every treetop, an angel. If there is in Miss Young’s book  a  “too­ much,” as the more  literal  minded  may  argue,  it  is  the  “too-much” of the Renaissance imagination which delighted in excesses, the “too­ much” of a modernist Rabelais,  a John Webster. The writing, from first to last, shows a dynamic force, stronger than the neat rules of literary perfection. ‘It is a piece of banal, sacred life, not anemic. (And some of our most gifted writers suffer from anemia, perhaps because they have made the  mistake  of  worshiping  perfection,  the one thing never worshiped by Marguerite Young, who writes: “Our perfection  is  our  death.”)

036It is just because of its unusual range of experience that Angel in the Forest may appeal to many diverse readers as Utopia, as mock Biblical, as Americana, as essay on human character. The book is too vivacious to be written down as “rare,” for the few only.  Nothing is here esoteric or invented for the sake of invention.  Every figure is human or the project of the human imagination, of the greatest con­ sequence in ordinary life, partaking, too, of that life. As to the angel Gabriel, for example (and he is another barefoot boy on Wall Street)-

Evolved out of ether and air, tears and sorrow, an angel stood in the hop field. He was big, massive, corpulent. He carried a rainbow on his back . . . . He was taller than an oak full grown, and of a diameter exceeding the oak, the beech, the sassafras. . . . He was grass and fire and homely as an old shoe. He was a farmer with a golden book in his hand. . . . His voice was like the river Wabash, loud and wild, rolling between the buff-colored hills.

Dark Dominion Author Photo
Dark Dominion Author Photo

Perhaps Miss Young agrees, to some extent, with the crucial angel she despises. Like Voltaire in Candide, like Dr. Johnson in Rasselas, she affirms that this is not the best of all possible worlds, that there is no perfect happiness attainable.   Yet even this formula fails-for it is Shelley’s bright hair, the ghost of Shelley, Robert Owen’s friend, who rides in the wind with Robert Owen on his last journey of man’s redemption from crime and punishment. Perhaps the drama is still going on?

Indeed, it is a very grim fairy tale Marguerite Young has written­ grim and glorious.

By Marguerite Young.
Reynal and  Hitchcock.    313 pages.    1945.    $3.00.