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Western Man against Nature Giants in the Earth Author(s): Joseph E. Baker Source: College English,

Western Man against Nature Giants in the Earth Author(s): Joseph E. Baker Source: College English, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Oct., 1942), pp. 19-26 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English

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WESTERN MAN AGAINST NATURE

'9

constructfor himself, out of pieces of cardboardand strings, a sort of diagram of the ladderof abstraction. Then, whenever"he hears

an argument of any kind, or readsone in speech for example, he should try to apply

to trace the confusionof ordersof abstractionsand the underlying

assumptions

reformers,progagandists of every description, and family quarrels

usually give the best examples of improper evaluation."

the papers, some political the diagram, whichmeans

Literature, the speeches of politicians, lawyers,

WESTERN MAN AGAINST NATURE

GIANTS

IN

THE

EARTH

JOSEPH E. BAKER

Rbilvaag's Giantsin theEarthis a vision of humanlife rich in its implications. Here the pioneerstruggle with the untameduniverse may serve as a symbol for the conditionof man himself against in- human Destiny. The hero, Per Hansa, is a typical manof the West, both in the regional sense that he represents our pioneer back- ground and in the universalhumansensethat he embodiesthe inde- pendent spirit, the rationalism, and what has often been condemned as the utilitarianismof Western civilization-European mankind's determinationto cherish human values against the brute force of Fate. Underthe influenceof German philosophy andRomantic pan- theism, many modern writers have bent the knee to the gods of nature and worshiped a fatal Destiny. On the other side, we turn

to Frenchliteratureand its greatest thinker,Pascal, for the classic statement of the Westernattitude: "Manis but a reed, the feeblest

thing in Nature; but he is a thinking reed

were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, becausehe knowsthat he dies." This conception is developed most fully in the greattragic dramas of Europeanliteratures, but we find a similar respect for man at the very dawn of our civilization in the first Western author, Homer. His men are "like gods"; indeed, sometimes they are better and

If the universe

' Assistant professor of English, University of Iowa.

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20

COLLEGE ENGLISH

wiser than the supernatural forces and divine giants they come in contactwith. Beforethe Heroic Age, mankindwas sunkin an Age of Terror, given over to the superstition that the world is ruled by forces which can be dealt with only by magical rites-a view that still survives in Per Hansa's wife Beret. But with Homer, man

emerges into the epic stage of

human consciousness, with its great

admirationfor men of ability. Roblvaag's Giants in the Earth is a modern epic of Westernman.

In this novel, as in Homer,or, for that matter, in Beowulf, thereis

andadmirationforhuman achievement-sophisti-

the heartiest gusto

cates would say a naive delight in the simplestthings: "Wonderof wonders!" What had Per Hansa brought back with him? "It was

a bird cage, made of thin slats; and inside lay a rooster and two

hens!" (p. 1o8)." Nobody but Homer and Rilvaag can get us so ex-

cited over merely economic prosperity, man's achievement in ac-

quiring fine things

in the novel is the discoverythat, after all, the wheat has come up!

This sortof thing meanslife or death; andthe preservation of human life, or the evaluation of things according to the pleasurethey can give to individual men, is the very opposite of submissionto ma- terial forces.

Hans Olsa was cutting hay; his new machinehummed lustily over the

prairie, shearing the grass so evenly and so close to the ground that his heart leaped with joy to behold the sight. What a difference, this, from pounding away with an old scythe, on steep, stony hillsides! All the men had gathered

roundto see himstart [p.91].

the Odyssey. And the central

figure in the novel is an epic hero. Like Odysseus, Per Hansa is "never at a loss." Hans Olsa says to him, "No matter how hard

you'reput to it, you alwaysgive a good accountof yourself !" (p. 87). This might be usedto translateoneof Athena'sremarksto Odysseus. Orone may think of Virgil. Here are someof the phrases that make

the novel seem epic: "[They talked] of

new kingdom which they were about to found gone back to the very beginning of things" (p. 32).

for his own use. Oneof the high dramatic points

That sounds like a passage from

land and crops, and of the

Now they had This comes in

2Page referencesare to Rilvaag's Giantsin theEarth ("Harpers ModernClassics"

[New York, 1927]).

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WESTERN MAN AGAINST NATURE

21

the earliest pages of the book; while the last chapter states their at- titude thus: "Therewas no such thing as the Impossibleany more. The human race has not known such faith and such self-confidence since history began"-one ought to say, since the Homeric Greeks. But in the translationof this novel .fromNorwegian into English, made by a New Englander, there has been added, out of respect for our Atlantic seaboard, "so had been the Spirit since the day the first settlerslandedon the easternshores" (p. 425). Thus the novel, especially in the English translation, brings out what America

meant to mankind. "He felt profoundly that the greatest

of his life had come. Now he was about to sow wheat on his own

moment

ground!"

(p. 298). This is exactly what Jefferson wanted America

to be. And as the Middle West became the most completetype of democraticcivilization that the world has ever known, our leaders have fought many battles, in politics and war, to enable the ordi- nary hard-working farmerto sow his wheat on his own ground. Americaat its most American, this is embodiedin Per Hansa, who "neverliked to follow an old path while there was still unexplored

land left around him" (p. I 14). That is the spirit of the West against

the East, of America against Europe, of Europe against Asia. It is not that the amenities of life are undervalued; even Per Hansa is working to achievea civilizedlife. But the amenitiesareless exciting than the achieving. Muchof the dramatictensionbetweenthe char- acters turns upon this choice. It is the pioneer faith that "a good barn may perhapspay for a decent house, but no one has everheard of a fine dwelling that paid for a decent barn" (p. 399). But the opposite view is expressedby one of the men: "One doesn't need to live in a gopherhole, in orderto get ahead" (p. 311). There speaks the conservativecultureof a moreEasternor more European mind. The conquest of materialnaturehas been superciliously criticized by comfortableNew Englanders fromEmersonto Irving Babbitt (both guilty of an undue respect for oriental passivity) as a case of for- getting the distinctionbetweenthe "lawforman andlaw for thing," meaningby the "law for thing" not materialforcebut humanmas- tery. It "buildstown and fleet," says Emerson;by it the forest is felled, the orchard planted, the prairietilled, the steamerbuilt. But it seems to me that human triumph over matter is a genuineprac-

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22

COLLEGE ENGLISH

tical humanism, and that this is the true spirit of the West; that in Bacon's phrase,knowledgemay well be used for "the reliefof man's estate." Emersonwas closer to the spirit of the pioneers when he said, in "The Young American":

Any relationto the land, the habitof tillingit, or miningit, oreven hunting on it, generates the feeling of patriotism. He who keepsshop on it, or he who

merely uses it as a support to his desk .

. or

manufactory, values it

less

have

We in the Atlantic states, by position, have been commercial, and

imbibed easily an European culture.

Luckily for us .

.

.

the

nervous,rocky West is intruding a new and continentalelementinto the na- tional mind, andwe shall yet havean American genius.

And he calls it a "falsestate of things" that "our people have their intellectualculturefromone country andtheirdutiesfromanother." But happily "Americais beginning to assert herself to the senses and to the imagination of herchildren." If this be true-and I must confessthat it seemsratherextremedoctrineeven to a middlewest- ern regionalist like myself-then Rd*lvaag, born in Europe, is more American than some of our authors of old New England stock. All Emerson's "Representative Men" were Europeans. It was not until the Middle West came into literaturethat we get an epic and broadly democratic spirit in works never to be mistaken for the products of modern Europe. Emerson recognized this in Lincoln; at last he admired a representative man who came from the West. And middle western leadership in American literature,begun with Lincoln's prose, established beyond a doubt by Mark Twain, was confirmedin our day by R61vaag.

II

In "The Method of Nature" Emerson says, "Whenman curses,

naturestill testifiesto truth andlove. We may therefore safelystudy

in mind";

hour [Au-

gust i , 1841]by exploring the method of nature." We may take this to represent the attitude toward Nature that we findin the Roman-

tic period of American literature: that is to say, the New England

masters and

romanticismcame late to America. Already in England Tennyson

the mind in nature, becausewe cannot steadily gaze on it and he proposes that "we should piously celebrate this

their followers continuing up through Whitman. But

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WESTERN MAN AGAINST NATURE

23

was recognizing that the method of nature is red with blood in tooth and claw. It was this later view that cameto prevail in litera- ture toward the end of the nineteenth century, even in America, doubtless becauseof the increased knowledge of nature. I refernot only to the progress of science, but to the fact that later authorshad struggled with Nature, more than the Romantics, whose Nature had been tamed by centuriesof conquest. Thoreausaid: "I love the wild not less than the good," but his Waldenwas within suburban distance of the cultural center and the financialcenter of the New

World. Rolvaag had knownNature as the seafrom which, as a

wegian fisherman, he must wring his living. In 1893 a storm at sea drowned many of his companions; and this, he says, caused him "to question the romanticnotionofnature's purposefulbenevolence." So in this novel there are giants in the earth. Onthe prairie, "Man's strength availed but little out here." That night theGreatPrairiestretchedherself voluptuously;giantlike and

Nor-

full of cunning, she laughedsoftly into the reddishmoon. "Now we willsee

Now we'llsee!" Andnow had

adversity, on

the one hand, and power of evil

begun a seemingly endless struggle betweenman'sfortitudein

what human mightmay avail against us!

in highplaces[p. 3491].

"The Powerof Evil in High

Places"is the title of the chapter, which

includes a plague of locusts and also the terrible insanity of Per HIansa's wife. That is what we really find to be the method of Na- ture. For by this term Rlvaag, of course, does not merely mean scenery. He means the whole created universe that man is up against

and the blind inhuman forceor might that moves it. Sometimeshe

calls it Destiny,

"That storm changed my nature. As the seas broke over us and I

believed that death was inescapable, I felt a resentment against Destiny." Twenty-seven years later another even more bitter trag- edy occurred to impress Rolvaag with the murderousness of Nature:

His five-year-old son Gunnar was drowned, under terrible circum- stances. He writes that this tragedy changed his view of life. Previ-

ously he "had looked upon God as a logical mind in Whom the least happening" was planned and willed. Now he saw that much is "due to chance and to lawbound nature." In this novel, written later, it

should be noticed that Per Hansa's wife Beret, especially when she

as in speaking of the murderous storm of 1893:

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24

COLLEGE ENGLISH

continues R61vaag's older view, blaming Godfor all miser-

is insane,

She broodsthat "beyond a doubt, it was

Destiny that had brought her thither. Destiny, the inexorablelaw of life, which the Lord God from eternity had laid down for every human being, according to the path He knew would be taken.

ies as if he had planned

all.

Destiny had so arrangedeverything" (p. 227). Another poor

miserablewomanin this novel, herhusband receiving his

from a cruel Nature, has this same dark pagan view: "Now.the worst had happened and there was nothing to do about it, for Fate is inexorable" (p. 434). This is a continuationof the deadliest ori-

ental fatalism, always current in misconceptions of Christianity, thoughactually it is just this whichit has beenthe functionof Chris- tian philosophy and Westernhumanismto cast out, to exorcise in rationalizing man's relationto the universe. Emerson put his finger on the differencebetween West and East when he wrote in his Journalsin 1847:

The Americansare free-willers,fussy, self-asserting,buzzing all roundcrea- tion. But the Asiaticsbelieveit is writ on the iron leaf, and will not turnon

deathblow

theirheelto savethemfrom famine,plague, or

a great airto the people

the sword. That is great,gives

Orientalismis Fatalism,resignation; Occidental-

ism is Freedom and Will [pp. 254-55,

291].

Beret does not believe they should try to conquer the prairie; feels that it is sinful to undergo the conditionsof pioneerlife;

So,

she

she is "ashamed" that they have to put up with poor food. "Couldn'the understandthat if the Lord God had intended these infinitiesto be peopled,He wouldnot have left them desolatedown

through the ages?" (p. 188). But her husband, Per Hansa, is a man of the West; he glories in the fact that he is an American free-willer,self-asserting. He rebels against Destiny and tries to master Nature. Carlylesays that the struggle betweenhumanfree will and material necessity "is the sole Poetry possible," and certainly this makes the poetic content of

R6lvaag's

masterpiece. During the plague of locustsone of the other

characters gives vent to an expression of Asiatic abnegation:

"NowtheLordis taking backwhathe has given. thatI wouldneverbe permitted to harvestsuchwheat."

gabble!" snarledPer Hansa. "Do you really

I might have guessed "Stopyoursilly

suppose He needs to take the

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WESTERNMAN AGAINST NATURE

25

breadout of your mouth?"Therewas a certainconsolationin Per Hansa's outburstsof angry rationalism. [But whenPer triesto scarethe locusts away, HansOlsa says, "Don'tdo that, PerHansa!If theLordhassent thisaffliction

on us

"]

[pp. 343-451].

It

Christian; so the author designates him in the title of the last chap-

ter, "The GreatPlain Drinks the Blood of ChristianMen." Per is

defending a higher conception of God. When Hans Olsa, dying, quotes "It is terribleto fall into the hands of the living God," Per

says, "Hush,now, man!

vaag is awareof the divine gentleness of Christianity; the wordsof

softly and sweetly, like the warm

the minister "flowed on .

rain of a summer evening" (p. 394) in a tender scene which suggests

"Sufferlittle childrento come unto me." This is in a chapter en-

should be noticed that Per Hansa, though a rationalist, is also a

Don't talk blasphemy!"(pp.449-50). Ril-

titled "The Glory of the Lord"-for

it is a clergyman who ministers

to the "mind diseased"of

Beret and brings her out of her "utter

darkness" in a passage that may be considered the greatest yet writ- ten in American fiction. What is implied in this novel becomes ex-

plicit in the sequel, Peder Victorious, wherethe first chapter is con-

cerned with the religious musing of Per's fatherless son Peder. At

one point he feels a differencebetween a Westernas opposed to an Eastern or Old World conception of God and concludesthat "no one could make him believe that a really AmericanGod would go about killing people with snowstormsand the like." But more sig- nificant is the account, in this sequel, of what the minister said to Beret after she had drivenherhusbandout into the fatal snowstorm to satisfy her superstitious reverencefor rites:

Youhave permitted a great sintoblind yoursight;you have forgotten that

it is Godwhocausesall life to flowerandwhohas

the heartsof

put both good andevil into

men. I don'tthinkI haveknowntwo bettermen than your hus-

band and the friendhe gave his life for

contentwith

your fellowmen.

your worst sin

lies in your dis-

affiliations may have been, this

Surely, whatever Rblvaag'sreligious

is the expression of a Christianhumanism. Fromthis point of view

it

two or three generations from the high wisdom of Emersonto the degradation of the "naturalistic"novel. Giantsin theEarthis a step

is far from true to say that Americanliteraturehas sunk downin

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26

COLLEGEENGLISH

in the right direction, abandoning the romantic idolatry that wor- shiped a Destiny in Nature and believed "the central intention of Nature to be harmony and joy." "Letusbuildaltarsto the Beautiful

Necessity"-as

afraidof Nature, which is no

other than 'philosophy and theology

embodied?'" This sentiment can be found repeated in many forms

throughout the rhapsodies of the "prophets" of our "Golden Day." I, for one, am rathertiredof the glorification of these false prophets,

and I

asms, so lacking in

a sense for the genuinedignity of man. Wisdom

am glad that Americanliteraturehas outgrown their enthusi-

Emerson puts it in his "Fate"-

"Why shouldwe be

was not monopolizedby the stretch of earth's surfacefrom a little northof Boston to a little southof BrooklynFerry. Another passage

from "The Young American"could bring home to us the repulsive

inhumanity of Emerson's conception of God. Enumerating the suf- fering and miseries of man's lot, how individuals are crushedand

"findit so hard to live," Emerson blandly tells us

this is the

sublimeand friendlyDestiny by which the humanrace is

individual[s] never spared

theircalculatedand voluntaryactivity, but in what befalls, with or without

ForNature

is the noblest engineer.

In opposition to this deadly submissionto cruel natural force, I contend that Western civilization was built by innumerabledetails of calculated and voluntary activity, that the Christian God is a Godconcernednot with racebut with individuals according to their moral worth, and that in the tragic event which befalls Per Hansa in this novel, without his design, we do not witness a God infused into Nature.

their design

That Geniushas infuseditselfinto nature

. the

Geniusor Destiny

is not discoveredin

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