Gene Stratton-Porter and me, At The Foot of the Rainbow

In the same year (1907), Gene Stratton-Porter published a romance, the one I’ll discuss in a bit, and the first of her “pure” nature books, What I Have Done With Birds.  This was the start of splitting out her nature writing from her romantic novels by publishing them in alternating years.  The fact that she talked publishers into doing this remains a topic of discussion in many biographical essays about her.

But right now, I’ll just save that for another day and get back to At The Foot of the Rainbow.  This is a slightly obscure early book of hers, before her more famous works which primarily featured heroines rather than heroes.

It’s about two lifelong friends and the woman between them, but it’s not quite the usual love triangle.  It is weirdly manospherian, with the husband of the wife being a chronic drunkard who loves to party and not work very hard supporting his wife (who nevertheless continues getting pregnant with his ultimately stillborn children through the years) and the husband’s childhood friend being an orbiter, always helping out and making sure the wife is taken care of.

The husband is straight up Bros before Brunhildes, with a couple major subplots demonstrating his concern about impressing random men rather than tending to his (at one point quite) sick wife.  It’s a short read, it ends mostly happily (childhood friend gets to marry the wife after all, while she’s still young enough to have some live babies with him–this is stated outright as pretty likely), but it was a little weird to run into some of those tropes in a book a hundred plus years old.  I guess more fodder for the ever more demonstrable claim that the manosphere offers nothing new regarding insights into human nature except a hilariously foreshortened jargon to describe old patterns.

But moving away from that aspect of things, the book is notable for some details Porter moved away from as her writing developed and matured.  She writes the two friends (Danny the orbiter and Jimmy the husband) and the wife (Mary) as speaking with very heavy Irish accents.  A good comparison is what Margaret Mitchell did with Prissy’s dialogue in particular in Gone With the Wind.  As ever with Porter, though, the goal was authenticity.  She wanted to represent the speech purely as she could.  She moved away from this in later novels, toning it down.  There was something of a craze for “authentic” regional work in heavy dialect until the 1910s or so.  I remember growing up with the impression that it was only black dialects that this authenticity craze covered, but that isn’t the case.

This short novel, more a novella, is also the only time Gene Stratton-Porter spent a lot of time on male friendship.  Subsequent novels don’t feature two adult men in friendship over the years the same way.  She does write some novels with heroes, but they never have close male friends ever again.

I should perhaps have done this from the beginning with discussing her work, but here is an excerpt of the nature writing in this little tale of male friendship.  It’s early on, when the two are hunting muskrats to skin and sell.

Dannie’s gaze followed Jimmy’s retreating figure until he climbed the bank, and was lost in the woods, and the light in his eyes was the light of love. He glanced at the sky, and hurried down the river. First across to Jimmy’s side to gather his rats and reset his traps, then to his own. But luck seemed to have turned, for all the rest of Dannie’s were full, and all of Jimmy’s were empty. But as he was gone, it was not necessary for Dannie to slip across and fill them, as was his custom when they worked together. He would divide the rats at skinning time, so that Jimmy would have just twice as many as he, because Jimmy had a wife to support. The last trap of the line lay a little below the curve of Horseshoe Bend, and there Dannie twisted the tops of the bags together, climbed the bank, and struck across Rainbow Bottom. He settled his load to his shoulders, and glanced ahead to choose the shortest route. He stopped suddenly with a quick intake of breath.

“God!” he cried reverently. “Hoo beautifu’ are Thy works.”

The ice-covered Wabash circled Rainbow Bottom like a broad white frame, and inside it was a perfect picture wrought in crystal white and snow shadows. The blanket on the earth lay smoothly in even places, rose with knolls, fell with valleys, curved over prostrate logs, heaped in mounds where bushes grew thickly, and piled high in drifts where the wind blew free. In the shelter of the bottom the wind had not stripped the trees of their loads as it had those along the river. The willows, maples, and soft woods bent almost to earth with their shining burden; but the stout, stiffly upstanding trees, the oaks, elms, and cottonwoods defied the elements to bow their proud heads. While the three mighty trunks of the great sycamore in the middle looked white as the snow, and dwarfed its companions as it never had in summer; its wide-spreading branches were sharply cut against the blue background, and they tossed their frosted balls in the face of Heaven. The giant of Rainbow Bottom might be broken, but it never would bend. Every clambering vine, every weed and dried leaf wore a coat of lace-webbed frostwork. The wind swept a mist of tiny crystals through the air, and from the shelter of the deep woods across the river a Cardinal whistled gayly.

 

Introducing civic natalism

“The early 20th century was the summit of civilization and human accomplishment.”

I think there is a good argument to be made for that statement. However, that is not quite what this post is about.

It’s about the worldview I’ve adopted as I’ve come to appreciate and learn more about that era of human history, a mere century or so ago. I discussed the idea that this blog was a way to work out an alternative to Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, and now I think I’ve got a grasp on what that alternative is.

Civic natalism.

This post is just an introduction to the phrase as concept.  Civic natalism was what a surprising number of Americans had a century ago, but it was an effect.  We can look at what they had access to that we don’t have now and the goal is to find out how we can have those things in a modern society.  Theirs was atomized and global, too, they were the vanguard of globalism.  Natalism also is about more than just maxing your pregnancy numbers, it’s about making it possible for motherhood to be something fully human, so women don’t want to reject the natural outcome of marital intimacy.

They had the following:

  • Large casual labor pool, particularly of women.  This means that there were maids and nannies and cooks, but it means so much more than that.  It means that you could pay people to do a lot of normal things and lend occasional assistance.
  • No commuting. The commuting was, mostly, the long-distance travel type, which human societies have developed a lot of tools to deal with.  It typically wasn’t the hurry up and wait tension that daily commuting tends to put onto people.  It is very possible to reduce commuting, but a deeper analysis of commuting patterns with an eye towards family improvement and cohesion is needed.
  • Rational autonomy for children. This means society is structured so that children take as much responsibility for themselves as possible, appropriate to their age.
  • Advocacy for feminine leisure.  

Starts are always rocky, so I’ll just conclude with this.  I’ve finally secured enough readable copies of Gene Stratton-Porter’s non-fiction nature books and essays that I will resume a publishing order review of her work in the coming weeks. She was a fascinating example of civic natalism, even though she herself had only one child.  Her entire career as a housewife who wrote bestsellers and spent hours in nature studies that are a direct line to the Joel Salatin and Michael Pollan strain of environmentalism and farming is an Ur-example of what civic natalism can provide when “just” a side effect of wider social norms.  She was also an influential advocate for other women to have better homemaking conditions and society-wide support.

And yes, there will be some commentary about the politics of civic natalism.  They intersect with how the right wing in America used to have a pretty good deal for bright women to be housewives and how they threw it away.  But those same politics also intersect with radical feminist policy ideas about how to support motherhood.  To summarize those future posts, let’s just say Phyllis Schlafly was a radical feminist when it came to motherhood.

Blew my mind, too.

Gene Stratton-Porter and Me, Freckles

Freckles (1904) is the prequel to the much better known A Girl of the Limberlost. When it was first published, it was confused for one of her “pure” nature picture books.  I greatly hope to score one of those editions someday.

Stratton-Porter’s nature-worship permeates both books, as does what amounts to her HBD style racial views.  People are quality because they come from literal “good blood”.  There’s also a lot of modern touches, like limiting how many children you have to go all-in on one prized child, along with the obsession with diet and physical exercise as moral worth measures.

Stratton-Porter is a good writer, great when talking about nature and also adept at not letting her stranger themes overwhelm the core romantic nature of her books.  But it was a bit surreal to see many of the things I lament in modern American culture were present a century earlier and are American traditions, as it happens.  I’m still navigating this fact, that American traditions are so anti-social and self-focused, but there you are.  Another interesting aspect of this book is how the innocence of the pure young woman who is Freckles’ love interest is not gullible or naive, but cautious.

The girls in Stratton-Porter books are not steeped in the grosser ways of the world, but they aren’t deluded that some men are not honorable and that even men who look honorable might turn out otherwise if given license.  I think it’s interesting that early 20th century teenage girls were getting this kind of literature written for them, that encouraged them to be intelligent or at least self-directed in learning, well-kept in dress and manner, and to desire marriage, but to build interests before marriage that could be maintained in content singlehood if marriage never came around.

That theme is more developed in the sequel, but it’s still present in Freckles, where the Swamp Angel (Freckle’s love interest) is a soda artisan at the local soda fountain.  Her drinks are the very best and she makes them for new people in town.  She’s also the daughter of the richest man in town and exceptionally beautiful and in Austenian terms “condescending to all”.  She is especially kind to Freckles, who is missing a hand due to a brutal childhood accident that has major plot significance in the last quarter or so of the book.

Freckles is himself an orphan who ends up working for a tough, smart, meritocratic Scotchman guarding lumber and being quasi-adopted by the foreman’s wife.  The various digressions on the high-end lumber market are fascinating, as they show that even a century plus ago the “cheap luxury” of veneers and patinas was well established and a path to great profits for the ones who owned the thousands or hundreds of acres with the right kinds of trees on them.

Freckles does great at guarding lumber and winning the heart of Swamp Angel.  He does anger a lumber thief and there’s some confrontations and dramatic action sequences, including Swamp Angel having to stand down the lumber thief’s gang with just the power of her beauty and well-bredness.  And also a gun.

There’s also an author insert called the Bird Woman, who provides Swamp Angel with said gun and provides some support to Freckles in his quest to learn his parentage.  Everyone says he is just too excellent mannered and upstanding to be an orphan from some trash background with cruel ill-bred parents.  And, well, the reader eventually learns that indeed he is something else entirely and that the accident that cost him his hand had nothing to do with his parents.  Since I am going to discuss all Stratton-Porter’s books, I will spoiler the surprise.  Freckles is of noble birth and secretly very wealthy, and thus totally worthy to marry the daughter of the richest man in town.

I could easily spend a week’s worth of posts on each of her books.  But this is just a very little introduction as I go through them all in publishing order.

Gene Stratton-Porter and me, Introduction and the Song of the Cardinal

I have been working on several approaches to talking about the writing of Gene Stratton-Porter, one of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic American writers of the early 20th century.  I clearly can’t write reviews, so I’ll just talk about her fictional oeuvre.

She loved nature and was purely self-taught, not even finishing high school.  She wrote romantic fiction novels often called “sentimental” these days so that her publishers would let her put out the nature books.  Her fiction is mostly available in ebook form, so I’ve read nearly all of it that way, but I haven’t purchased the picture books or her later in life religious work and poetry.  She was very influential in the nature-worship sort of Christianity that one can see little strands of through the decades in America.  It is part of the frontier mythos.

She was one of the many intense, idiosyncratic women of the frontier generations who wielded a huge influence on American feminine culture that got memoryholed by both liberal and conservative sides of the aisle.  She is currently only known for being omgraciss in one of her later fictional books (which is super awesome and funny and has AMAZING recipes, and in which anti-Japanese sentiment is one minor subplot) and for being a nature-lover who saved vast tracts of her beloved Indiana swamps and forests.  She died unexpectedly in 1924 in her early 60s when her car was hit by a trolley.

But this post will be about her first official fiction book, which doesn’t even feature a human couple being romantic.  (She published something else anonymously, but I haven’t read it and I like to read things in publishing order, and it wasn’t published under her name until after her death).

  • The Song of the Cardinal (1903).  It’s a short little novella length story of a young cardinal looking for love.  It’s also about the animals and plants she adored in her native Indiana, and about people having love for the wild things and protective feelings towards them as they try to farm the land but also keep safe spaces for the wild things.  It is very charming and is a word picture of what later became her preferred work, elaborate nature books with excellent photos and illustrations.  It’s interesting that she started out this way, with the love story being between two young cardinals.  It allows her to get highly descriptive about their lifecycle (and accurate too), and she begins to introduce the humans as people bonded to nature, almost like nature spirits.  She straddles that line between pagan sentiment and Christian faith and this is a major ongoing detail of her work.  In this early work, she doesn’t tip over too much, possibly because she’s talking about animals as the main protagonists, with the people as observers.