Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Dust by Emanuel and Marcet Haldeman-Julius

A forgotten gem of American literary regionalism
Emanuel Haldeman-Julius is best known as the publisher of the Little Blue Books, popular inexpensive paperbacks on a variety of subjects that sold hundreds of millions of copies. For several years he was also the editor of the most prominent socialist newspaper in America, the Appeal to Reason. His wife Marcet Haldeman-Julius was his partner in business as well as family matters. Though best know for their publishing company, headquartered in the little town of Girard in southeast Kansas, the two were also writers, as evidenced by their jointly authored novel Dust, published in 1921. Dust is set in the fictional town of Fallon, Kansas, a surrogate for Girard. From the title and its setting, I was expecting a hard-scrabble agricultural epic, perhaps a farmer fighting for his family’s survival against a pitiless soil and unforgiving climate. There’s definitely a little of that here, but mostly Dust is a novel about marriage. And judging by the marriage from hell depicted in this book, the Haldeman-Juliuses must have had one complicated union.

When Martin Wade was a young man, he came to Kansas from Ohio with his parents and siblings. They picked out a patch of unwelcoming dirt and called it their own. Through years of struggle and toil the family built a farm from this dust. A lot of time passes in chapter one, and soon Martin is a grown man and master of his agricultural domain. His farm is one of the most respected operations in the county, yet Martin feels like it’s missing one important element, a wife. He soon convinces Rose Conroy to fill the position. Martin is an active but stern man with an atheistic and materialistic view of life. He willingly does the work of several men because he recognizes that work is the most effective distraction from the pointlessness and hardship of life. Rose’s outlook on life is not so harshly constructed. She believes in traditional virtues like love, happiness, and beauty, while all Martin believes in is stock, feed, and dollars. Once united in marriage, Rose feels more like a servant in Martin’s household than a wife. Like any bride, she longs to be loved, or at least appreciated. Instead, she finds herself a prisoner to his unrelenting and emotionless devotion to toil.

Though the setting and subject matter may be similar to writings by Hamlin Garland or Willa Cather, stylistically Dust has more in common with the blunt and brutal naturalism of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague. The language is plain and straightforward, not in a pedestrian way but in an insightfully precise descriptive manner devoid of superfluous flourishes. The psychology of the characters is intricate and authentic. They unapologetically behave the way real human beings would behave, regardless of fictional conventions or the desires and expectations of the reader. There’s not a lot of sentimental nostalgia for the good ol’ farming life in this book. In fact, it may be one of the more depressing novels you’ll ever read, but it’s certainly never boring. The reader becomes riveted to the characters’ plight, and it’s never clear what’s going to happen next. In its own way, the book is rather inspirational for its depiction of how not to live your life. It really compels the reader to consider the relative importance of work, family, money, and love in his or her own life.

As a transplanted Kansan, the Haldeman-Juliuses are sort of local heroes of mine, for the little Parnassus of the Plains they established in Girard. I knew they were both writers, but I had no idea they could write this well. Dust may be largely forgotten today, but it deserves to be remembered alongside the works of Garland, Cather, Norris, and other great American realists of the early 20th century.
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