Monday, July 6, 2020

Broken to the Plow by Charles Caldwell Dobie

From social realism to farfetched noir
Born in San Francisco, author Charles Caldwell Dobie (1881-1943) was a prominent figure in that city’s burgeoning literary scene of the early twentieth century. He was a prolific author of novels and short stories, received critical acclaim and awards for his work, and headed the San Francisco chapter of the PEN association of writers. His novel Broken to the Plow was published in 1921. Like all of Dobie’s work, the story takes place in the city he called home.

Fred Starratt is an insurance agent with Ford, Wetherbee, & Co. As a low man on the company totem pole, his salary is modest, and he often has trouble making ends meet as he and his wife strive to uphold a respectable standard of living. One evening, Mr. and Mrs. Starratt have their friends the Hilmers over for dinner. Mr. Hilmer, a self-made man and successful shipbuilding entrepreneur, accuses Starratt of being “middle class.” Starratt grew up in a world where his parents’ generation saw humanity as being divided into two social strata: the “right kind of people” and the undesirables or riff raff. The idea that he might have somehow slipped from that top category of social status into a less respectable strata of society comes as a disturbing revelation to Starratt. When the arrogant Hilmer asserts that the middle class are defined by their complacency and lack of ambition, Starratt can’t help but notice that his wife looks to Hilmer with admiration. Shocked into activity by this attack on his character, the very next day Starratt demands a raise from his boss. When his boss refuses, Starratt quits his job and decides to go into business for himself.

Despite its title, there is nothing agrarian about this novel. The phrase is just an expression used a few times in the story, as in, “A man who’s been through hell is like a field broken to the plow. He’s ready for seed.” Broken to the Plow starts out as a novel of urban realism, reminiscent of the works of the great San Francisco naturalist author Frank Norris. Dobie’s novel gradually morphs into something far different, however, as it becomes more and more sensationalistic and drifts into the territory of a film noir, replete with corruption, betrayal, and an evil femme fatale. Even so, the novel still manages to serve as a largely realist document of the era in which it was produced. Things were different back then, particularly in regards to crime and punishment, with swifter prosecution and harsher punishment for crimes that wouldn’t be considered imprisonable offenses today. Prohibition, labor unrest, and anarchism, all signs of the times, also figure into the plot. The novel’s ensemble cast also includes a prostitute, and Dobie’s poignant portrayal of the character is surprisingly bold for the prudish American literature of his day.

Though Broken to the Plow gets increasingly more farfetched as it goes along, it is a pretty enjoyable and compelling ride for most of its length. Though Starratt is rather a milquetoast of a hero, he does make halting efforts towards becoming a latter-day Count of Monte Cristo as he plots vengeance against those who have wronged him. The conclusion of the story is a major disappointment, however. Starratt learns some valuable moral lessons, but the reader is left with the feeling that no one really got what he or she deserved. That’s a shame, because Dobie proves himself a fine writer up until the very end.
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