The American Revolution in Upstate New York
Douw Mauverensen is the son of Dutch immigrants. When his father dies at a young age, his mother allows him to be taken in as ward by Mr. Stewart, a wealthy English gentleman of a neighboring estate. Though Dutch is Douw’s first language, through Mr. Stewart he learns the English language and the manners of an English gentlemen. The English aristocrats with whom he associates, however, never let him forget that he is just a lowly Dutchman and not one of their own. Animosity escalates when the Revolutionary War breaks out. Like most of the Dutch and German settlers, Douw takes the side of the colonists. The English aristocrats, however, are staunch Tories who attempt to take the Mohawk Valley by force in the name of King George III.
The first several chapters of In the Valley might give one the impression that it was written for a young audience. This is because Douw is eight years old when the novel opens, but the story grows up with its hero. The Revolutionary War doesn’t start until about midway through the book, at which point the narrative relies more and more on historical research. Real events and personages of the Revolutionary era are discussed, and the characters include actual figures from New York State history. The most prominent of these is Philip Schuyler, a Continental Congressman and general who nowadays is probably best remembered as the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton. The plot climaxes with the Battle of Oriskany, which Frederic depicts with horrific details that call to mind Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.
There is much in this book about racism, not just against Blacks and Indians, but white-on-white racism based on European ethnicity. Classism is also explored, resulting in contrast and conflicts between English and Dutch, rich and poor, landholders and peasant farmers, conservatives and liberals, Tories and patriots. Racist comments uttered in the novel are realistic to the time period and the narrator, therefore it is hard to tell exactly what Frederic’s views are on race, except that when it comes to the Revolution he is decidedly anti-English. With the exception of Mr. Stewart, the English characters, though wealthy aristocrats, are depicted as ruffians, drunkards, philanderers, and sadists.
The historical and military aspects of In the Valley are clearly realistic, but the relationships between the characters are rendered in a more romantic and artificial style that calls to mind Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels of the Napoleonic War, such as The Great Shadow. James Fenimore Cooper is another obvious comparison and likely influence for this work, particularly his Revolutionary War novel Wyandotté, also set in New York, which is a much better novel than this. Later in his career, Frederic would adopt a more strictly naturalistic style, as in his novel The Damnation of Theron Ware, an unsung masterpiece of American realism. Those having first read Theron Ware can’t help but find In the Valley disappointing by comparison. This is still a fine novel of the Revolution, but most readers will prefer Cooper’s writings on the era.
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