An Analysis of America's Two Threshing Novels

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For more than the fifty years spanning the end of the 1800s, threshing machines harvested wheat and other grain, and until 1920 over half the people living in North America were involved in the harvest. One would expect mechanical harvesting to figure significantly in the plots of American novels written during, or set in, the threshing era. The technology of threshing, however, seldom receives sustained and focused attention in literature. Even the works of Willa Cather use harvesting technologies as mere backdrops against which to pose her characters. Herbert Quick's The Hawkeye (1923) and Herbert Krause's The Thresher (1946) alone emphasize mechanized power on the American farm.

While this pair of Herberts neither individually nor collectively became established as mainstream authors, they formed important eddies on the map of American letters. Quick, who lived from 1861 to 1925, published ten novels, including Aladdin & Co.: A Romance of Yankee Magic; Double Trouble, or, Every Hero His Own Villain; The Fairview Idea: A Story of the New Rural Life; Virginia of the Air Lanes; and Yellowstone Nights. For a juvenile audience, Quick published In the Fairyland of America. His book The Brown Mouse was translated into Icelandic, and Mabel B. Stevenson transformed it into a four-act play. Quick felt equally at home in writing nonfiction. He brought out American Inland Waterways, Their Relation to Railway Transportation and to the National Welfare. After World War I, Quick published From War to Peace: A Plea for a Definite Policy of Reconstruction. He co-authored Mississippi Steamboatin'. For the Blackstone Institute of Law, Quick published his lecture The Federal Farm Loan Bureau. Rounding out his nonfiction was an article on the merchant marine and The Real Trouble with the Farmers, a sympathetic view of agriculturists' economic woes. Quick also published the ambitious work The Good Ship Earth: A Survey of World Problems.

Quick remains best known for his trilogy of novels, Vandemark's Folly (1922), The Hawkeye (1923), and The Invisible Woman (1924). Quick's parents had migrated westward by ox-team beginning in 1857, and, in Vandemark's Folly, Quick traces the pioneers' westward movement in Iowa in the decade preceding the Civil War. The Hawkeye shows the hard work of carving farms from the prairie. It also depicts Iowa communities' fitful growth politically and culturally during the 1870s. The third novel, The Invisible Woman, portrays Iowa settling down in cities during the two decades before 1900. The second book, The Hawkeye, is perfectly positioned to explore the threshing technologies of the late 1800s.

The Hawkeye can be described as a quirky autobiographical romantic historical sociological novel with pretensions of becoming a real barnburner. A review said, 'I don't say it is as great a book as The Scarlet Letter or Huckleberry Finn or The Rise of Silas Lapham; but it is a book of the same order.' (Digest 1923, 425.) Backhanded as it is, the compliment echoes the favorable opinion expressed by most reviews of Quick's works; for example, his posthumously-published autobiography was called 'comparable with The Education of Henry Adams.' (Digest 1925, 576.) Indeed, Quick's writing approaches lasting greatness. The New Republic had this to say about The Hawkeye: 'Here is an ambitious and admirable plan, executed by a writer of mature intelligence, long apprenticeship, and a great love for the country and the people he portrays' (Digest, 1923,425.) The New York World called the novel ' a tale fine, strong, and true, and American to the last worda real 100-per-cen-ter.' Several reviewers noted Quick's slow pacehow this 477-page novel 'is not a book that can be read at a gallop, so rich it is in the lore, the humor and the pathos of those bygone days of brave homely struggle.' One critic commented, 'There are nearly five hundred pages in the story, which is full measure, pressed down and running over. Mr. Quick has pressed it down just a bit too much.' (Digest 1923, 424.)

The Hawkeye begins with the birth of protagonist Fremont McConkey in 1857; the remainder of the novel carries the action forward to 1878. Young Fremont strikes up a friendship with Bent Bushyager, a boy from a family which seeks the darkness of 'the brush along the river' (43), not the light of the prairies where Fremont herds cattle. In fact, the Bushyagers are rustlers. Fremont loses touch with Bent and grows up as a poor but highly literate cowherd turned farmer. At a Fourth of July rally in 1874, a small riot occurs because the farmers are discontented:

'One could feel that these industrious cultivators of the soil, clodhoppers, whose plowshares had opened an empire to production and civilization, were filled with some passion deeper and more elemental than that merely of celebrating the day when their ancestors had declared that among the unalienable rights of man are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What they demanded was the possession of it, and not merely its pursuit, for they felt that after pursuing happiness through the forests for a hundred years, and finally emerging from the umbrage of the woods into the sunshine of the open, that their light was turning to darkness.' (98.)

In the midst of economic and political turmoil, Fremont married Winifred Ashe, a delicate woman who weeps whenever he is away from her. Fremont, nevertheless, must tear himself away 'from the arms of his bride as the hail of the boss thrasher echoed from the direction of the first setting of wheat.' (248.)

Quick describes that horse-powered threshing of 1878 in loving detail:

'The great red machine stood between the high, hive-shaped stacks. The ten horses were standing hitched to the five long wooden sweeps of the horse-power. The driver stood on the board platform in the center with his long whip in his hand. The pitchers had climbed the stacks with their forks, the handles polished by long contact with hard hands, their three tines inserted into the top sheaves of the stack.

'...The feeder of this machine, who was always in debt to the manufacturer, as all thrashermen habitually were, was a partisan of the 'Buffalo Pitts' machine. He loved it as the captain loves his vessel. He argued with much profanity with partisans of the 'Rumely,' the 'Chicago Pitts,' the 'J. I. Case,' or the 'Vibrator.' And now there was pride in his port as he stood before the gaping mouth with his hand on the nearest sheaf, looked down on both sides to see whether every man was in his place turned to the driver and nodded.

'...the ten horses put their weights and then the power of their muscles into their big leather collars, and the 'Buffalo Pitts' started. The feeder saw the ponderous cylinder before him begin to revolve...A deep growl like that of a bulldog magnified fifty diameters, filled the air, and as the cylinder gathered speed it rose from a bass to a baritone, and then to a tenor of a volume which sang over four square miles of haze-obscured prairie. The feeder looked up at the pitchers, saw the man who pitched to the machine, with his next bundle ready to fall on the table, saw Frank with his band-cutter's knife ready to slice softly through the band of it, and then, he moved the first two sheaves gently over between the open lips, deftly twitched their butts upward, and the great operation was on. The tenor took a little lower note; the horses felt the sweeps holding them back; the driver's shouts rose to a higher and more peremptory tone; and if everything went well, they were off upon a half-day's run...' (249-51.)

This word-painting stands out as the novel's most significant depiction because Quick's purpose is to show how 'the thrashing machine, the steel plow, the reaper, the seeder...supplemented by the...railway, applied to this great expanse of treeless black soil by the tireless energy of the American pioneers...revolutionized the world in a manner which it had not experienced since the invention of the steam engine.' (249.)

After this evocative scene, the rest of the plot become anticlimactic. Fremont's frail wife dies, but Catherine, her stalwart sister, readily replaces her. Now a newspaperman and publisher, Fremont finds himself in a predicament when a lynch mob exercises western justice against the Bushyagers and a fatally wounded Bent seeks asylum with his boyhood friend. Fremont shelters Bent until the fever of the vigilantes cools and Bent dies. Rejecting an offer to work for a Chicago paper, Fremont chooses to stay in Iowa, where he hopes the passing of time will bring higher civility to towns recently established on prairie sod.

The Hawkeye depicts the violence which accompanied a golden age. One reviewer astutely wrote, 'Another writer might have drawn the picture as grim and hopeless. But such was not the spirit of the Iowa pioneers. They worked for happiness and found it in large measure.' (Digest 1923, 425.) A review of the last novel in Quick's trilogy stated, 'The Mid-West has found its real interpreter... Herbert Quick is giving the farm its genuine place in American letters.' (Digest 1924, 487.) Allan Nevins of the Saturday Review of Literature said of the trilogy, '...it repeatedly touches greatness.' (Digest 1924, 488.) Why is Quick's work not better known? A contemporary reviewer may have answered this question:

'Herbert Quick has everything that goes to the making of a great novelist except the selective faculty which gives the final form and finish. The raw materials are all in his possession; he had a broad grasp, a true apprehension of the elements of his subject; he presents it complete, root and branch and with the sap still in it, the color and flavor native to its locality. What he cannot do is to weed away the superfluous shoots...' (Digest 1924, 487).

Quick needed a good editor to help ensure a consistent and focused narrative, to tone down his occasionally esoteric diction, and to dissuade him from giving characters what one reviewer called 'shopworn' actions. Still, Quick is arguably the best chronicler of the threshing era.

Herbert Krause comes in as a distant second. Born in 1905, Krause died in 1976. He wrote five novels, including Neighbor Boy, The Oxcart Trail, Search for a Man, and Wind without Rain. He composed The Thresher (1946) on a University of Minnesota Regional Writing Fellowship. In reading this 488-page novel, one frequently feels that, unlike the authentic detailing in Quick's books, the action of Krause's magnum opus does not originate in his own experiencenor in heartfelt sympathy with turn-of-the-century agriculturists even though Krause was raised on a farm. One constantly senses that this novel is purely an imaginative recreation of the threshing days. Krause merely appropriates the materials of mechanized threshing for his rarefied artistic purposes.

The Thresher, nevertheless, received generally favorable reviews. One critic was 'impressed by the language in which the book is written' and said that Krause 'loves and uses words a poet does.' (Digest 1947, 508.) Another stated:

'Mr. Krause's characters are vivid, strong, absorbing. We are consumed with a kind of ambivalent attitude, an attitude which understands and loves these people even as it acknowledges their injustices...The writing is as powerful as the forces with which it deal seach word obviously loved and carefully chosen, each phrase adding to a total surging, poetic effect.'

This same reviewer detected one of the book's most serious flaws:

'It is in his fondness for metaphor that Mr. Krause runs into trouble. We could accept the frequent figures of speech as they come, admire the metaphorical divisions by which Mr. Krause directs the life of his story to follow the life of the wheat. But, either through an addiction to metaphorical treatment or through a conviction that without it his book would not measure up to standards of profundity, he insists upon imposing upon the story, again and again, a reminder that we are dealing not alone with people, with characters, but with Time, all-powerful Time who changes all things.' (Digest 1947, 509.)

Yet another critic called Krause's characters 'inevitable' and concluded that 'the novel stops short of universality. . .'In the same way that the less successful visual art of the late 1940s substitutes dark, pasty patches for genuine expression, The Thresher is what John Steinbeck would have written, had Steinbeck been heavily Freudian, prolix, and abstract for abstraction's sake. But Steinbeck is none of these things, Krause all of them.

Lacking Quick's touches of humor, Krause provides a novel wherein not all the characters are killed but those who do not die are injured physically or psychically. The book opens with Uncle Herm bringing the recently orphaned Johnny Schwartz to live on Herm's farm. Johnny hates his surname and eventually changes it to Black, to match his thoughts. Krause lavishes adjectives in describing Johnny's puberty: 'strange and awful ferments whose urge lies with bedrock and the first dividing cell' (64) and a 'tugging at the marrow...filling him with a strange unease.' (84.) His best friend, Snoose, is raped by a crew of threshing thugs. Later, Snoose is killed in an accident involving the belt between a steam engine and a threshing machine.

Johnny marries Lilice, a woman who should have had better sense. Their baby dies, and, shortly after, Uncle Herm dies. By now, Johnny has achieved his lifelong dream of owning a steam engine and complete threshing rig, but he outdoes Melville's Captain Ahab in obsessively driving his crew to harvest the wheat. Diversified farming cuts into Johnny's profits, and he and Lilice fight. Lilice undergoes an epiphany and plans to get back together with Johnny, but, on that very day, he had died in a fire caused by sparks from his steam engine. The novel ends:

'And Time the great cylinder whirled, slow in its swiftness, swift in its slowness, ripping the seed from the hull, and the seed falling....From the engine came the hiss of steam; from the separator a dull crackling, but Johnny lay as if earth were a good shoulder on which to rest. A knee was a little crooked. Then they saw that one fist was clenched tight. When they pried the fingers open, a scattering of wheat, golden, unseared by flame, rolled over the callused flesh and fell to the ground.' (488.)

Krause hoped to write a poignant conclusion for a modem novel on the order of Death of a Salesman, but his ending misses its mark and plunges into bathos.

Krause recognized what would make a sizzling potboiler plot: a father who accidentally scythes to death his infant daughter who had been napping in the wheat field, a lynching of a man by hanging him from the wind stacker device high above the threshing machine, a violent saloon brawl, and always the libido lurking just beneath the surface. Yet Krause invokes emotionally charged scenes only to dispense with them and to go on to the next episode, as though there were no repercussions for the narrative; for instance, the father who commits daughter-slaughter goes on to live an apparently untroubled life.

Had he restrained his excessive description, Krause could have offered a valid and memorable portrayal of steam-powered threshing. His depiction of the first horse-steered engine to come into Johnny's part of the world reveals Krause's promising talent, although one could wish for a little less:

'Around a hazel-heavy bend rolled the engine hauled by a team of satin blacks, their nostrils flaring at the pull of the tugs, their hames polished and their harness rings gleaming. The boiler, a long black barrel with a box slung under one end, was mounted on four wheels. The firebox hung between the rear bull drivers. These huge wheels crunched against the stones and spun pebbles from their edges. The smokestack at the front of the boiler thrust up like a long black pipe....

'Folks pushed and elbowed, gawking at this huge ebony shape that wheeled along their chicken-tracked roads. They stared at the gauges and petcocks and the governor with its balls balanced on springs like three worlds on curving axes. They drew back from the hiss that was like a barnyard of mate-hungry ganders. A wisp of steam curled about the whistle shell.' (189.)

All the same, The Thresher fizzles. In his efforts to debunk the nostalgia felt for the golden era of harvest, Krause created an unrelieved and tedious account of violence, injury, sorrow, and death. In this boy-grows-up story, Johnny becomes merely a distorted symbol for industrial-strength monomania. When he perishes, readers do not care. Ultimately, Krause is no Quick. Fortunately for him, Krause did enjoy a fulfilling career as chair of an English department at a small college.

One wonders why only two American novels focus on mechanized threshing and only one of them approaches greatness. Both vacillate between realism and romanticism. Perhaps the communal harvests employing horse-powers, steam engines, and threshing machines were so vast geographically, technologically, and metaphorically as to demand the art of an epic poet, not a romanticist or a novelist. Perhaps a predominantly happy time in human history sounded dull to American readers; Krause apparently had decided so. Perhaps the means of appreciating such a story of grand technologies, harvests on a continental scale, and cooperation among over half the population of a nation were disappearing before the story could be told in retrospect. Quick implied as much when he wrote, 'I wonder whether in that ominous desertion of the soil which our world has seen in its steady, and, I sometimes suspect, fundamentally wicked industrialization, the human race has not suffered a shock to its collective conscience.' (294.) On the other hand, quite possibly, the true threshing novel will be written when, as was the case with Homer, enough years have elapsed to see the past with haunting clarity.

Works Cited
The Book Review Digest. 64 vols. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1905-1969.
Krause, Herbert. The Thresher. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1946.
Quick, Herbert. The Hawkeye. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1923.