An Analysis of America's Two Threshing Novels


| November/December 1996



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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: