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.

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