May 1993

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Walter Edmonds

Our Stalwart


Bill Kauffman

Part I


In The Boyds of Black River, Edmonds's only post-Civil War novel for adults, a family dynasty is breathing its last As the twentieth century impends, the Boyds, a once-great-horse-racing family, are short of cash and thoroughbreds, reduced to "shabby gentility." They are revived by the arrival of the hoydenish Kathy O'Chelrie, a New York City actress who marries the final Boyd and brings life back to the old house and its inhabitants.

The Boyds of Black River tiptoes to the fin de siecle—there is talk of McKinley and that mad agrarian Bryan, and a newfangled motorcar is sighted, only to be outpaced by a horse—but Edmonds leaves us at the century's doorstep. The Boyds are set aright, treasury and stable enriched, but the author will take us no further. The twentieth century, with all its gadgetry and ideology, holds no allure for Walter Edmonds. He is rather like the Boyds' Uncle Ledyard, whose first encounter with the automobile is somewhat chary: "Uncle Ledyard got in and closed the door and said, 'Good morning,' to the chauffeur like a man saying good morning to Charon."

Still, life in the Black River country retains its charms. In one of the few instances in Edmonds's fiction in which the regions meet, New York City stage star Candida Brown visits the Boyd estate. She gushes: "You who've lived here all your lives have no idea how exciting it all is. It has a tang. It makes me think—do you know?—exactly of the first time I tasted caviar."

"You won't find any caviar in this house, my girl," [Admiral Porter] told her dryly. "But Ledyard's got some whiskey that is damned good."

Edmonds's most exuberant character is the eponymous Chad Hanna, a "do-nothing, no-account" who is closer to a Yorker Huck Finn than a diligent Dan Harrow. Loafing around Canastota, Chad stumbles upon the Underground Railroad, saves a slave, and joins a two-bit circus as it traverses the state from Albany to Albion.

The year is 1836: Jackson is preparing to pass the wand to Van Buren, a depression is around the corner, and sectional rancor is swelling. Chad, we feel certain, will choose the Union a quarter-century later, with the same reluctance with which he saves the runaway. "I'm not no abolitionist," he avers—no pinch-cheeked Miss Grundy reproving drunks and caning hellions—but "the business [of emancipation] might have some fun in it." With the same lack of high-mindedness, rural New Yorkers marched off to war not long after.

Chad Hanna showcases Edmonds the story-teller. We get somersaults, horse stealing, a dog-toothed boy, and a lion revived with mineral water. Chad is a rounded, full-bodied character, unlike, say, Jerry Fowler of Erie Water.

The supporting cast in Chad Hanna is boisterous fun. An Edmonds stock character, the wizened wry oldster, is here in the form of Revolutionary pensioner/idler Elias Proops, who tells lovelorn Chad, "They way I've always looked at marriage, it's all right except you've got to live with a woman." Of an inept Italian juggler and his new assistant, someone says, "She makes a good partner for Fiero. I always said there wasn't no sense to a man tossing balls all alone. He's crazy about her. He wants to throw knives at her too, now."

And yet the old Edmonds ambivalence about progress pops up here and there. Circus agent Mr. Bisbee muses, "I remember how we used to cuss the mud and wish for solid roads. Well, we're getting the roads, and look what they're doing to us. They've turned us into a little show, and a thing has to be expensive now before it can be a genuine wonder."

Mrs. Huguenine, the wife of the circus's impresario, tells the roustabout after he's fallen in love with the daughter of a slave-catcher "A man oughtn't really to get married unless he's saved up fifty dollars. In the old times, you didn't need cash money. You got a cow off your parents and you took up free land with an axe and a rifle. . . But nowadays it's difficult. Folks are trading in stores for their food and they spend money on their clothes."

Only once—apart from his novels for young adults, notably Cadmus Henry (1949), the tale of a green Confederate balloonist—has Edmonds ventured outside his native ground: the result was Young Ames, a critically panned work that Edmonds says he wrote "just to make money when the college bills were due."

John Ames is an ambitious, orphaned boy from Troy bent on making his fortune in New York City. He is taken on as an errand-runner at a trading house; through pluck, adolescent sagacity, and a dash of unscrupulous rascality he succeeds in business and love. This is Horatio Alger, with a Yorker twist, and if one accepts the implausibilities it is an amusing read.

"It was great fun writing it," recalls Edmonds. "I know nothing about business; I have no sense of finance. I had a book called Merchants of Old New York and I got a lot of stuff out of that. It was perfectly ridiculous, but everyone took it seriously."

Young Ames is not one of Edmonds's stronger efforts, but it hardly deserves execration. The figure of Andrew Jackson is always hovering in the background. Young Ames's boss, the Federalist Mr. Chevalier, despises Jackson; Ames himself exemplifies the energetic spirit of Jacksonian America. (Indeed, the boy impersonated Old Hickory's nephew at one point on a Southern sojourn.) Historians have long recognized the protean face of Jacksonianism: its style was frontier, egalitarian, demotic, but through their laissez faire economic policies the Jacksonians liberated a new entrepreneurial class. They were capitalists of a sort; bitterly opposed to Nicholas Biddle's National Bank but eager to make the economic clime conducive to success for ambitious young men of few means like Young John Ames.

In a scene that Edmonds carries off with admirable facility, John meets Old Hickory on a trip to Washington. The boy is undaunted and bold, much to the president's pleasure; Jackson expounds upon American principles and even tosses in some lagniappe advice on how to propose to a girl. Ames's "ambition," writes Edmonds, "was the same instinct . . . that raised a man like Andrew Jackson out of obscure beginnings."

Edmonds himself is a Jefferson-Jackson man whose name shall ever be tied to the Whiggish canal. But for the most part, his characters are resolutely apolitical. (or anti-political.) When a taproom Whig firebrand demands of Chad Hanna, "How do you stand on Masonry?" he replies coolly. "I don't stand on anything but my own feet."

The Utopian and reform fires that burned over our district in the first half of the nineteenth century do not so much as singe the Edmonds corpus. Joseph Smith makes a cameo appearance in Erie Water: he is said to have "shifty eyes" and he makes Jerry Fowler "queasy." Jemima Wilkinson, John Humphrey Noyes, the ladies of Seneca Falls: they are absent from Walter Edmonds's Upstate of plain people. Chad Hanna enlists, on a whim, in the cause of abolition, but only because the slave-freeing business "might have some fun in it." A pity that Edmonds never got a handle on his Anti-Masonry novel: What would his earthy pragmatists have made of the millenarian fanatics and shrewd operators who rode the Blessed Spirit to Congress and the state legislature in the 1830s?

The Civil War looms throughout in the background of The Big Barn (and Cadmus Henry, which takes place in Virginia). Ralph Wilder and the boys are gung-ho warhawks, as is Edmonds, for a familial reason: "One of my ancestors, Samuel Joseph May, a Unitarian minister in Syracuse, was a leading abolitionist and a great friend of Gerritt Smith and Frederick Douglass. He kept what I am told was the fastest buggy in Syracuse, and all the time he didn't allow his wife more than a candle to sew by. She went blind, but he kept his horseflesh up to standards because he ran the main underground station in Syracuse. At night he would take one or two slaves in his buggy and run north."

There was significant Copperhead sentiment in these parts, so it's meet that Edmonds's predecessor, Harold Frederic, depicted antiwar Democratic farmers sympathetically in works such as The Copperhead. Frederic was an admirer of his fellow Utican, Governor Horatio Seymour, a principled opponent of the federal government's suspension of habeas corpus and other circumventions of the Constitution.

Edmonds disclaims any didactic intent in his novels, although in the introduction to Drums Along the Mohawk he wrote: "To those who may feel that here is a great to-do about a bygone life, I have one last word to say. It does not seem to me a bygone life at all. The parallel is too close to our own. The people of the valley were confronted by a reckless Congress and ebullient finance, with their inevitable repercussions of poverty and practical starvation. . . . They suffered the paralysis of abject dependence on a central government totally unfitted to comprehend a local problem. And finally, though they had lost two thirds of their fighting strength, these people took hold of their courage and struck out for themselves."

He wrote that, he says, as an upstate Republican worried over the centralizing trends of the New Deal. He was never much on politicos, although Thomas E. Dewey once asked him to write his campaign biography. "I was rather incensed," remembers Edmonds. "I'd sort of believed in Dewey [and his] statements to the press that he wouldn't betray the people of New York by running for president" It is a measure of Walter Edmonds's gentlemanliness that he was genuinely surprised when a politician reneged on a promise.

Walter Edmond's accomplishment is enormous and underknown. He has fictionalized the history of upstate New York from the Revolution till the dawn of our industrial century. An Edmonds anthology referred to his books as "stalwarts," reliable draft horses, but his prose was touched with felicity too. No naive singer of bucolic charms, he nevertheless gloried in "the shape of the land with its even trim, the little curves and hollows that the eye would never trace in grass; and in itself it showed the sweeps of the sower's hand, sweeps like the curve of the scythe blade where the seed had fallen, taken root, made milk and grain, been reaped—a cycle for the eye to grasp in a single glimpse."

His pioneers are practical, earthy men and women. They are giants in the earth, embodying what Lionel D. Wyld, in Walter D. Edmonds, Storyteller (1982), called the "Yorker-based philosophy of individual worth and dignity, of commonsense approaches to the problems of living, and of simple pleasures which sometimes show how very close sadness is to laughter, tragedy to comedy."

Edmonds's generation—his coevals include Wilson, Rochester novelist Henry W. Clune, and Saturday Evening Post short-story writer George Brooks of Pearl Creek—had a self-confidence, a sureness that their home was a region of worth and dignity, a self-governing bulwark of the American republic. Edmonds, Clune, and Wilson were no strangers to elegy: none was overly taken with the modernized Upstate struggling to be born. Their dirges sound ever more plaintive today. When Henry Clune wondered in 1930 whether "the old spirit of neighborliness that gave such a distinct character to the average residential street before the advent of the motor car, the movie and other institutions of the present era that tend to take people out of and away from their homes, anywhere exists," he was rephrasing the fears of Self Rogers and other cussed independents in the Edmonds ensemble.

When Edmund Wilson, the cranky sage of Talcottville who envied Edmonds the acceptance of the locals, mourned, "I have come to feel that this country, whether or not I live in it, is no longer any place for me," he could've been Isaachar Bennet watching the canal cut its swath through the virgin forest.

(Wilson told Edmonds to his face that he found his books "terribly dull!" but thought him unequalled in writing about animals. He fiddled with a piece for The New Yorker along these lines, but nothing, apparently, ever came of it. Alas.)

"It's been going downhill so fast," says Mr. Edmonds of his country. "I am appalled at the widening between poverty and extreme wealth [and] the corrupting of the American Dream, which never was getting a lot of money. It was getting independence, the ability to lead your life as you wanted to lead it, do your business the way you wanted to do it. But it didn't mean getting money, money, money all the time." (Edmonds's distaste for the latter part of our bloody century has concrete roots. His childhood home in New York City—"the old Federal house on 11th Street"—was blown up on March 6, 1970, by the infamous Weatherman homemade pipe-bomb explosion.)

What a contrast Edmonds, Clune and company make with the youngest generation of New York writers—we who were bequeathed a Thruwayed, Rockefellered, Atticaed, television-blinded Upstate. Mistah Hanna, he dead. You can find him in an unmarked mass grave, buried with Natty Bum-po and David Harum and Theron Ware.

We drove back along Governor Dewey's Erie Canal, the New York State Thruway, which has inspired no fiction, no romance, no Walter Edmonds. As the canal destroyed the Upstate of Self Rogers, the Thruway killed the York of small shopkeepers and self-contained towns along that old Indian trail, Routes 5 and 20. I rolled down the window and listened for a lonesome drum, but all I heard was the whoosh of rushing cars, and all I saw was a sky of grey.

But gloom passes. I recalled the opening scene of Rome Haul: Dan Harrow and the old peddler arrive in Boonville and behold the welcoming brick of The Hurlburt House. Decades later, Frederick Exley, in his toper chronicle Pages From a Cold Island (1975), fantasizes about owning none other than that selfsame Hurlburt House. Perhaps the novels of Walter Edmonds offer us a roadmap. In the words of T. S. Eliot; "And the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time."

© 1992, Bill Kauffman.
Reprinted with permission from the July 1992 of New York History
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