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A N T H O N Y T. W A D D E N Gonzaga University Late to the Harvest: The Fiction of J. Hyatt Downing Walter Prescott Webb points out that there are two types of plains literature. The first the literature of the frontier of ex­ ploration and of the cattle country, the nomadic literature of the wild West. The second is the agricultural literature of the prairie plains, “a literature of people, of poverty, of unremitting toil, small reward, and ceaseless effort, the basis of stark realism.”1 Hyatt Downing’s fiction largely belongs to this literature of the prairie plains. The name J. Hyatt Downing (1887-19 ), however, is hardly a household word to readers of western American fiction. I have a twofold purpose, therefore, in this paper. The first is to survey the background of this western writer— onetime cowboy, sheepherder , gandy dancer, tax collector, newspaperman, and insurance salesman, and author of several noteworthy short stories and five well-reviewed novels.2 The second purpose is to provide a critical perspective on Hyatt Downing’s literary achievement, in short, to answer the question “Why read him?” My specific interest in this fiction stems from many long dis­ cussions with the author, about his life and writings and my knowl­ edge of the world it represents. My appreciation of what Hyatt Downing wrote is probably increased by the fact that I grew up in the town he depicted in his most popular novel, Sioux City; and also by the fact that I have worked construction jobs over much of the Dakota land he walked for the railroad some fifty years before me. I am not so concerned, then, with comparing Hyatt Downing’s fiction with that of other writers. Nor am I interested in apologiz­ ing for his fiction, by claiming that he suffered from what Wallace Stegner calls the “westerners’ dilemma,” that is, having a hard time discovering what was in him wanting to be said, and when he found it, having difficulty getting a hearing.3 W alter Prescott W ebb, The Great Plains (New York, 1931), p. 470.®Mr. Downing gave the greater part of his manuscripts, scrapbooks, and letters to the University of Iowa Libraries in 1966.»Wallace Stegner, "B o m a Square: The Westerners’ Dilemma,” Atlantic Monthly (Ja n ­ uary, 1964), 46-50. 204 Western American Literature Finally, while Hyatt Downing’s use of the Dakota territory suggests a regional interest, I have followed the advice of John Frederick, the longtime editor of The Midland magazine. Pro­ fessor Frederick writes that “a good regional writer is a good writer who uses regional materials. His regionalism is an incident and condition, not a purpose or motive. It means simply that he uses the literary substance which he knows best, the life of his own neighborhood, or his own city or state.” The regionalist’s work, however, has literary importance “only in so far as it meets the standards of good writing at all times and in all places.”4 While scholars have mentioned Hyatt Downing’s novels in terms of regional writing, historical fiction, and the farm novel, his achievement as a writer cuts across these categories, and cer­ tainly the general reader will react to Hyatt Downing’s fiction on the basis of what impresses him most about it.5 Two aspects of Hyatt Downing’s fiction are impressive: one is his almost overwhelming concern with moral values, and the second is his imaginative use of regional materials in depicting the moral conditions of his characters, and by implication, the moral conditions of his characters, and by implication, the moral plight of his generation. Of course, Roy W. Meyer tells us that a pre­ occupation with values is a characteristic of the farm novel, but I think that Hyatt Downing’s fiction extends beyond this category by promulgating one doctrine of simplicity, rather than by reflect­ ing the attitudes of conservatism, individualism, anti-intellectualism , hostility to the town, and a type of primitivism often associated with farm people.6 The problem which actually lies at the heart of any critical evaluation of Hyatt Downing’s work is the fact that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 203-214
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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