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Robert Herrick's Waste: Summary of a Career and an Age GEORGE SPANGLER Three years before Robert Herrick's death in 1938, Newton Arvin offered a brief appraisal of Herrick's accomplishment in a career that lasted thirty-eight years and yielded some eighteen novels. Arvin concluded that The Common Lot, The Memoirs of an American Citizen and Together, published between 1904 and 1908, are "three of the most impressive novels in our literature" and that Herrick's work in general "is in the cultural and historical center." 1 Since only these three of all Herrick's novels are currently in print, Arvin's judgement, in part at least, appears to have prevailed, though it remains unconfirmed by any wide critical or scholarly interest in Herrick. To Arvin's list, however, should be added one of Herrick's last works, the ambitious and thoroughly remarkable Waste, published in 1924. For in this autobiographical novel Herrick embodied with deeply moving frankness both his own lifelong concerns and a generation's experience of a decisive period of American history. Because Waste is a novel with a complex history of its own, as well as a compelling dramatization of three decades of American life, a brief review of the thrust of Herrick's earlier fiction is indispensable to any fully appreciative commentary. For the reader familiar with Herrick's novels one detail common to most of them is especially noteworthy: again and again the reader is informed, explicitly or implicitly, that the protagonist is indifferent to Christianity, a fact which, however casually mentioned in a particular instance, comes to assume the character of a leitmotif as it is repeated with slight variation from novel to novel. Moreover, these passing references to the indifference of individual characters to the Christian church are sometimes enforced by authorial statements about the contemporary status of religious faith and the uses of the church, as if to insure that the reader does not think the indifference is merely the idiosyncrasy of the particular character. Yet, despite the apparently inconsequential role of Christianity in its fiction, the question °How may I save my soul?" dominates Herrick's fiction, just as surely as it pervades the religious literature of less secular ages. For Herrick, unable to be a THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. II, NO. 1., SPRING 1971. manof faith, was what has been called a man of piety. In its decline the Christianity of his ancestors left him a body of assumptions (e.g., "soul") and issues (e.g., usalvation") which continued to engage deeply his heart and mind, despite his rejection of the dogma and ritual once joined to them. Thus when he was confronted with the overwhelmingly materialistic society produced by the industrialization of the United States in the decades following the Civil War, a society in which the spiritual aspect of man seemed to him totally obscured, Herrick drew on his residue of Christianity in his essentially private effort to comprehend his society, to analyze its deficiencies, and finally to discover an escape from the threat it posed to the spiritual life of the individual. In short, lacking traditional faith and dogma and the sense of coherence they give to life, Herrick was compelled to seek a personal view of human experience; yet his search was in large measure conditioned and in some ways impeded by the strong, scarcely acknowledged influence which the Christian tradition exerted on his thought and feeling. While many of his peers turned to other modes of thought, such as radical politics or philosophical naturalism, to interpret their experience of America., Herrick continued to pose the question of life's meaning and purpose in the language of traditional religion,. even though the answers Christianity itself offered could not satisfy him. Herrick's fiction before Waste reveals an almost frantic effort to embody viable personal answers to questions of moral and spiritual value. Convinced that human beings had enough freedom of choice to make the search for individual salvation meaningful and that political and economic reforms offered little hope, Herrick sought to embody in his fiction answers to the question of the soul's salvation in an aggressively materialistic society. The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 26-36
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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