Is The Dollmaker the latest "rediscovered" masterpiece?

This 1950s novel, beloved by Marilynne Robinson, has power and poignancy – but little that surprises us.

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When William Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for A Fable in 1955, he was up against a novel for both honours called The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow. The Dollmaker had been a bestseller, receiving excellent reviews: the New York Times called it “one of the finest of 1954”, applauding “the depth and power and stature of this enormous book”, and ­especially the “magnificent” depiction of its protagonist, Gertie Nevels. “There is life in this book, life that flows through its crowded pages like the surge of a mighty river,” the reviewer pronounced.

Over time, however, it sank into obscurity and Arnow was all but forgotten. Now The Dollmaker is being reissued, along with an encomium written in 1971 by Joyce Carol Oates, who described it as a “brutal, beautiful novel”, “a legitimate tragedy, our most unpretentious American masterpiece”.

The Dollmaker is certainly unpretentious. Its story is simple, its characterisation rich but straightforward, its prose unadorned. Gertie is a poor woman from the backwoods of Kentucky, contentedly doing subsistence farming with her husband, Clovis, and their five children. Arnow tells us she is tall, ungainly, strong and ugly; she is also kind, loving, competent and formidable.

The opening scene is a memorable set piece: Gertie’s young son is seriously ill with diphtheria, and she forces an army officer to give her a ride into town, stopping to perform a roadside tracheotomy by whittling a makeshift pipe out of a twig to save her son. When they reach the doctor’s office, Gertie is suddenly intimidated, to the astonishment of the officer, who tells her, “Lady, you can’t be afraid of nothing. Just walk in.”

Gertie’s dream is to buy the family a small farm, and so she has been secreting money away. But events intervene: it is 1945, and her husband is called from the farm to be examined by the draft board. Rejected for active service, Clovis doesn’t return to the farm but takes a factory job in Detroit. Her self-pitying, passive-aggressive, fundamen­talist mother grows hysterical at the idea of her daughter living apart from her husband; the owner of the farm she wants to buy hesitates to sell it to her over the wishes of her mother and husband; and so Gertie allows herself to be bullied into leaving the land and taking the children to Detroit. The family struggles to adapt. Clovis gets entangled in union politics, with disastrous consequences; one child runs away and another is destroyed by city life.

The story’s downward spiral is in the naturalistic tradition of Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, except that Arnow rejects naturalism’s emphasis on environmental determinism. The Dollmaker is entirely about Gertie’s choices, and although it is sympathetic to her mistakes it is also clear about where she goes wrong. Her errors consistently derive from submitting to conventionally gendered expectations about womanhood. If not a story of environmental determinism, then, this is certainly a novel about social determinism, about the way that conformity and adaptation push against individualism.

In Gertie’s case, this is symbolised by her favourite activity: whittling dolls out of wood. She is a gifted carver and has a beautiful old block of cherry wood from which, like Michelangelo, she is trying to find the face she wants to release. On some days, she thinks the face will be that of a laughing Christ, but more often she thinks she sees in it Judas, not in the moment of betrayal, but in his moment of forlorn repentance: “Not Judas with his mouth all drooly, his hand held out fer th silver, but Judas given th thirty pieces away. I figger . . . They’s many a one does meanness fer money – like Judas . . . But they’s not many like him gives th money away an feels sorry onct they’ve got it.” Gertie’s vacillation in identifying her doll as Jesus or as Judas asks whether self-sacrifice is self-betrayal; whether it is a Christlike submission to the needs of others or a selling out that betrays not only oneself but, by extension, humanity.

The Dollmaker has power and poignancy, but its fundamentally unsurprising story is told at protracted length. Anyone who has read a novel about internal migration in America will find the outline of the plot predictable; cities in such novels are invariably places of violence, dehumanisation, poverty and vice. And Gertie, despite the vividness of her character, is at heart a noble peasant. Arnow’s bare prose requires a high tolerance for dialect: like her characters, she lived in the backwoods of Kentucky, so we can trust her ear, but many of the orthographic decisions are questionable. Given that the only reason for non-standard spellings is to indicate non-standard pronunciation, it is unclear what purpose is served by rendering “the” as “th”, or “from” as “frum”. It’s distracting and, in a novel of more than 600 pages, it can be deeply irritating.

Whether The Dollmaker constitutes a rediscovered masterpiece is debatable, but given that its fans include Marilynne Robinson (who alludes to it in Home) and Joyce Carol Oates, readers may well want to decide for themselves.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

This article appears in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda