Robert Nathan Readthrough: Autumn (1921)

New England, for Peter Kindred, the eponymous protagonist of Robert Nathan’s first novel, is a magical place, with its “fragrance of farm houses and apple orchards.” When Peter meets Joan, a Radcliffe student and his wife-to-be, he moons: “I can hear all New England talking in her voice—orchards, rocks, villages and churches.”

In general, Peter is attracted to American life beyond the purview of his New York upbringing. On the train to boarding school, Peter delights in the sight of “big, raw-boned westerners with fair hair and ruddy cheeks, of a type entirely novel to Peter,” who, “thinking of his father and his own sallow acquaintances in New York, was abashed.”

Whether or not this fascination and embarrassment had to do with the author’s Jewish background as well as his New York provenance, Nathan in his second novel would commence a series of fictions set in imaginary New England villages populated with yearny and philosophically reflective characters. We as yet only get little touches of the fantastical elements that characterize these villages later on, their talking animals and pagan godlings. But Autumn (1921) would be te first of Nathan’s increasingly successful and interconnected village novels.

Hillsboro, the village in Autumn, is an idyllic place, often muzzy and rose-tinted, but marked by the private sorrows and even cruelty of its townsfolk. It is an odd place, in that it seems like a time capsule of venerable Yankee traditions, with its farmers and church and one-room schoolhouse, yet conveys little sense of what these traditions really are. The schoolteacher Mr. Jeminy is a philosophizing outsider, who questions the moral pretentions of the village and often witnesses his fellow villagers’ tendency to ostracize and reject. Yet what his philosophy really is is be hard to say, just as the dour religion expounded in the village church is rather abstract.

None of the characters speak in modern cadences or language, let alone have detailed psychologies, but communicate instead in an artificially homespun lyricism, which creates its own kind of modern distancing effect, though this is also a dampening effect. Village tradition ultimately seems to be a kind of fatalism, challenging its dreamers with hard facts of life. A character leaves for the war and is killed. Mr. Jeminy loses his job, then is adopted by another family. An old woman dies. It is all sun-dappled.

Note that the publisher of Autumn advertises titles by James Branch Cabell, another early twentieth-century producer of whimsical philosophical fantasies (though in a very different register than Nathan).

Rather than a real village, Nathan’s Hillsboro is a kind of poem. It is a self-contained snow globe in which elements of modernity can be shaken up so that they float down gently in the thoughts of the characters. The loss of religious faith, the world war and its carnage, changing sexual morays, social and economic division—these are all part of the little world of Hillsboro.

The book is dedicated to Nathan’s friend Herbert Feis, then an economics instructor at Harvard and who would go on to be a State Department economic advisor under Hoover and Roosevelt, and an influential historian of the Cold War.

Herbert Feis (1893-1972), like Nathan a New York Jew who attended Harvard.

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