The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.
XI. The Later Novel: Howells
§ 11. Edward Eggleston
Edward Eggleston (1837–1902), a clergyman like Holland and Roe, and like General Wallace a native of Indiana, though nourished in the school which made the domestic-sentimentalpious romance the dominant type of fiction between 1850 and 1870, must yet be considered the pioneer figure in the new realism which succeeded it in the eighties. As a Methodist on the frontier he had been brought up, though of cultivated Virginia stock, to think novels and all such works of the imagination evil things, but his diversified experience as an itinerant preacher, or “circuit rider,” and as editor and journalist, his wholesome religion, and the studious habit which eventually made him a sound historical scholar, took him out of these narrow channels of opinion. It is highly significant that whereas Mrs. Stowe or her followers would have thought of themselves as writing fiction considerably for the sake of its moral consequences, Eggleston, having read Taine’s Art in the Netherlands, undertook to portray the life of southern Indiana in the faithful, undoctrinaire spirit of a Dutch painter. His first novel, The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871), remains his most famous. Indiana’s singularities had already been exposed by Bayard Rush Hall (“Robert Carlton”) in The New Purchase (1855), and there was growing up a considerable literature reportingthat curious poor-whitey race which is called “tar-heel” in the northern Carolina, “sand-hiller” in the southern, “corn-cracker” in Kentucky, “yahoo” in Mississippi, and in California “Pike” … the Hoosiers of the dark regions of Indiana and the Egyptians of southern Illinois.All Eggleston’s essential novels are concerned with this phase of American life, whatever the scene: Indiana in The Hoosier Schoolmaster, The End of the World (1872), and Roxy (1878); Ohioin The Circuit Rider (1874); Illinois in The Graysons (1887); Minnesota in The Mystery of Metropolisville (1873). Light is thrown upon his aims in fiction by the fact that he subsequently aspired to write “A History of Life in the United States,” which he carried through two erudite, humane, and graceful volumes. His Hoosier novels, simple in plot, clear-cut in characterization, concise and lucid in language, unwaveringly accurate in their setting, manners, and dialect, are indispensable documents, even finished chapters, for his uncompleted masterpiece. The Schoolmaster, as first in the field and fresh and pointed, still remains most famous; but Roxy is perhaps most interesting of them all, and The Circuit Rider the most informing. The Graysons deserves credit for the reserve with which it admits the youthful Lincoln into its narrative, uses him at a crucial moment, and then lets him withdraw without one hint of his future greatness. If the morals of these tales seem a little easy to read, they nevertheless lack all that is sentimental, strained, or perfervid. Without Mrs. Stowe’s rush of narrative, neither has Eggleston her verbosity. Even where, in his fidelity to violent frontier conditions, his incidents seem melodramatic, the handling is sure and direct, for the reason, as he says of The Circuit Rider, that whatever is incredible in the story is true. No novelist is more candid, few more convincing. With greater range and fire he might have been an international figure as well as the earliest American realist whose work is still remembered.