Henry Bellamann's Novels - Summary and Commentary
(Cover art courtesy of Dr. Harry Bayne)
In 1926 while still teaching and studying music, Bellamann inaugurated his career as a novelist with the publication of Petenera's Daughter, a higly unusual novel that received relatively favorable reviews. Although Petenera's Daughter can be classified as a farm novel, there is a shade of elegance and sophistication about it that betrays Mr. Bellamann's aesthetic preoccupation. Bellamann poignantly and convincingly paints the drudgery that is the lot of uprooted Pennsylvania Dutch farm families living in alien Missouri. Juxtaposed to these stoic beings is Bellamann's heroine, "Sule" (Ursula) Irak, the town's "bad girl," who is the daughter of a virile, fun-loving, but worthless Basque immigrant. Sule, believing herself to be in love with Harry Grumbine, a farmer's son, has his baby and eventually marries him. From her late father, Sule inherits an aesthetic tendency that makes her hard life as a farm wife paradoxically both more diffiult and more bearable. In this novel, Bellamann's main concern is with Sule Grumbine's fumbling discovery of her own mental "apparatus" that enables her to order her own life. Here may be discerned the blueprint for Kings Row's main theisis: "the imposition of a pattern on life." Petenera's Daughter, a novel so obscure today that one will have difficulty even obtaining a copy, is highly satisfactory of and for itself. Next to Kings Row, this first novel is Bellamann's most outstanding work.
Two years later, in 1928, Bellamann's second novel Crescendo was published. In this novel of manners, Bellamann unsuccessfully experiments with a New York City setting. Crescendo recreates a society of artists an dmusicians perhaps similar to that in which Bellamann might have found himself during his residence in New York. A poor novel, even by Bellamann's admission (Current Biography, 1942), Crescendo met with mixed reviews. The plot concerns a married painter who has an affair with a wealthy flapper. A good deal of partying and learned conversation thakes place, but the characters are never imbued with any sympathy or significance. They remain as superficial as their society. Fortunately, Bellamann's subsequent novels are all set in Missouri or the South, a milieu more congenial to his novelistic talents.
The Richest Woman in Town
The Richest Woman in Town (1932), a very short novel, tells the strange story of Catherine Dreyer, a gambler's mistress, who is persuaded by him to give up their illegitimate son. Years later, after the gambler has died leaving her wealthy, Catherine again encounters her son and clashes with him over the condiditions of workers in his business. In its hints of class struggle, this social drama is partially reminiscent of some of Erskine Caldwell's fiction. But it is essentially a one-character novel: Catherine must grow into a social consciousness that transcends the invisibility usually imposed upon a kept woman. Although not widely reviewed, The Richest Woman in Town received some favorable, if slightly puzzled, commentary
The Gray Man Walks
Mystery was the next genre Bellamann attempted. In 1936, The Gray Man Walks appeared. Set on an isolated island off the coast of South Carolina, the novel portrays a group of people who, through various amateurish methods, try to discover the identity of the murderer they know to be in their midst. Bellamann makes appropriately spooky use of semi-tropical scenery and local legends. Except for a few esoteric speculations on the psychological profile of a potential murderer, The Gray Man Walks is indistinguishable from most formula mystery novels. (Reviews)
Commonplace and melodramatic as it sounds, Kings Row is the story of a young man who grows up to be a psychiatrist in a small mid-western town at the turn of the century. The novel is, in every sense, a record of growth -- not only of the town and the young man, but of an ideal of an ordered life. The hero, Parris Mitchell, is, as his name suggests, something of a hybrid. In the midst of Middle America, Parris is is brought up in a distinctly European environment by a grandmother of French background who had a German husband. Never knowing his dead American father or family, Parris grows to adolescence speaking French and German at home and becoming an excellent classical pianist. Needless to say, he is rather a puzzle to the other children of the town who spend their time in more typical pursuits, such as playing in the train yards. Although he is considered a little odd, Parris, rather than being ostracized, is well enough liked by the other children for his easy-going and kind manner.
As may be expected, that apartness from the other children sets the stage for later adult action. Meanwhile, Parris grows rapidly. He forms fast friendships with two town boys. One, Drake McHugh, is a good-natured and sexually precocious youngster who, like Parris, is an orphan being brought up by wealthy relatives. The other boy, Jamie Wakefield, is a shy, effeminate young man with poetic inclinations whose fumbling homosexual advances make Parris uncomfortable until he grows to understand Jamie's lonelieness. During his fourteenth year, Parris has his first sexual experience with a girl named Renee whose immigrant father beats her upon discovering their activity and then takes her away forever. In this early portion of the book, several other children who will later be important characters come into focus. There is the retarded Benny Singer; Fulmer Green, the town bully; Vera Lichinsky, the violin prodigy; and Randy Monaghan, the pretty, spirited girl literally from the wrong side of the tracks.
Influences other than social are at work on Parris during these important adolescent years. Unknown to Parris, his beloved grandmother becomes terminally ill. In order to assure his academic future in Vienna, where she wishes him to study medicine, Madame von Eln sends him to be tutored by the town's eccentric recluse, Dr. Alexander Q. Tower. While studying with the brilliant Dr. Tower, Parris begins a clandestine affair with the doctor's daughter Cassandra with whom Parris had once gone to school before her father inexplicably withdrew her and kept her home. Soon Madame von Eln dies, and Parris depends a good deal upon the friendship of Drake. Not long after Madame's death, Dr. Tower suddenly murders Cassandra and kills himslef, leaving Parris heir to his estate. Parris reads the doctor's diary and deduces that his respected, if feared, mentor had for some time been having an incestuous relationship with Cassandra. Parris, heartbroken and bewildered by the three deaths, leaves for Vienna.
During his absence, Kings Row experiences a rather deceptive economic boom. As the century turns, the town bustles. Parris' friends grow into adults and begin their careers. Drake begins seeing a lot of Randy Monaghan when Louise, Gordon, daughter of the town's most prominent physician, bows to her parents' unreasonable objections to Drake. Randy, however, is sincerely in love with him. Their brief idyll before disaster is one of the most sensitive and beautiful episodes of the novel. Full of big investment plans, Drake loses all his inheritance to a crooked banker. When he has barely rallied from that incredible setback, he is in a train yard accident and subsequently loses both his legs. Acting out of love rather than pity, Randy marries Drake and tries to give him a hold on life. Parris, almost finished with his psychiatric studies, communicates extensively with Randy and gives her professional advice on how best to help Drake.
Finally returning to Kings Row, Parris finds it and himself very changed: Kings Row appears to him shabbier, and he knows himself to have grown cosmopolitan. He takes a position in the town's insane asylum and spends much of his free time with Randy and Drake. Certain festering problems come to the surface, and Parris, both professionally and personally, is called upon to deal with them. Now a big man, Fulmer Green, who always persecuted Benny Singer, has hounded him right to the gallows. Parris also discovers that Dr. Gordon, who operated on Drake, had a messianic penchant for sadistic surgery. Parris, still a very young man, must find a way of coping with these and other problems.
This bare recital of the plot only answers the question "What happens?" "How?" or "Why it happens?" are not even taken into consideration. In order to answer those two questions, the novel must be approached on another level. Here, other characters who are not involved in the plot proper become important. Father Donovan, the Catholic priest, who practically opens and closes the novel, plays the crucial role of Parris' alter-ego. Father Donovan, the mystic, ministers to souls; Parris, the rationalist, ministers to minds. Yet both apprehend the same philosophic design. Herr Berdorff, the clergyman music master, sets up for Parris the dichotomy of discipline and emotion. Miles Jackson, the newspaper editor, helps Parris to understand the artist's role in society. And Parris' conversations with Dr. Tower, which form the philosophic core of the novel, cover the perplexing problems of knowledge, thought, and responsibility. Each of the characters and episodes in Kings Row contribute to Parris' growing knowledge of how man my locate himself in time and space in order to take control of his own life. (Reviews)
Floods of Spring
Floods of Spring is interesting in terms of Bellamann's career. With this novel, he returns to the subject matter of his first book -- Pennsylvania Dutch farm families in Missouri. the main character, Peter Kettring, is an educated amn from Philadelphia who marries a farmer's daughter and moves to Missouri. Peter adopts the ways of the Pennsylvania Dutch with a tenacity and rigor unequaled even by them. following a compulsion that is never explaned, Peter will have nothing to do with anything he ever learned from books and even refuses to allow his son to further his education when the boy expresses a desire to write. Although Floods of Spring, a long novel, contains some intriguing strands of plot, more than one reviewer confessed puzzlement over the character of Peter Kettring. Almost gothic in his isolation, Peter never quite becomes a believable character because he is so cold-blooded that he rarely reveals anything about himself. The meaning of the novel remains unclear and troubling. One has the distinct feeling that the author has tried to say something through Peter Kettring, but vital clues to his character are missing.
Victoria Grandolet is an even more puzzling novel than Floods of Spring. Originally titled White Cloud, the name of the house in which it takes place, Victoria Grandolet is best described as a gothic romance. Victoria, a New England girl of unknown origin, marries into a Southern family and becomes chatelaine of a plantation in the steamy Louisiana bayou. Again, as in Floods of Spring, the reader is bewildered by the characters. Why does the Grandolet family act so mysteriously, and why is Victoria herself so difficult and moody? These questions remain unanswered through the course of the novel. Most reviewers noted that although Bellamann spectacularly evokes the spooky mansion and bayou settings, he appears to have done so at the expense of characterization and plot.