Barrett Wendell. Rankell's Remains. 3.3 (December, 1886): 124-125.




[Harvard Monthly 3.3 (December, 1886), 24] 


RANKELL'S REMAINS. Barrett Wendell. Boston: Ticknor & Co. 


In Rankell’s Remains, Mr. Wendell treats an interesting theme in an interesting way. He discards the prolix chronicler’s method of telling a story and gives us, besides a chapter of general introduction containing the writer’s own observation of his hero, a series of six panel-pictures illustrative of the career and Karma of one Rankell, a Yankee Napoleon.


Rankell is Napoleonic in his utter selfishness, in his total disregard of means, in his steadfastness of purpose, in his self-possession. Money is the aim of our Yankee Napoleon; and not only does he get it, but with it he wins a place in the community, and power, which he uses to get more money, of course. A wonderful character is Rankell’s. We are not nauseated with him as we are with the villains of ordinary novels. Indeed, we almost wish the author had refrained from telling us at the very start that he thinks Rankell was an incarnation of all that is evil. Rankell is not conscious of wrong. We are not surprised to learn that he is a religious man with a sabbatical side to his nature,—a dog throughout the week, a prince on the Sabbath, as Heine would have called him. Early in life the heart of the yet struggling tradesman was touched, nobly touched, and it apparently never forgets the touch. But Rankell never hesitates to ruin those who come in his way, as he ruined the Wybornes and the Lottimers. He does it so impersonally, however, bears so little malice, that we can hardly find more fault with him than we do with the destructive forces of nature.


Each of the panel-pictures is a little story by itself. There is a fresh interest in each. We are not wearied and worn with a long tale in which the interesting and wholly necessary parts of the story dwell as the creatures do in the sponge. We begin each episode of Mr. Wendell’s book as we should a new story, with the thorough fait, however, that it is all going to bear upon Rankell ultimately. We can not too warmly praise Mr. Wendell for this almost newly discovered method. Each additional episode is like a ring about and concentric with the others. And when we have read them all, we realize how much we have learned of Rankell at how little cost.


The most striking episodes—if episodes be the right word—are The Lottimers and The Convention. The latter is truly a wonderful piece of work, strong in conception, living in description, and saturated with subtle [125] and exquisite humor. Curiously, the episode that vices the title to the book, Rankell’s Remains is not only the weakest, but one we cannot forgive. It shocks us and without purpose. The possible plea that the fate of Rankell’s remains is a touch of the finger of justice,—a mechanical justice at best,—seems to us quite insufficient. To be justified, such an episode should be edifying in its ultimate effect upon us. That it is not.


Unlike in substance and form as Mr. Wendell’s Duchess Emilia and Rankell’s Remains are, no critic, surely, would hesitate to say that they have so much in common that their common authorship might thereby be proven, were it necessary. What is that common principle? It is the timbre, the soul of a book, without which a book is as a body without a soul. Just what it is in Mr. Wendell’s stories it is hard to say as yet. But it is something, in part, which tells us that Mr. Wendell is living in an age that has discarded both Heaven and Hell, that has no quick, throbbing interests, that has no great refusals to make. We are busy, interested in something, we think. Yes, we are. We are busy running after the ensign that Dante saw swept about the confines of Hell. We are interested in defending ourselves from the stings of the wasps and hornets that are goading us on after that vainly circling ensign. Humanity is the same that it ever was, says Mr. Wendell. Well, it is the same Charles River Bay at low tide that it is at high tide. But how beautiful it is at flood, and how wearisomely indifferent at ebb tide!