Josiah Royce. The Feud of Oakfield Creek. 4.2 (April, 1887): 78-79.




[Harvard Monthly 4.2 (April, 1887), 78]


THE FEUD OF OAKFIELD CREEK. [By] Josiah Royce. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.


Despite an uncouthness of minor detail throughout, and a wearying slowness in the first few pages that makes it hard to begin Mr. Royce’s novel, it is one that carries the reader along with interest, when he once has started.


The Feud of Oakfield Creek is the story of a struggle between the pioneer millionaire, Alonzo Eldon, and the settlers on his land at Oakfield Creek, about the price that the settlers finally should pay Eldon for his land. The feud would have been settled easily were it not that a certain Alf Escott, also a pioneer, but a literary man, the former friend of Eldon, and the savior of his life, having become estranged from him for certain reasons, especially because his, Alf’s, daughter had met her death through the careless betrayal of her by Eldon’s son Tom, took up the cause of the settlers. The struggle went on for several years. All were weary of it. All were too proud to yield. Meanwhile mischance upon mischance had befallen Alf Escott. He becomes reduced almost to want. The evolution of the story comes from the effort that Tom, Escott’s former disciple, makes to help him in the only possible way; that is by settling the feud, and giving to Escott the valid right of the property he owned at Oakfield Creek.


Great fault may be found with the telling of the story. It is prolix, unnecessarily long, and full of repetitions. A flagrant instance is the case of Bertha Boscowitz, to whose story Mr. Royce devotes the greater part of a chapter after telling us long before, in a very dramatic way, all that we finally learn of Bertha. But on the whole Mr. Royce is at his best as a narrator. The dramatic moments in the story, in the third and fourteenth chapters are presented most forcibly, so forcibly and with such success that we wonder if Mr. Royce by the cultivation of his talent might not develop into an eminent playwright.


Mr. Royce is at his weakest when he is least dramatic, when he attempts what ought to be an incisive analysis of the more subtle of his characters. Margaret Eldon is a wonderful creature, and the Russian novelists, or Mr. Henry James would not have left it to the dramatic moments for us to find it out. Tom is a mere shadow. We are told that he was “clever,” “charming,” and affable. We do not believe it for a moment. I doubt whether [79] Mr. Royce, were he a painter, could have painted Tom’s portrait. Indeed, Mr. Royce never quite succeeds in giving us a complete picture, so complete that we see them, even of his most living characters, the Boscowitzes, and Escott. Tom, Margaret and to some extent Harold could not have presented themselves to Mr. Royce’s imagination as characters that he would depict, but rather as problems to be solved. Mr. Royce, therefore, has the faults, and the virtues of Mr. Holmes, whose principal characters in his novels are also weak and shadowy, while his less important figures are full of life. But Mr. Royce’s imagination is much greater, although never long sustained, for it is at its height in the dreams he narrates, and in the several flashes at the inner life of little Alonzo.


The general impression that Mr. Royce’s novel produces upon us of being there is very vivid, immeasuredly more so than the impression produced by Mr. Holmes’ novels, and therein is the great merit of The Feud of Oakfield Creek.


There is a deal of newness, and some humor, once or twice almost of an esoteric kind, in this book. The touchstone of a writer’s freshness of impression is his use of similes. Let me cite one of Mr. Royce’s: “A ‘New Constitution’ would help or hurt it [California] about as much as a new hat would alter a lunatic’s brain.” I already have said that Mr. Royce’s story comes to us cast by no means in its only possible mould. Of the slighter faults of the book we can not but express our surprise. Why did not Mr. Royce get some friend to read his book before it went to print, and to tell him that “now soon,” “now already,” “then already,” is not English; that the use of apt in “was apt soon to be” is most uncouth; that “and even almost timid” is hardly smooth; and that the use of wealthier in the expression “life is so much wealthier” is intolerable? A most wearying thing, also, is the constant use of but as a limiting adverb.


The newest thing in the book, perhaps, is the great part that very slight misunderstandings play in it; and for that, although Mr. Royce has not made as much of it as he might have, we can not commend him too highly.