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Too Much Virtue–Mitchell’s Hugh Wynne

S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914)I am telling myself now that unless I have exceptionally good reason to change my mind, I will read no more of the novels of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. The present topic, Hugh Wynne: Free Quaker, has been lurking on my Kindle for over a year. After hearing it referred to somewhere as a book worth reading, I decided to push through it. Like the American Revolution, which provides the book’s backdrop, it seemed at times as if it would never end.

An anonymous reviewer in an 1897 issue of The Atlantic, provided some favorable (I think) remarks.

It purports to be the memoirs of its chief character, written many years after the events he describes, and the sense of old age is admirably conveyed. Even in descriptions of the thick of the mêlée at Germantown, or of the charge over the redoubts at Yorktown, one is conscious of the flow of the tranquil pen of the narrator rather than of the waving sword of the actor. It is much as if the old Quaker virus, temporarily neutralized by the hot blood of youth, were once more in the ascendant; and though we have endless incidents, duels, battles, captures, escapes, plots, and counterplots, there is never the sense of excitement, scarcely of suspense, that such a succession of incidents presupposes.

Unlike in Mitchell’s Francois, a novel of the French Revolution, there can be very little suspense here. The historical events, at least for an American reader, are too familiar and the protagonist too close to the center of those events for us to doubt their outcome. Events that could have provided suspense or at least adventure, such as the crossing of the Delaware, young Mr. Wynne narrates second-hand. In The Red City, a later work, Mitchell again places his character into an improbably central position, but the events detailed are far enough from the center of American history that we can find them intriguing. The French-revolution refugee protagonist of The Red City is a character remarkably like Hugh Wynne. Both young men come from wealthy, “well-bred,” families but who have come to America as the result of winds blowing against their ideology. Both young men are absurdly perfect, only flawed (mildly) by the rashness of youth. That rashness, however, is only exercised in the defense of absolute honor. These guys could be knights of the round table and make Lancelot blush.

In the end, I have no doubt that Hugh will get involved with the army (since a subtitle of the book is “Sometime Brevet Lieutenant Colonel), that the Americans will win the war, that Major Andre will be executed, that Hugh’s redcoat cousin will turn out to be a scoundrel, and that Hugh will get the rather bloodless girl. If there is suspense, it is whether the Wynnes will reclaim their ancestral home in Wales. As the book concludes we discover that Hugh feels the same way that I do: he doesn’t care about the estate.

Dr. Mitchell, much vilified for his “rest cure,” which Charlotte Perkins Gilman attacked in “The Yellow Wall-paper,” was undoubtedly a better doctor than a novelist. His reputation in both areas has diminished considerably over the past century. His contributions to medicine deserve better; his writing abilities mostly deserve to be shelved.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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