Sunday, July 08, 2018

Cass Timberlane (1945)

Sinclair Lewis's "novel of husbands and wives" is evidently considered minor in Lewis's canon. Wikipedia never discusses it in the article about him, only listing it with his works. I love it more than anything else I know by Lewis, though I can see it has more flaws than some of his celebrated work (Main Street and maybe Babbitt, though not the dreadful Elmer Gantry). The values and much of the detail in Cass Timberlane are dated, as is the case with most books older than 70 years. But the dynamics between lovers in relationships are drawn with clarity and an astute skepticism that comes of experience. Lewis probably started on it in earnest around the time of his second divorce in 1942. It is often bittersweet and melancholy. The main narrative involves Cass Timberlane, a judge in the fictional medium-sized town of Grand Republic, Minnesota, a prairie town that most resembles Duluth (though it is more inland and explicitly distinguished from Duluth). Timberlane is young for a judge, in his early 40s, and a red-blooded Midwestern white man of a certain type—loves to hunt and fish, etc. He falls for a young woman more than 15 years his junior, Ginny. They go around the mulberry bush, marry after about a year, and then the problems start. As a device obviously inspired by John Dos Passos, Cass Timberlane also includes recurring portraits of Grand Republic citizens under the title An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives. They are often great stand-alone pieces, acutely observed scenes of marriage and its give and take within many different couples. The novel is remarkably candid, especially the troubles between Cass and Ginny. They have a stillborn baby. Ginny is flirtatious, and attracted to other men. She is also diabetic, of all things. The sexual politics are mostly the conservative post-/pre-feminism that prevailed in the '40s. In most ways women are understood to have the disadvantage of men, but they have some ways to compensate. Something about this novel also reminds me of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce, which is similarly focused on one person, but in relationship with a specific other in a domestic context. Interestingly, the marketing copy on my 1974 mass market paperback of Cass Timberlane is at pains to sell it as weirdly brawny and he-manly: "The towering classic of a man's passions," it says. "He was a man's man with a reputation as big and solid as his name." But let's not kid ourselves. This is a classic woman's story, and that's exactly what I like about it so much. Essential, really.

In case it's not at the library.

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