Some books are easy to love. Norwood isn’t one of them. A work of fiction that even its admirers pointed out is “not … a novel, but a pastoral,” a description of village life in New England which reviewers agreed “caricatures rather than characterizes Life in New England,” a spiritual excursion which some readers felt contains “cheap appeals to theological prejudices” would seem to have few attractions for readers. Add a layer of racism and some scenes of dubious sentimentality, and modern readers will find much to shun. Even in 1868, one reviewer asserted that “to read through a novel so very long, so apparently interminable, and so amazingly dull as we are reluctantly constrained to consider Norwood to be, is a real triumph of endurance.”
Yet, at the time it was published, Norwood was a sensation. This was due partly to the sheer brazenness of Robert Bonner’s offer to pay his friend, Henry Ward Beecher, $24,000 to write the novel for the sensationalistic New York Ledger. But it was due mostly to Beecher himself, a charismatic and divisive minister and brother of literary sensation Harriet Beecher Stowe. Debby Applegate’s biography of Beecher is titled The Most Famous Man in America, and he seems to have been just that, for reasons noble and ignoble.
Bonner’s skills at hyping and readers’ curiosity about Beecher’s novel-making apparently combined to make Norwood a must-read. Which led to it also becoming a must-parody: Gnaw-Wood; or, New England Life in a Village, by “Henry W. B. Cher” (NY: National News Co., 1868). And a must-dramatize: from the last parts of the novel, Augustin Daly extracted enough dialog for a four-act play. “A legend of ‘Norwood’, or, Village Life in New England: an original dramatic comedy of American life, in four acts: founded on a novel by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher” (NY: Augustin Daly, 1867) is a descriptive title; Daly weaves Beecher’s dialog into new scenes, several of which end in melodramatic tableaux. (The play is online at archive.org.) This dramatization seems to have provided scandal, with religious figures irate at the thought of a minister providing material for the sin-filled theater.
After the build-up, Norwood may have been a let-down. It’s long (549 pages) and not exactly filled with incident. The build-up to the Civil War provides some interest, and the opening salvo on Fort Sumter is a vivid scene. There are interesting details of Civil-War life: thorough descriptions of the aprons worn by the women nursing wounded soldiers (page 439), thorough description of the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Abraham Lincoln has a cameo; Beecher describes his “broad country accent, his voice somewhat drawling and shrill.” (page 445) Beecher explores what it was presumed would happen after the Southern states seceded (page 190) and gives an interesting description of the Battle of Gettysburg in terms of the economic systems of the two sides.
But there is a lot to skip. Pete Sawmill and the other African-American characters are stereotypes, one character so ignorant that he cannot even recognize another human being (pages 511-512); Pete is compared to various animals. Beecher had little sense of how to set up a scene. As one character’s lover lies unconscious, Beecher whisks her off on a long and thorough tour of an ideal Quaker farm. And just what is the long—and presumably humorous—scene of Pete’s signing a temperance pledge doing in the morning of a wedding that takes place days later?
New England stereotypes abound: the rough and kindly and shrewd countryman, the brisk and efficient and practical countrywoman. In the field hospitals, wounded Confederate soldiers cry out while Union soldiers lie silent, stoically fighting their pain. There are awkward romances. One is stereotypical melodrama built around unrequited love, complete with tragedy. The other depends on a lost letter to manufacture drama. The two who marry are idols of perfection; the two who don’t are a little more interesting.
What Beecher’s characters do best is talk. A lot. In paragraphs—really long ones. They talk about everything: Ruskin, greenhouses, philosophy, whether to wear black while grieving. There is a surprisingly long discussion of what kind of wood makes the best switches for beating school students (page 214+). As reviewers pointed out, many of the characters parrot Beecher, himself. But he adds his own speeches: the beliefs of the Society of Friends, more philosophy, a description of a notorious rocking chair. And those who love landscape have here a treat, as Beecher appears to describe every single inch of New England in every permutation of season and weather.
Norwood appears not to have been a publishing triumph. There seem to have been few editions of the book: the first in 1868, another in 1887, another in 1895. The third (NY: Fords, Howard, and Hulbert, 1895; available at archive.org and hathitrust.org) reprints a note from Beecher and an optimistic introduction declaring that the novel was “as good” twenty years later. “As good” is just general enough to be a compliment to the book or a criticism. Perhaps it’s both.
The 1895 introduction is transcribed here:
On January 3, 1866, in response to inquiries from Mr. Bonner as to the progress he was making with the writing of his novel, Mr. Beecher sent him this note:
My Dear Mr. Bonner: I know that you have a good right to know something of the story of which you kindly inquire, and will give you some insight into matters.
I could have written a sketchy and superficial story with perhaps a few weeks’s effort. But the more I reflected the less I liked to do so. The very liberal terms which you proposed to me seemed to me to merit, not merely a story, but, if I could, one that would be as good twenty years hence as on the day it appeared. To do this it was not enough that I should have leisure, but that I should get my mind out of the run of public questions in which I have been so deeply concerned, and trained to a very different line of thought.
I propose to make a story which shall turn, not so much on outward action (though I hope to have enough to carry the story handsomely) as on certain mental or inward questions. I propose to delineate a high and noble man, trained to New England theology, but brought to excessive distress by speculations and new views. This I feel quite competent to manage.
The heroine is to be large of soul, a child of nature, and, although a Christian, yet in childlike sympathy with the truths of God in the natural world, instead of books.
These two, the man of philosophy and theology and the woman of nature and simple truth, are to act upon each other and she is to triumph.
I propose introducing a full company of various New England characters, to give a real view of the inside of a New England
town, its brewing thought, its inventiveness, its industry and enterprise, its education and shrewdness and tact. I purpose to introduce a Southerner of a rather noble type and show him off, faults and virtues, on this background of New England, and I may transfer the story in its close to the seat of war and introduce one of its campaigns. But it may so grow on my hands that I shall leave that for a separate effort. I am convinced that I have been wise in waiting, and that I shall be far more likely to succeed than I should have done if I had plunged at once into the matter, without study and meditation.
As to time, I do not see that I can promise with any confidence to give you MS. before May next. But by that time I hope to be so well assured of my work as to be willing to have the story begun, and also to have it so far advanced that you can be able to judge of its merit before beginning to print.
I am not neglecting you because I seem quiet, I assure you, and I hope to make haste much faster by-and-by for waiting hitherto.
I am like a painter commissioned to execute a large picture, whose room is full of studies and sketches, and his big canvas is sketched out and ready—all done but the painting.
The story was published in 1867, and Mr. Beecher was right; Norwood is “as good” to-day “as on the day it appeared.”
New York, March, 1887.
[NY: Fords, Howard, and Hulbert, 1895; pp. iii-iv.]
The transcription at merrycoz.org is from the first edition. The advertising pages at the end of the book are provided as images. Norwood is available as an ebook.