Saturday, December 10, 2016

Cass Timberlane by Sinclair Lewis

This is one of Lewis’s last novels, written in 1945, and is very much about marriage and whether it can survive in that modern age. The frontispiece offers the subtitle: “A Novel of Husbands and Wives,” and it certainly is that, the narrative flow interrupted frequently by short vignettes about married couples, their foibles, and their fates in Lewis’s small, fictional town of Grand Republic, Minnesota.

At the beginning of our history, the Drovers had been married for thirteen years. They had two sons, William Mayo and John Erdmann Drover, aged eleven and nine. Lillian was devoted to them, often looked at them sadly, as though they were doomed. She begged them to listen while she read aloud from Kenneth Grahame and her own girlhood copy of “The Birds’ Christmas Carol,” but the boys protested, “Aw, can that old-fashioned junk, Mum. Pop says it’s panty-waist. Read us the funnies in the paper, Mum.”

Like their father, the boys enjoyed killing things--killing snakes, frogs, ducks, rats, sparrows, feeble old neighborhood cats.

When Roy and the boys were away, she stayed alone in a shuttered room, in a house that rustled with hate, in a silence that screamed, alone with a sullen cook and a defiant maid. She did not read much, but she did read that all women are “emancipated” and can rapidly become “economically independent.” She was glad to learn that.

Roy and Lillian were often cited by Diantha Marl as “one of the happiest couples, the most successful marriages, in Grand Republic; just as affectionate as the Zagos, but not so showy about it.”

Some of these marriages work and some don’t, some of them are happy and some aren’t, but they all, like the one just featured, seem to struggle with perpetuating the appearances of an older age while the opportunities inherent in a newer one continually encroached. The role of women was changing in this newer age, but not everyone--men and women alike--understood what that meant, so their perceptions and expectations regarding married love hadn’t yet changed.

If the world of the twentieth century, he vowed, cannot succeed in this one thing, married love, then it has committed suicide, all but the last moan, and whether Germany and France can live as neighbors is insignificant compared with whether Johann and Maria or Jean and Marie can live as lovers. He knew that with each decade such serenity was more difficult, with Careers for Women opening equally on freedom and on a complex weariness. But whether women worked in the kitchen or in the machine-shop, married love must be a shelter, or the world would freeze, out in the bleak free prairies of irresponsible love-making.

This is about as clearly as Lewis ever states his narrative question, relying instead--in fact, writing an entire novel--on manifesting this tension in the personalities and interactions of his two primary test subjects.

Cass Timberlane:

He was a young judge: the Honorable Cass Timberlane, of the Twenty-Second Judicial District, State of Minnesota. He was forty-one, and in his first year on the bench, after a term in Congress. He was a serious judge, a man of learning, a believer in the majesty of the law, and he looked like a tall Red Indian. But he was wishing that he were out bass-fishing, or at home, reading Walden or asleep on a cool leather couch.

And Virginia “Jinny” Marshland:

The new witness was a half-tamed hawk of a girl, twenty-three or -four, not tall, smiling, lively of eye. The light edged gently the clarity of her cheeks, but there was something daring in her delicate Roman nose, her fierce black hair. Her gray suit indicated prosperity, which in Grand Republic was respectability.

This is how they are first presented to us, and they will be Lewis’s experiment. In the course of the novel they will meet, fall in love, and marry. But can their marriage last? Last in a world with so many changing expectations about the roles of husbands and wives?

And all around them, both in the vignettes and in their closest friends and relations, cautionary tales abound, dark thickets where the path of married love becomes hopelessly turned and twisted until one just sits down and makes a kind of peace with a foreboding feeling of loss and hopelessness.

She said to Cass, in effect, “I want to live in New York and get to know all the intellectuals. But what is a woman who is still good-looking at thirty-six but not beautiful enough to make a career of it, clever enough to know she wouldn’t be clever on any job, aware, through reading, of all the glamor and luxuries of life but with no money for them and no rich relatives to murder, active and yet contemptuous of amateur charities and artistic trifling and exhibitionistic sports, untrained in anything worth fifteen dollars a week on the labor market and not even, after years of marriage, a competent cook or nurse, no longer in love with her husband and bored by everything he does--and he always does it!--and yet unwilling to have the thrill of being vengeful toward him or of hurting him intentionally, liking other men but not lecherous nor fond of taking risks, possessing a successful daughter and too interested in her to desert her--just what is this typical upper-middle-middle-class American Wife to do?

This is Cass’s sister Rose, and her ennui is the ennui of all American wives, all American wives of a certain class and of the time Lewis is writing of.

In this world, Cass is enlightened and good intentioned. He wants to give Jinny whatever she wants, but even his thinking is constrained by the traditions of old.

“Look, Jin. If this were some critical war job, or if it were going to lead to a blazing career for you, I’d be glad. I’d merely be wondering how I could help. I know that more and more millions of women will have to earn their livings now, and I’m all for having every occupation--especially law and medicine--open to them completely. But is it any part of this theological doctrine of the economic independence of women--this rare new doctrine that only goes back to the Egyptian priestesses--that women have to have independent jobs, even if it cracks up the men they love--or at least the men that love them?”

And Jinny, alas, dazzled by all the things and opportunities now within her reach, suffers because she has not been conditioned to think of them as things she can either covet or be entitled to.

What did Jinny want? Security, scenery, power, the ability to recognize a quotation from Steinbeck, a ruby-and-diamond bracelet, a sense of self-discipline, the love of a tangible God, a red canoe with yellow cushions, an unblemished skin, venison with sauce Cumberland, many children, a seventy-five-dollar hat from New York, a request to speak on a nation-wide hook-up, dawn beside Walden Pond, the certainty of her husband’s affection, or an Irish wolfhound? He did not know, and she was not quite certain.

In this environment of expanding opportunities and calcified social stigmas and expectations, it is not surprising that Cass and Jinny’s relationship, their marriage, and their ability to communicate with each other, experience nearly fatal blows.

It was difficult for each of them to guess the other’s momentary moods. They ought to be labeled, for warning. He ought to put on the sign, “Stern jurist--be careful” or “Playboy--willing to dance”; she should bear the direction “Wistful little girl” or “Termagant--dangerous” or “Sensitive artist who has been drawing in secret but expects her husband to be so discerning as to guess it and congratulate her.” Then each of them would know how to start off the evening, and have nothing to quarrel about--except each other’s friends, which will be a troublesome topic even among the angels in Heaven, where spirit will say crossly to spirit, “Who was that awful harp-player I saw you flying with last eon?”

All of it told in this light and jesty and surprisingly modern tone, making both the prose a delight to read and the search for a resolution for these characters--and for us all--a refreshingly pressing concern.

There were many springboards for quarrels: he liked the windows open, she shriveled in the cold; he liked pork chops, she like chow mein; he had been too jocular with Diantha Marl, she too chilly with Judge Flaaten; he wanted to stay home, she wanted to go to the movies--so they went to the movies. And there he dared to consider himself a cinema critic and sniffed at her beloved swing musicians capering as would-be actors. But of them all, there was only one cause: they did not know what they wanted.

When they do separate, when Jinny leaves Cass for the baubles she thinks are her dream of a new birthright, Cass is emotionally shattered, not understanding how such a thing could have happened.

Cass’s defeat, he believed, came neither from the intentional malice of men nor from the conscious irony of the gods. It merely happened, like a storm, from causes that could be traced clearly enough but still did not make sense. Human beings, who could crush the atom and talk round the world, still could make no more illuminating comment upon the collapse of solid-seeming love than the ancient wailing, “Why--why--why?”

And Jinny, for her sake, seeking her freedom from the oppressiveness perpetrated not so much by Cass himself as the historical and cultural position he has assumed as her husband, knows not what to do with her freedom once it is acquired. A revealing diagnosis of Jinny’s essential struggle comes later in the novel from Cass’s grown niece Valerie, who has joined the Woman’s Army Corps, and who counsels her uncle not to take Jinny back.

“Now I’m in the Army, I got to thinking, and I thought: People keep saying there’s a new world coming, and women’s position will change entirely. Well, it’s come, and it has changed! But there’s still ten million dolls like Aunt Jinny, that haven’t got guts enough to hold down a job or enough patience to study, and they think that modernity for women is simply being free to skip around with any men they like, and get all the jewelry and embroidered linens.”

It’s a wonderfully thought-provoking book, Cass and Jinny struggling, as many other characters and readers seemingly do, to understand their own sources of inner happiness, and how disconnected they inevitably are from the social constructions that have been built prior to their arrival. Despite its consistently jovial tone, and despite the rom-com framework that has Cass and Jinny marry, separate, and then come together again in the end, what I take to be Lewis’s own dark and pessimistic prescription for our own chances to achieve such an outcome comes through loud and clear.

You cannot heal the problems of any one marriage until you heal the problems of an entire civilization founded upon suspicion and superstition; and you cannot heal the problems of a civilization thus founded until it realizes its own barbaric nature, and realizes that what it thought was brave was only cruel, what it thought was holy was only meanness, and what it thought Success was merely the paper helmet of a clown more nimble than his fellows, scrambling for a peanut in the dust of an ignoble circus.

Married love may survive, Lewis seems to say, but only if we can build for it a more noble society.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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