The Odyssey of Janna Meade
First published in the Star Weekly Magazine December 3, 1949
The Wind in the Cedars
Happiness Shall Not Escape
Lamplight for the Dark
Shane's Girls also as Happiness is a Gift
Quality Paperback, 440
ISBN 1-55246-008-8 @ $30.00
Introduction by Peter Ruber
Writers of regional literature who rose to prominence during the first half of the 20th century drew upon their local microcosms for creative inspiration. For August Derleth, that microcosm was Sauk City, Wisconsin, the village of his birth, which he immortalized as Sac Prairie in a long series of short stories, novels, poetry and journal books.
Although Sac Prairie is not as well-remembered in the minds of literary historians as Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River, Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, Hamlin Garland's Middle Border or Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, a handful of Derleth's books are worth rediscovery because they are a literary record of a way of life that has long since faded from view. They are snapshots of small-town American before the relentless forward march of time absorbed them into a sprawling suburban wasteland devoid of charm or tradition.
One can only speculate on the reasons why the Sac Prairie Saga never achieved greater critical recognition in its time. Perhaps it was diffused across too many literary boundaries, not focused entirely on fiction, which appears to be the standard benchmark by which critics judge an author's apparent worth in a particular field. Derleth was not the kind of writer who was concerned about his own future immortality; he recognized in the latter years of life that the Sac Prairie Saga had become an anachronism simply because people were no longer able to identify with the roots that were important to their parents. Over time, the Sac Prairie Saga evolved in many literary directions — not just with novels and short stories, but also in 20 volumes of poetry and a half-dozen acclaimed journal books. Sac Prairie also formed the backdrop for a series of mystery books for young readers, popular magazine fiction and even genre fiction.
Perhaps Derleth's fiction was not ground-breaking like Lewis' Main Street, or his poetry as revolutionary and modern as Masters' Spoon River Anthology. But he always wrote from the heart and with a great understanding of human nature that linked the people living in microcosms to the hopes and fears and anxieties of people living everywhere in the greater macrocosm of the world. His was largely a quiet type of fiction where characters act out their lives in a quiet desperation against the surroundings of a village where change occurs so glacially that time appears to stand still.
The Sac Prairie of the latter decades of the 19th century which he described in his dark, brooding novelettes in Place of Hawks and The House of Moonlight (psychological studies of various forms of insanity) is virtually indistinguishable from the stories Derleth set in the opening decades of the 20th century. These character studies contrast sharply with the many humorous tales he told through the eyes of Stephen Grendon and featured such memorable characters as Gus Elker, Joe and Louise Stoll, Doc Grendon, Aunt May, Grandfather Adams, who were composites of family members. Stephen Grendon was of course the fictional alter-ego of Derleth himself.
August Derleth was one of America's more versatile writers. His earliest fiction was published in magazines when he was 16 years of age. Although much of it was horror and mystery fiction for the pulp magazines, he was concurrently developing the first seeds of the Sac Prairie Saga during his early years at the University of Wisconsin. By the time he had graduated, his Sac Prairie stories were appearing in national magazines like Scribner's, Atlantic Monthly, Pagany and Household, and in such highly regarded literary journals and academic publications as Sewanee Review, University of Kansas City Review, Midland and Prairie Schooner.
Derleth eventually succeeded in having some of his best short Sac Prairie fiction preserved in four books — Place of Hawks (1935), Country Growth (1940), Sac Prairie People (1948) and Wisconsin In Their Bones (1961). But much more remained uncollected. Since his death in 1971, two posthumous collections have appeared, Country Matters (1996) and Return to Sac Prairie (1996). Several new collections are in preparation that will include unpublished stories as well.
Some critics have remarked that instead of continuing the tradition of the Sac Prairie Saga, Derleth too often interrupted his work to write popular entertainments and huge fictionalized historical novels of the men who founded and built Wisconsin territory into statehood, as if he were trying to be all things to all readers. What is missing from those statements is a lack of understanding of a writer's real priorities. Derleth had both a strong sense of survival and a desire to write what it pleased him to write — whether it was a poem, a biography or a ghost story.
Derleth wrote a considerable number of Sac Prairie novels between 1939 and 1953 specifically for popular women's magazines like Redbook. He looked upon them as potboilers that paid the bills. None was ever published in book form, though several came close, according to his correspondence with publishers. Many more were never published for various reasons — either they didn't fit an editor's needs at the time or they touched upon taboo subjects, such as older-man-younger-woman relationships. While Derleth's treatment of such themes is tame by today's literary standards, they often crossed too far over the subject line of what magazine editors were willing to publish fifty years ago, even though most book publishers did not concern themselves with rigid codes of self-censorship. This was particularly true of novellas (short novels) like Dacey Stevens and The Draught of March. Written in the early 1950s, these novellas contain intense under-currents of eroticism, but they never lapse into the vulgar.
Derleth did not pursue their book publication because publishers were not interested in novella-length fiction; book buyers wanted bulk. As a publisher himself Derleth understood those dynamics only too well. (He had founded Arkham House in 1939, a specialty-press devoted to horror and ghostly fiction.) Dacey Stevens and The Draught of March are interesting, also, because they are quasi-autobiographical and punctuated with much more fact than fiction. Both will be published in the near future.
Of the four short novels in The Lost Sac Prairie Novels, "The Wind In the Cedars" might be considered the odd card in the deck due to its strong supernatural theme. It has little affinity with the Sac Prairie Saga, except that the story is set in and around Sac Prairie. Ever since the author announced in 100 Books By August Derleth (Arkham House, 1962) that "Cedars" was awaiting publication (he described it as a "supernatural novel"), devotees of Derleth's large body of ghostly writings have been wondering if this novel would ever be published, or whether it would continue to languish unread in library microfilm archives.
"The Wind In the Cedars" was originally published in the January 1946 Redbook as "Happiness Shall Not Escape," a schmaltzy title the editors tacked on to attract the magazine's largely female readership. Derleth did minor rewriting in 1950, restoring some cuts, and also changed the heroine's surname from Ashmore to Ashmun for reasons that are not clear.
The other three, "The Odyssey of Janna Meade," "Shane's Girls" and "Lamplight For the Dark" share a stronger kinship with the main thrust of the Sac Prairie Saga, because in these we meet several minor recurring village characters who are integral to the saga — particularly Renna Glyuk, the bittersweet heroine of Any Day Now, one of Derleth's most popular novellas. Renna Glyuk was the fictionalized name of Meta Meyer, a social butterfly whose family lived in Sauk City at the turn of the 20th century and owned the town's only hotel.
"The Odyssey of Janna Meade" was published in 1949 (December 3, 1949) as a serial in the Toronto Star Weekly. "Lamplight For the Dark" appeared in the January 1941 issue of Redbook, and "Shane's Girls" was originally published as "Happiness Is a Gift" in the February 1948 issue of Redbook. One curious note worth mentioning: all these novellas, with the exception of "Janna Meade," were set in a town called Badger Prairie in their magazine appearances. But street names within the stories, landmarks and the village's location on the banks of the Wisconsin River are all generic to Sac Prairie (or Sauk City). In the original manuscripts, however, the village is rightly named Sac Prairie. Derleth changed the location because he considered these to be very minor commercial writings, and did not wish to invite comparison with the more serious Sac Prairie books he was publishing through Scribner's at the time.
I will agree with Derleth's assessment. None has the depth of Evening In Spring, his most famous novel in the Sac Prairie Saga. My personal favorite is "The Odyssey of Janna Meade" because it strikes closer to the core of the Sac Prairie Saga than the others. It is a quiet tale set during the early days of the Great Depression. Janna Meade gives up college and a promising career to do menial piece work so she can spend time at home caring for her crippled sister Nina, who wastes her life wallowing in self-pity. Janna is the sole support of the household; her father, an unambitious, lazy man, contributes little, and drinks too much.
Secretly, Janna is in love with Kit Mason, a well-to-do young man who is the manager of a local factory owned by his family. She has known Kit most of her life; and though Kit is engaged to Elaine Foster, daughter of a locally prominent family, he greatly admires Janna's fortitude and ability, her devotion to family and her selflessness. With the company's chief bookkeeper about to retire, Kit begs Janna to take over his job. She avoids making a commitment until her long estranged Uncle Ed unexpectedly moves in. He convinces Janna to accept the job, telling her it was time to pursue her own ambitions in life and to let her dysfunctional family fend for themselves. Janna's life begins to change when Uncle Ed dies and secretly leaves her his small estate. She uses that inheritance to become a female Horatio Alger, and changes the future for all of Sac Prairie. Only Derleth's understanding of human nature and his dramatic skills for developing interesting characters, keep this story from sliding into maudlin sentimentality.
Leigh Ashmun, in "The Wind In the Cedars," shares many of Janna's qualities of self-determination and the ability to survive under adverse conditions she cannot control — in this case the ghost of her husband John's first wife. Memories of his former life with Louise haunt him because he feels responsible for her accidental drowning. To help her husband purge himself of his self-inflicted demons, Leigh stages a dramatic event that could end her own life.
Many of Derleth's heroines were strong-willed women, even the indomitable Great-aunt Lou in the humorous Gus Elker tales. That ran contrary to the strong sexist attitudes of the times. Derleth's admiration for women of principle was clearly revealed in his affectionate 1940 biography of fellow Wisconsin writer Zona Gale, one of the early outspoken advocates for Women's Rights, whom he knew briefly during her last years, and whose stories about Friendship Village (Portage, Wisconsin) indirectly influenced the development of the Sac Prairie Saga.
Derleth's male protagonists are often quite the opposite. Filled with self-doubt and insecurity, they are easily manipulated into the wrong relationships, like Shane Freemore, in "Shane's Girls". All through high school, Shane is seldom separated from the vivacious Alix Parquan and the more reflective Caroline Webbeston, known throughout Sac Prairie as "Shane's Girls". When school ends, and their lives transition into adulthood, Shane realizes he must finally make a choice. The story opens with the climactic scene in which Shane explains to Caroline why he plans to marry Alix — a choice he will later regret. Caroline moves to Chicago. Here she reunites with former Sac Prairie alumnus Renna Glyuk, who helps her to launch a successful business career. In this novel there is one Derleth's favorite themes: that you can't escape either your past or your roots, and that you have to return home in order to renew your life.
"Lamplight For the Dark," another tale of unrequited love, doesn't quite come off as well as the others, in my opinions, even though the writing and the atmosphere the author weaves is often very intense. Composer Paul Hallam discovers too late that he loves Marsala. By then, Marsala has married successful businessman Randy Linley and they have a son Jeff, now ten years old. Marsala's marriage has soured. Her husband has frequent affairs and regards both his wife and son as possessions. Paul and Marsala meet unexpectedly in a Madison department store during the Christmas shopping season and come to realize how empty their lives have become.
The text for these stories was taken directly from the original manuscripts. The Lost Sac Prairie Novels is the first of several new collections devoted to resurrecting some of the minor published and unpublished novels in the Sac Prairie Saga. They may not be the best work August Derleth was capable of producing, but I have enjoyed rereading them over the years and hope that others will, too.
— Peter Ruber
1 May 2000
Oakdale, New York