There is a genius which casts its net broadly, harvesting paratactically the multiplicities of human knowledge and experience. This is the genius of James Joyce, of T.S. Eliot, and of Ezra Pound. There is a genius which casts its net deeply, harvesting the subliminal profundities of the individual human psyche. This is the genius of Virginia Woolf, of D.H. Lawrence, and of William Faulkner. But there is also the genius which casts its net, like the sea-watchers of Robert Frost's poem, "neither far out nor deep;" a genius which clings obstinately to the surface of the local and parochial, harvesting the mundanities of that which is Here, and that which is Now. This is the genius of F.O. Dolor. This is the genius of Harvest of Dearth.
It must be admitted that F.O. Dolor's genius has not always travelled well. F.R. Leavis, the famously trenchant English literary critic, described F.O. Dolor's 1947 novel, Bitter Wheat, as "the most boring and stupid book I have ever read." F.R. Leavis' judgement, usually so intensely on target, was in this instance wide of the mark; but his unwarranted aspersions did much to shroud F.O. Dolor in an obscurity he so evidently does not deserve, and from which he is only now beginning to emerge. Mr. Leavis' critical lapse in judgement stands as a warning to all of us who preside over the literary arts, a reminder that we must exercise our awesome powers with discretion and judgement, lest we should do harm where we mean only good.
The fact of the matter is that F.R. Leavis, with his broad-ranging, urbane and cultivated sensibility, was simply not equipped to appreciate the parochial profundity of a writer so radically Canadian as F.O. Dolor. F. O. Dolor is not, as Mr. Leavis believed, boring and stupid. He is Boring and Stupid.
The difference is not simply a matter of capitalization; it is a matter of aesthetic ontology, of the fit between style and subject, topic and trope. F.R. Leavis, his vision limited by the brilliance of the literary world around him, could find no place in his psyche to accommodate the Boring and Stupid. F.O. Dolor, drudging through his days as a bank loans officer in muddy little Mugwump, Manitoba, encountered those things as his daily reality; and, like all true geniuses, he took that reality into himself: he became Boring and Stupid, and in the process he transformed himself and his reality into something new, something more, something transcendentally Boring and Stupid. In Bitter Wheat, Harvest of Dearth, and Alien Corn he confronts us with all that is Boring and Stupid in the Canadian psyche itself; and, through the moral authority and integrity of his vision, he compels us to confront it, to accept it, and, ultimately, to despair of ever escaping it. No other writer has plumbed so deeply into the shallowness of the Canadian experience. No other writer, for all the controversy surrounding his name and nationality, is so quintessentially Canadian.
But to say this, though it is deeply true, is also to dull, somewhat, the full lustre of Dolor's accomplishment. Because F.O. Dolor goes beyond being merely Boring and Stupid. He is also Really Symbolic. This, too, has been held against him by readers unfamiliar with the literary genre of which he is now the acknowledged master. Some readers have complained that his symbolism is egregiously heavy-handed, and often confused or inapposite. But such readers fail to make the requisite distinction between Symbolism and Real Symbolism. Symbolism, to be effective, must operate quietly, discreetly, by suggestion. It is an urbane art, an art of the city. Real Symbolism has the brutal, over-mastering obviousness of a Prairie blizzard. You ignore it at your peril. You must weather it out or perish. Much of the power of F.O. Dolor's novels lies in the intransigent obviousness of his symbols. He disdains insinuation. He bludgeons us into knowledge.
It is sad, really, to think of how long a writer so obvious and so obviously destined for greatness had to wait for proper understanding and acknowledgment. Consider this brief, chronically wrong-headed 1948 review of Harvest of Dearth in the Toronto Globe and Mail:
Mr. Dolor's second novel is replete with all the maudlin morbidity of his first [Bitter Wheat, 1947]. His characters are impossibly lachrymose and perverse; his plot is sordid, squalid and confused. His prose has the maddeningly repetitive irregularity of a malfunctioning metronome. He aspires to the metaphysical, but subsides into the jejune. In short, this novel would offend the sensibilities of even the most self-indulgent manic depressive.
Needless to say, no such review of any Canadian writer would be published today. We have come a long way in establishing the importance, quality and sanctity of Canadian writing. But F.O. Dolor laboured in the dog-days of Canadian culture, when the communications industry was still either hostile or indifferent to the work of home-bred writers, and slavishly sycophantic to all things foreign--including the critical judgements of writers like F.R. Leavis, whose dismissiveness echoes behind this Globe and Mail review.
Is Harvest of Dearth morbid, perverse, squalid and confused? The short answer is, Yes. The long answer is that it is morbid, perverse, squalid and confused because the Prairie experience is morbid, perverse, squalid and confused. In kicking against the pricks of Dolor's vision, the Globe and Mail reviewer was really only kicking against the pricks of Canadian reality.
Does F.O. Dolor's prose style have "the maddeningly repetitive irregularity of a malfunctioning metronome?" The short answer, again, is Yes. The long answer, as I laboured to make clear in my 1973 Master's Thesis, Minimal Adequacies: Style and Meaning in the Novels of F.O. Dolor (since published by the University of Oakiedokie Press), is that Dolor's repetitiveness is only one weapon in his stylistic arsenal. It is the most immediately noticeable quality of his prose, of course, but not necessarily the most important. He is also a master of what I can only call the Prairie Purple style, a stark, controlled lyricism that ascends, sometimes, to a kind of self-negating sublimity. Consider this passage, from Alien Corn:
The crimson light burnished the golden sheaves of wheat. It burnished Ruth's golden hair, as she stood, silent, thoughtless, weeping, in the field. The wheat stirred gently, discontinently, in the subtle breeze. Her hair too, stirred gently, discontinently, rustled by the same wind. She was one with the wheat. She, too, was a sheaf of wheat, stirred to suffering by the Prairie wind. She felt a sudden swelling of sad peace within her, and she looked about her, almost calmly, almost contentedly, wondering at the crimson glow in the wheat, since the sun had already subsided over the horizon. But there was light. Even in this darkness, there was this dim, crimson light. What was its source? She began to turn in a slow, full circle, seeking out the source of that mysterious, unaccountable light. It was when she looked behind her that she saw that the field was in flames, and that a wall of fire was about to consume her, like a sheaf of wheat. It was then that she realized, with a shock of sorrow and relief, that she was not one with the wheat, not a fruit of this field. She realized she was not rooted to the land; and she realized also that that was a good thing, because it meant she could make a run, now, for the barn.
This passage comes as close to being a locus classicus of the Dolorian style as anything he ever wrote. Ruth, weeping amidst the "alien corn" of Septic Marsh, Saskatchewan, is a mordantly obvious allusion to Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and, by extension, to the Biblical Book of Ruth, which serves as stridently visible backdrop against which the plot of the novel enacts itself. Even the Dolorian neologism, "discontinently," though it is probably just a lexical slip, like so many of his other neologisms, is in this case redolent with ambiguous significance. A portmanteau conflation of "incontinent" and "discontent," it harmonizes with the theme of joyless fornication that rustles like a hidden sewer pipe throughout the work.
But most Dolorian of all, of course, is that sudden deflation in style and subject at the end of the paragraph. His prose, like his characters, moves always toward a lyric inclusiveness, only to collapse into the sordid particular. Pope called this effect Bathos, the art of sinking. But in Dolor, bathos is transformed from a comic device into a trope worthy of Greek tragedy.
Of a piece with this movement between exultation and bathos is the Dolorian Renounced Simile, of which there are several famous examples in Harvest of Dearth. I will leave the reader to find and treasure these for himself.