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In a remarkably open and interesting essay about his life and his work, written for CONTEMPORARY: AUTOBIOGRAPHY SERIES (Volume 11, 1990, pp. 171187), Madison Jones said of this book, his second published novel: “FOREST OF THE NIGHT would turn out to be, I believe, the least successful of my novels. Yet I sometimes feel that it could have been my best.” He goes on to say that the last third of the novel suffers from his own impatience, that its last part is, as a result, hurried and not fully realized. He is entitled to that judgment. He wrote the story and he alone knew and knows now what he hoped to achieve with FOREST OF THE NIGHT. But, by the same token, the sympathetic reader is entitled to deal with the experience at hand, what the book in fact is, not what it might have been. If that reader happens to be, as I am, a teacher of literature and a novelist, himself, he may feel, as I do, that the author’s judgment of the work is too severe and finally not strictly relevant to the reader’s experience.

It is entirely in character and appropriate that Madison Jones should demand more from the story than he feels he created and presented. On the other hand, the engaged reader might well argue that the novel, public property as it has been since 1960, requires a quickly moving narrative line for its final act, some change and even relief from the tightly focused intensity of the first two-thirds. And a reader, this one, would have to report that there is no novel, even among the acknowledged masterpieces of the canon, that does not at some point reward the reader and his involved impatience with a more rapid working out of the established premises and promises. Otherwise there would never be an end to any of them. And — and I suspect Madison Jones knows this well — if a serious and gifted writer were ever able to achieve in any one work the perfect model of what he has imagined, there would be no good reason to create another. What we learn from the experience of writing a novel is how we should have done it in the first place. If the novel is, in Jones’s terms, “successful” (by which he clearly means not the success of sales or even of critical appreciation, but purely and simply, aesthetic satisfaction), it is because the writer has managed, by craft and art, to camouflage overt and inherent flaws and to disguise the undeniable truth that this is only one way among many possible ways that a given story can be viewed and told. We aim always for the sense of inevitability with the neatness of a balanced equation, yet we always know that there is a kind of trickery or magic, smoke and mirrors, involved — the successful novel only seems inevitable. That is the most that we can ever hope for, though, of course, we begin and begin again and again, always hoping for something more.

All of which adds up to the desperate wisdom of the Wizard of Oz when Judy Garland and the others discover his duplicity: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

As for the other more mundane ways of measuring success, FOREST OF THE NIGHT seems not to have sold a great many copies, at least not enough to give Madison Jones the one thing most writers hope for, the gift of more time and freedom to get on with their work. It was not reviewed as widely or as well as his first novel, THE INNOCENT, which had earned respectful attention, including a highly favorable notice in Time (“South in Ferment,” February 25, 1957). FOREST OF THE NIGHT was by no means ignored, but did not earn as much national space or as unmixed praise as his first novel had. Kirkus praised the immediacy and authenticity of the story while complaining about the “brutality” of it. Library Journal, perhaps more influential then than now, wasn’t very helpful, inaccurately describing the book as “a portrayal of small town drudgery,” and faulting the writing for “a style full of introspective platitudes,” concluding in final judgment that it was “a waste of reading time.” FOREST OF THE NIGHT earned a positive, if mixed, notice in the Herald Tribune Book Review, complaining that the book was “too dark.”

This kind of thing, though it may hurt the writer’s feelings, is chiefly important in another way. Publishers tend to take the initial reviews more seriously than larger and longer views. The chief concern of the publisher is the “shelf life” of the book at hand. In 1960 the shelf life of a novel, other than a bestseller, was about four months. Now it is more like four weeks. Madison Jones’s relationships with publishers are typical enough to be emblematic of most of the serious — or, to use the more recent term, “literary” writers of our generation. With the notable exception of a mere handful of American writers — John Updike is an example — most of our novelists have moved restlessly from publisher to publisher according to the critical and commercial success of their books. I count seven different publishers for the works of Madison Jones, four of them from among the major commercial publishing houses of the times — Harcourt, Viking, Crown, and Doubleday. The truth is, that is a fairly stable record for our era. My own record is probably more typical: sixteen different publishers, five of them large commercial houses. In his autobiographical essay for Contemporary Authors, Jones shows himself to have been cheerfully innocent at the outset of some of the problems and details of modern publishing. He earned only three rejections of The Innocent before Harcourt Brace accepted it and those rejections troubled him more than they might have if he had known the publishing histories of many of his contemporaries.

More important to the writer, at least before mergers and conglomerates took over American commercial publishing, was serious critical attention conferred by literary critics of reputation and integrity. Their criticism could make (or break) careers. Their essay-reviews and critical pieces, if any, come on the scene too late, usually, to have any direct effect on sales and journalistic reviews. The major literary reviews and quarterlies appear months, sometimes years after a given book had come and gone. With the support of his mentors and admirers, people like Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle (to whom FOREST OF THE NIGHT is dedicated), Walter Sullivan, and Monroe Spears, and friends like Flannery O’Connor, Madison Jones received a good deal of respectful critical praise. Two books in particular led to considerable encouraging attention. AN EXILE (1967), which became a film, I WALK THE LINE, with Gregory Peck, and A CRY OF ABSENCE (1971), which earned a prominent place on The New York Times Book Review’s bestseller list. Perhaps most important and helpful was “A New Classic,” by Monroe Spears (Sewanee Review, Volume 80, number 1, Winter 1972, pp. 168172) in which Spears celebrated A CRY OF ABSENCE as “an authentic, pure, and deeply moving tragedy,” and praised the novel as “a major work of art.”

Partly because of the well-earned attention given to A CRY OF ABSENCE, the earlier and less conventionally successful FOREST OF THE NIGHT has subsequently received less critical attention than it might have. Ashley Brown’s piece in the special edition of The Chattahoochee Review (Volume 17, number 1, Fall 1996), “Experience in the West: Madison Jones’s Immersion in History,” is an outstanding and valuable exception, as is M. E. Bradford’s earlier “Madison Jones” in The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., 1985. Bradford wrote of FOREST OF THE NIGHT: “There is no more powerful expose of the myth of the New Eden in our literature.” Not long after the original publication, critic Arthur Mizener, in a chronicle review, “Some Kinds of Modern Novel,” of eight recent historical novels for The Sewanee Review (Volume 69, number 1, Winter 1961, pp. 154164), praised FOREST OF THE NIGHT as the best of the lot, though he somewhat undercut the praise with extended comments on the limits and faults of the historical novel as a form. Ashley Brown’s important piece places FOREST OF THE NIGHT in a Southern literary context: “Lytle and his contemporaries almost inevitably wrote novels about the history that was accessible to them. . . . But the next generation, that included Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor, then Elizabeth Spencer, were seldom interested in the historical subject, and Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy (a late-comer to fiction) shunned it on principle. This is largely true of Madison Jones; the exception among his books is Forest of the Night. . . .” (Bear in mind that Brown’s essay appeared before NASHVILLE 1864 was published.)

The conventionally correct, and probably the most fruitful way to talk about Forest of the Night is to deal with it, both in general and in detail, within the context of all his work so far. Certainly, as critics and reviewers early and late have noted, there are close connections in all his work, more intensely so than is the case with many of his contemporaries. In an essay published in SOUTHERN FICTION TODAY: RENASCENCE AND BEYOND (1969) edited by George Core (“The New Faustus: The Southern Renascence and the Joycean Aesthetic,” pp. 115), Walter Sullivan, dealing specifically with AN EXILE, writes: “The novel is clear, and the book like all of Jones’s work is full of bucolic imagery, of sequences flagrantly calculated to show the evil of urbanization and the questionable nature of material progress.” Thus Sullivan assumes, and it proves to be a safe and useful assumption, that there are both thematic and technical kinships in all of Jones’s books. It is an observation made by an anonymous critic for the Virginia Quarterly Review (Volume 44, Number 1, Winter 1968, p. viii) likewise commenting on An Exile and its relation to the other stories: “Not many present-day writers are able to evoke an atmosphere of terror so overwhelming nor to conjure so artfully a sense of anxiety and dread.” Others have noted the similarity, with variations, of his protagonists to each other. And there is some value in comparing and contrasting Jonathan Cannon of Forest of the Night with Duncan Welsh of The Innocent, Percy Youngblood of A BURIED LAND, Hank Tawes of AN EXILE, Hester Glenn of A CRY OF ABSENCE, Jud Rivers of PASSAGE THROUGH GEHENNA, etc. Though they are each distinctly different, and aptly representative of their particular times, they have in common, whether they realize it or not, the wound of Original Sin. Madison Jones has been unflinchingly explicit about this. “Adam ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and was cast out forever, and we all share his condition. Evil is a prime fact in our existence: we may be forgiven for it but we cannot escape it.” (CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS). Speaking of Percy Youngblood in A BURIED LAND, he points out the pattern that links him to other protagonists: “Here my hero, in flight from a world he finds intolerable, like Duncan and Jonathan before him, commits himself to a different world where imagined redemption lies. But what awaits him is not redemption. No worldly rejection can separate us from the evils that are ours.” The allusion is to the passage (on the reverse side of the theological coin) of St. Paul in the eighth chapter of Romans: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Jones tells us in Forest of the Night that he set out to write “a terrible ballad or legend,” “a controlled nightmare,” “a story about the making of a Harpe.” It was originally to be a story of the Harpe brothers, savage and brutal outlaws of Tennessee and the Natchez Trace in frontier days. But the story of the Harpes, told directly, was limited by being too well known. So instead, though the Harpes do, indeed, appear in person and in character, he wrote of a young man of high hopes and Jeffersonian ideals and of admirable character who, bit by bit, slowly and surely, and in spite of all his better angels, becomes a kind of Harpe, himself: who is, in fact, taken by others to be one of the Harpes. And in the feverish nightmare of the final part of the story, he comes to suspect that this is somehow true. Here is what Madison Jones had to say about the essential weakness of his central character in FOREST OF THE NIGHT: “My hero, Jonathan Cannon, is a young idealist with Rousseauesque ideas (ideas that entered importantly into the thinking of makers of our constitution) about the goodness of man in the state of nature, and evil as mere negation created by the dead hand of the past.” Jonathan’s initiation comes in the opening scene when he tries to comfort and help a terribly wounded and dying Indian who uses the last of his vital energy and strength to try to kill Jonathan. Jonathan has come west into the wilderness, coming from Virginia in the year 1802 in the hope of being a schoolmaster in Nashville or one of the settlements. As he tells Judith Gray, who will become the woman in his life: “Someday there’ll be schools for everybody — free. That’s what President Jefferson wants.... Did you ever think what a difference it would make if there were schools for everybody, rich and poor? I don’t believe most people dream how much good it would do.” Badly wounded by the dying Indian at the outset of his story, Jonathan imagines his father’s voice explaining what has just happened: “He was blind with pain and in his blindness blamed you because you are a white man. You see how blindness inspired the act. Or, rather, delusion, nothing. It was an act without any real cause.... Because the blame lies with everybody and nobody. Whom would he have attacked? He could have done it only in blindness. And who can blame a blind man for not seeing? To understand is to excuse. Not to excuse him would be to keep the evil alive.”

Evil turns out to be alive and well in Tennessee in 1802 and awakes in the heart and soul of Jonathan Cannon whose enlightened views are tossed aside as he is inexorably reduced to a kind of brutal and loveless savagery. It is a dark story set in a dark world. It is, in Ashley Brown’s words, “suffused with death.” But, even so, through it all there is an older man, Eli, friend to Jonathan, an exemplary man of courage, honor, and simple purity of character who sees what is worthwhile about Jonathan and who manages, several crucial times, to save him from others and himself. Finally asked why and what for by Jonathan, Eli allows: “Like I owed it to you to learn you something.” Jonathan answers: “You couldn’t have taught me anything... And it’s too late now.” To which Eli says, “Maybe it ain’t . . . for you. It’ll get to where you can live with it if you keep on living. But just don’t never forget it.” Not exactly a conventional happy ending, then, but also not without some solace. Life is at least possible “if you keep on living.”

Synopsis — and the best I have seen is in Ashley Brown’s essay — does not begin to do justice to the power and subtlety of the story line, a well-made, virtuoso narrative rich and full with incident, urgent suspense, and complex, fully dimensional characters. Similarly a more abstract approach, focusing tightly on the basic themes and ideas that are dramatized in and by the narrative, tends to be schematic at the expense of the experience. Like all art, the novel has to be taken, first of all, as a sensory affective experience. It has to be felt before it can be considered analytically. The problem for the writer (and the reader) is compounded when the work is historical and set back in time far enough to be at least somewhat alien to the reader’s experience. The writer cannot allude to or easily summon up an alien and vanished world. It must be created by credible and authentic concrete details, by vivid sensory engagement. Here Madison Jones’s acute sensitivity to nature, not the sentimental pastoral of the urban dilettante, but hardscrabble knowledge of a working farmer, joined with an awareness of the mystery and implacable indifference of nature to our comings and goings, all our doings, pays off handsomely. From beginning to end of this story, the vast wilderness, touched hardly at all by the lonely farms and the few rude settlements that pass for civilization, broods over the action of the story. It filters through the leaves of tall trees and pays out shapes and shares of light and shadow. Most of the story comes to us through the perceptions and consciousness of Jonathan. But it is not entirely a third-person, limited point of view. Rather it is omniscient and the first consciousness that we encounter is that of a bear “standing in shaggy, brutish immobility,” not so much a symbol of the wilderness as the creature of it:

Then he stood upright. To a human eye the action might have suggested mockery; or else some secret power of metamorphosis in brute nature. The bear’s posture revealed his age, the scars and slick, black patches of hide, the breast of an old warrior. Standing so, he seemed the type of the great passionate sire, begetting and murdering his kind throughout all the wilderness. Now his head, tilted a little upward, swung to left and right in deliberate inquiry. It stopped. He was all attention to something beyond the reach of human ears. With dignity he dropped onto four feet again. He angled across the road at a casual, lumbering walk. Before an opening between two trunks he paused and looked back down the road.

Who sees the bear? Only the invisible narrator and the reader, not even Jonathan who is coming down the road breaking the silence. Much later in the story he is clawed by a bear that might as well be the same one.

There are other abrupt switches of point of view, here and there, as needed; and at the tag end of the book, as Ell and Jonathan wait for some Indians to ferry them and their horses across a river, it is the Indians, like the bear of the beginning, who are the observers: “They waited close to the water’s edge. As the boat slipped in toward the bank, the Indians stopped their poling. They stood upright, without motion now, and fixed upon the two white men the brooding gaze of the wilderness.”

During a considerable part of the story Jonathan suffers from a nameless fever and thus his perceptions are (long before “magic realism” came to North American attention) distorted and hallucinatory. At times he hears voices. So did the author, who writes in his autobiographical essay — “There are times in the woods when unexplained voices call to you.” The triumph of Forest of the Night is that the author has managed to translate those voices for us into a living language and to create a compelling, vividly realized story that questions some of our most cherished and comfortable assumptions.

Madison Jones has continued writing fiction, a series of important and influential books, all of them aesthetically successful, several successful in more mundane terms. The question that inevitably arises among readers, if not often from veteran professional writers, is how has he done so much so well and yet not (yet) been appropriately recognized and rewarded. It is a question too complex to be easily answered. But a few things can be said. Like others among our finest literary writers, he has become the victim of new trends and the economics of commercial publishing. There has also been a critical change, a movement away from interest in and appreciation of the South and its writers. Once again, as in the years from 1865 at least until the turn of that century, Southern writing is respectable in literary circles only insofar as it confirms presuppositions devoutly maintained by others. Since there is no way to deny the achievement of the earlier generation, the generation of Faulkner and the Fugitives and others, it is easier to write off the generations that have followed after. After FOREST OF THE NIGHT came the decade of the 1960s, which witnessed the transformation of everything, from high art to soda pop, into political statement. Which witnessed new threats to literature from all sides, from death by theory to the contagion of functional illiteracy. Which witnessed a radical change in American values and the rapidly spreading fungus, on a global level, of a vulgar popular culture that celebrates and hugely rewards rock stars, rap singers, slam dunkers and honors celebrity for its own sake. Reviewing (Southerner) Tom Wolfe’s HOOKING UP in The New York Times Book Review (5 November 2000, p. 6), Maureen Dowd points out the obvious — that his satire cannot keep up with American reality: “By the time we got to the Molière bedroom farce of Clinton and Lewinsky, America had grown so wacky and gossipy and shameless and solipsistic and materialistic, satire was simply redundant.” It is as if the very wilderness that Jones created in FOREST OF THE NIGHT, having vanished, has reappeared as inward and spiritual in an urban setting.

If so, then where is the place in all our culture for the serious and gifted writer who dedicates his life and art to the exploration of serious issues? There is, of course, no answer. Except for the fact that good work has been done and continues to be done and is waiting to be found.

Madison Jones is the author of ten novels: The Innocent, Forest of the Night, A Buried Land, An Exile, Season of the Strangler, To the Winds, A Cry of Absence, Nashville 1864: The Dying of the Light, Passage Through Gehenna, Last Things. A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, he has won the T.S. Eliot Award. See also “Madison Jones .

George Garrett is the author of books of poetry, essays, short stories, and novels, including DEATH OF THE FOX; ENTERED FROM THE SUN; THE SUCCESSION; DO, LORD, REMEMBER ME; THE KING OF BABYLON SHALL NOT COME AGAINST YOU ; WHISTLING IN THE DARK, et alia. He is Henry Hoynes Professor of Creative Writing, Emeritus, at the University of Virginia, and has been Chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He spoke to the Editor of Archipelago about publishing in Vol. 3, No. 2.


©2003 George Garrett.

From SOUTHERN EXCURSIONS: Views on Southern Letters in My Time
(Louisiana State University Press, April 2003), with permission.

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