James Lane Allen: Contribution as American Novelist

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      James Lane Allen was born in 1849 near Lexington, in the rich blue-grass section of Kentucky. He did not leave the state until he was twenty-two, so that his education both at school and college was received in Kentucky, and all his early and most impressionable years were passed amid Kentucky scenes. Many of these years were spent on a farm, where his faculty for observing was used to good advantage. As he grew older, he took his share in the farm work and labored in the fields of hemp, corn, and wheat, which he describes in his works. He graduated from Transylvania College, Lexington, and taught for several years, but after 1884 devoted himself to writing.

James Lane Allen Literary Contribution as American Novelist
James Lane Allen

      In 1891, Allen published Flute and Violin and Other Kentucky Tales and Romances. For artistic completeness, Allen wrote nothing superior to the story in this collection, entitled, King Solomon of Kentucky, a tale of an idle vagabond who proved capable of a heroism from which many heroes might have flinched. All of the stories are romantic and pathetic. The Kentucky Cardinal (1894) and Aftermath (1895) are poetic idyls, whose scenes are practically confined within one small Kentucky garden, where the strawberries grow, the cardinal sings, and the maiden watches across the fence her lover at his weeding. The compass of the garden is not too small to embody the very spirit of out-of-doors, which is continuously present in these two delightful stories.

      From the human point of view, The Choir Invisible (1897) is Allen's strongest book. John Gray, Mrs. Falconer, and Amy are convincingly alive. No better proof of the vital interest they arouse is needed than the impatience felt by the reader at John's mistaken act of chivalry, which causes the bitterest sorrow to him and Mrs. Falconer. Allen's later works, The Reign of Law (1900), The Mettle of the Pasture (1903), The Bride of the Mistletoe (1909), lose in charm and grace what they gain as studies of moral problems. The hardness and incompleteness of outline of the character portrayals and the grimness of spirit in the telling of the tales make these novels uninviting after the luxuriance of the earlier books.

      The setting is an important part of Allen's stories. He describes with the graphic touch of a true nature lover the witchery of Kentucky's fallow meadows, the beauty of her hempfields, the joys of a June day. A noisy conflict could not occur in the restful garden of The Kentucky Cardinal, while in the frontier garden of Mrs. Falconer, in The Choir Invisible, the ambitious, fiery John Gray seems not out of harmony because the presence of the adjacent wild forest affects the entire scene. In one way or another, the landscapes, by preparing the reader for the moods of the characters, play a part in all of Allen's novels. He is a master of the art that holds together scenes and actions. His descriptive powers are unusual, and his style is highly wrought. It is more that of the literary essayist than of the simple narrator, and it is full of poetic touches, delicate suggestions, and refined art.

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