The Leatherwood God – William Dean Howells
‘The Leatherwood God’ is a veritable history , for it tells the truth and more than the truth . It satisfies the reader’ s demand for facts and it fulfills his cravings for fantasy. It convinces us that the novelist is the true historian and the real biographer, and that such a novelist as Mr. Howells, whether or not he wear the aggressive label of realist, will be considered a leading authority upon the American life of which he writes. He has written many novels during his long literary career, he has described and recorded many aspects of humanity in many parts of the world, but when he returns to his native Ohio he writes a story that is the very essence of his theory of life and a very perfect example of his theory of the novel. ‘The Leatherwood God’ is history made alive in fiction.
The Leatherwood God.
Excerpt from the text:
A storm of the afternoon before had cleared the mid-August air. The early sun was hot, but the wind had carried away the sultry mists, and infused fresh life into the day. Where Matthew Braile sat smoking his corncob pipe in the covered porchway between the rooms of his double-log cabin he insensibly shared the common exhilaration, and waited comfortably for the breakfast of bacon and coffee which his wife was getting within. As he smoked on he inhaled with the odors from her cooking the dense rich smell of the ripening corn that stirred in the morning breeze on three sides of the cabin, and the fumes of the yellow tobacco which he had grown, and cured, and was now burning. His serenity was a somewhat hawklike repose, but the light that came into his narrowed eyes was of rather amused liking, as a man on a claybank horse rode up before the cabin in the space where alone it was not hidden by the ranks of the tall corn. The man sat astride a sack with a grist of corn in one end balanced by a large stone in the other, and he made as if he were going on to the mill without stopping; but he yielded apparently to a temptation from within, since none had come from without. “Whoa!” he shouted at the claybank, which the slightest whisper would have stayed; and then he called to the old man on the porch, “Fine mornun’, Squire!”
Braile took out his pipe, and spat over the edge of the porch, before he called back, “Won’t you light and have some breakfast?”
“Well, no, thank you, Squire,” the man said, and at the same time he roused the claybank from an instant repose, and pushed her to the cabin steps. “I’m just on my way down to Brother Hingston’s mill, and I reckon Sally don’t want me to have any breakfast till I bring back the meal for her to git it with; anyway that’s what she said when I left.” Braile answered nothing, and the rider of the claybank added, with a certain uneasiness as if for the effect of what he was going to say, “I was up putty late last night, and I reckon I overslep’,” he parleyed. Then, as Braile remained silent, he went on briskly, “I was wonderin’ if you hearn about the curious doun’s last night at the camp-meetun’.”
Braile, said, without ceasing to smoke, “You’re the first one I’ve seen this morning, except my wife. She wasn’t at the camp-meeting.” His aquiline profile, which met close at the lips from the loss of his teeth, compressed itself further in leaving the whole burden of the affair to the man on the claybank, and his narrowed eyes were a line of mocking under the thick gray brows that stuck out like feathers above them.
“Well, sir, it was great doun’s,” the other said, wincing a little under the old man’s indifference. Braile relented so far as to ask, “Who was at the bellows?”
The other answered with a certain inward deprecation of the grin that spread over his face, and the responsive levity of his phrase, “There was a change of hands, but the one that kep’ the fire goun’ the hardes’ and the hottes’ was Elder Grove.”
Braile made “Hoonck!” in the scornful guttural which no English spelling can represent.
“Yes, sir,” the man on the claybank went on, carried forward by his own interest, but helpless to deny himself the guilty pleasure of falling in with Braile’s humor, “he had ’em goun’ lively, about midnight, now I tell you: whoopun’ and yellun’, and rippun’ and stavun’, and fallun’ down with the jerks, and pullun’ and haulun’ at the sinners, to git ’em up to the mourners’ bench, and hurrahun’ over ’em, as fast as they was knocked down and drug out. I never seen the beat of it in all my born days.”
“You don’t make out anything very strange, Abel Reverdy,” Braile said, putting his pipe back into his mouth and beginning to smoke it again into a lost activity.
“Well, I hain’t come to it yit,” Reverdy apologized. “I reckon there never was a bigger meetun’ in Leatherwood Bottom, anywhere. Folks there from twenty mile round, just slathers; I reckon there was a thousand if there was one.”
“Hoonch!” Braile would not trouble to take out his pipe in making the sound now; the smoke got into his lungs, and he coughed.
Reverdy gained courage to go on, but he went on in the same strain, whether in spite of himself or not. “There was as many as four exhorters keepun’ her up at once to diff’rent tunes, and prayun’ and singun’ everywhere, so you couldn’t hear yourself think. Every exhorter had a mourners’ bench in front of him, and I counted as many as eighty mourners on ’em at one time. The most of ’em was settun’ under Elder Grove, and he was poundun’ the kingdom into ’em good and strong. When the Spirit took him he roared so that he had the Hounds just flaxed out; you couldn’t ketch a yelp from ’em.”
“Many Hounds?” Braile asked, in a sort of cold sympathy with the riotous outlaws known to the religious by that name.
“Mought been ‘fore I got there. But by that time I reckon they was most of ’em on the mourners’ benches. They ought to tar and feather some of them fellers, or ride ’em on a rail anyway, comun’ round, and makun’ trouble on the edge of camp-meetun’s. I didn’t hear but one toot from their horns, last night, and either because the elder had shamed ’em back into the shadder of the woods, or brought ’em forwards into the light, there wasn’t a Hound, not to call a Hound, anywheres. I tell you it was a sight, Squire; you ought to ‘a’ been there yourself.” Reverdy grinned at his notion. “They had eight camp-fires goun’ instead o’ four, on top of the highest stageun’s yit, so the whole place was lit up as bright as day; and when the elder stopped short and sudden, and the other exhorters held back their tommyhawks, and all the saints and sinners left off their groanun’ and jerkun’ to see what was comun’, now it was a great sight, I tell you, Squire. The elder he put up his hand and says he, ‘Let us pray!’ and the blaze from all them stageun’s seemed to turn itself right onto him, and the smoke and the leaves hung like a big red cloud over him, and everybody had their eyes fastened tight on his face, like they couldn’t turn ’em anywhere else if they tried. But he didn’t begin prayun’ straight off. He seemed to stop, and then says he, ‘What shall we pray for?’ and just then there came a kind of a snort, and a big voice shouted out, ‘Salvation!’ and then there come another snort,—’Hooff!’—like there was a scared horse got loose right in there among the people; and some of ’em jumped up from their seats, and tumbled over the benches, and some of ’em bounced off, and fell into fits, and the women screeched and fainted, thick as flies. It give me about the worst feelun’ I ever had in my life: went through me like a ax, and others said the same; some of ’em said it was like beun’ scared in the dark, or more like when you think you’re just goun’ to die.”
Abel Reverdy stopped for the effect on Braile, who had been smoking tranquilly throughout, and who now asked quietly, “And what was it?”
“What was it? A man! A stranger that nobody seen before, and nobody suspicioned was there till they hearn him give that kind of snort, and they seen him standun’ right in front of the mourners’ bench under Elder Grove’s pulpit. He was in his bare head, and he had a suit of long, glossy, jet-black hair hengun down back of his ears clean to his shoulders. He was kind of pale like, and sad-lookun’, and he had a Roman nose some like yourn, and eyes like two coals, just black fire, kind of. He was putty thickset, round the shoulders, but he slimmed down towards his legs, and he stood about six feet high. But the thing of it,” Reverdy urged, seeing that Braile remained outwardly unmoved, “was the way he was dressed. I s’pose the rest beun’ all in brown jeans, and linsey woolsey, made us notice it more. He was dressed in the slickest kind of black broadcloth, with a long frock-coat, and a white cravat. He had on a ruffled shirt, and a tall beaver hat, the color of the fur, and a pair of these here high boots, with his breeches strapped down under ’em.”
Braile limbered himself from his splint-bottom chair, and came forward to the edge of the porch, as if to be sure of spitting quite under the claybank’s body. Not until he had folded himself down into his seat again and tilted it back did he ask, “Goin’ to order a suit?”
“Oh, well!” said Reverdy, with a mingling of disappointed hope, hurt vanity, and involuntary pleasure.
If he had been deeply moved by the incident which he had tried to make Braile see with his own sense of its impressiveness, it could not have been wholly with the hope of impressing Braile that he had stopped to tell it. His notion might have been that Braile would ridicule it, and so help him throw off the lingering hold which it had upon him. His pain and his pleasure both came from Braile’s leaving the incident alone and turning the ridicule upon him. That was cruel, and yet funny, Reverdy had inwardly to own, as it touched the remoteness from a full suit of black broadcloth represented by his hickory shirt and his butternut trousers held up by a single suspender passing over his shoulder and fastened before and behind with wooden pegs. His straw hat, which he had braided himself, and his wife had sewed into shape the summer before, was ragged round the brim, and a tuft of his yellow hair escaped through a break in the crown. It was as far from a tall hat of fur-colored beaver as his bare feet were from a pair of high boots such as the stranger at the camp-meeting had worn, though his ankles were richly shaded in three colors from the road, the field, and the barnyard. He liked the joke so well that the hurt of it could hardly keep him from laughing as he thumped his mare’s ribs with his naked heels and bade her get up.
She fetched a deep sigh, but she did not move.
“Better light,” Braile said; “you wouldn’t get that corn ground in time for breakfast, now.”
“I reckon,” Reverdy said aloud, but to himself, rather than Braile, and with his mind on his wife in the log cabin where he had left her in high rebellion which she promised him nothing but a bag of cornmeal could reduce, “she don’t need to wait for me, exactly. She could grate herself some o’ the new corn, and she’s got some bacon, anyway.”
“Better light,” Braile said again.
The sound of frying which had risen above their voices within had ceased, and after a few quick movements of feet over the puncheon floor, with some clicking of knives and dishes, the feet came to the door opening on the porch and a handsome elderly woman looked out.
She was neatly dressed in a home-woven linsey-woolsey gown, with a blue check apron reaching to its hem in front, and a white cloth passed round her neck and crossed over her breast; she had a cap on her iron gray hair.
Braile did not visibly note her presence in saying, “The woman will want to hear about it.”
“Hear about what?” his wife asked, and then she said to Reverdy, “Good morning, Abel. Won’t you light and have breakfast with us? It’s just ready. I reckon Sally will excuse you.”
“Well, she will if you say so, Mrs. Braile.” Reverdy made one action of throwing his leg over the claybank’s back to the ground, and slipping the bridle over the smooth peg left from the limb of the young tree-trunk which formed one of the posts of the porch. “My!” he said, as he followed his hostess indoors, “you do have things nice. I never come here without wantun’ to have my old shanty whitewashed inside like yourn is, and the logs plastered outside; the mud and moss of that chinkun’ and daubun’ keeps fallun’ out, and lettun’ all the kinds of weather there is in on us, and Sally she’s at me about it, too; she’s wuss’n I am, if anything. I reckon if she had her say we’d have a two-room cabin, too, and a loft over both parts, like you have, Mis’ Braile, or a frame house, even. But I don’t believe anybody but you could keep this floor so clean. Them knots in the puncheons just shine! And that chimbly-piece with that plaster of Paris Samuel prayin’ in it; well, if Sally’s as’t me for a Samuel once I reckon she has a hundred times; and that clock! It’s a pictur’.” He looked about the interior as he took the seat offered him at the table, and praised the details of the furnishing with a reference to the effect of each at home. In this he satisfied that obscure fealty of the husband who feels that such a connection of the absent wife with some actual experience of his is equivalent to their joint presence. It was not so much to praise Mrs. Braile’s belongings to her as to propitiate the idea of Mrs. Reverdy that he continued his flatteries. In the meantime Braile, who came in behind him, stood easing himself from one foot to the other, with an ironical eye slanted at Reverdy from under his shaggy brows; he dropped his head now, and began walking up and down the room while he listened in a sort of sarcastic patience.