Welcome to the Archive of The Carrboro Citizen Logo Image

Anderson’s gallivant across America

By By Erica Eisdorfer

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I think there’s a tendency for some readers to dismiss the whole genre of the historical novel. My paranoia may sprout from an experience I had about 20 years ago in Sweden. I was reading Kristen Lavransdatter, the saga-ized life of a 14th-century Norwegian girl, by Sigrid Undset. “Oh,” a cool Swedish guy said to me, “why are you reading that? It’s for old ladies!” I was too abashed to point out that the author had won the Nobel Prize, pretty much for that book alone. But maybe that was his point.

Was he intimating that having won a major literary award all but proved the book’s stodginess? No, he wasn’t thinking that hard about it. Instead, he knew that the book took place in the great Past and thus wasn’t part of his experience, and was thus irrelevant.

While I admit that it’s almost hard to find a bodice-buster that’s not set in merrie old England, it irritates the heck out of me when an otherwise good reader’s mind closes to the possibilities presented by what came before. Do not, you snooty reader, do not, for example, miss Heyday, Kurt Andersen’s exuberant gallivant across the United States of the 1840s. And if it’s what’s new that you crave, well, here it all is, and fast.

Telegraphs are new and fast, as are trains, and photography. The Gold Rush took place over a couple of weeks. The pony express came … and then it went. Immigrants pour off the ships and are taken into New York’s grand embrace as quickly as you could learn to say “hello” in English. This book is such a breathless ride that you’ll feel the wind in your hair the whole time you’re reading it.

Ben Knowles is young, British, rich and in love with words like Monongahela and Mississippi. He heads west. In New York, he falls in with Timothy Skaggs, daguerrist, and Duff Lucking, pyromaniac, and in love with Polly Lucking, actress. As the book unfolds, so does the young country: the Mexican-American war, the Mormons’ search for a home of their own, the nighttime machinations of the Underground Railroad, new astronomical inventions. Also, celebrities: young Whitman, ambitious Lincoln, scatological Darwin—even the last living Great Auk makes its own appearance in this novel.

The truth is that things change and the faster they change, the faster they change.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Sometimes the changes are welcome. Any way you look at it, it pushes your mind outside of its box.  Polly, the only lady in San Francisco, figures on her fingers what she could make if she’d turn just a trick or two per day. Ben lectures on French socialism and rebels against his father’s business: the sale of guano and sometimes, slaves. Timothy Skaggs dreams of photographing the rings of Venus. Duff tattoos his skin to hide a secret and falls in with the Indians. Could those characters have had that courage, those ideas, taken those risks without the push of the tide of the new nation as it grew west? But did it happen too fast?

For some of them, it did. The speed of change blew the Indians right off the map. And slaveholders. Wealthy Southerners could sit on their verandas and feel that change a’coming. For others, the speed of progress was just right. When you’re starving in Ireland, there’s no time like the present to emigrate to the new world. Or to be liberated from slavery. Or find a chunk of gold the size of a baseball.

Andersen writes as if he’s leaving out every other line, the perfect style for a book paced at the speed of light. Heyday is a little like Toni Morrison’s Love in its constant references to events that haven’t yet occurred but are about to. Indeed, that the author was able to imbue his novel with such a pace and yet knead all that detail into the body of the work seems like a real feat. Heyday is a compulsive read, and because of that irritating editing errors (“dragon’s blood” referred to twice within as many pages, for example) diminish in importance.

Heyday, a big, brave, bold novel, is about change: exciting, exhausting, confusing and, certainly, inevitable. It casts us back to when we Americans were new and fresh and proud of what seemed then like real accomplishments.

Erica Eisdorfer has managed the Bull’s Head Bookshop on UNC’s campus for almost 20 years. She has written for Travel & Leisure and edited Carolina: Photographs from the First State University, published by the UNC Press. She reviewed books for WUNC radio for seven years.

Comments are closed.