"Rome Hanks," a novel by Joseph Stanley Pennell, was first published in 1944, when it sold more than 100,000 copies in hardback alone. Reviews of the book at that time were ecstatic; Max Perkins: " . . . never saw a war piece that excelled it, not forgetting Tolstoi." Sinclair Lewis: " . . . one of the richest and most pungent novels of the decade." The book appeared, flowed on through all the literary light and then faded away.
When I was asked to review this reprinting of the book by the Second Chance Press--a company which reissues "great books which are overlooked"--I remembered the title. I even remembered the book sitting there, years ago, in my father's bookcase. But I may not have read it, for I remembered nothing of the book itself, nothing of the character of Rome Hanks.
The style is immediately striking. It reminds me a bit of Faulkner at the beginning, particularly, I don't know why, "Absalom, Absalom." It is all intense, personal, often internal rambling dialogue, isolated, separate, vivid dreams. The book is a series of stories of men on both sides during the Civil War, the War Between the States, one of whom is Rome Hanks. It is told long after the war is over by a man from this century who was not there, Robert Lee Harrington: "At night, in your bed, you see everything that has been or ever will be. And you awake at some place where you never have been, nor ever will be." Harrington retells the tales he's heard, dreamed, listened to as a boy, back and forth from one man to another, largely in their own dialogue. I found the beginning absorbing, but that did not last.
There were many scenes of great natural detail, seeming like copies of a Mathew Brady photograph, told in the intense personal language of the things a man would say perhaps only to himself. It became rather hard to follow and hard to finish. Of course I'm biased. I've seen far too much of wordy wanderings which brood on and on into a vacant night, filled with self pity, in a meaningless world. Have done, have done. On page 52 of this book, the narrator, Harrington, concludes his chapter thus: "For tell me, oh God, where there is love or light or freedom in this world?" Further on in the book Rome Hanks says: "Why . . . are strife and bloodshed things which man is born to love. Why?"
This is a war novel about the war that Churchill called "the noblest and least avoidable mass conflict of which there is record." Harrington's story is of men marching off for four bloody years to fight a war that is truly horrible, awful and totally meaningless.
Near the beginning of the work, Rome Hanks runs into U. S. Grant in a station near the front and doesn't know him as Gen. Grant, thinks of him as the Lt. Sam Grant he once knew. Near the close of the book, at the end of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, and as told by Uncle Pinckney, of North Carolina: "There were some officahs on hawses--one with a red jacket and a queer hat. One of em in a plain grey shabby uniform rode out to us. He had a Vandyke beard like your grandfather use' to wear. I knew him in a minute, even if I'd never seen him before. It was Lee . . . Nobody could mistake him. By Gahd." I thought that rather remarkable, that a Reb soldier in that small walking army had never seen Lee; but then, one point of the story seems to be that the men are never following any known people in any clear direction, down any clear road for any clear reason.
Much of "The History of Rome Hanks" is certainly real. But it seems to me to come from too narrow a point of view--all that wandering dialogue--too windy, with little real depth of character or meaning. And the writing oftens jumps from moments vivid and real--the Brady photographs--to some which are unintentionally rather funny. One chapter closes thus:
"When they came out it was almost dark and cooler and Christa said: Oh I'm perfectly wild about lousy movies.
"And Lee said: I love you, Christa."
This last is from a moment of the present day looking backwards on the past, and it is so personal a style that I think it deserves a look because the man who writes this work does it very well, in his own way, and may be, simply, your kind of man. There is a reader out there, I have no doubt, with whom he has much in common. There may not be many of them, and perhaps that's why the book did not last. And yet there may well be many people grateful for the chance to read a work unique to them. But I myself am fairly sure I did read the book back in the '40s--I read everything else in my father's bookcase--and of this book I remembered nothing.