Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941) earned quite a reputation in her lifetime. Of her two finest novels ("The Time of Man" and "The Great Meadow"), the former had the distinction of being published by the prestigious Modern Library. Fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren revered her. The poets Allen Tate and Hart Crane both regarded her as one of the finest American writers of their time. But in the decades following her death, her reputation slipped until Elizabeth Madox Roberts became an obscure figure. Yet the two best books have remained in print, and of late there is renewed interest in her work, a reevaluation that will hopefully place her securely in the American canon, the place she rightfully deserves.
"The Great Meadow," along with her other best works, ranks with the finest achievements of Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow, to name just a few of her literary contemporaries. If the style and tone of the writing seem designed to give the pioneer experience an epic quality, there is nothing artificial in the effort. It is a conscious artistic choice, and is no more phony than the stylistic devices employed by many of the other great Moderns of the early 20th century, whose works are still celebrated to this day.
Roberts does not sentimentalize the pioneer or romanticize the wilderness. The vast, unspoiled natural world is a "wonder to dread." When one of the women in the story is brutally murdered and scalped by Indians, word trickles back to the pioneers that her hair is honored among the Shawnee, her heroic last fight celebrated in story by the very men who scalped her. When the woman's son goes to avenge her death and retrieve his mother's scalp, he embarks on an odyssey that lasts years. His eventual return to safety is made possible only by the kind intervention of Indians, who take him into their tribe as one of their own. Yet even this skirts sentimentality and is moored in complexity, the real merit of this book on every level; the Indians view the white wayfarer as a friend, for the most part, but in times of adversity, they grow wary and see him as a potential human sacrifice provided for them to appease angry gods.
The novel's main character, Diony Hall, wants to understand "complete justice," which surely must prevail even in this untamed world. But in the end she cannot arrive at a "final point by which to be guided, but rather she saw a little harmony which men are able to make with one another." Diony comes to see the life of the wilderness as "eternal," a way of life and morality "older than kings, older than beliefs and governments."
The utter lack of easy moralizing, the matchless depictions of the natural world in all its beauty and terror, the evocation of human life in its most basic quest for sustenance and love and harmony with the rest of mankind---these are among the many hallmarks of "The Great Meadow," qualities that entitle the book and its author to be read and remembered for all time.