Evangeline - Writings
Reading Ben Farmer’s Post-9/11 Evangeline: A Novel
Professor Jennifer Andrews, University of New Brunswick
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We tend to forget the fact that originality, as we understand the term, has been a literary requirement for only two hundred years or so. The Oedipus of Sophocles, though it is the only one to have survived, was one of several Athenian treatments of that legend. Virtually every one of Shakespeare’s plays had its origin in some earlier written work. Historically, originality meant not the creation of previously unimagined characters and incidents, but the use of one’s own insights and artistic skills to refresh familiar material with new pleasures and new understandings. Ben Farmer’s novel Evangeline belongs to this long and distinguished tradition.
If you have never read a line of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 narrative poem telling the tale of the innocent young lovers Evangeline and Gabriel, separated by the forcible removal of the Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755, you will still find yourself absorbed by the novel’s vivid re-creation of a long-vanished time. And along the way you will also read some of Longfellow’s lines, since each of the novel’s chapters is prefaced by a brief epigraph from the poem. If you do know the poem, you will have the additional pleasure of being impressed by the ways in which Mr. Farmer has fleshed outLongfellow’s original.
I say “fleshed out” deliberately. The dominant characteristics of the poem are the elegance of its writing and the beauty of its descriptions—qualities which the novel has striven to preserve. But even Newton Arvin, whose classic study of Longfellow is as sympathetic as its subject could have wished, says of the poem’s protagonists: “Certainly if we are looking for either a heroic largeness or a novelistic roundness of characterization in them, we shall be badly let down.” And the lovely and lively Miriam Cooper, star of the 1919 film based on the poem, says in her memoir: “I never liked Evangeline myself. The story was so blah and Evangeline was such a saint. I preferred roles with more emotional charge in them. I wouldn’t have hung around under an oak tree all my life waiting for my sweetheart to
I think it’s safe to say that Ms. Cooper would have been much happier to star in the film version of the novel. Without falsifying the era in which the story is set or tossing a couple of twenty-first century teenagers into the middle of the eighteenth century, he gives us credibly drawn young people who inhabit their own time and struggle to live by its codes and expectations—ones very different from those of our time—but demonstrate the doubts, angers, and frustrations, including sexual frustrations, that are common to all people in all times. Longfellow’s minor characters, including Gabriel’s irascible father and especially the Jesuit priest who guides Evangeline, are also endowed by their re-creator with an enriched inner life and personal motivations.
Mr. Farmer has fleshed out his original in other ways as well. Longfellow’s topography is notoriously sketchy, drawn from his imagination and a massive diorama of the Mississippi River. Our author, by contrast, has seen the places in which his narrative takes place, and provides us with detailed, accurate, and vivid descriptions of them. He has meticulously researched his subject, and has filled the narrative with the realities of day-to-day life in this land two hundred and fifty years ago. You will come away from the book with a strong sense of that period in all of its challenge, its harshness, and, yes, its stink and
To any who are familiar with Longfellow’s poem who would ask why they should read all these pages just to come to an ending that they already know, I should point out that Mr. Farmer makes some significant changes to his source material, especially in his concluding chapters. This, too, is part of the tradition in which he is working: Goethe created one of the great masterpieces of Western literature by totally reversing the thematic emphasis of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Mr. Farmer, not nearly so radical, remains true to the spirit of Longfellow’s poem, but nonetheless gives us an ending that is unexpected and quite moving. And like Longfellow before him, he has fashioned from the tale of Evangeline and Gabriel an independent and satisfying achievement.