Last night my book group took on The Western Shore, a California novel -- it was my turn to choose the book and lead the discussion -- that has managed to sustain a small readership for eighty years. A new edition was issued in 1985, though it's now out of print. The discussion wasn't as lively as I would have liked, perhaps because the book's female characters seemed even less in command of their lives than the male characters. Everyone agreed, however, that the novel had an uncanny ability to portray its time and place. Surprisingly, Clarkson Crane had trouble publishing his later work. Another of his novels did not appear in print until 1946.
The Western Shore by Clarkson Crane. Harcourt, Brace and Co. (1925), 303 pp.
Fall semester, 1919, is starting at the University of California. The First World War has ended, and the campus is returning to normal. George Towne, back from hard work in a lumber camp, is ready to try again after flunking out the year before. Milton Granger, leaving a cloistered life with his aunt and mother in Santa Barbara, hopes to find some male friends on campus. Tom Gresham, now a bond salesman, looks forward to reprising his role as elder statesman in his old fraternity. Ethel Davis, Tom's fiancee, plans to continue work on her Ph.D. even as her hopes for a speedy marriage begin to fade. Mabel Richards, a nurse back from the war, is signed up for a few classes but mainly desires to reestablish a relationship with a man she met in France. And Phil Burton, a gay English instructor, struggles to fill his needs for sex and companionship while maintaining professorial decorum. As the school year continues, these people will impact one another's lives.
Several elements combine to make this novel one of the most successful renderings of undergraduate life in American literature. Crane uses a hyperrealistic style, filled with sharp detail and vernacular dialog. His narration provides evocative descriptions of the setting -- downtown San Francisco, the Berkeley hills, the bay. But it lays out events dispassionately and keeps explanations of motivation to a minimum. Crane presentation of the characters in a series of episodes, some almost short stories, seems disjointed at first. Ultimately, though, it forces readers to look for unifying themes. One such theme may be that the university experience does not actually provide all that it appears to be offering. Modern readers, especially those in or near college, should have little trouble identifying with the hopes, uncertainties and disappointments of the characters in the novel.