St. Paul says in Second Thessalonians (or as Donald Trump would have it, “Two Thessalonians”), “if any would not work, neither should he eat.” This seems old-fashioned, even unfair to some. But not so long ago, what St. Paul said was literally true for most Americans, and merely an accepted fact of life, not an imposition by society. “Trials Of The Earth” is a vivid reminder of that time, and a chronicle of human strength and self-reliance in response.
“Trials Of The Earth” is quite similar in the facts of the life it relates to the fictional “Growth of the Soil,” by Knut Hamsun, which won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. That book is about a Norwegian farmer who similarly ground out an existence in a remote and hostile location (and it was unfortunately admired by the Nazis, with their “blood and soil” fixation). This book is not fiction, and does not even seem remotely embellished. We easily forget that this is how millions of people in our own country used to live, unaware, for better or worse, of Pokemon Go.
It’s nearly impossible to do justice to this book in a summary. You really have to read it to grasp it (and you should). In brief, though, it’s a partial autobiography of Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-1937), one of the early settlers of the Mississippi Delta, which was then (around 1890) essentially an untamed jungle-like wilderness. Hamilton, born in Missouri, moved to Arkansas with her mother and father in her mid-teens. There she married a somewhat older Englishman, Frank Hamilton, who worked in what amounted to logging supervision and related money making, such as running boardinghouses. They shortly moved to Mississippi, where they mostly remained.
The book is a chronicle of hardship—but that’s not the way Mary Hamilton saw it. The hardship consisted in both hard work and frequent tragedy. The work was extremely grueling, to a degree nearly inconceivable to the modern American. Hamilton is matter-of-fact about it, but for years on end she seems to have gone to bed around 1:00 and gotten up at 4:00, cooking by hand for fifty to a hundred men, keeping a household with multiple children, and also working in the fields. Accompanying this was tragedy: four of her eight children died young, including one at age five by gruesome strychnine poisoning caused by an incompetent doctor. Her mother, father, and several brothers also died relatively young. Through all this, Hamilton seems to have been mostly quite happy overall. In fact, while the book ends about 1914, with her husband’s death, she was writing in the early 1930s, and she makes some side comments about how much harder life is at the time she’s writing. Why, precisely, she does not say.
What gives the book additional structure, and frankly makes it more bearable in some ways, is the mystery of Hamilton’s husband. He was apparently of a noble family in England, a fourth son and thus not eligible for inheritance, who after soldiering in India had had some kind of falling out with his family. But he was very mysterious about it, and her own lack of knowledge about her husband clearly was the greatest lack in Hamilton’s life (in fact, she dedicated the book “To my husband’s people, whoever they are and wherever they may be”). Hamilton’s frequent thoughts about this topic, and her husband’s occasional dribbles of information, form the spine of the book, which might otherwise overwhelm the reader as a chronicle of endless hard work and loss. (It seems to me that, if what Frank Hamilton told his wife was accurate, and she accurately recorded it, in these days of Internet genealogy research, it might be possible to find “my husband’s people.” On some genealogy websites, there is a picture of him, presumably put up by a relative. Finding his family and fleshing out his story would certainly be fascinating.)
One interesting thing about the book is that it is very much not a Horatio Alger story. The American mythos, with much historical basis in reality, is that of social mobility. Maybe the South is different, but there is not a hint in Mary Hamilton’s book of the ability to change one’s social status. The social milieu seems more medieval—each person in his place, and God in his heaven. Black people at the bottom, rich landowners at the top, with each person content with his lot and striving merely to make his position more comfortable. Such broad contentment seems unlikely—more likely there was a lot of social resentment, and since Hamilton herself was not prone to resentment, she didn’t ascribe it to others. That’s not to say she didn’t have conflicts with her neighbors—one rich neighbor stole much of their land through a suborned survey, and another tried to get a murder pinned on Frank. So it’s not that Hamilton was a Pollyanna, merely that she viewed hard work as the lot of man and woman, and social climbing not as a goal.
It is, of course, a constant human tendency to idealize the past and criticize the present. The trick, of course, is to not romanticize the past or be overly negative about the present, while still realizing that it is entirely possible that the past was better in some, or many, ways than the present. “Trials Of The Earth” shows both. None of us would want to return to the lives of toil and loss lived by these people—but we, individually and as a society, could certainly use Mary Hamilton’s grit, self-reliance and can-do attitude.