Collecting Delaware Books

Fiction: The Parallel Record

The article Delaware in Fiction on this Web site has more information on this subject.

Few collectors of Delaware books are enthusiastic about fiction. Hard history is our forte. However, fiction with a local setting sometimes gives a view of the culture of the past.

Delaware fiction once had a great champion, the University of Delaware's Augustus H. Able III. Able wrote a chapter in Reed's Delaware: A History of the First State (Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947) on Delaware literature. The chapter also was published by Lewis in 1948 as an offprint.

A paper by Able titled "Fiction as a Mirror of Delaware Life" was printed in the Historical Society of Delaware's Delaware History (Vol. III, No. 1) in March 1948. In it he guardedly says,

"Literature, it is claimed by its proponents, constitutes a living record running parallel to the historical record but, because it is imaginative rather than factual, yielding its own special revelation. If this thesis be granted, the increasing number of studies of American local literatures should be welcome not only as sources of some new particulars of information but more significantly as sources of enlightenment concerning the local varieties of American culture . . ."

Book collectors in Indiana apparently accept this thesis. Booth Tarkington's The Gentleman from Indiana, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Alice Adams are regarded as portrayals of small-town Midwestern life. Gene Stratton Porter is also honored there. James Whitcomb Riley's poems "Little Orphant Annie" and "The Raggedy Man" are said to be written in the dialect of 19th century Indiana.

The writings of Mark Twain are thought to accurately depict life in both the Midwest and West.

John Steinbeck gave us unforgettable pictures of the poor and disinherited of the West. Edith Wharton and Henry James painted pictures of the turn-of-the-century culture of New York and New England. William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Thomas Wolfe, Alice Walker, and Eudora Welty are famous for their descriptions of the South, even to the speech patterns and dialects.

Some are Not A Parallel Record

For the "parallel record" premise to be valid, the author must have been familiar with the culture chronicled, either from personal experience or through access to people familiar with it. Collecting Delaware Books volume 1, number 6 [available on this Web site] listed a number of fiction books set in Delaware. Not all pass the test.

In 1938, for example, Kathleen Pawle wrote Mural for a Later Day, telling of life in the Delaware River colonies from 1625 to 1644. Pawle may have skillfully gathered her information and built atmosphere, but there can be nothing in the novel that adds to the historical record. Ebba Borjeson, 1894, by Pennock Pusey and Gertrude Crownfield's Proud Lady, 1943, and Where Glory Waits, 1934, are in the same class. Out of the Hurly-Burly by Max Adeler is set in New Castle, but the stories are all broad jokes that could have happened anywhere.

In 1897, 19-year-old George Brydges Rodney wrote of a Delawarean in the Revolutionary War in his In Buff and Blue. It is historically accurate and especially good in describing military courtesy and the code of honor of the period, but it is the result of good research, not personal observation.

George Alfred Townsend's The Entailed Hat may be a good picture of down state life, but most of the action actually happens in Maryland. His short stories "The Big Idiot" and "The Ticking Stone" are at least identifiably Delaware.

There are books whose authors had access to the local scene but failed to convey it to readers. Anne Parrish stated that The Perennial Bachelor "is laid in Delaware and to a large extent in my old home where my mother still lives . . . ." in Claymont. Yet there is little in the book that gives us the flavor of the region or distinguishes the people from those of other areas.

True Pictures

There are novels that portray Delaware life by authors who were on the scene. Ann Z. Sparklin's Big Thursday, 1966, and Lilly Jo, 1971, take place in Kent and Sussex Counties and are intended to portray the way of life as seen by the author. Phoebe, 1895, by Elizabeth Bacon Walling contrasts the harsh life of Kent County marsh and bay dwellers with the gaiety of nearby vacationers.

Algernon Sydney Logan spent his summers on a farm in the Kent County marshes. His Amy Warren, A Tale of the Bay Shore, 1900, depicts the beauty of the area. Professor Able says "the marsh is the true protagonist" in Virginia Gregory's 1935 A Flower of the Marshlands.

Christopher Ward's One Little Man, 1926, tells of a clerk's life in turn-of-the-century Wilmington. By 1926, Ward was a successful lawyer and member of the literary elite, but he grew up in the local commercial scene. Lida Larrimore writes of the same middle-class society but with a female protagonist in Mulberry Square, 1930, variously thought to be set in Wilmington, New Castle, or Dover. Grapes of Canaan by Elma Levenger, 1931, is laid in the Wilmington Jewish community.

John Biggs, Jr., set his 1928 Seven Days Whipping in the hills of northern New Castle County where he lived. His 1926 Demigods, however, is a 19th century story based on research rather than observation. Henry Seidel Canby's Our House, 1919, tells a story of Wilmington Quaker family and business life, a society with which the author was familiar.

Another picture of Wilmington society by someone familiar with it is conveyed by Katharine Virden in her 1930 novel The Thing in the Night. Much of the action of this mystery story takes place in homes around Brandywine Park, though we do get to see the East Side where a few fallen society women get their cocaine. Her other whodunit, The Crooked Eye, 1930, is set in New Castle and Sussex County. The apparent realism of the story is called into question by the occasional scene. In New Castle, there are secret passages under the streets and marshes that swallow automobiles without a trace. In 20th century Sussex County live Native Americans turned pirate and smuggler.

Poketown People

One of the more interesting depictions of Delaware life is Ella Middletown Tybout's Poketown People (Lippincott, 1904). It is a group of stories about African Americans in the community of Polktown (notice the spelling difference) just outside Delaware City. The racial stereotypes are not acceptable today, but her use of dialect is interesting.

In one scene Brother Noah Hyatt removes his glass eye and says,

"I 'membahs de wo'ds o' de Book, 'If yo' eye offen' yo', pluck hit out an' cas' hit f'on yo', an' dats whut I done, Brother Sutton, dat's whut I done."

There is every reason to believe Tybout knew her subjects. She grew up on the farm of her grandfather George Z. Tybout near Delaware City. Around 1901, she began writing for Frank Leslie's Magazine and Lippincott's Magazine. Eventually, almost 40 of her short stories were published. The Poketown tales first appeared as short stories. (There is a bibliography of Tybout's short stories and books in Delaware History for March 1949.)

Her writings are full of local references. Red Lion post office, New Castle, and Immanuel Church appear, though sometimes with other names. Local mills and commercial shad fishing are described. The preacher in Poketown People is probably an actual itinerant minister who conducted services for black workers at the Tybout farm.

Scholarship may reveal whether Tybout's portrayals of black Delaware citizens and her use of dialog are historically accurate. Taken at face value, Poketown People is a fascinating book. It is exceedingly hard to find and sells for several hundred dollars. When purchasing a copy, be sure all the colored illustrations are present.

Ella Tybout moved to Washington, D.C., about 1909, where she worked as a clerk in the Navy Department. Her observations of the local scene and writing continued. Four published stories tell of long-time government employees forced out because they could not adapt to new technology — the typewriter.

Around 1914, she and several friends toured Europe but were stranded for a while in Russia by the outbreak of World War I. Though the situation would seem to be rich in story material, she never wrote of it and never wrote for publication again.

Further Research

There are hundreds of works of fiction with Delaware settings. Identifying those that qualify as a "parallel record" is a challenge for the collector. The criteria will have to be internal evidence and the author's opportunity. In any case, the collector will want to have the two articles by August H. Able III as catalogs and guides for books published before 1947. A compact list of similar books of the last half century is not available.

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