Friday, January 25, 2013

Dell H. Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn (1912)

This is a domestic western set on the plains of Kansas. Its heroine, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Farnshaw grows up in a fractious homesteading family where her domineering father makes life miserable for his wife and daughter. The long, 564-page novel covers 15 years of Elizabeth’s early life as she grows into womanhood.

Plot. Elizabeth’s fortunes seem to improve when she finds herself being courted by a newcomer in the neighborhood, a young farmer, John Hunter. John has a gentleman’s polish, a smattering of university education, and a comfortable inheritance. His proposal of marriage offers a welcome escape from her father’s domination.

Alas, John Hunter is not what he seems. As her husband, he does not bully her with the brute ignorance of her father, but he is oppressive in his own way. He builds a handsome house on his farm and invites his mother to live with them. Both have strict beliefs about a woman’s domestic duties, and their effect is to keep Elizabeth a virtual slave and a prisoner in her own home. Matters worsen still when Elizabeth gives birth to a child.

Elizabeth and John Hunter
John, it turns out, lacks caution in his investments and, against Elizabeth’s wishes, gets them deeply in debt. They are saved by an infusion of cash from a man who has come to Kansas looking for a business partner. Hugh Noland has a bad heart, which limits his prospects for the future, but farming with Hunter promises to be good for his health and a productive use of his remaining years.

The arrangement works well until Noland suffers an accident with a runaway team of horses. The doctor orders bed rest for him and encourages Elizabeth to give him plenty of tender loving care. But the two have already become too close. Both are torn between their affection for each other and her commitment to her marriage vows. Seeing the burden he has placed upon her, he hastens his demise by overdosing on his heart medicine.

Leaving all his assets to Elizabeth in his will, he gives her the leverage to finally stick up for herself with her husband. Infuriated that she wants to be his “boss,” he leaves her. The farm thrives under her direction, but she does not give up a belief that husbands and wives can live together as equals. In time, her husband asks her to take him back, and the closing pages suggest they might be able to make a go of it.

Elizabeth at the post office
Character. Elizabeth is drawn throughout the novel as an exemplar of character. “Quick to serve, sensitive, honest, dependable,” she has a strong sense of duty. The values of character espoused by the novel are both feminist and moralistic. Munger puts them in conflict with each other and shows how they might be resolved. A husband merely needs to give up the instinctive desire to dominate his wife.

Munger gives several examples of such men. The appearance of Noland offers the finest one. He shares Elizabeth’s love of books and freely regards her as a trusted friend. As she grows exhausted from overwork and motherhood, he has a concern for her that her husband lacks. The concern is shared by the doctor, who has seen from his practice how husbands wear out their wives by committing them to a life of drudgery and dependence.

Mrs. Farnshaw and Elizabeth
Women. While Munger sympathizes with the lot of farm wives, she does not exactly portray them as likeable or admirable. Quick to indulge in their jealousies, they are cruel and unforgiving gossips. For them, the most grievous social offense is to take on airs and act superior. When John refuses to let Elizabeth visit her neighbors, the local women assume she is being “stuck up” and viciously condemn her.

Elizabeth’s mother shows how a lifetime of subservience to men has made of her a bitter and demanding woman. She is jealous of Elizabeth’s friendship with Susan Hornby, a neighbor of kindred and warmly generous spirits. She is cruel and cutting to her daughter, siding with her husband as he physically abuses her.

Romance. In some ways, the novel shows a real suspicion of romance. It illustrates how the flights of the heart’s attraction to the opposite sex cloud a young woman’s judgment. Elizabeth is charmed by the attentions of John Hunter, and while a reader may have doubts about him as marriage material, Elizabeth misses the warning signs.

Hugh Noland's accident
The man’s polished manners and gentlemanly demeanor disguise a lack of character. He is shallow, self-indulgent, and willful. Maybe worst for Elizabeth is his inferior intelligence. He has fixed ideas and can’t be budged from them. Romance blinds Elizabeth, and she blithely walks into a marriage that will make her miserable.

Villainy. The villain of the novel is not a person but an idea—the belief that men have a right to dominate women. Though villainous in many respects, John Hunter is no more than an inconvenient obstacle to Elizabeth’s happiness. There is even hope for him at the end as he claims to still love her and says he wants to mend his ways.

Elizabeth’s obstinate and surly father, however, qualifies as unredeemable. He robs her of her aspirations for schooling and forces her into a teaching job. Then he refuses to let her keep the money she earns. In spite of her best efforts to make peace with him, he openly despises her and punishes her brutally. He meets his deserved end in an act of defiance that leaves him dead under a horse’s hooves.

Dell H. Munger, 1913
Wrapping up. Dell H. Munger (b.1862) grew up on farms in the Midwest. Her family had moved from Illinois to Iowa and Nebraska. Later, she lived in Missouri, Colorado, and Indian Territory. She adopted three children and, after leaving a wealthy husband, was for a time a guest of Upton Sinclair at his home in Palo Alto, California. Later, she was a resident in the artist colony in Carmel, California.

A Socialist in midlife, she was an active advocate of prison reform and health regimes involving positive thinking and fasting. While she was reported to be completing a second novel for publication in 1913, The Wind Before the Dawn remains her only published work.

The Wind Before the Dawn is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive and for kindle and the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

The National Magazine, vol. 38, August 1913
Anthony Arthur, Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, 2006

Image credits:
Illustrations from the novel by Thomas Fogarty
Author photo, The National Magazine

Coming up: Saturday music, Gene Vincent


  1. I really like that title, but I'm not sure this one's for me. Sounds like it might be slow sledding for a fellow like myself.

    1. I like the title, too. You expect a different kind of novel to go with it, though.

  2. Ron, I liked the story and Munger's characterisation of Elizabeth as a woman of strength and substance. I wonder if her own farm life led Munger to write about woman's emancipation, perhaps in an effort to highlight their plight as it might have possibly existed then. Does Munger hold the reader's interest throughout the 564 pages?

    1. I suspect that the novel is autobiographical, Prashant. As an argument, Munger could have made her point in probably half as many pages. But the length deepens the verisimilitude. You begin to feel as trapped as the wife is in her marriage.

  3. Interesting, but I'll probably pass on this one. I like that you are bringing old books back into the spotlight. On the queue I see St. Agnes' Stand. Loved that book.

    1. Eunice, thanks for dropping by. As I often say, I read these old books so you don't have to.

  4. According to my Mother –Adela’s Niece; held in the archives of CU Boulder*; is a book review that states –“Time alone will tell if Dell Munger will have effect on the ‘Women’s Movement’ similar to effect of ‘Uncle Tome’s Cabin’ on the Slavery Question.”
    Published in 1912; Dell Munger wrote this story in 1906, the transcripts survive. Dell’s reality growing up was several hundred miles to the north of this story’s setting. “Things were proper and ‘English’ in the family household” (written in our family’s genealogy information), as you might surmise from John Hunter’s liking to be admired as he rode in his buggy! I walked the north boundary** (a train track where my mother disembarked when she came to visit, now a National Trail) of this home-stead land in September 2011. I confirmed unusual landscape features written of by my Mother.
    The characters in this story, of course ? are, composites of Dell’s family. We have family information attesting of this ‘living’; and my take is -- Frontier life was a ‘treadmill’ that set the pace and you had to keep up. Yearly seasons forced you to preform no matter what the-present conditions (clearly note in this story – several times). This resulted in Hard-Driving people(also exhausted families), OR else; you did not survive. The abuses that took place then, con-temporarily are being addressed (solved?) by laws BUT we need better insights (and better personal relations education). My Mother was 16 years younger than her sisters and was protected from this harsh treatment. My cousins have asked, “How did she understand the gentle approach”? She had a different ‘model’: shown to her by her sisters.
    Also what struck me was how Lizzy and John Hunter met = just like today. When chemicals ‘fill’ your body with 'attraction' –which is NOT love [yet]; each person starts on a ‘Journey in their own mind’ AND they don’t ask/discuss the other’s plans (also today: better early personal education would pre-empt many problems).
    We grew up hearing the admonition from my Aunts. “Do not get into debt.” After all this turmoil, even in the next generations, the descendants also lived through the Great Depression and WW-II. My cousins and I have noted, our children are the first generation to grow up without having siblings die in early youth. I have two uncles under 4 years of age that we have not been unable to find. During my life time I have noted a marked health improvement of people over 60 years old. When I was young, even farmers over 40 had a stooped and drawn appearance.
    “The Wind” of course refers to the Locust swarms; it makes me laugh to see sail boats on some of the foreign re-prints! of this book.
    Dell Munger was an advocate of local environment solutions when she lived in Carmel California. She felt –rightfully-- that remote State demands were interference, and were not viable’
    I visited with the current owners –have been there for decades-- of this land of Dell Munger’s inspiration. It is still a long-lived farm in rolling plains-country. The 4-square farm-stead (that John Hunter 'built') home of Dell’s youth did not survive, yet pictures have. It would-have been a Historic structure.
    • 1—I have not yet paid to get this information
    • 2-- As we fought our way through dense undergrowth of a hillside, my cousin and I came face to face with four of the ‘healthiest’ coyotes I have ever seen. Not shy; fortunately they were not hungry! They stood looking at us, then trotted off!
    Mr. Scheer: This is the first book review I have read about Aunt Dell's ‘work’. I appreciate your efforts!

    1. Many thanks for all this additional information. There is very little in the reference books about Adela (even that this was her given name). I was able to find only her birth date. Do you know the year she died?

  5. Dell Munger died in 1937(in my Mothers information -"Grandmother {Dell's mother} was a regal type person, very kind to my Mother" {which would be my Grandmother} died in 1920. My Grandfather was Dell's younger brother. We have personal (dated 1915) communication from Dell Munger to her sister-in-law,"as a sister", (my Grandmother); addressing the same problems of her story. Her older brother never married, has no family. He worked the family home stead until my Great Grandfather died in 1905. ~[you might note of this era, also with my parents, families were not started before 30 years of age]~ As might not surprise you from this story, there was an inquest on why my Great Grandfather was found at the bottom of the cellar (yes, that cellar) steps.** My cousin (who just this week is in eastern Kansas on genealogy search) thinks because there was no 'finding' there were no records kept in the county files. Last year in our search, we found the property division settlement and there is an older daughter (15 years older than Dell) whose mother died in 1860, most likely in child birth. I found Dell's son's WW-I Military registration information listing an Alameda address in the Bay area which was her address in the late 19teens. I would like to send you a picture of the house that 'John Hunter' built yet I am concerned about the copyrights. *1 Dell Munger's Great x2(I believe) Granddaughter did her Graduate Thesis on 'Dell H. Munger writings'. I will let her know about your review site. Also since she has studied Dell's life and has her effects, I will let her decide about copyrighting material. *2 The home my Grandfather built in Colorado also had one of these cellars. Common in those days as were the one-room school houses; with windows on the left (south), black board at the front and small entry way at the rear -- as I found out (from the Museum) in Wray Colorado where one still exists in that area. Not possible to know if that was where my Father started 1st grade when he was 11, because they "were build by the hundreds".

    1. Many thanks for the additional information. I will look forward to hearing more. I started school in what had been a one-room schoolhouse. There were, however, windows on both sides.

  6. Great to see that someone is reading Dell's book, and that it's not available online! While this was Dell's only novel, her non-fiction articles and opinion pieces were published, as well as at least one short-story, which was published in Sunset magazine.

    As Harold mentioned above, I did my thesis on the book (though it was my undergrad honors thesis, not graduate - my graduate thesis was in medieval literature, so safe to say I am not quite a frontier-narrative specialist).

    I agree that Dell used a lot of her personal experience when she wrote; I have a book of clippings she made of all the newspaper and magazine interviews she did around the time the book was published, and she touched on this fact constantly. And it is not a short read by any means!

    When I wrote on the book a few years ago, I initially thought that one of the reasons it disappeared after being so well-received by critics was that it was published during an in-between time in the feminist movement and didn't quite fit in long-term. There are certain undeniable facts about the novel - the fact that Elizabeth goes back to John at the end of the novel, for example - that go against certain feminist beliefs, and the novel was eventually lost in the shuffle.

    But as I think about the book now, and when I consider Dell's highly political life and beliefs (hanging around with the socialist in-crowd of Jack London and Upton Sinclair as she did), I approach the book a bit differently; I don't think she meant to write a purely feminist novel. I think she was a very strong woman who grew up in the harsh prairie environment, and she had some very strong opinions about women's rights and the way they should consider their relationships with men and motherhood in general, but that the larger message presented in the book is really about a socialist society and what that could mean. The politics of gender are presented within overarching social and political commentary.

    If we think about the characters, particularly John and Lizzie, as not just men and women but representations of society, that is, a non-socialist society there is a very strong message about capitalism, the economic system (with all the talk about going into debt and so on), and how we should relate to the means of production (in this case, the farm). By the end of the book Lizzie sees how their current economic system has turned John into an abusive husband and has essentially made her life miserable because they are not equal and she doesn't own anything. It isn't until they have equal ownership of their means of production and she has some say over her prosperity that she considers reuniting with him, as they can now be equals. One could compare her being seduced into the marriage to how people are seduced into debt and economic situations where they can no longer control their prosperity.

    Of course these examples could go on and on :) but I think it's interesting to think about how this novel can be looked at as classic prairie literature and romance, but also as a socialist commentary on the political structure of American society and the corresponding relationships between people. As the latter could have been viewed as a bit more radical at the time, this may have contributed to novel's fade as well.

    I should probably go back and flesh this out a bit, but I think Dell quite an interesting figure and I'm glad you had the chance to write about her!

    1. Excellent commentary on the novel. Thanks for taking the time to put these thoughts together here. You make an interesting case for the larger political dimension of the novel. I had focused just on the gender politics.