1925 Near Miss: Balisand by Joseph Hergesheimer

Plot Summary:

Richard Bale, last in the long lineage of Bales of Balisand, and hero of the Revolutionary War, finds his family inheritance of aggression and a short temper coming into conflict with the burgeoning and evolving American political scene.

My thoughts:

At its most basic, Baslisand is the story of a man trying to goad a man into a duel so he can kill him. Which does reflect the opinion of one of the novel jurors that it had an “unimportant thesis” and that the “hero is a cad.” Fortunately, the novel is much more than just a story of a man plotting to kill another man. It’s a novel of the early years of America. It’s a novel of one man who finds both the artistic nature of his mother, and the hotheaded, duel-centric nature of his father inside him, often at odds with each other.

Richard Bale, of Balisand, comes from a long lineage of antagonistic duelists in an age when duels are going out of style and duelists are viewed as little more than murderers. He is a hero of the American Revolution, and a Federalist, in an age when war heroes are going out of favor, and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans are rising into power. Much like the aging patriarch of Hergesheimer’s Java Head, Richard Bale is a man from a different time, a man who is unable and unwilling to adjust to the changing social climate. According to Hergesheimer, Bale “had neither interest or patience with views which–idiotically–differed from his own.” He’s often contemptible, always argumentative, and does not shy from violence.

We are introduced to Richard Bale as he travels to a weekend-long engagement party for Gawin Todd, at a plantation just down the river from his own Balisand. As he unpacks upon arriving, his first thought is to make sure he packed his dueling pistols, and though he admits that he wouldn’t need them at an engagement party, he also says that he never likes to travel without them. Yet, as the weekend progresses, he finds himself face to face with Miss Lavinia Roderick, the recently engaged, and against his own reason and understanding, finds himself in love with her, and finds that she feels the same about him. Thus he finds himself in need of his dueling pistols after all, when he comes up with the plan to goad Gawin Todd into a duel and kill him, so he can marry Lavinia himself. An unfortunate accident prevents the duel from occurring, however, and leaves Richard Bale reeling, confused by the feelings and emotions that he does not understand and cannot describe. He finds the artistic and emotional aspects, inherited from his mother, manifest for the first time, and finds himself at a loss.

The novel progresses over the next sixteen years, as Richard Bale struggles with lost love, with the growing republicanism and popular opinion of the French Revolution starting to erode the traditional social standings, and with Gawin Todd, whose Democratic-Republican political leanings Bale considers to be the worst thing happening to the country. Todd, however, is not easily goaded into a duel, and Richard finds himself shrinking further and further into himself, into the contemplation of the lost love of Lavinia, and an obsession over what his life would have been like with her.

This does not stop him from proudly voicing his own political and social views to crowds who are unsympathetic to him. And when his antagonism for French support in the country leads him to strike a man with his riding whip, it sets up an incident when we are given a glimpse of the cool, calculating, and violent side of Richard Bale, the things that make him such a renowned duelist.

A large portion of Balisand, however, is focused on American political history, of the growth of the two-party system, and of the Federalist struggle. All the major characters from early American history play in the background: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr. Though the events of the novel take place before the duel between Hamiton and Burr occurs after the timeline of the novel, the eventual duel between Bale and Todd that concludes the novel seems to be a comment on that famous historical duel. It was the political history of the novel that I found the hardest to get into. No offense to any of my old American History teachers, but the early conflicts of the two-party system in America were never the highlight of American history for me. I remember something about the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, and the Hamilton-Burr duel, but much of the rest of that political struggle has since slipped my mind, and it was strange, and a bit unfamiliar, to see all those events being discussed by the characters as obvious recent events, whose histories and complexities should be clearly understood by everyone (but are still a bit confusing to me).

The saving grace in Balisand is Hergesheimer’s style. The novel is neatly divided into three sections, each with their own themes and story arcs, all building toward the final conflict. There is implicit symmetry in the imagery and events, a sort of chiasmus to the structure. The prose and imagery is beautiful. One of the best examples is the repeated motif of the sun in Richard Bale’s eyes. It begins in the first pages of the book, as Bale rides in his boat to the Todd residence for the engagement party. He takes off his hat and is blinded by the sun on the river. This action of being blinded is repeated over and over throughout the book, especially in the second section, where this blindness is the catalyst for a number of instances where Bale is haunted by memories of, and imagined futures with, his lost love, Lavinia, spells that he begins to see more and more as afflictions as he struggles to come to terms with what love means. And finally, the blinding sun plays a role in the conclusion of the novel, at a pivotal moment in Richard Bale’s duel with Gawin Todd, imagery that was set up from the first pages and which haunts Richard all the way through the end of the book.

Ultimately, I think Java Head is the better of the two Hergesheimer novels I’ve read. As to whether or not it is better or more deserving of the Pulitzer than Edna Ferber’s So Big, I have a harder time with. I agree that Balisand has a thin thesis, and that the hero is often unsavory, but I also agree with the other jury members, who saw the style of Hergesheimer to be so far above and beyond Ferber’s as to make it the obvious choice of the book. I would be hard-pressed to say which of the two novels was better, although due to Hergesheimer being robbed of the Pulitzer for Java Head, I would probably be inclined to cast my vote for Balisand in 1925.

Favorite passage:

He revolved again the accusation, made against him more than once, that war unfitted men for civil life and peaceful affairs. I left, certainly, its influence–war was no minuet–and that, more than bloodthirstiness, was a breaking of the attachments to humanity. There was its actual, probably most unfortunate, result: it killed small easy affections, made contacts insignificant, if not impossible to form.

Why you should read it:

Hergesheimer is one of the forgotten great American novelists. While Balisand is slightly inferior to his previous Java Head, and sometimes a little heavy in historical American politics, the style and struggle of the characters are well worth reading.

Currently reading: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis


2 thoughts on “1925 Near Miss: Balisand by Joseph Hergesheimer

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