August 2, 2013

It took me about a month to read Queed. I read it in bits, mostly during lunchtimes a couple of times a week. And there were days when I chose not to read it because the last bit seemed to signal bad things to come. But in the end, I liked it more for all the tension and discomfort. Henry Sydnor Harrison is so good, guys.

Queed was Harrison’s first book, followed a couple of years later by V.V.’s Eyes. And like V.V.’s Eyes, it’s set in a Southern city and occupies itself with young people, their ideals, and the rebuilding of the South. Also it’s kind of uncomfortably pro-Confederacy, but that’s to be expected, I guess.

Another thing it has in common with V.V.’s Eyes is its shifting focus. Just as V.V.’s Eyes was rarely about V.V., Queed splits its time between the title character and two others, Sharlee Weyland and Charles Gardiner West. Sharlee and West both have roots in the city, and are the “best type” of whatever it is that they are — well-educated upper class Southerners, I guess. West is a prominent citizen who has risen from a modest financial background to business success, but has further, loftier ambitions. Sharlee is Assistant to the State Director of Charities, but would not have to work for a living if her father’s estate hadn’t been appropriated by the trustee, the infamous Henry G. Surface.

Queed himself is a self-educated, self-absorbed sociologist working on a book that he intends to render all other books on sociology useless. He’s created a rigorous, capitalized Schedule for himself, in which he grudgingly allows himself twenty minutes for mealtimes, and his first formal meeting with Sharlee Weyland is, in a way, the Schedule’s fault: since he hasn’t given any time in his schedule to anything that will earn him money, he’s behind on his rent. And since Sharlee acts as a sort of agent for her aunt, who owns the boarding house where Queed lives, she first confronts him with the fact that he can’t stay there for free and then helps him find a job with the local paper.

Sharlee is probably the least important of the three main characters, but of the three she’s the most likable, and probably the best person. She has the fewest changes to make — she doesn’t need to grow as a person, or deserve a different kind of life than she has. I mean, yes, her family was cheated out of a lot of money, and if they hadn’t, she would be rich. But Sharlee doesn’t whine about it, or even seem to give it much thought, and Harrison never implies that the restoration of her fortune is a thing that’s important to the plot of his story. Basically, Sharlee is great, and everyone should like her.

West is perhaps the most interesting of the three. It’s tempting to say he’s kind of a lousy person, but he’s not, really. He just lacks firmness. He’s smart and talented and friendly and personable, but any convictions he has come from other people, and consequently he has a hard time holding onto them. Harrison is really good at showing how a character’s thought processes can simultaneously make sense to them and be objectively wrong, like a lesser George Eliot, and so West is incredibly compelling to read about, in a way that might make you cringe a lot. It made me cringe a lot, anyway.

The other thing Harrison is particularly good at is showing change in a person over time, and the fact that he’s using that talent on Queed is as good a reason to name the book after him as any. Queed, at the beginning of the book, is a person who can sit down to write about altruism without ever having considered doing an altruistic thing in his life, but that slowly changes as people chip away at his isolation and at the Schedule — mostly Sharlee, her cousin Fifi, the editor of the Post and a young man with a passion for exercise.

And that’s the story, really. Queed, much like Pinocchio, becomes a Real Boy, while he, Sharlee and West toss the editorship of the Post, the proposed state-funded Reformatory, and a couple of hundred thousand dollars back and forth between them. It’s detailed and thoughtful and full of feelings and loose ends in a realistically messy way, and also — again like Pinocchio — it’s a bit of a fairytale. I don’t know why I’m not reading Henry Sydnor Harrison all the time.


  1. I may have to reread this–I remember it as being very depressing but maybe I have forgotten.

    I first heard ABOUT this book in the Betsy-Tacy book Carney’s House Party, which takes place in 1911 and everyone is reading Queed.

    • There are times when it’s depressing, but everything comes out okay in the end. I’ve never read any of the Betsy-Tacy books but the first one, but I love references to contemporary literature in old books — I get the best recommendations that way.

  2. It’s funny you should mention the pro Confederacy.

    I just finished Ruth Fielding Down in Dixie and there’s a full blown pro slavery rant.

    I’m used to the casual racism of the time – but this I thought went beyond that and good old Ruth completely agrees with it. Which given how she kept finding good in the gypsies was a little surprising.

    • Ugh — I haven’t read that one.

      I don’t know that there’s much of a line between the casual racism you get used to when you read books from this era and the aggressively racist stuff that you come across more often. Or, if there is, the casual stuff worries me more. The really racist stuff is more obvious, and impossible to get past, but I worry that sometimes I miss more low key stuff. And either will seriously undermine my enjoyment of something. Which is as it should be, I guess.

      • The casual racism doesn’t bother me because I put it down to the time. (casual racism to me includes the stereotypes of ethnic Irish, Italians, gypises as well as African Americans). They lived in a very very white bread, WASP world and I don’t. I assume that if they’d ever met an Irish, Italian, Gypsy or African American socially, they’d have treated them differently in their fiction.

        I also read a lot of Civil War & pioneer memoirs at one point and that sort of inures you to the common beliefs of the age.

        I think what surprised me (and I know this is a syndicate with multiple authors) is that earlier books didn’t seem to have it. There’s a complimentary reference to Native Americans (one of the cowboys is a Carlisle man) in one of the earlier Ruth Fielding books and even though the gypsy one was full of sterotypes there were both good and bad gypsy characters.

        Down in Dixie was full blown African Americans as not quite human, more like dumb beasts. Coming from characters who are supposed to be Northerners, it was a surprise.

        BTW, I have to mention how happy I am to have found your blog. The Kindle is groaning with new books.

        • I can deal with the casual racism, and I do expect it, but I wouldn’t be comfortable with myself if I found I was overlooking it. I mean, yes, the writers of these books were living in a different time, but we’re not. I’m not trying to dictate what anyone else should be doing, but if there’s racism — or sexism, or xenophobia, or whatever — I want to be consciously noticing it and thinking about it.

          It is interesting that the Ruth Fielding books are relatively okay about other groups and terrible about African Americans, especially since I’m pretty sure all of them up until well past Down in Dixie were written by W. Bert Foster. just looked him up, but I can’t find anything on what his background might have been.

          Thanks for reading — full Kindles make me happy :)

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