Writing novels was not a calling for Cooper, but then he was so wealthy he didn't need a vocation. Still, James Fennimore Cooper is oft considered America's first real novelist. His oeuvre is almost as long as it is classic, even though Mark Twain debunked him so horribly it's a wonder his work survives:
A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.Now that's an unsettling review.Don't know if novel-writing suffers when would-be writers take it on because they're sure they can do better, but Oscar Micheaux is another who did. Micheaux, the son of a slave, was born in a Mississippi River town named Metropolis, a town just as much Kentucky as Illinois. When he was 17 he picked up and moved to Chicago, where, for the most part, his first novel The Conquest: the Story of Negro Pioneer, is set.
A whole section of the novel is set in South Dakota actually, where Micheaux himself homesteaded. You read that line right. I was as shocked as you are. Oscar Micheaux, a black man, settled and homesteaded South Dakota land just outside of Gregory, South Dakota. In fact, this land, right here up the road.
It's almost impossible to imagine African-American homesteaders. They're supposed to be Dutch or German or Bohemian, Norwegian or Swede. But Black? Thousands of African-Americans tried their luck at "proving up" Great Plains homesteads. Most failed, just like most white families did, my own among 'em. It takes a some wherewithal to weather the seasonal blows of Great Plains misfortunes.
Conquest feels autobiographical, because it is. Oscar Devereaux Micheaux's hero is Oscar Devereaux--that didn't take much of a twist. Both Oscars homesteaded. Both Oscars wrote novels as a way of trying to make some quick cash. Both Oscars failed at first marriages. I'm sure the list goes on.
The novel wouldn't be remembered at all if it weren't for Micheaux himself, as well as the oddity of a black man breaking Great Plains ground just west of the Missouri, a black man surrounded by white ethnics and displaced Yankees all trying their hand at making a life on what seemed to be free land (no one asked the Lakota).
It's not a great novel, but it's endlessly interesting because what it offers is a look at late-19th century African-American life. Most of the novel centers on Black life and culture, which offered its own set of issues, even of bigotry and racism. The cursed villain of the tale is a snake-oil preacher-man, lionized by his meek congregation, not to mention his sociopath daughter. Conquest often feels like a melodrama.
Sometimes novels tell us who we are even if they don't try. Micheaux wrote The Conquest to make some bucks--Devereaux, the novel's protagonist, certainly does anyway. But a century later the novel's great strength is that it offers a glimpse of another time and place, a panorama not readily available elsewhere. When Fred Manfred's Green Earth came out, not all of Siouxland was proud. However, if you want to know anything about Dutch Calvinist life in northwest Iowa between the world wars, there's almost nothing else to read.
Besides, Micheaux himself is a wonder, an African-American homesteader, a son of slaves on the open prairie, a South Dakota novelist, a Hollywood film-maker. I'm sorry. It's still amazing.
He was, for certain, an innovator. When a Hollywood director wanted to make the novel into a movie, Micheaux agreed, then pulled out when the director didn't want him to have a say in the way the story was told. In a snit, Micheaux started his own film company in Sioux City--that's right, in Sioux City, Iowa.
It didn't take long, however, and he'd gone off Hollywood himself and was writing, directing, and producing movies that still called "race films" because they were intended to play to a segregated movie audience, to the African-Americans who could get in to only those theaters open to African-Americans. Without a doubt, he was more successful at movie-making than he was at novel writing.
The bookends of the novel (spoiler alert!) is Devereaux's love of a white woman, his determination not to pursue his relationship with her (for reasons of race), and, eventually his return to her, the love of his life, when she discovers something important about her own familial lineage (go ahead, guess).
Nobody will ever lug The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader along to the beach. Only scholars and other folks interested in out-the-way museums and rusting highway markers will likely read it.
But I liked Conquest, and I liked visiting the ground the man worked, too. I liked thinking about him out there in frontier Gregory, South Dakota, about him starting a film company in Sioux City, Iowa, about his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Oscar Micheaux was the son of slaves. He didn't have Cooper's great wealth or position. He came from nothing at all, wrote novels, made movies for his people.
The Conquest is not a good novel, but it's great, great story.