(New York: Coward-McCann, 1959)
By Paul Theobald
This is a broad, sweeping account of a rural family in Illinois, covering over 100 years and multiple generations. It appears to be a bit of a “one hit wonder,” since I can find no other published work by Jonathan Fields. Further, there is no biographical information shared, in the book or on its cover, about the author. There is a contemporary Jonathan Fields who seems to be an accomplished self-help, power of positive thinking, psychologist; someone who has published several books. But there is no indication that he is related to the author of The Memoirs of Dunstan Barr.
The story is told through the voice of the great grandson of Christopher Barr, who settled on the family farm after serving as a soldier in the War of 1812. This great grandson, Dunstan Barr, late in his life, ends the novel writing his memoirs, thus the book’s unusual title. At the outset, the reader learns that Christopher Barr left his farm to his son, also named Dunstan, and that this Dunstan leaves the farm to his son, also named Christopher. This Christopher leaves the farm to his son Dunstan, and at the novel’s end, Dunstan’s daughter, Sylvia, is pregnant and plans to name her child Dunstan, if it’s a boy. This family was very big on keeping family names alive.
After recounting the early family history, the story begins in earnest in 1890 when Dunstan is 20 years of age and attending a state university, studying agriculture. Over the course of the next 45 years, the novel is a psychological portrait of Dunstan Barr—his aspirations, motivations, disappointments, relationships, and family. In the telling, Fields provides an insider’s view of how American history unfolded locally, and how it affected the lives of Dunstan Barr and the residents of “Barfield,” the small Illinois town that is home to the large Barr clan. The name of the village was connected to the prominent role played by Dunstan’s great grandfather in its founding.
All of the larger outside forces, beginning with the Depression of the 1890s, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and the Depression of the 1930s, play a role in this story—but the book is anything but predictable. Nor does it sugarcoat the struggles of farm and small town life. There is joy in this book, but there is also misery. There is small-town gossip that does real damage to people. There is alcohol abuse, and attempts to swindle. War touches families in profound ways. For example, Dunstan’s oldest son dies fighting World War I (and his youngest daughter dies in car crash while under the influence of alcohol). There is also rampant speculation, and the dramatic rise and fall of fortunes in an unregulated finance environment. The Memoirs of Dunstan Barr exposes the genesis of a cultural shift during the first half of the 20th century, a slow but recognizable trend toward deriding small town life, and the farming life, as fundamentally backward, as the kind of life reserved for those without the gumption required to see the future and move to the city. Dunstan’s first love, a girl he met at college, eventually rejects him because he wants to be no more than a farmer.
For all of that, Dunstan Barr is a man of integrity. He’s the kind of individual that made farming communities strong, decent places to live and work. As Fields put it:
Dunstan Barr was born to lamplight; to absence of, or primitive, plumbing; to the familiar use of the horse; to the education of a one-room school; to the inborn belief that the farm was the base of life, the major way, and work an end in itself, with idleness tinged somehow with immorality; to a belief in the fundamental equality of men which did not for a moment overlook a scale of difference in ability; and to a real belief in freedom which permitted people to speak their piece, or work out their own destinies, as they saw fit (p. 261).
Dunstan Barr is a character very much like Wendell Berry’s Mat Feltner. A thoughtful, hard-working man devoted to family, past and present. The book is a literary look at American rural history and sadly it, like so many other first-rate rural novels, has been long out of print.