Quite different from recent fiction appears an ambitious attempt by Robert Cutler, a Harvard graduate in the class of 1916, to cover, in a novel of four hundred pages, "American life" and to cover it in all its complexity. "The Speckled Bird" is the Kaleidoscopic result. We are given a formal and appropriate introduction to a stiff New England household which had existed untarnished for more than three centuries: we are allowed to sit at the luxurious table of an unpolished but kindly Irish financier who had survived two panics and who now entertained a host of uncouth "hangers on" at his mansion on Fifth Avenue; we are given a glimpse of the unbounded patriotism that swept over the country at the time of the Spanish American War; and in a splendid bit of appreciative characterization we are allowed for a moment to be on intimate terms with the great American, Theodore Roosevelt. Then the author takes us abroad and paints the American tourist in the prosperous times of 1907. And at the same time he gives us an insight into the circle of English society which Pinero and Jones put before the footlights.
Mr. Cutler takes us up to the prewar days and opens the door upon collegiate revels, and paints the high society of Boston, New York, and Palm Beach in the most elaborate colors. Intimate glimpses are also afforded of the financial machinery of Wall Street, and we are introduced to the calculating type of German Jew in the business world. The change that came over all orioles of society when war was finally declared is admirably portrayed, for Mr. Cutler succeeds in reproducing the spirit that existed in the home, the training camps and the field.
All this has been loosely strung on an almost insignificant plot in an attempt to bring unity out of the mass of slightly related material. In this the author has failed. At first the reader is absorbed with the skillful presentation of the Vane household in New England, and one is pleased with the agreeable contrast in the portrayal of Michael Hare and his luxurious surroundings on Fifth Avenue. But it is easy to become impatient, as unimportant characters and situations are introduced merely for the purpose of creating new pictures, making it hard to follow a main thread through the maze of deviating portrayal.
The story is built up about Abigail Vane, reared under the stiff tutelage of her aunt, Clemency Vane, and the loving devotion of her wealthy grandfather, Michael Hare. In her teens she is occupied with nothing but her social career, but the war brings a sudden change and Abigail, like "a true Vane", goes to Europe as a canteen worker. After the armistice she meets in a convalescent hospital her old lover who is now married to her best friend, and she feels it her duty to care for him and nurse him back to health. Meanwhile her father has gone bankrupt and has died from the shock, but Abigail, friendless and in financial straits, still has strength to refuse the wounded man's earnest proposal, though she loves him, and to make her way "into the black night--alone".
At times Mr. Cutler's style is vivid, but too often he breaks the effect of continuity by the copious use of long parenthetical comments, and too often the reader is reminded of the author's presence. His fondness for allusions and vague metaphors frequently spoils an otherwise delectable description, making it seem heavy and out of place. Mr. Cutler has succeeded best in his portrayal of the two extremes of character, the proper Clemency Vane, who looks ever backward to her ancestors, and Michael Hare, whose only hope and happiness is his grand-daughter. As a story the novel is not a success, but it is at least interesting in its attempt to reflect American life