The Contemporary Long Poem: Minding the Kinds

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Author: Fred Chappell
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 190)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,977 words

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[(essay date 1997) In the following excerpt, Chappell describes the complicated plot and large cast of interacting characters in Middens of the Tribe as Dickensian. He argues that the “coincidences” of the plot are used to reveal the psychological state of the characters. Chappell praises Hoffman for his virtuosic stylistic range and effective treatment of the theme of the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons.]

Improbabilities spangle Middens of the Tribe too, but Daniel Hoffman has calculated their usefulness and their effects and made them a necessary part of his fascinating design. His story really is a novel, with a larger cast of characters than The Diviners sports and with a more complicated plot. Hoffman tries to display the panorama of characters we enjoy in the shorter novels of Trollope, say, or of Edith Wharton.

In the first of the book’s forty-three sections we meet—through the eyes of a doctor making house calls—a man who has just been laid off his job in a railyard, a five-year-old child dying of meningitis, an old financier with a tacky but expensive art collection, a businessman’s secretary involved in a streetcar accident, the financier’s butler, and a woman who has had a stillborn child. In other sections (they ought really to be called chapters) we meet the financier’s bitter ex-wife, his son who has taken over the family business, a stage magician and his pretty assistant, a painter of nudes in process of becoming an Abstract Expressionist, and others. Scattered throughout the story are observations about a prehistoric Cromlech People in Wales by an archaeologist who happens to be the second son of the financier; these archaeological notes provide ironic commentary on the contemporary American story as it takes place.

If this latter stratagem seems too easy in its artificiality, it is still hard to count it a fault in the design because Daniel Hoffman seems to be making a point about his narrative: the fact that it is obviously artifice does not make it unbelievable nor lessen its value.

Hoffman’s plot is a facture of coincidence much like the plots of Dickens. The girl killed in the streetcar accident turns out to be Wilma, the secretary of the old financier’s son; the mother of the stillborn child is revealed to be the magician’s assistant whom he has betrayed; the financier’s mistress was the mother of both Wilma and the magician’s assistant, and she was also sister-in-law to the idled railroad employee who has become a security guard where the newly emerged Abstract Expressionist is protesting a showing of one of his disavowed earlier nudes. And so on.

Add to these figures a sprinkling of minor characters like Charles the butler, and nonce characters like the cab driver who transports the doctor to a rundown neighborhood, and you get the idea: Dickensian coincidence, Dickensian complication, Dickensian artificiality. Everyone is connected to everyone else, by blood, marriage, inevitable circumstance, or sheer accident. In Nicholas Nickleby,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420123125