To 2 measures of Barbadoes (sic) Rum mix 1 of lime juice, a dash of bitters, and a small quantity of brown sugar to taste and a strong dash of brandy.
Ice. Shake well and serve immediately.
– From So Red the Nose
The Anthony Adverse is an interesting and enjoyable combination of flavors. The key is the brown sugar, which keeps the drink from being unbearably tart. After some experimenting, I found a scant tablespoon is the literal sweet spot for me.
Picking a rum was complicated by the fact that there are approximately 6 billion currently produced in Barbados. I ended up choosing Doorly’s XO after an hour of agonizing because it is pot stilled, well recommended, and cheap. It’s good, even if it is not as smooth as the Black Seal I tried last time.
The Anthony Adverse is also one of the few cocktails actually consumed in its namesake book, or, at least, the characters drink buckets upon buckets of rum with lime juice. It seems to be a variation of the Jamaican planter’s punch which is anachronistically mentioned in the story. Other fun cocktails imbibed in/thematically related to the novel are the dog’s nose and rum lemonade.
“I can feel now-in-eternity in wild countries and on the ocean, for eternity remains in the landscape and the sea…I was born into it…For a while as a child I awoke and I lived in an eternal now. I am looking for what I have lost.”
– From Anthony Adverse
Because this book is so very, very long, this review is bound to be the longest one yet. Gird your loins for the road ahead of us. I got a lot to say.
The number one bestseller of both 1933 and 1934, Anthony Adverse was a now-forgotten, full-blown media phenomenon, complete with a fan mail, tie-in products, and book burnings. It was surprise success for its publishers, who, even back then, thought 1,224 pages was a little lengthy, but, as it turned out, an escape into the early 1800s was exactly what Depression Era readers needed. And $3 a book seemed like a steal for hours of entertainment value (approximately 30 hours, if my own reading speed is any indication. Did I mention this book is long yet?).
Anthony Adverse covers the life of its title character from his adulterous conception until his couldn’t-come-soon-enough death in his forties. Starting with the protagonist’s parents’ love story (as I saw in White Ladies) must have been A Thing at one point, but at least in this book it ties into the rest of the plot, as Anthony continually and implausibly runs into people from his mysterious past.
So what type of story is our hero’s life set in? Well, an advantage of a book this length is it doesn’t have to be just one thing; it can be everything! to everybody! Let’s look at a few of the many genres author Hervey Allen covered in Anthony Adverse.
Firstly, it’s an adventure story, although not as much of one as the synopsis writers would have you believe. The book is episodic in nature, and each adventure starts when Anthony arrives in a new location. He begins in Italy as a clerk, but soon travels to Havana as a navigator, the Grain Coast of Africa as a slave trader, New Orleans as a business owner, and Mexico as a pioneer/prisoner, with many, many smaller journeys in between.
Now, if you’re anything like me, that third one raised your eyebrows a bit. Surely, even in the 1930’s, they knew it was repulsive to make your hero part of the slave trade? I mean, there’s a reason it ended hundreds of years before the world figured the rest of this civil rights stuff out.
Well, let me reassure you right now this book is not quite as horrible as you might think. See, Anthony becomes a slaver when he is in his “mammalian”/Dionysian phase, the time in his youth when he is completely devoted to fulfilling his own desires — namely for drink, women, and money — and damn the consequences to anyone else. Yes, our hero is a slaver, but while he’s a slaver, he’s not our hero.
And the audience can take refuge in Brother Francois, the Jiminy Cricket in Anthony’s ear. This priest rescues escaped and injured slaves, gets in the way of slave beatings, and finally sacrifices his life to stand up for the oppressed. Through all of this, the author makes it abundantly clear Francois is in the right and Anthony the wrong, even to Anthony himself. Not that that smoting of conscience actually gets him to change his ways, at least not for awhile.
Which is not to say the book is a Utopia of progressive racial understanding — the word “savage” definitely gets bandied about pretty freely — but it’s at the same level of well-it-was-another-time tolerable racism as other books of the era and not as horrifying as I feared.
Also, I swear I really didn’t set out for it to be, like, anti-hero month or anything, but Anthony really does spend about 1,100 pages being a spoiled, selfish brat. He isn’t really an anti-hero in the traditional sense, though, because he unexpectedly finds redemption in the end.
Anyway. Secondly, Anthony Adverse is historical novel. Boy, is it a historical novel. During his travels Anthony personally meets such diverse characters as Napoleon Bonaparte, Harman Blennerhassett, and Edward Livingston. His childhood sweetheart and mother of his son is a famous opera singer, he haggles over a chair (long story) with the father of international finance, he does business with one of Louisiana’s most notorious pirates.
I have to admire Allen for doing his research, especially on history spanning four different continents, but this book reaches Forest Gump levels of silly in the way our hero just bumbles around making history, personally delivering Louisiana the news it is now part of the United States, teaching Mexicans to call Americans “gringos,” and a bunch more ridiculousness I probably missed by not being a history buff.
Thirdly, Anthony Adverse is, in its own way, a travel book, both geographically and chronologically. I think part of why Allen had Anthony do so much globetrotting was because the author was very talented at capturing the feel of places in vivid, beautiful detail. Short of actually being there, this book is the closest you will ever come to experiencing the fearful power of Napoleon’s armies, the serene majesty of Burgos Cathedral, or the silent wonder of the Alps. These descriptions are rich in imagery and often go on for page after page…after page, well past the point when the readers’ eyes start to glaze over. And then he adds more pages.
For though Allen was accused of both plagiarism and pornography, one thing he could never be accused of was skipping over any details. Never. Ever.
And as much as it can be torture for modern readers, this was very much by design. Allen’s professed goal in Anthony Adverse was to create an Odyssey-like journey novel in the older, slower style. He hated the then-new, Hemingway-inspired economical way of writing. He had this to say, for example, about A Farewell to Arms:
[It] gave all those who had been proclaiming that short sentences, short words, short cuts to thought, short sustaining of emotion, in fact everything from short books to short cakes was demanded by modern people, an apparent triumph for their contentions…All that was to be disregarded was the entire tradition of the past, the genius of the English language itself, and the fact that various types of emotion must, if they are to be adequately conveyed, be phrased in variable rhythms unless frightful absurdity of feeling… is to be tolerated.
Well, mission accomplished, I guess. Anthony Adverse is many things, but it is definitely not short.
So in conclusion, Anthony Adverse is not really like one novel; it’s more like three. In fact, Allen called it his “three times three” structure: three “volumes” with three “books” in each one and three motifs pervading throughout (light, the Madonna, and Dionysus). This level of intricate planning makes me admire Anthony Adverse, even as I didn’t always enjoy it.
But the lets be real here, the actual appeal of Anthony Adverse, as with all bestsellers, was the sex. I was absolutely astounded at how many blatant sex scenes are in this book. Premarital sex, extramarital sex, gay sex, sexual fantasies, and childhood experimentation all make an appearance.
Ok, so none of those scenes are particularly explicit by today’s standards, but there’s still something undeniably sensual about them. Allen’s knack for detail certainly serves him well in this area. Take this scene, which is happening at the beginning of the novel while Anthony’s parents join together just off screen:
Attracted by so lovely and virginal a store of honey, a bumble-bee lit upon this blossom and after stroking its petals for some time as if he were in love, began to tear away the small green membrane that still defended it from his assault. The petals opened slightly and begin to curl. Settling back as it were upon his haunches, and raking his body back and forth over this small opening the bee finally succeeded in inserting himself into the flower. Here, as if in ecstasy, he dashed himself about. The flower opening even wider, trembled, and drooped upon its stem.
There is something almost graphic about that level of detail, even if it is all in euphemism. If anything, the lack of clinically and frankly described sex acts just adds to the eroticism of Allen’s writing. I mean, there’s no inner goddess or anything, but still.
Sexual deviancy is also a reoccurring theme of the book. The main villain of the novel, the marquise Don Luis, just straight up attempts to rape Anthony’s mother, his 18-year-old child bride. Our lady villain, servant Faith Paleologus, is a little more subtle, grooming Anthony from the time he is ten and consummating their relationship when he is a 16-year-old virgin and she is 38 and very much not.
Both she and another one of Anthony’s lovers are described like succubi, trying to suck the beauty and life out of Anthony through sex. The second one, Neleta, actually dabbles in black magic in a futile attempt to get pregnant and thereby hold him forever.
So yeah, the book’s attitude toward women leaves a lot to be desired. It definitely has a bit of a madonna/whore thing going on (quite literally, as Anthony’s statue of the Madonna is a reoccurring religious symbol), which is especially galling considering Anthony himself is a huuuuuge sluuuuut and a bit of a cad when it comes to how he treats his conquests. But again, Anthony isn’t really supposed to be an admirable hero, at least at first.
Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?
Anthony Adverse would never become a bestseller today. We are still living in the house that Hemingway built. But that doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer the modern reader. I’m just impressed with the sheer complexity of the novel, weaving all these themes, motifs, and genres into a coherent whole.
Also, in addition to the smut, Anthony Adverse does have a lot of the same intrigue a modern Amazon blockbuster would.
The best part of the book by far is the villain. Don Luis is delightfully loathsome, at times surprisingly sympathetic, and, most importantly of all, genuinely frightening. The only really tense parts of the book are when he’s in them. But those parts are just so few and far between. They are padded out with pages and pages (and pages) of business negotiations or descriptions of baby Anthony getting a bath.
But by design! This book was not meant to be plot heavy or fun. In fact, just the opposite. I was struck by how pretty much zero of the plot threads of this book have a happy ending. Don’t let the sword fights and ship battles fool you; this book very much wants to be taken seriously.
And 8 million+ of our predecessors couldn’t have been too far of the mark, could they? I’m sure there are some of you out there in Internetlandia who would enjoy this book, just…get the coffee percolating first.
Next time: More obscure 1930’s humor. Oh goody!