JULY 4, 2016
IN HIS FINAL DAYS before succumbing to malaria in the Amazon rain forest, Charley Breitsprecher, protagonist of Annie Proulx’s latest novel Barkskins, has a bitter epiphany. The exiled heir to the Duke-Breitsprecher lumber fortune writes in his journal:
Nothing in the natural world, no forest, no river, no insect nor leaf has any intrinsic value to men. All is worthless, utterly dispensable unless we discover some benefit to ourselves in it — even the most ardent forest lover thinks this way. Men behave as overlords. They decide what will flourish and what will die. I believe that humankind is evolving into a terrible new species and I am sorry that I am one of them.
Breitsprecher writes these words at the start of the 20th century, though they of course could be penned today. Throughout Barkskins, Proulx asks us to consider how the long story of American social and economic development led us to our present moment of ecological crisis, and also to anticipate the day when the effects of capitalism’s historic affronts to nature will come home to roost.
Once a PhD candidate in history at Concordia University, Proulx decided that a career in academia did not fit her preference for the solitary writer’s life and left the program without completing a dissertation. Yet as she reveals in The Paris Review, the scholarly impulse animates her fiction: “I think the study of history and the marshaling of facts, the comparison of societies and movements and power structures, is far more important to my writing,” she says. “The fringe edges of dissolution and construction of societies. For me, mostly dissolution. Change. How the shape-shifting happens.” Barkskins trains us in this kind of deep historical thought, and demands that, in Proulx’s words, we “think in new ways, on a scale of decades rather than months or a few years. Very frightening stuff.” Deeply impersonal forces animate Proulx’s characters. Through them, Proulx satirizes the hubristic belief that we can swim against history’s rip current without getting sucked under and out to sea.
Barkskins opens in the “dark vast forest, inimical wilderness” of New France, in 1693. Two indentured servants, forester René Sel and Paris street urchin Charles Duquet, enter an inscrutable contract with Monsieur Trépagny, who hopes to establish a vast feudal estate for himself in the New World. Sel and Duquet foresee a forest full of “evergreens taller than cathedrals” with “many edges, like a lace altarpiece,” Trépagny believes it is “infinite […] as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning,” and all agree it must be subdued and exploited. Soon after the trio arrives in the New World, Trépagny is dead, Sel is married to a native Mi’kmaq laborer named Mari, and Charles Duquet has escaped to find his fortune in the wilderness.
Ironclad laws of privilege and social mobility structure the Sel and Duquet (soon to be “Duke”) descendants for the next three centuries. René Sel’s progeny, Métis (descendants of mixed indigenous North American and European ancestry) torn between their Mi’kmaq and European identities, are pursued through Maine and Nova Scotia by land-hungry European settlers. The title chapter, “barkskins,” chronicles the Sel family’s slow disappearance into several lumber camps from 1844 to the 1960s in a little under 12 pages, surely a statement about how class bears on historical representation in a novel of this length. Jinot Sel, a great-great-grandson of René’s who we follow through the early 19th century, is a beautifully realized portrayal of indigenous displacement. A “twospirit” boy possessing preternatural tenderness and unbounded energy, Jinot finds himself a tree cutter in Penobscot, an entrepreneur in an axe manufactory, and finally an indentured servant in New Zealand. Jinot survives English settlers’ raids on Mi’kmaq territory, the Great Miramichi Fire in Maine, and an arduous journey across the Pacific, only to end his life in precisely the same station as his ancestor René: a laborer lost in a new world, subject to the will of an affluent overlord. Meanwhile, the Dukes have become Boston socialites, owners of the greatest wine cellars in North America, and pioneers of the deforestation of Michigan and Illinois.
This alone makes a discomfiting statement about American life: that decisions made by ancestors some 300 years ago determine our fate in the present, that the “self-made” man or woman of the 21st century, with precious few exceptions, was “made” by ruthless, petty, and avaricious ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries. We don’t like to admit it, but Proulx forces us to realize it’s true.
By choosing to begin her novel in New France, among aristocrats of the ancien régime and those who wish to be like them, Proulx makes us rethink the usual genealogy of the American novel, which tends to begin with Anglo-American settlers who “make good” once free from the fetters of decrepit, feudal Europe. Proulx likewise re-globalizes American social and economic development, following Charles Duquet from New France to China with the East India Company, then to Amsterdam where he makes a political marriage to Cornelia Roos, the daughter of his business mentor. Given the renewed Sinophobia cropping up in our own time, Proulx’s decision to send Duquet to an already-developed China on a freighter crewed with Dutch sailors “riddled with venereal disease […] laced through with insanities and as stupid as penguins” is telling. (Incidentally, “stupid as penguins” really ought to become a more commonly employed insult.) Proulx seeks to fundamentally alter our understanding of American history, asking us to consider the transnational aspects of New World economic development, the ancient class structures from which that economic development emerged, and the environmental impact of it all.
That Proulx does this without the usual dopey Romanticism of most ecological writing is astonishing. The Mi’kmaq do not live “simply” or “in harmony with the land” — they’re just better at living on it. Controlled burns, soil repletion, reforestation; these aren’t the quasi-mystical idylls of the “noble savage,” but intelligent land management. Armenius and Dieter Breitsprecher, Duke company land agents who begin their own Detroit-area lumber concern, likewise demonstrate care for the replenishment of natural resources. The Duquet/Duke family’s main crime is one that is all-too-familiar for us today: they take and take and take until there’s nothing left to take anymore. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Proulx calls this “the usual white-man capitalist attitude toward the natural world of North America — what can you find, take, get, cut, dig that will make money?” Even Mr. Bone, the paternalistic axe maker who brings Jinot Sel into his family and its business, shares this “white-man capitalist attitude”: “[His] vaunted enthusiasm for native people did not extend to the forests and shorelines they had inhabited. For Mr. Bone, only when the trees were gone, when houses crowded together and the soil was cultivated to grow European crops was it a real place.”
The Duke plot line of Barkskins is an extended allegory for the spectacular violence of primitive accumulation underlying the banalities of everyday capitalism. Even as we suffer through dull board meetings with the more contemporary Duke scions, we think back to Charles Duquet, monstrous with his enormous ivory choppers and distended jaw, stalking the globe for resources to exploit. James Duke, his great-grandson, will murder in cold blood to do away with inconvenient competitors. And Lavinia Duke, James’s daughter and the woman who transforms Duke and Sons Lumber from a family business into a robust Gilded Age corporation, is every bit as ruthless as her forebears. As Karl Marx says in his own doorstopper of historical analysis, Capital Volume I, “it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part” in the making of great fortunes. Reprehensible as the Dukes and their ilk may be, their struggles remain terribly fun to read. Proulx lets the family be terrible without making them unpleasant to be around.
Lavinia Duke is the most immediately admirable of her clan, the only Duke we really cheer on through her ascendancy. Her touching love of robins, desire to learn the arts of forestry that have been foreclosed to women for centuries, and real displays of sorrow over her mother, father, and husband’s fates are subtle and affecting. But when Lavinia stops to consider the family business, she is every bit as callous as the founder of the family line. She refers the laborers who work for her as “human flotsam […] their lives nothing beyond a few sweaty years with an ax,” and wonders how they can stand to exist so primitively, with “no worries about succession, nor about credit or character.” The Sel plot gives the lie to Lavinia’s “swiftly dissolving thoughts” regarding her employees. Jinot agonizes over the fate of his relatives, and his son Aaron desperately seeks to find a connection to his Mi’kmaq past. In one brief passage, Proulx manages to reveal the astonishing arrogance of the owning classes — while at the same time asking us to have a modicum of sympathy for their delusions and blind spots. If anything, this may be the novel’s only major drawback: she’s no Ayn Rand, but Proulx can’t seem to help but be in awe of the Duke family’s machinations.
Barkskins perfects the balance between “the study of history and marshaling of facts” and the careful portrayal of individual lives. All the elements that make Proulx’s work so potent are on display here, blown up and spread across 300-plus years of economic development, ecological collapse, and family history. Personal choices and impersonal forces press against one another, and the relationship between humans and our environment unfolds as grand-scale tragedy. Proulx trusts her readers enough to let us see the unwieldy contraption as it evolves, gains and loses parts, sometimes comes off the wheels altogether. She achieves this effect in part through a parade of brutal, comically sudden deaths for her characters. Often, just as we’re about to seize on a character as the archetypal person of their time, Proulx will clobber, strangle, or freeze that person out of existence. Generations of tree cutters are described in one paragraph by the changing axes they use over the decades, the bones of ancient relatives fall to rest under the ground after a great-great-grandchild makes a sound business decision, and ancient, rapidly dwindling forests touch characters across centuries. A whole wing of a prominent logging family is engulfed in flames during a dinner party — an event we learn of only after the fact — and we begin to understand that these characters are not terribly important as individuals, even if we do find it nice to spend some time with them.
Despite providing a clear-eyed analysis of class, business, and family in American life, Barkskins is not a thinly disguised dissertation on economic development in the Western Hemisphere, the history of logging in North America, or the environmental impact of capitalist accumulation. While it touches on all of those things, Proulx’s inventiveness keeps the novel from exhausting us. A woman who, on her deathbed, is discovered to be transgender by her husband’s curious relatives; a trusty dog called Hans Carl von Carlowitz; settlers who scheme federal land agencies by erecting dollhouses on homesteads then selling the land to corporations; a ferocious wedding night sex scene with incestuous overtones; clever allusions to Irving, Poe, and other literary giants of the 19th century — all of these moments, and so many more like them, enliven Barkskins, make it a pleasure.
But as Charley Breitsprecher’s journal entry implies, it’s a pleasure undercut by notes of frustration and environmental apocalypticism. By the novel’s end, it’s clear that the beneficiaries of Charles Duquet’s cunning will, like the Mi’kmaq people they have employed, face eventual collapse and displacement. Like any great historical novel, Proulx’s latest is a drama with a thesis. Barkskins is a chronicle of decline, the slow unveiling of an economic system and an approach to nature that have left all of us, whether beneficiaries of generational wealth or members of the class that has labored to make that wealth possible, to face down some “very frightening stuff.”