Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

This summer I read twice this giant of a novel first published in 1983. One reading cannot release a fraction of its rich meanings. I come away and hold this novel at arm’s length and gasp that this is one of the most significant works of American literature of the latter twentieth century. Furthermore, it represents American magical realism at its finest.  Helprin encompasses Greek, European, Native-American and Biblical mythology in his story of pilgrim characters who converge upon New York City in four directions: “The east gate was that of acceptance of responsibility, the south gate that of the desire to explore, the west gate that of devotion to beauty, and the north gate that of selfless love.”  The city assumes symbolical and mythic proportions exuding in its industrial power, the national ethos. Peter Lake, arrives like Moses in his reed boat on the New Jersey shore, and his coming of age emerges as a journey across the bay into New York’s underbelly.

Helprin accomplishes so much in Winter’s Tale, blending history mainly in the first decades of the twentieth century, fantasy, and meditation on time and space. His description of bridges and bridge-building are evocative of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, for clearly he draws extensively upon a great fund of both American and world literature. The role of winter cannot be ignored. The motif of snow, ice, and cold suffuses the story. Helprin writes: “Winter, it was said, was the season in which time was superconductive–the season when a brittle world might shatter in the face of astonishing events, later to reform in a new body as solid and smooth as young transparent ice.”

Another motif that cannot be neglected is the quest for the perfect city of justice. Hardesty Marratta sets out from San Francisco to find such a city. The list is long of the symbols that Helprin borrows from mythology to advance his American motif. The white horse Athansor evocative of Pegasus, the island in the Lake of the Coheeries like something from the Arthurian legend, Beverley as the beautiful lady of the lake, and Marratta’s choice of the mystical salver are only a few.

Helprin is suggesting that interconnectedness permeates the universe. In the grand scope of events, nothing is random. Not even random evil. Crime and violence have a place in the cycle of nature. In fact, even New York City composed of concrete and steel, the great industrial giant it is with its Penn Station, seemingly the hub of transportation and commerce, is part of the natural world and built from the minerals of the earth. Upon the roof of New York’s Grand Central Station is a painting of the constellations, the constellations that Beverley probes upon her roof-top bed and the interstellar space into which Athansor disappears.  Study the pairs of lovers, too, in this novel.

The gold in this book is too much to mine in a short peek at what it offers. Awestruck, I feel inadequate to the task and must return to a third reading. I predict this novel will endure in the pantheon of great American fiction. I invite you to read this book and add your comments. A rich discussion could follow.




One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Iris in Idaho on September 7, 2015 at 7:59 am

    I admire your analysis. I had no patience for this tome. Not unlike the impatience I have had with my own life of late.


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