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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Harbor

Ernest Poole

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Harbor

Title: The Harbor
Author: Ernest Poole
Genre: Novel
Written: 1915
Length: 350 pages
Availability: The Harbor - US
The Harbor - UK
The Harbor - Canada
The Harbor - India
  • With an Introduction by Patrick Chura

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid and quite entertaining Bildungsroman

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 10/1915 .
The Dial . 18/3/1915 William Morton Payne
The New Republic A- 20/3/1915 .
The New York Times . 7/2/1915 .
Publishers Weekly . 24/10/2011 .
The Washington Post . 13/1/2012 Dennis Drabelle

  From the Reviews:
  • "Where The Harbor deals with the outer world it is imaginative, vivid, charming; where it deals with the soul of man it is inexpert, almost bungling; yet it is sincere always, candid and restrained." - The Atlantic Monthly

  • "A surprisingly good novel" - William Morton Payne, The Dial

  • "It is as a narrative of modern moral experience that The Harbor is significant (.....) Less complicated in psychology than life is, The Harbor is too purposeful to be quite satisfactory as art. But its prupose is full of thrilling and beautiful quality, its action unforgettably graphic, its perceptions warm and magnanimous." - The New Republic

  • "It is earnest, sincere, broad in scope and purpose, well balanced, combining intellect and emotion. It has none of the crudities of the usual promising first novel (.....) It is difficult to give more than the faintest hint of the scope and power of this very unusual book within the limits of a review." - The New York Times

  • "One hundred years later, this precursor to works like The Jungle raises still relevant questions about the distribution of wealth, the prevalence of corruption, and the complicated interplay between family, livelihood, and political conviction." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Poole writes exuberant prose, with frequent recourse to the kind of catalogues favored by Walt Whitman (.....) If occasionally Joe -- and even Billy -- mounts a soapbox to speechify, these lapses are outweighed by such dramatic episodes as the family struggle over whether Billy’s sister should marry Joe, who can bring almost nothing to the match but his idealism." - Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In its new Penguin Classics edition, The Harbor is touted as a "socialist masterpiece", and Patrick Chura's Introduction begins:

     Critics from several eras have described The Harbor as "the best Socialist novel of all, "the best radical novel written in the 1910s"
       Of course, in the United States -- a country where even a president such as Barack Obama, as close to and supportive of 'Wall Street' as any, can be denounced as a 'socialist' -- the conception of socialism is a rather confused one. And, while socially aware and with its share of descriptions of rabble-rousing, The Harbor is -- in political and economic respects -- an astonishingly tame affair: bourgeois socialism and nothing more. Much of this is because of how it is presented, narrated by Billy, who becomes a journalist and writer: he is and remains an observer, chronicling what he sees but remaining apart from it. Yes, friends and family are touched and battered by events, and Billy feels for them, but at heart he's just a chronicler.
       In fact, The Harbor is more conventional Bildungsroman than anything else, describing the development of Billy as he (slowly) matures; he gains some political and social awareness along the way too, but his activism is very limited. Billy grows up in a household with a cultured mother -- "one of those first American women who went to college" --, whom he is very close to, and a businessman-father he is not. The father dotes on younger sister Sue, who is a more adventurous type, while his mother hopes for perhaps a quiet career on some college campus for Billy. There's also a girl in the neighborhood, Eleanore Dillon, a friend of Sue's, who will be a constant presence in his life even as he remains wary of his feelings for her early on. And later, at college, Billy befriends Joe Kramer, who remains a lifelong friend, always trying to prod Billy on to greater activism and involvement (and having much more success in that regard with Sue ...).
       Billy grows up in a Brooklyn house overlooking the harbor, and his earliest adventures are there; then and always he finds himself drawn to the bustle and activity and all that the harbor implies and offers -- even as it changes over the years. It is this change, with small-time operators like Billy's father crowded out of the shipping business and magnates with plans for the grandest designs, like Eleanore's father, shaping the future, that is also chronicled in The Harbor.
       Billy goes to college and doesn't learn much (with the even more disappointed Joe simply abandoning his studies for the real world after getting the lay of the land), and then goes off to Paris for nearly two years, trying to begin to establish himself as an artist. The adventurous Joe keeps egging him on about where the action really is:
Believe me, Bill, the nations of this planet are working themselves into a state where they're ready to do things you never dreamed of. I'm not talking of kings and governments, I'm talking of the people themselves, the people in such excited crowds that nobody knows who's who or what's next.
       Joe flings himself into this world; Billy remains by and large on the sidelines, observing. As Joe notes about Billy and the arty crowd he hangs out with:
You're the creediest kids I ever saw, your religion is style, technique and form. For God's sake lose it and use your own eyes, forget you're an artist and be a reporter, come out in the world and have a try.
       Billy does move in that direction, but it's a long process -- and even though he eventually uses his eyes pretty well, his heart and soul are never quite as in it as Joe's are.
       Returning home, Billy finds his father's business on its last legs and after first helping him basically wind it down eventually settles into journalism. (Hilariously, Sue encourages Billy, as: "There's plenty of money in writing"; amazingly that seems to have been true, at least to judge from how easily Billy manages to get by reasonably well.) He also starts seriously wooing Eleanore -- a long and drawn out process --, whose father has been enormously successful even as his has failed. Billy moves between the two worlds, interviewing the tycoons of the age, but also watching for days and weeks on end the workers in the harbor and on the docks.
       Eleanore's father describes the port as:
A complicate industrial organ, the heart of a country's circulation, pumping in and out its millions of tons of traffic as quickly and cheaply as possible. That's efficiency, scientific management or just plain engineering, whatever you want to call it. But it's got to be done for us all in a plan instead of each for himself in a blind struggling chaos.
       Billy sees the other side as well, however -- and is repeatedly reminded of it by Joe, who revels in the 'blind struggling chaos'. Worlds naturally eventually collide in the strike in which the novel culminates. Much earlier, Joe tells Billy: "You've got to decide which side you're on", but it's not that simply a matter of sides for Billy. Witnessing the strike he is overwhelmed by the sense of the teeming, seeking mass and finds that: "we were members of the whole and took on its huge personality", but even as he is drawn into events he maintains his journalistic -- if not entirely neutral -- approach.
       The descriptions of the strike, and the different personalities, and scenes from the different worlds are all well presented, as Poole shows a broad (if not entirely rounded) picture of the labor situation (and the capital situation). Ultimately, the book's greatest strength and weakness is its dominant narrator, as Billy remains too much peripheral (and self-obsessed) observer -- even at his most involved. This is far from all bad, because Billy is an interesting, even compelling character -- but he's a limited judge of world (and local) events.
       Among the other appealing aspects of the novel is in the effort to present the women, who, beginning with Billy's mother, all show strong personalities and willpower. Billy's relationship with Sue is a frequently shifting one, and she is a fascinating independent-minded figure (though not so independent-minded for the longest time that she is able to go against her father's wishes and take a job). Even more interesting, from his first childhood glimpses of her, is Eleanore, and Billy's relationship with her.
       The social, political, and economic backdrop is significant in this novel, yet ultimately it is a personal account -- and many of the best parts are the small personal observations. Harbor life, in all its facets, is also well presented -- while Joe, however, is a bit of too-good-to-be-true type, too obviously presented as Billy's friendly foil.
       A rich, interesting novel, and quite a good piece of work, The Harbor is considerably more than just an interesting document of the times -- but it can't compare to the European labor-movement novels in its presentation of the working class.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 December 2011

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The Harbor: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Pulizter Prize-winning American author Ernest Poole lived 1880 to 1950.

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© 2011-2022 the complete review

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