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Although Borden Deal’s novels are invariably set in the South, they have gained far more than regional acceptance. His work has been adapted for the screen, the stage, radio, and television. The Insolent Breed (1959) was the basis for the Broadway musical A Joyful Noise (1966). Dunbar’s Cove (1958) was combined with William Bradford Huie’s novel Mud on the Stars (1942) to form the movie Wild River (1960), directed by Elia Kazan. Deal’s works have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Youth of the Depression
Bordean Deal was born Loyse Youth Deal in Pontotoc, Mississippi, and raised in Union County, near New Albany. The economic struggles of his family during the Depression years made an indelible impression on him and later provided abundant material for his fiction. His father, like many other farmers, lost his land when the price of cotton dropped disastrously. Aided by Roosevelt’s rehabilitation program, the family procured two mules and traveled to a communal, government-sponsored farming project in Enterprise, Mississippi. This small community of renters was depicted years later as Bugscuffle Bottoms in the novel The Least One (1967). The Darden community, the site of a later family farming venture, became Hell Creek Bottom in The Other Room (1974).
Deal left home in 1938, the year of his father’s death in a truck accident. Over the next few years he went through a variety of occupations, including hauling saw-dust for a lumber mill, working on a showboat, battling forest fires with the Civilian Conservation Corps, and following the wheat harvest with other migrant workers by freight train. His pursuits would soon swing from the physically demanding to the intellectual.
The Literary and the Mystical
Borden Deal’s first publication occurred in 1948 when he was in college. His short story “Exodus” won first prize in a national contest and was reprinted in Best American Short Stories of 1949. Deal received his BA from the University of Alabama in 1949 and in 1950 was a graduate student in Mexico City. In 1954, Deal resolved to devote himself to writing full time. So began the flood of novels and short stories he would continue to publish for the duration of his life.
By 1957 Deal had achieved national recognition with his first novel, Walk Through the Valley (1956), which received an honorable mention in the American Library Association Liberty and Justice Awards. A major theme in the Deal canon—and perhaps that for which he received the most critical attention—is humankind’s mystical attachment to the earth itself. Walk Through the Valley distinguished him as a novelist who writes with the authority of experience of farming and the rhythms of the seasons. This tale is about a dream-seeking pilgrim named Fate Laird who leaves the sterile land of his father’s Texas farm in search of a more fertile and prosperous country. Central to this novel is the romantic kinship Fate feels with the forces of nature and with the land he works. Deal’s characters are typically honest and uncomplicated people who are motivated by the basic drives of human nature: family pride, the desire for independence, and the longing for land that will yield security and those material comforts that tell a man he is progressing toward a better, gentler life.
There is perhaps no Deal novel in which the land itself looms as a more important element than in Dun bar’s Cove (1958). This story revolves around two men with conflicting dreams: Matthew Dunbar, farmer and ordained guardian of his ancestral property, who vehemently fights against the massive dam-building project of the Tennessee Valley Authority—a government-created corporation designed to create jobs during the Depression through public works programs—and the young and idealistic engineer Crawford Gates, who represents the federal government. Although his land is destined to be flooded, Dunbar refuses to sell to the TVA because he feels a mystical pact with the ancestral defenders of the cove—an obligation to preserve it as a sanctuary for any Dunbar who should ever want to return.
Deal’s next novel, Dragon’s Wine (1960), represents a deeper and perhaps darker side of Deal’s creative character. The novel is a dark and bloody tale that treats the outbreak of greed and demonic ambition in the human personality. The novel revolves around Homer and Kate Greaves, two larger-than-life characters who dominate the sawmill manor where they are tenants. Quite a shift from the focus on adult passions in Dragon’s Wine, A Long Way to Go (1965) is a treatment of the ritual of initiation. Three precocious children embark on a six-hundred-mile journey to their home after being mysteriously abandoned by their parents. The book is a sensitive account of how innocent children, suddenly severed from family dependency, adjust to the not-so-innocent world.
Also appearing in 1965 was The Tobacco Men, a fictional account of the Kentucky tobacco wars of the early 1900s and J. B. Duke’s American Tobacco Company in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Deal based the novel on notes by Theodore Dreiser and Hollywood writer Hy Kraft. He obtained the notes on the condition that he would be allowed complete artistic freedom in writing the book. The novel is about a shrewd robber baron named Oren Knox, patterned after J. B. Duke, and the stormy expansion of his tobacco empire. Knox is opposed by Amos Haines, a selfless country doctor.
The Least One and its sequel The Other Room are Deal’s semi-autobiographical stories ofthe Sword family’s search for the elusive land of promise. Central to the novels is the idea that a person’s values and identity are generated by certain vital experiences. In The Least One, Lee Sword leaves his son, simply called Boy, the task of naming himself. Deal reflects upon the biblical creation story in which Adam, through naming the living creatures and by exercising his will, shaped the world to some degree into a creation of his own making.
A Product of His Past
In all his work, Deal was, first of all, a product of his region and past. Like many of his Southern contemporaries, his writing shows a strong sense of place and time. Undoubtedly, his family’s perseverance in the Depression years accounts greatly for the pervasive themes of land quest and personal ambition as well as the host of stubborn dreamers in his books. There is, however, much in Deal’s work that transcends its regional flavor. A universal quality in his writing stems, in part, from his preoccupation with the timeless ritual of self-discovery. Deal believed that his novels were “given” to him by the historically consequential times in which he lived. Deal continued publishing his spiritually searching works right up until his death from a heart attack in 1985.
Works in Literary Context
Man’s Relationship to the Land
A theme that arises throughout much of Deal’s work is the relationship between man and the land he works. The relationship is often depicted as a complex one, as the land can either be a fruitful provider of food and financial stability or a barren, stubborn hindrance. In Walk Through the Valley, the symbolically named Fate Laird finds his own fate at the whim of the sterile land on his father’s Texas farm. In this case, the land provides Fate with an opportunity to leave the security of his home and explore the world in search of prosperity. Conversely, The Tobacco Men features a ruthless industrialist bent on controlling the land in order to expand his tobacco empire.
Although the majority of Borden Deal’s work can be categorized as southern literary fiction, Deal also experimented with the genre of crime fiction often referred to as pulp with his novels The Killer in the House (1957) and The Devil’s Whisper (1961). Pulp fiction is defined by its luridness, which is often reflected in the shadowy violent images on pulp book covers that generally depicted men with guns and women in distress. Pulp fiction originally gained popularity during the 1920s and 1930s when magazines like Startling Stories and Black Mask collected violent stories of crime and adventure. The magazines were nicknamed pulps because of the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed. By the 1950s, the kinds of stories that were originally published in pulp magazines appeared in mass-market paperback books also referred to as pulps. Some of the leading authors of their generations, such as Isaac Asimov, Upton Sinclair, William S. Burroughs, and Joseph Conrad, wrote for pulp magazines.
Works in Critical Context
One of Deal’s most famous novels, Dunbar’s Cove is also one his novels that has left the longest lasting impression on critics. This may be in part due to its well-received big screen adaptation by influential filmmaker Elia Kazan, Wild River. In his 1960 review of the film, A. H. Weilerof The New York Times remarks that it was blessed with ”an embarrassment of riches” in its source material. In 1981, James B. Lloyd provided a more detailed appraisal of the book, describing it as ”an emotional statement, in terms of characters and drama and conflict, about an experienced event, a balancing and a molding of fact and fiction into a truth greater than either alone.”
The Insolent Breed
Along with Dunbar’s Cove, The Insolent Breed is generally regarded as Deal’s most essential work. Precious few original critical assessments of the novel survive, but Deal’s obituary in The New York Times includes a revealing quote from the Times’ original review of the novel, in which critic Orville Prescott classifies Deal as ”a novelist who actually enjoys amusing his readers and who doesn’t think it beneath him to hold their attention.” The popularity of the novel would eventually result in its adaptation into the Tony Award-nominated Broad way musical A Joyful Noise.
- Dollarhide, Louis. ”November 10, 1957 … a new novel by a Mississippian,” in Of Arts and Artists: Selected Reviews of the Arts in Mississippi, 1955-1975. Jackson, Miss.: University of Georgia, 1980, pp. 8-9.
- Lloyd, James B. Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1981:125-127
- McCarthy, Kevin M. The Book Lover’s Guide to Florida. Atlanta, Ga.: University of Georgia, 1980, 69-72.
- ”Borden Deal, 62, a Novelist, Who Wrote ‘Insolent Breed.”’ The New York Times (January 25, 1985).
- Weiler, A. H. The New York Times (May 27, 1960).
- Mississippi Writers & Musicians. ”Borden Deal.” Accessed November 17, 2008, from http:// www.mswritersandmusicians.com/writers/ borden-deal.html.
- Murder with Southern Hospitality: An Exhibition of Mississippi Mysteries. ”Borden Deal.” Accessed November 17, 2008, from http://hermes.lib. olemiss.edu/mystery/exhibit.asp?display=10 §ion=3.
- This Goodly Land: Alabama’s Literary Landscape. ”Borden Deal.” Accessed November 30, 2008, from http://www.alabamaliterarymap.org/author.cfm? AuthorID=99. Last updated May 30, 2008.
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