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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Midsummernight

Midsummernight - Carl Wilhelmson

In the 1920s, two aspiring writers roomed together while students at Stanford University. The first was an emigrant of Finland named Carl Wilhelmson. He sent out his first novel, Midsummernight, and had quick success finding a publisher. He might have written more books—evidence shows he did—but as the author and his work have nearly disappeared from all record, it's difficult to find proof. Today, no one seems to know of Wilhelmson. The second young writer didn't have the same success with his first novel, The Green Lady. He struggled with writing it and had no luck when sending it out, so he moved onto a second manuscript, which was published. It was a poorly received adventure tale about the pirate Henry Morgan. The writer himself hated the book. After years of starts and stops, he was eventually able to publish what had been his first novel, after many harsh rewrites. It was given a new title:To a God Unknown. The writer's name was John Steinbeck.

I learned about Wilhelmson from the massive Steinbeck biography by Jackson J. Benson, simply called John Steinbeck, Writer. I was curious. Who was this writer who found success where Steinbeck couldn't? And why has this one novel practically been lost to the world? I set out to find a copy of Midsummernight. I also did a little research on Carl Wilhelmson. Unfortunately, I was unable to learn much. In fact, I wasn’t able to find a single review anywhere online. (I had to manually enter the book on Goodreads myself.) If this book wasn’t sitting right in front of me at this very moment, I’d find it hard to believe it existed. Here’s a thought: I may be the first person to read this novel in ten… twenty years. Possibly even longer. Certainly, it hasn’t had very many readers in the last half century. There is a relatively small list of libraries worldwide, mostly university libraries, that still own this book. And that thought frightens me a little: a fine book, mass produced, can disappear in less than a century. I'm sure it has happened to many works, but none that I have been so close to.

I was able to find a brief description for the novel:

A mystical romance novel set in Finland, Midsummernight is the story of a boy who runs away from home at the age of ten, serves in the Russian navy, and lives the life of a sailor on the Seven Seas in many ships, and in many lands.

This description is absolutely terrible. Yes, our protagonist, Otto, does have a history of exploring the world aboard many seafaring vessels. But this is all part of the backstory that's covered in a single chapter toward the beginning of the book; it is not the actual plot of this novel. 

So what is the story? Midsummernight is about Otto's return to Finland after this period at sea. Presumed by the members of his village to have died, Otto returns to his homeland with intentions to keep his visit brief—he wants to return to the fast-paced, bright world he has become accustomed to. Although Otto has been, in many regards, replaced and mostly forgotten, the village welcomes him back and Otto begins to acclimate to the people and the customs of his childhood. Despite the promise of adventure, the bulk of Midsummernight is actually a love story. Upon his return, Otto falls madly in love with a girl named Aino. But Aino has already been promised to another. It's a story we're all familiar with, but it's orchestrated well here, particularly in the first half. As the story proceeds, Otto's infatuation takes a turn for the worse, and the relationship begins to bear some similarity to that of Heathcliff and Catherine (Wuthering Heights). Though Otto is not as vindictive as Heathcliff and Aino is nowhere near as manipulative as Catherine, this increasingly toxic relationship sours what had been an endearing story about a doomed romance. Otto becomes so petty and argumentative that he alone brought this novel down from five stars. It's not that I cannot accept a character who behaves in such a manner in my fiction, but there's a point where, as a reader, you're so annoyed that you just wish you could strike them from the page.

One thing I did not expect from this novel—not that I really had any expectations whatsoever—was the exploration of magic. There is a question throughout of Otto's ties to the traditions of his homeland and how it wars with the influence of the larger, more modern world. This is echoed in the so-called advancements of the village. While the village as a whole still holds firm to many of the Finnish traditions, a large part has also embraced Christianity, forsaking the traditional beliefs. There still remains a remnant who practices these folklores involving healing and wizardry. Though it's not a prominent theme, the belief in magic does factor in on multiple occasions. There's even a layer of magic for good intentions versus magic for bad.

Written decades after the so-called end of Romanticism, Midsummernight draws heavily from the style. A tortured love affair. A regard for the traditional. An exploration of the supernatural. And yet, Carl Wilhelmson seemed to be asking, what happens when these elements meet the modernity of the subsequent literary movement. Perhaps there was just too much of the romantic in Wilhelmson's novel, and it was just too much, far too late. Readers had moved onto the glitter of Gatsby, the straight-forwardness of Hemingway, the consciousness of Woolf. Maybe this is why Midsummernight has died a very slow death, misplaced in the damp halls of some retirement facility for forgotten works of literature. And yet evidence exists that Midsummernight was not an only child. According a letter Steinbeck wrote to a fellow former classmate, “Carl has finished two [novels] and is about a third through his third.” In a separate letter written later, Steinbeck wrote “Carl Wilhelmson’s Wizard’s Farm is being published by Rinehart and Farrar this summer.” (I found no other mention of this work, though a short story entitled “Wizard's Waterloo” was published in a couple magazines around this time.) The last correspondence from Steinbeck to Wilhelmson was written in 1946 and mentions the latter's desire to “get to work.”

What happened to Carl Wilhelmson? Surely, someone out there has the answer. Census records from the 1930s show a Carl Wilhelmson, born in 1889, living in San Francisco. His occupation is listed as a writer of fiction. Probably this is our Wilhelmson, but the same person does not appear in the 1940 census record, even though we can assume he was still living as of 1946. One might assume that Wilhelmson even lived well into the 1970s or 80s. Maybe someone still living knew the guy. Clearly, I want to know more. I haven't given up my search.

So now a review exists for this novel. I can't say it's a particularly good one, but I can say with some confidence that at the time I posted it, it was the best online review that existed for this novel. Hopefully, others will follow. And hopefully I've played a small part in keeping this writer from being entirely forgotten. So much toil goes into writing a book, and all most of us can hope for is an escape from obscurity. Let's not forget Carl Wilhelmson, author of Midsummernight.