The emergence of Windswept on the bestseller list in 1941 proved to literary critics and readers alike that Mary Ellen Chase was taking all the right steps to becoming a respected and recognized writer. Following the relative successes of her two previous novels, Silas Crockett and Mary Peters, Windswept entered the literary scene at a time when a variety of books were being read, and when readers looked to literature for reassurance that the American dream was still alive and well. The novel was written and published during the first half of World War II, when America was becoming increasingly involved in foreign issues. Yet, as reflected in the success and reception of Windswept and other similar works, American readers relied on the literature of the early 1940s to remind them of the resiliency, tradition, and community that characterized social and political life during those years of change. The writing style used by Mary Ellen Chase in the book further justified its popularity, as critics and readers alike appreciated the clean, deep prose and element of genuineness found in Windswept.
Promotional techniques used by Macmillan, the publisher of Windswept, were effective in setting up its reading audience to readily embrace the novel as a symbol of the best American Literature had to offer. Advertisements touted it as falling under the same category as such sweeping national epics as Gone with the Wind, All This and Heaven Too, and How Green Was My Valley. Such campaigning put the novel on a level with works of literature that American citizens were expected to read and enjoy. Windswept, following the precedent set by these other great works, was proclaimed by Macmillan to be a "symbol of the kind of life America at its wisest can produce." The bold, eye-catching graphics used to promote the novel were assisted by the simplicity and strength of the one-word title of the novel, which no doubt stuck easily in the minds of readers. The incorporation of the word "America" in the majority of the advertisements and promotions also gave the book the reputation, even prior to its release, of standing for patriotism and a reflection of community in the United States. Non-fiction books that were "forecasted" simultaneously with Windswept, by such publications as The Publisher's Weekly, included The World's Iron Age, by William Henry Chamberlin, which was a "description and analysis of world events since the last war," and All That Glitters, by Frances Parkinson Keyes, described as a "full, detailed picture of life in Washington in the ?20s, ?30s and '40?" These works, contemporary to the publication of Windswept, also reflect the prevalence of literature dealing with the history, traditions and culture of America up until the 1940s. World events, the past, and a sense of nostalgia were obviously important elements of American culture during the World War II era. While Windswept was by no means a war novel, the timing of its publication was important to its success, since it was both publicized and purchased by means of a sense of national pride and importance.
Glancing at the top-ten lists of both fictitious and non-fictitious best sellers during 1941 and 1942, it is obvious that readers were interested in a broad array of books and subject matter. Again, however, the political and social backdrop of World War II was not ignored by writers of the time. Titles such as Berlin Diary, by William Shirer, Blood, Sweat and Tears, by Winston Churchill, You Can't Do Business with Hitler, by Douglass Miller, and Victory Through Air Power by Major Alexander P. de Seversky, for example, were very tangible reflections of what was on the minds of American writers and readers during those two years?namely, the war. Even Windswept, a fictitious story centered on a family in the northeastern United States, did not ignore the presence of these outside, foreign forces. The first chapter of the novel, in fact, describes the loud, confusing intrusion of a troop of German soldiers on a country road in Germany while two of the women in the novel are taking a peaceful, afternoon drive. Likewise, Philomena and Jan, two Bohemian friends of the Marstons, are heart-broken upon hearing that the German swastika was raised above the castle of Prague. He explains to an American shopkeeper "we do not like the Germans?for many years they oppress the Bohemians," to which the shopkeeper can only reply "I guess there's no one likes the Germans overmuch?I guess some day we'll all have to stand together to beat that man Hitler." The "enemy", to both Americans and Bohemians, is blatantly identified in Chase's novel, yet the power of the Germans, and the events taking place in the world at large, are only referred to briefly. Mary Ellen Chase, therefore, acknowledged and incorporated modern concerns and issues, but rather than focus primarily on the War, she used it as a tool for character development, as will be discussed further. Readers found comfort in the fact that the existence of, and references to, the war did not turn the novel into a commentary on World War II, but rather enhanced and deepened the feelings and sentiments expressed in the book by characters from all walks of life.
Critics and readers appreciated the fact that Chase did not get caught up in the hype of World War II, but rather remained true to writing about what she was most passionate about, namely the Maine coast. She did not ignore what was going on in the political world around her, but incorporated it sparingly in the dialogue and text of her novel. Preferring to pledge allegiance to the American ideals of self-prosperity, generations of families, and the delicate relationship between the past and the present, Chase turned an enormous war into simply another aspect of life to be reckoned with by the Marstons, the Bohemians and other characters in Windswept. Mary Ellen Chase's subject matter, and manner of presenting it, was respected by Fanny Butcher and other critics for its "quiet acceptance of reality." Rather than trying to push an opinion on its readers, Windswept invited them to escape to the weathered, beautiful coast of Maine, where the deaths of familiar characters such as Philip Marston and Daniel Perkins gave mortality a realness to the others in the novel, and caused them to face it on their own personal battlefield. Readers could identify with, and feel connected to, the personalities and ambitions of characters in Windswept.
Chase's characterization was praised for its depth and originality, even though the plot and setting of her novel had not progressed far from that of her previous books. Critic Perry D. Westbrook celebrated Chase's own "confidence in the moral and spiritual resources of the American culture," elements that surface repeatedly in the actions and words of the characters in Windswept. There are many Biblical references in the book, which again reinforced the idea of classicism and institutionalized traditions to its readers. The overlap of nature and religion, and the power of sources, whose essences are both natural and God-given, is also incorporated in the novel. The wind is described in the novel a "companion, even as master, the power behind those shooting, soaring paths of [stars], clearing the way for the streets of the New Jerusalem, blazing with topaz and emerald." Thus, the grand enterprise undertaken by the Marston men in constructing the Windswept estate, coupled with the timelessness and vastness of the natural and spiritual powers by which they were surrounded, conveyed a sense of harmony between man and nature to readers.
Amidst the context of nature, and of the surroundings that man finds himself thrown into, the importance of human connection is explored in the novel. The main characters in the novel are men, yet men and women alike were drawn to Windswept as it sweetly delved into relationships between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives and camaraderie among both adults and children. The universality of human bonds receives great attention in the novel. Chase, for example, celebrates the changing demography of American communities that was taking place in the 1940s, choosing to incorporate the personable Bohemians Jan, Anton, Philomena and others in her novel. Rather than isolate or stigmatize such characters, Chase retains an appreciation for their cultural heritage while simultaneously demonstrating the importance of welcoming them into American communities. She sensitively chronicles the immigration of different peoples, as far back as 1871, to the United States, while highlighting the beauty and uniqueness that their inclusion into society brought. A review in the New Yorker praised Chase's "profound belief in the ?foreigners' enrichment of American life," and called her novel "a readable family chronicle." Mary Ellen Chase wrote her novel in such a way that it helped expose her readers to the social and cultural changes that were taking place in their country, without sacrificing her reverence for the American family. Readers of varied ages, races and even religions could read her novel without feeling threatened by the changing face of America that she subtly explores, or feeling alienated by her incorporation of the new with the old.
Windswept achieved best-seller status during 1940 and 1941 when great works by American authors, such as Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and John Steinbeck's The Moon is Down, were also earning "top 10" status. While such authors had gained more ground than Chase in establishing names for themselves by that time, her presence on the list was both respected and well-deserved. As mentioned above, her careful attention to the nostalgia and familial legacies treasured by the "typical" American citizen were embraced by all kinds of readers. Critic William Hogan admired the fact that Chase included "no violence, no loud noises, no sex or bombast?but a display of craftsmanship that might embarrass a younger generation of novelists if they took time out to read this kind of English prose." He, and others, praised Chase for writing in the true tradition of English literature, and retaining those qualities that mark respectable literature, without dampening the freshness or spirit of the novel. Windswept truly was, and still is, an American novel. However, Mary Ellen Chase obviously had her own definition of what "American" meant, and how the meaning had slowly progressed over time. Thus, she was able to attract readers from different walks of life, looking for different things in books. Those who wished to escape from the cruel realities of war could turn to the adventure, dreams, endurance and nostalgia displayed in the characters and setting of Windswept. Those who wished to explore what it meant to be in touch with one's roots and heritage could also look to the book and be comforted by the tribute paid by Chase to the idea of a home, to the philosophy of strength, the unbeatable human spirit represented in Windswept. She also forced her readers to think and to question that which was going on around them, as Windswept poses the question of whether or not technology and progress are harmful and slowly detract from the essence of American culture. Most importantly, there was an attraction of readers to the unfailing sense of optimism that emanates from the novel. While tragedy and sadness does strike characters in the novel, proving that life will always have its share of trials and struggles, the love and spirit of human beings always triumphs and carries on. Windswept's best-seller status was earned by greater factors than those such as number of books sold or copies printed. Rather, the timelessness and strength of the novel offered its readers a safe escape from the craziness of the world around them, and marked Chase as a member of a "group of writers who insist on seeing and finding positive values in our national culture in a period when it has become intellectually fashionable to find anything but negative values," (Westbrook). While the historical, social and political events surrounding the release of Windswept were important factors in the success of the novel, as was the respectable name Chase had earned herself as a writer, Windswept stood on its own merit in winning over the hearts of readers from anywhere and everywhere. These same readers were looking for a book that both appreciated and honored the past, while treasuring the present as well as the people and customs that enhance our individual lives.
Publisher's Weekly, 1941, 1942
Book Review Digest: New York Times Review 1941, 1942
Westbrook, Perry D. Mary Ellen Chase, Twayne, 1965