James A. Herne, 1839-1901, is generally considered to be the best American dramatist prior to O'Neill. His dramas represent the first American attempts at dramatic realism. His early plays are melodramatic in tendency, but soon he began to eliminate villains, asides, stereotyped characters, and other trappings of that earlier dramatic form. When Hamlin Garland saw Herne's play dealing with the drinking problem, Drifting Apart, he was convinced that Herne could be groomed into a sort of American Ibsen. Garland soon introduced Herne to William Dean Howells, and the two authors encouraged Herne in his quest for realism. The result was Margaret Fleming, a stark drama dealing with the problems of marital infidelity and the double standard. While not a financial success, it made an artistic impact and become the impetus for the first independent theater movement in the United States.
This paper studies Herne as social critic. The play which Garland saw was about alcohol and its effects on the home, and Margaret Fleming considers the place of women in society. His next play, Shore Acres, deals with land speculation and Darwinism, ideas intimately related to Henry George's single tax theory. A final play, Griffith Davenport, deals with the Civil War and slavery, thus bringing up the question of Negro rights.
These four issues were prominent in the 1880's and '90's when Herne wrote. Prohibition was already in effect in Maine, woman suffrage was being supported by the AFL, "single tax" was on the lips of many intellectuals, and Negroes were being lynched by the hundreds each year. Herne campaigned for Bryan twice and supported George's single tax theory wholeheartedly. Clearly, Herne was a mirror of the social climate of his times.
It would be less than accurate, however, to maintain that Herne is primarily a social critic. The reformer in him was usually in submission to, or at equilibrium with, the artist. Though Herne was not a great dramatist, he was an innovator. Some of his techniques are seen again in Chekov and O'Neill. A study of Herne as social critic, then, cannot maintain that Herne was chiefly concerned with art as social comment.
Indeed, Herne's last two plays begin to move away from social issues. They are more concerned with human, than social, truths. A chronological study of the plays, then, emphasizing both social attitudes and innovative artistic techniques, reveals the struggle between social radical and literary artist which took place within the mind of Herne, with the latter finally becoming dominant.
Such a study of Herne, emphasizing social criticism, is unique. Critics have hitherto been more concerned with Herne's techniques, with his gradual shift from melodrama to realism. But since Herne is America's first dramatist of ideas, it seems worthwhile to study those ideas, to discover which social evils met the barbs of our "American Ibsen."
Delmer I. Davis
Richard B. Lewis
Helen F. Little
Master of Arts (MA)
Year Degree Awarded
Date (Title Page)
Library of Congress/MESH Subject Headings
Herne, James A., 1839-1901
Loma Linda University Libraries
This title appears here courtesy of the author, who has granted Loma Linda University a limited, non-exclusive right to make this publication available to the public. The author retains all other copyrights.
Hoyt Lecourt, Nancy, ""Art for Truth's Sake" : James A. Herne as Social Critic and Literary Artist" (1974). Loma Linda University Electronic Theses, Dissertations & Projects. 1081.
Loma Linda University Electronic Theses and Dissertations
Loma Linda University. Del E. Webb Memorial Library. University Archives