Review: The Bitterweed Path by Thomas Hal Phillips

This long out-of-print and newly rediscovered novel tells the story of two boys growing up in the cotton country of Mississippi a generation after the Civil War.

Originally published in 1950, the novel’s unique contribution lies in its subtle engagement of homosexuality and cross-class love. In The Bitterweed Path, Thomas Hal Phillips vividly recreates rural Mississippi at the turn of the century. In elegant prose, he draws on the Old Testament story of David and Jonathan and writes of the friendship and love between two boys–one a sharecropper’s son and the other the son of the landlord–and the complications that arise when the father of one of the boys falls in love with his son’s friend.

Review by Erastes

This review will be very interesting to compare and contrast with the review of the next book I’m going to review – “A Room in Chelsea Square” by Michael Nelson. They are both lost gay novels, republished, and they were both written in the 1950’s – but oh! The Difference!

I’m afraid I didn’t like The Bitterweed Path very much. Although at times beautifully written I found it a frustrating read and sometimes hugely self-conscious and self-indulgent.

It’s the story of a young man from a family of religious and strict people who meets up with the Pitts, a more liberal and friendly family.  Darrell, the young man from the strict upbringing is attending a running meet, and his own father doesn’t attend, despite the fact that Darrell is a great young runner and he wins the race easily.  Malcolm Pitt is an easy going, well-off landowner who owns land adjacent to Darrell’s Ku Klux Klan father and right from the first meeting Darrell and Malcolm hit it off. Malcolm’s own son,  Roger has been unable to attend the meet due to injury, and when Darrell wins easily, Malcolm accompanies Darrell to collect his trophy, tells lies and says that Darrell is his “other son.”

Gradually, Darrell is drawn into this warmer, friendlier world than his own, much to the disgust of his father, and then his grandmother. Despite this, his life is enmeshed with the Pitts forever–the boys become great friends.

First of all I had great problems with Darrell himself. He’s almost entirely passive. Everything seems to happen to him without him instigating anything himself.  The most active thing he does is win the race, and there ends his pro-activity. Perhaps (and this is another reason why I don’t like the book much, because I don’t know if that’s supposed to be the message, or whether I’ve entirely got the wrong end of the stick) this is deliberate, that after he meets the Pitts, he’s swept up like a piece of flotsam and his life is never his own again.

The thing is, compared with The Charioteer (1953 UK, 1959 USA) – The Bitterweed Path is almost so heavily coded (if indeed it’s coded at all, and not just a What You See is What You Get book) that I found it rather difficult to follow.  Other reviews and blurbs I’ve seen state that Darrell falls in love with Roger but it certainly doesn’t seem that way to me, he certainly is extremely fond of Roger, and it’s clear that Roger is probably in love with Darrell, but like so many aspects of this book, it’s pushed to one side. Darrell refuses to write to Roger, and doesn’t even see him for several years after he’s been sent away to school and his friendship with Malcolm continues.

I was convinced even at the end, that it was Malcolm (if anyone) that Darrell had “unsuitable” feelings for, but as I say, it’s rather hard to tell, as he doesn’t really seem to care deeply about anyone. Except his puppy at the beginning (to which horrible things happen–twice–so be warned.)  But then again – perhaps that is part of the theme too, perhaps the puppy is indicative of his feelings or something.  Roger is (probably understandably) jealous of Darrell’s place in Malcolm’s life. After all, Roger was sent away to school, then to medical college and rarely came home – whereas Darrell was the piggie that stayed home and Malcolm lavished with trips away (where they slept in the bed together, arms around each other), his attention, and half his business.

There’s at least one character who–as far as I’m concerned–was entirely superfluous.  I didn’t understand her existence, I don’t know what she was set up to show about Darrell and I don’t know her point.  Nothing Darrell does, as I said – due to his enormous passivity–convinces.  I don’t feel he cares about anyone, even Miriam (Roger’s sister) who he professes to be in love with and expects to marry and doesn’t, or his wife who he obviously marries in rebound, or even his own children.  There’s also much that is not followed through, too. We are told that Darrell’s grandmother is a hell and damnation type, but we don’t really see much of this, and after his father dies, Darrell seems to do exactly as he pleases and his grandmother goes along with it. Nothing is ever done about Darrell’s running which seemed a bit odd – the whole running scenario seemed shoe-horned in just to show how evil Darrell’s father was in comparison to Malcolm Pitt.

At the end–almost in an afterthought, perhaps the author realised he was being far too vague – Roger breaks down and says that he loved Darrell, probably too much, and Darrell says that he never loved Roger that way, but he thinks that he probably loved Malcolm too much.  I don’t think there was any sexual activity in the entire book, even hidden away in the way it is in The Charioteer, and I wasn’t expecting it but I would like to have stopped feeling so confused.

It’s been compared with David and Jonathan from the Biblical story and I really can’t agree; at no point do I ever feel that Darrell and Roger have that kind of love “surpassing that of women” – especially as they are separated for most of the book and don’t even bother to write to each other.

If flow of consciousness narrative is your cup of tea, then you will probably enjoy this, but if, like me, you get annoyed with having to second guess what’s actually going on, I’d say give it a miss. Beautiful in parts but made me feel dim and left me with a bit of a headache.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

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