Anne Parrish’s brother Dillwyn and his disappearing novels

An uneasy pattern for successful careers as novelists from Delaware has been to leave the state for greener pastures. Delaware’s most prolific novelist, Anne Parrish, wrote the bulk of her sixteen novels after she married Charles Albert Corliss in 1915, later moving to New York. Her brother Dillwyn published his 1926 novel Smith Everlasting after studying art in Philadelphia, and then moving to Massachusetts where he attended Harvard and where he made the acquaintance of American novelist and poet Conrad Aiken and poet e. e. cummings. It was while living in Massachusetts that he also made the acquaintance of Gertrude “Gigi” McElroy while acting as a tutor for her and her siblings. The two fell in love in 1927, and even though she was eighteen years younger than he, they got married. For their honeymoon the two mounted motorcycles from the Parrish family home in Claymont, Delaware and headed west for California.

Dillwyn Parrish’s second novel, Gray Sheep (Harper and Brothers 1927), like Smith Everlasting, is similar in one respect. It’s a story that spans two generations of a family, but unlike the sprawling family of cousins and in-laws in Smith Everlasting, the family unit is smaller in Gray Sheep. The novel is divided into three parts. In the first part, “The Book of Fred,” Fred Rain is the new Episcopalian minister for St. James church in the town of New Oxford, presumably located somewhere in New England. The town is filled with very conservation people. One of the first tasks with which Rain is saddled is to persuade a female resident with an unsavory reputation to leave town. The woman’s name is Tanis McClaren. Tanis’ reputation is dubious, and is reminiscent of that old witch-hunt paranoia that had become part of the conservative New England psyche. The situation presents a dilemma for Rain. First he equivocates and decides to see for himself what kind of woman Tanis is, and as it turns out, he finds a very sophisticated, free thinking woman who has some vague connection to cosmopolitan culture. His visits to her lead him to fall in love with her, but she is much wiser than he is in spite of his extensive theological education. She decides for herself that she must move out of town to avoid embroiling them both in an unnecessarily shallow scandal, leaving her house empty for a time. In the aftermath, Rain discovers his loneliness and eventually marries a woman named Helen Warren who admits that she loves him more than she loves her.

Throughout Parrish’s novel his female characters display an innate capacity for a kind of wisdom that goes with precociousness, even when, like with Helen Warren, they allow themselves to live in a limited and structured existence not of their own making.

Fred and Helen have a son, John, after which Helen dies a few years later, leaving Fred to raise John on his own. He never remarries, though John does have several women to look after his needs as he grows up and while Fred sees to his duties as the town’s Episcopalian minister.

Fred Rain must deal with other issues. Even though his sermons are well received he is pressured to adopt “high” Episcopal liturgy, reflecting his congregation’s conservatism. Near the end of the novel, he must contend with the influx of Methodism that reflects the attitudes of a new generation. In fact, in the second part of Gray Sheep, “The Book of John,” his son grows up and is influenced by the events that shape this new generation. He also falls under the spell of a new girl in town. Her name is Tanis Faire, the daughter of Tanis McClaren and a man who is only identified as Mr. Faire, who with his friend Rex, who has some sort of connection to show business, have taken ownership of Tanis McClaren’s empty house after she had died.

In the second part of Gray Sheep, some of the events in the life of John Rain parallel Dillwyn Parrish’s. Both volunteer to be ambulance driver during the early years of World War I, even before the United States’ actual entrance into the conflict, and both interrupt their college career at Harvard to do so.

Tanis Faire, like Katherine Lockerman in Smith Everlasting, is a precocious young woman and like her mother’s near relationship with his father, John is first in a state of denial about his love for Tanis Faire, becoming tentative, and only when he has committed himself for overseas duty does the prospect of parting cause him to realize his true feelings, but it is too late.

In the third part of Gray Sheep, entitled “Gray Sheep,” John returns from the war. He suffers ill effects of having survived a gas attack. He also finds that Tanis and Rex have married. Nevertheless, Tanis still loves John. She explains to John why she married Rex:

“I married Rex because he has been everything I have ever known of generous and gentle kindness,” She begins to elaborate, “I married Rex because of the tragedy he thought he was hiding from me: because without losing his soul, he tried to make himself a gentleman with his money and only managed to make himself a joke. I pitied him –– and the only thing I can say to my credit is that I had no feeling of sacrifice or nobility. Rex is good. He is better than I am; he is better than either of us. Though I didn’t feel virtuous in doing what I did, neither could I see at that time that I was doing something wrong, being more unfair with Rex than I was with myself.”

“Tanis, do you love Rex?” John asks her.

“Not Rex,” she replied.

In the meantime, during a crisis in faith, John’s father Fred considers resigning his position as St. James’ minister, primarily because he feels he’s made no lasting impression upon a congregation of “gray sheep” that has had no real need for him except to maintain their moral standing in the community. He begins to question what God really is. Just as John and Tanis come to terms with their relationship, and with the inevitable health consequences from being gassed in the war, and the certainty of their love for each other, the elder Rain has an epiphany in an unexpected moment. He realized that God is life itself, just as Tanis and John board a train to go west, leaving Rex behind, in an inevitably reckless venture necessitated by their love and the life they have remaining together. Their decision, which concludes the novel, contains an echo of prophesy to Dillwyn’s and Gigi’s decision to climb about motorcycles and from the Parrish homestead in Claymont, Delaware head into a California sunset.

After Dillwyn Parrish’s first two novels, his third, My Wives, (1929, Harper and Brothers) is different in two respects. It is written in the first person narrative, and it was written anonymously. It is here that Parrish’s novels, with one exception, begin to disappear. If it hadn’t been for that only reference on one of the front pages of that one exception, his fourth novel Praise the Lord! (1932, Harper and Brothers), My Wives might have remained Dillwyn’s secret novel.

The narrative involves three women: Penny, Marilyn and Paulette. The theme is the elusiveness of love through the lens of the fickleness, though no less honesty, of the narrator who does not identify himself. If Parrish does not re