Eric Hodgins satirizes one man’s fantasies of a simpler country life in the sequel to a bestseller
Blandings’ Way. By Eric Hodgins. Simon & Schuster, 314 pp., varied prices.
By Janice Harayda
In the late 1930s, Eric Hodgins wanted to find a country house that would provide a tranquil escape from the pressures of his job as an executive with Time Inc. But when he and his wife began to build a place in New Milford, Connecticut, they found that the project drained their sprits and their bank account with frightening speed. Patricia Grandjean wrote in the New York Times in 1992:
“When construction began in 1939, Mr. Hodgins anticipated a budget of $11,000 for his dream house. But the completed project ultimately escalated to a total of $56,000 — which translates into roughly $2.2 million today — a sum so inflated by his misconceptions that it nearly drove him into bankruptcy.”
Hodgins was forced to sell the house two years later, Grandjean said. But he went on to write two popular novels about his trials as a homeowner — Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and Blandings’ Way, a fictionalized account of his family’s brief time in Connecticut:
“The book sales restored his fortune, and when he received $200,000 for the film rights to the original book — provided by his New Milford neighbor, the producer Dore Schary — Mr. Hodgins tried to buy back the house back, but to no avail.”
But if Hodgins’s home ownership was perilous, his books are as appealing as when they first appeared. The delightful Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House came out in new edition in 2004 that reproduces the wonderful original illustrations by William Steig.
Blandings’ Way is darker but just as funny and, though out of print, worth tracking down online or elsewhere. The theme and tone emerge early, when Jim Blandings admits to his lawyer that he needs “a haven” from his work at a Madison Avenue advertising agency: His boss believes in “Peace Through Advertising” and wants Blandings to support it by writing an “open letter” to Joseph Stalin.
But Blandings’s lawyer doubts the soundness – and perhaps the sanity – of the move to the country. “You’re not my idea of the rural type,” he says. “If you’re going to play at that, for heaven’s sake take it slow and easy. … Don’t sponsor a zoning ordinance. Have nothing to do with dairying in thought or in deed. Don’t decide to buy the local newspaper and be its country-gentleman publisher.”
These, of course, are all the things Blandings will do. In Blandings’ Way he ricochets his way from one crisis to the next with hilarious results, keenly aware of his own failings. He’s smart enough to see how wrong things could go in the country but not smart enough to resist the possibility that they could go right. And his motives are always decent and honorable.
Blandings doesn’t buy a country newspaper to make money — he thinks he’s overpaid for writing advertising copy for clients like the Hair Removal Institute and International Screw. He wants (or believes he wants) to invest his life with a deeper meaning than he finds in his work. Hodgins’s triumph is that he manages to make Blandings at once comic and heroic, unique and a representative of a universal human striving for a deeper purpose in life. And his passionate words to his lawyer ring as true today as they did more than a half century ago:
“I want to find something to do in my personal life that’s going to help me compensate for what I have to do in my professional life. That’s the clue to the whole business. You can sit there in that detached and superior way of yours what it is and I won’t be able to tell you – but I know there’s something. The greatest unmet obligation in American life is the obligation of the superior individual toward something greater than his particular way of making money. In my case that something greater is the community that Muriel and I and our children have gone to live in. One man can’t do very much to redress the balances that are out of whack in America, but at least a man can try.”
Best line: “Was there anything sadder than the contents of an old filing cabinet? A scrapbook, a diary, were much less sad; into the scrapbook went things that had turned out right; into the diary – well, Mr. Blandings had never kept a diary, and spent a moment in grateful thanks. But an old filing cabinet contained things that were going to turn out right, except that when you looked at them again, none of them had.”
Worst line: None, but the grammar seems slightly off in this one: “The hints are indeed rather broad that there is one particular world in which my instincts least off lead me astray, I prosper best.”
Furthermore: A review of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Simon & Schuster, 1946 and 2004) and a reading group guide to the novel appeared as separate posts on One-Minute Book Reviews on April 9, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/09/.
Movie Link: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House inspired two movies – the original Mr. Blandings’ Builds His Dream House www.imdb.com/title/tt0040613/, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks www.imdb.com/title/tt0091541/.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.