I Know What I’d Do, by Alice Beal Parsons (1946)

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One has to wonder what the residents of Piermont, New York thought of Alice Beal Parsons. A writer and–for her day–a radical feminist, with a strong liberal tack to her politics, she bought a house–more like a cabin–on the slopes of Tallman Mountain (now a New York State Park in the late 1920s. Probably few had read or were even aware of her book, Woman’s Dilemma (1926), which argued for equal rights in work and sexual matters at a time when that was still a decidedly minority view.

Parsons commuted to New York City by ferry most days, working for The Nation and The Bookman as a book reviewer, but she had enough time to observe the residents of Piermont and their doings to become inspired. Within a year or so of settling near the town, she had fictionalized it as Pawlet-on-Hudson and made it the setting of her first novel, John Merrill’s Pleasant Life (1930), which told the story of an idealistic young engineer who has his life spirit drained from him even as he rises to great success running the town’s main factory. Two years later, she used the setting again in A Lady Who Lost (1932), which portrayed the place as a microcosm of the social disturbances caused by the Great Depression. In the book, an idle woman married to a wealthy man becomes involved with the case of a woman tried for the murder of a lover and then with a strike (also at the town’s big factory) organized by Communists.

Then, during the Second World War, she published The Mountain (1944), which was an autobiographical account of life in and around Piermont. She described how her attitude and relations with her neighbors evolved over the course of time, with her initial prejudices and stereotypes gradually giving way to more nuanced and sympathetic understanding and affection. She also rhapsodized about the beauties of the changing seasons on the mountain and offered some comic sketches of her own life and a few of her more colorful neighbors. The book was very favorably reviewed. Saturday Review called it, “… one of those books whose subject matter defies formal classification and whose charm depends partly, of course, on the style of its writing, but almost more on the intimate relationship the author manages to establish between you and her from the start. When you finish it you feel almost as if you had been the week-end guest of a delightful hostess.” One imagines her standing rose at least a little in the eyes of the Piermontese.

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But then, a couple of years later, Parsons published I Know What I’d Do (1946), which made poor little Pawlet-on-Hudson a hotbed of adultery, racism, Xenophobia, and violence. The title comes from something several folks in town tell Al Miller, a returning vet, soon after he arrives back in town: “Yes, I know damn well what I’d do if I heard the sort of story some of youse fellow is agoin’ to hear now you’re back home. It ain’t no Sunday School story some of youse is goin’ to hear.” In other words, while Al was off training in England and fighting in Italy, his wife, Sally, had an affair with someone in town. Al’s friend, Jim Phelan, in fact.

At first, Al tries to be rational about things. He’d slept with an English girl himself while overseas. And it’s just innuendos at first, until Sally confesses to him one night. Only in her version, it wasn’t an affair–it was rape. And she got pregnant and now needs money for an illegal abortion. Oh, and just to ratchet up the melodramatic volume, the local Ku Klux Klan klaven burns a cross on their lawn–their version of a red letter A.

Things quickly spiral out of control. Al Miller hunts down and murders Jim Phelan. The scene instantly becomes the center of attraction in town:

In spite of the gas and rubber shortage, the traffic on Prospect Avenue out of which Penross Drive opened was greatly increased by the murder of Jim Phelan. Cars drove slowly by, obstructing north-bound traffic. Because of the jam, parking was forbidden on the Avenue. Sight-seers got around this difficulty by turning into abutting driveways and gazing their fill from these safe vantage points. Some determined individuals actually left their cars and strolled up Penross Drive, though everyone knew it was a one-way street. If they encountered anyone they pretended, according to sex and condition, to be looking for apartments, or stray dogs, or to be selling insurance.

The murder and the sordid details behind it split the community into factions like a prism. Much muck is shoveled up and raked over in the course of the subsequent trial. Fortunately for Al, his case is helped by a sympathetic woman writer living near the town–a fictional version of Parsons herself, one imagines–and civic rationalism prevails.

When I Know What I’d Do came out, critics divided into two camps. One saw the book as a soap opera and an opportunistic attempt to cash in on the very current topic of the struggles of returning veterans. The other applauded Parsons for her multi-faceted approach to her subject and characters. And it’s true that while there are bigots, bullies, and gossips a-plenty in Parsons’ Pawlet, there are others who demonstrate the same kind of depth and complexity of character that Parsons revealed among her neighbors in The Mountain. Grace Frank, writing in Saturday Review, easily spotted the parallels with Parsons’ earlier book:

Most of the portraits in the book, even the incidental ones, are admirable likenesses: the returned soldier, abstracted and uninterested until someone accidentally speaks his language; the young woman, a devoted wife and mother, who nevertheless yields to the excitement of an experienced seducer; a bullying sport, making another man pay for his fun; a worldly-wise writer, equating the effects of love and loneliness on Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Sally, and herself; the opposing lawyers, a woman of the man-eating type, a shrewdly cantankerous young doctor, a dowager aristocrat, and finally the different local characters, including the irreconcilable families of Sally and Al. Pawlet may be purely imaginary, as the author contends, but for all that it and its inhabitants are as real as Route 9W [Route 9W is the highway that runs through Piermont.–Ed.]

Parsons quickly followed up with a return to the subject of her most successful book. In The World Around the Mountain (1947), she carries on with her portrait of life around Piermont, including a comic and self-mocking account of her impassioned but quite unsuccessful attempt to get involved with local politics.

This was her last book, and other than a short story that was published in The American Mercury in 1950 (available at unz.org), Parsons appears to have published nothing after it. She died in a hospital in Nyack, just north of Piermont, in April, 1962.


I Know What I’d Do, by Alice Beal Parsons
New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1946

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