October 17th, 2014

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Proposal for Scribner’s Library

[Permalink]

In April 1922, age 25, already with one best-seller (This Side of Paradise) to his name, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his publisher, Charles Scribner II, with a proposal for a series drawn from the firm’s backlist:

I am consumed by an idea and I can’t resist asking you about it. It’s probably a chestnut, but it might not have occurred to you before in just this form.

No doubt you know of the success that Boni and Liveright have made of their “Modern Library.” Within the last month, Doubleday Page & Company have withdrawn the titles that were theirs from Boni’s Modern Library and gone in on their own hook with a “Lambskin Library.” For this they have chosen so far about 18 titles from their past publications–some of them books of merit (Frank Norris and Conrad, for instance) and some of them trashy, but all books that at one time or another have been sensational either as popular successes or as possible contributions to American literature….

Now my idea is this: the Scribner Company have many more distinguished years of publishing behind them than Doubleday Page. They could produce a list twice as long of distinguished and memorable fiction and use no more than one book by each author–and it need not be the book by that author most in demand.

Take for instance Predestined and The House of Mirth. I do not know, but I imagine that those books are kept upstairs in most bookstores, and only obtained when some one is told of the work of Edith Wharton and Stephen French Whitman. They are almost as forgotten as the books of Frank Norris and Stephen Crane were five years ago, before Boni’s library began its career.

To be specific, I can imagine that a Scribner library containing the following titles and selling for something under a dollar would be an enormous success.

  • The House of Mirth (or Ethan Frome), by Edith Wharton
  • Predestined, by Stephen French Whitman
  • This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, by John Fox, Jr.
  • In Ole Kentucky, by Thomas Nelson Page
  • Sentimental Tommy, by J. M. Barrie
  • Some Civil War book by George Barr Cable
  • Some novel by Henry Van Dyke
  • Some novel by Jackson Gregory
  • Saint’s Progress, by John Glasworthy
  • The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith
  • Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Turn of the Scree, by Henry James
  • The Stolen Story (or The Frederic Carrolls), by Jesse Lynch Williams
  • The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederick
  • Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis
  • Some book by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
  • Simple Souls, by John Hastings Turner

Doubtless a glance at your old catalogues would suggest two dozen others. I have not even mentioned less popular writers such as Burt and Katherine Gerould. Nor have I gone into the possibilities of such non-fiction as a volume of Roosevelt, a volume or Huneker, or a volume of Shane Leslie….

One more thing and this interminably long letter is done. It may seem to you that in many cases I have chosen novels whose sale still nets a steady revenue at $1.75–and that it would be unprofitable to use such property in this way. But I have used such titles not only to indicate my idea–Gallegher (which I believe is not in your subscription set of Davis) could be substituted for Soldiers of Fortune, The Wrong Box for Treasure Island, and so on in the case of Fox, Page and Barrie. The main idea is that the known titles in the series should “carry” the little known or forgotten. That is: from the little known writer you use his best novel, such as Predestined–and from the well-known writer you use his more obscure, such as Gallegher.

I apologize for imposing so upon your time, Mr. Scribner. I am merely morning that so many good or lively books are dead so soon, or only imperfectly kept alive in the cheap and severe impermanency of the A. L. Burt editions.

I am, sir,
Most sincerely,
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s list illustrates the vagaries of critical and popular opinions. Of the 18 titles and authors, one-third are solidly established classics, recognized in the American canon, taught and discussed, and filmed at least once. Another third are forgotten titles from authors certainly less well-known or -regarded now (Galsworthy, Harold Frederic, Richard Harding Davis) but still of at least historical interest.

And then we have the well-forgotten or (now) poorly-regarded. From a critical angle, Predestined probably best stands the test of time (I’m in the middle of reading it now, in fact). It was reissued as part of Southern Illinois University Press’ fine Lost American Fiction back in the 1970s, though it fell back out of print until companies started mining Project Gutenberg and other digital archives for over-priced direct-to-print editions. The soft-focus Christianity and sentimentalism of John L. Fox and Henry Van Dyke lost its prime readership within a decade or so of Fitzgerald’s list and may forever forward seem archaic. The name of Jackson Gregory came back to me from my distant past, when I spent many a Saturday in downtown Seattle, scouring the high stacks of Shorey’s Bookstore, which had a whole room devoted to novels from the turn of the (20th) century. Gregory might once have vied with Zane Grey as American’s leading writer of Westerns, but Grey’s work has managed to hold on into its second century. Jesse Lynch Williams’ name will stay in the books as the first winner of a Pulitzer Prize for drama (“Why Marry?” (1918)), but The Married Life of the Frederick Carrolls doesn’t even rate an entry in Goodreads or LibraryThing. And last and least-known, we have John Hastings Turner. His Simple Souls sounds like a dull version of the cliche story of nobleman rescues poor beauty, but I’m intrigued by the opening lines of his 1920 novel, A Place in the World:

There is a kind of man who appears to be fashioned in circles. His body is a collection of curves topped by a round and shining head. His soul is as round and polished as his body, with no mad and jagged comers to scarify society’s epidermis. Even his life is a circle, for, as a rule, he will die, as his temperate habits deserve, at a ripe old age, on the very threshhold of infancy once more.


 

October 12th, 2014

Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, by Leo Stein (1947)

[Permalink]

appreciation“Art is no place for snobs,” Leo Stein wrote in his foreword to Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, a marvelous little guide to opening one’s eyes and ears. Written about a year before his death in 1947 from stomach cancer–the same disease that killed his sister, Gertrude, in 1946–Appreciation is a book for anyone who’s ever felt themselves incapable of understanding or appreciating great literature or art.

On the surface, Leo Stein had every right to hold his opinions about art above those of the crowd. Although overshadowed by his sister through much of his life–and after–he was the trailblazer in their discovery of the Post-Impressionists painters and the work of French writers such as Rimbaud and Paul Valery. He was one of the first Americans to buy paintings by Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, and the house they shared at 27 rue de Fleurus became a center of the artistic community in Paris. Both Matisse and Picasso made portraits of Leo, who was respected for his sensitivity and perception as much or more for his influence on other collectors.

Few brothers and sisters could have been more different in temperament than Leo and Gertrude. In her foreword to Journey into the Self, a collection of Leo’s letters and diaries edited by Edmund Fuller and published in 1950, their friend Mabel Weeks wrote:

Gertrude successfully integrated her character around her limitations. Leo could not accept his limitations. Gertrude, whatever her neuroses, made herself a life with few frustrations; Leo had thousands of frustrations, and only the by most rigorous self-discipline got rid of some of them. Gertrude’s personality was magnetic; she had a laugh from the middle of her, and a sort of warmth and zest and enjoyment which gave her a tremendous appeal, particularly to young people. Leo was very withdrawn, and didn’t win people. She insisted that everyone meet her on her own terms. Leo, in a way, couldn’t meet anyone except on his own terms. But he wasn’t a bully. Gertrude bullied everyone.

Through much of his life, Leo struggled against what Weeks calls “his tendency to burrow within,” and while this severely limited his output compared his prolific sister’s (his only other book was a collection of essays titled, The A-B-C of Aesthetics (1927)), it also means that what one finds in Appreciation is the result of long consideration.

leosteinmatisseLeo Stein described Appreciation, with characteristic modesty, as “a little debauch in the realm of ideas,” but this does the book a great injustice. There is nothing of the abstract or esoteric here. Instead, this is a most democratic view of great art.

“It is, I believe, a good thing to recognize the continuity of the usual and the unusual, and if we are to be reverent it is better to be widely and not narrowly reverent.” The muscles in Stein’s arm, for example, “are not essentially different from those of Joe Louis.” The only difference is that “His have more punch in them.”

Bridging the gulf between us and the work of genius, in Stein’s view, starts with the understanding that in each of us there lies some measure of creative power. “Every personal letter one writes, every personal statement one makes, may be creative writing if one’s interest is to make it such.” And while something like this blog entry doesn’t remotely approach the same level as, say, Hamlet, the two works exist on a continuum of human creations. To Stein, “continuity illuminates”: “The value of the great things is made more valuable when they are known as exceptional, not in their kind but in their degree.”

Stein’s own appreciation of the art of painting, for example, only really came into full bloom when he asked himself, “How does a painter see when he paints?” To answer that, he set himself a little experiment:

I put on the table a plate of the kind common in Italy, an earthenware plate with a simple pattern in color, and this I looked at every day for minutes or for hours. I had in mind to see it as a picture, and waited for it to become one. In time it did. The change came suddenly when the plate as an inventorial object, one made up of parts that could be separately listed, a certain shape, certain colors applied to it, and so on, went over into a composition to which all these elements were merely contributory. The painted composition on the plate ceased to be on it but became a part of a larger composition which was the plate as a whole. I had made a beginning to seeing pictorially.

This experiment well illustrates a key principle in Stein’s approach to appreciation: namely, that serious appreciation takes time and effort. “Pleasure in clear hard thinking is not so common as it ought to be,” he remarks at one point, and one of the pleasures of Appreciation is Stein’s candor in describing his own trials in coming to an understanding of certain poets and painters. In the case of Picasso, he confesses that his efforts ultimately failed. (Their differences over the value of Picasso’s work was one of the reasons Leo and Gertrude went their separate ways in 1914 and never again spoke to each other.)

Stein was entirely a pragmatist. The whole message of Appreciation is one of bringing art into the context of one’s life. He may not have read E. M Forster’s Howards End, but I’m sure he would have agreed with Margaret Schlegel’s adage, “Only connect the prose and the passion.” “Wisdom that is worth having must be brought down to earth,” he writes at the close of the book, even if, “on solid earth a snail’s pace is the measure of its progress.” And in this respect, Appreciation embodies the remarkable progress made by a snail named Leo Stein.

Appreciation was reissued in 1956 as one of a small series of paperbacks published as part of the Modern Library, and then again in 1996 by the University of Nebraska Press.


Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, by Leo Stein,br>
New York: Crown Publishers, 1947


 

October 10th, 2014

“Letters Found Near a Suicide,” by Frank Horne, from The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949

[Permalink]

pond

Letters Found Near a Suicide

To all of you

My little stone
Sinks quickly
Into the bosom of this deep, dark pool
Of oblivion . . .
I have troubled its breast but little
Yet those far shores
That knew me not
Will feel the fleeting, furtive kiss
Of my tiny concentric ripples . . .


This is the first of eleven short poems that comprise the “Letters Found Near a Suicide,” which was first published in The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP. Horne submitted the collection to a contest run by the magazine and came in second, behind Countee Cullen and ahead of Langston Hughes (who co-edited the anthology I took this from).

Horne’s accomplishments were remarkable and diverse. He trained and practiced professionally as an ophthalmologist, wrote poetry, and was active in the NAACP and other black political organizations. He served in numerous positions in government and in government advisory functions, particularly related to public housing. Strongly aligned with the Democratic Party, he was the target of Civil Service Loyalty Board investigations, accused of being Communist-friendly, and eventually left the U. S. Housing Authority to take a position on the New York City Civil Rights Commission. He published his only book, Haverstraw, a collection of poems, in 1963. There appear to be no copies of it for sale now. He died in 1975. You can find an extensive article devoted to Horne’s career, along with the full set of “Letters” at the Hidden Cause blog (link).

from The Poetry Of The Negro, 1746 1949: An Anthology, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1951

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link).


 

October 3rd, 2014

Jay Jennings recommends the works of Gilbert Rogin

[Permalink]

Author and journalist Jay Jennings wrote the other day to pass along his recommendation of the works of Gilbert Rogin, whose stories and novels were among the most wildly acclaimed in the 1960s and 1970s:

For years, a few friends and I worked to get the two great novels of Gilbert Rogin, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? and PREPARATIONS FOR THE ASCENT, back into print, and we finally succeeded in 2010 when they were reissued by Verse Chorus Press in one volume (Verse and Chorus link; Amazon link)

As I explain in the introduction, the novels are constructed mainly of stories that appeared in the New Yorker, which published 33 of them between 1963 and 1980, a number that puts him up there with Updike, Munro and Trevor. He won an award for literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1972, along with Thomas McGuane and Paula Fox, and the novels counted Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and Larry McMurtry among their fans. Most of all, Rogin is hilarious, in the same vein as but predating the smart, hyperobservant New York world of Seinfeld and Larry David.

My introduction originally appeared as an essay in the Lowbrow Reader here.

I really hate it when an author’s obituary provokes a resurgence of interest, and she or he is not able to enjoy it. I’m happy to report that Rogin is still alive, and I hope that more people will rediscover this fantastically original and funny writer, before we’re reading about his passing in the New York Times.

rogin
Rogin, who spent most of his working days in the Time-Life building, as a staff writer, editor, and managing editor of most of the corporation’s biggest rags (People, Life, Fortune, Money , Vibe , and (his longest stint) Sports Illustrated, began publishing stories in the early 1960s. His first book, a collection of these early stories, The Fencing Master and Other Stories, was published by Random House in 1965.

His first novel, What Happens Next? (1971), was reviewed not once but twice in the New York Times. Anatole Broyard latched onto a word used in the book to describe Rogin’s outlook:

‘Velleities’ is a Gilbert Rogin word: I believe he is the only writer I’ve ever read who has used it. The dictionary defines velleity as “volition in its weakest form; a mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it.” The poetry and the meaning of life, Mr. Rogin seems to suggest, lie not in its grand or heroic moments, but in its velleities. He may be right.

L. E. Sissman’s enthusiasm for the book shines throughout his review:

I think Gilbert Rogin has written a great novel, the first new one I’ve run across in quite some time.

… Moving in dozens of short movie takes from confrontation to soliloquoy to fantasy to dream, it shapes the whole history and predicament of its protagonist out of a solid, six-year block of time.

… Every scrap, every line, every joke is in the service of this artfully lifelike portrait of ourselves. Julian’s isolation, his anxieties, his guilt, his comical losses, his failure to establish belief in himself, are at once existential, contemporary ailments and part of the human estate.

Nine years later, Rogin published his second novel and last book, Preparations for the Ascent (1980). Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, praising its “dour wit, persistent intelligence, rhetorical panache.”

Soon after this, however, Rogin suffered a writer’s block that’s lasted now for over thirty years. New Yorker editor Roger Angell rejected one of his stories, writing that he felt Rogin was “repeating himself.” In a feature piece in the New York Observer magazine, he told his former SI colleague, Franz Lidz:

That motherfucker literally demoralized me. Repeating myself? I repeated myself in all my stories. My entire life is repetition.

I was shattered… Maybe I knew I was all used up. Maybe I knew I’d exhausted the fiction vein. The idea had always been in the back of my mind. For whatever reason, after Roger voiced that opinion, I literally couldn’t write fiction again. Not a single word.

At last report, Rogin is still alive and active. His fans would certainly hold more than a velleity that he will pick up a pen once again.


 

« « Previous Post: