August 19th, 2014

Complete Cheerful Cherub, by Rebecca McCann (1932)

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cheerfulcherubThe first time I saw a copy of a Cheerful Cherub book was in an enormous antique mall that seemed to have swallowed my wife, leaving me to seek some meager distraction in the tiny handful of books that could be found there. As hours dragged on and I found myself beginning to think, “Hmm … Taylor Caldwell. Maybe I should try one of hers,” I finally picked up what I had taken to be the world’s oldest and fattest “Love Is” book.

My mistake was understandable. There is a certain similarity between the cartoon style of Kim Casali (creator of “Love Is …”) and Rebecca McCann (creator of the Cheerful Cherub). Both feature nude but genital-free homonculi with infantile bodies but engaging in adult activities. Both refine cuteness to near-lethal intensity. Casali always shows a male and a female character (we can tell only by the hair and eyelashes). McCann always showed an infant neither male nor female and an adoring little puppy.

If you were me, you’d probably have stopped reading already.

But stay with me, people.

Because as I took more time to read through that Cheerful Cherub book, I began to realize that Rebecca McCann’s little cartoons operated on a level of sophistication and yes, even wisdom, far beyond that of the “Love Is …” pieces.

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Take “Masks” (above). “And yet sometimes I see/A prisoner behind their eyes.” That’s not “Love Is …” or “Family Circle”–that’s the existential attitude in four lines of iambic pentameter. Or “Innocence,” which could easily be read as a damning commentary on the detachment with which we view events going on in the world around us. “Oh, the dreadful business in Gaza. Well, nothing to do with me.”

Rebecca McCann began publishing Cheerful Cherub cartoons in the Chicago Evening Post around 1917, when she was just twenty, after editor Julian Mason took an interest in the little drawings and verses that dropped out of McCann’s portfolio as she tried to show him more serious work. The feature was soon picked up for syndication, and at its peak appeared in over 100 papers around the United States.

McCann also continued to work as an illustrator for magazine stories and wrote a childrens’ book, About Annabel (1922), about the fantastic adventures of a little girl–a slightly milder version of Windsor McCay’s “Little Nemo.” The first collection of Cheerful Cherub cartoons was published by Covici-McGee in 1923, and a second in 1927.

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Meanwhile, McCann’s personal life was a series of disasters. She moved to New York City in late 1917, where she met, fell in love with and married Harold “Jimmie” Watson, an Army pilot, five days before he shipped out to France. Although he made it through the war, he died in an accident not long after. On the rebound, she married another officer, this time in the Naval Medical Corps, but the marriage soon ran into problems and the couple divorced. Around 1924, she met the novelist Harvey Fergusson (whose 1923 novel, Capitol Hill, was featured here back in 2006).
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Fergusson was married at the time, but the two felt enough of a connection that Fergusson eventually divorced his wife and married McCann. Fergusson was working on perhaps his best-known book, Wolf Song (1927), and the couple spent happy weeks in the mountains outside Salt Lake City.

In December of 1927, Fergusson drove down to Albuquerque, where they planned to spend Christmas with his parents, while McCann took a quick shopping trip out to San Francisco. Never having a robust constitution, the trip and the winter weather brought on a cold. A few days after arriving in Albuquerque, it developed into pneumonia and McCann died soon after. She was just 32. Fergusson had her body cremated and scattered her ashes along the shore of Lake Michigan near Chicago.

Covici-Friede collected 1,001 Cheerful Cherub cartoons, along with a short memoir by McCann’s friend, Mary Graham Bonner, in Complete Cheerful Cherub, which was published in 1932. The book was a perennial favorite and was reprinted sixteen times between 1932 and 1945. They also posthumously published a collection of McCann’s poems, Bitter Sweet: Poems, in 1929.

“I’m not trying to reform the world or to make every one smile,” she once told Bonner. “I’m trying to make my little verses human; sometimes they’re sarcastic, sometimes they’re ‘flip.’ They’re cynical, too, and I like to make them about all subjects–including the frailties of the readers….” And of the author, too, as one quickly sees.

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Complete Cheerful Cherub, by Rebecca McCann
New York: Covici-Friede Publishers, 1932


 

August 15th, 2014

“Largo by the Sea (A Prologue),” from Varmints, by Peggy Bennett (1947)

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You have read, no doubt, the damp masticated and printed wood pulp called the morning paper, wielding its unwieldly pages (the tabloid excepted from the clumsy kinds) impatiently, eager for the greasy crumbs of news the newspaper empires have selected for you, have written for you from the moral slant of a particular newspaperman or an editor, each intensely human and subject to his share of human stupidity and roughhewn grammar. You know the world, you do.

The comic strips, twentieth-century fairy tales, manage to absorb part of your consciousness, to keep your susceptible minds off that filthy vague excrement smelling on the front page, and the sports pages are exceedingly enlightening. You compose a record crowd in innumerable halls and stadiums. A good crooner is worth a dozen or ten dozen ordinary hard-working citizens, and a cute little smug chubby round-jowled chow is infinitely funnier than a baby, and not half so much trouble in the bargain. You spend most of your spare time seeking entertainment. You listen to music so that you may hear voices in the pure and abstracted form, exactly like no human voices, and yet so like your very own that you are entranced, hypnotized (you can easily hypnotize yourself). Is music a refuge ? Is art an escape ? You may argue that it is, on the contrary, a new and better way of living. Ah, those beauties, those pearls of emotional wisdom. In their moments you may espy eternity, and then you must go on with business as usual, pursuing careers and fat paychecks, bathing away perspiration and other odors, ejecting wastes from your bodies, mincing and devouring those strange concoctions you recognize as your food, worrying, changing with the weather, lusting a little for power, falling prey to riots of bacteria, dying ignominiously natural human deaths, decaying insensibly.

You have readily patronized the motion picture industry and watched the puppets being drawn through the fantastic folds of drama, in which simple home life is shown as an extravaganza, complex human emotions and relationships are shown as simple shallows, and dreamworld sex is the perpetual motive, the neverdying underlying theme. All sentiment suddenly becomes a heavy inhuman fog, or perhaps a chocolate bar melting in the sun. The ethereal seems indelibly neurotic, and vulgarity synonymous with health. Suffering is made a form of nobility, pain pleasurable, and greatness a simpleton’s struggle to be himself in the midst of evil. Evil is anything (either brilliant and human or stupid and inanimate) that trips up the inspired fool. The obscure music lubricates the creaking mechanisms of the drama and steals upon the listener unawares, massages him as he sits passively in the cushioned seat. The strange eerie flat gray world now comes brilliant in unearthly splashy and splotchy technicolor, but still flat, mosaic. Now you think of yourselves as weirdly beautiful faces and torsos, curving curvaceous legs, tantalizing smoothness and roundness of breasts and thighs and hips or of hard male flatness and narrow hips and iron muscle, and you are moving in close-ups, slow-motion, or in long-range action shots, lightning fast. Voluptuous throes of emotion ; how exquisite it is to writhe in make-believe passion.

Perhaps you’d rather spend your evenings listening to the warm cordial atmospheres generated by your radio. Genial men flatter your good taste, introduce you to personages chummy, winningly idiotic, noble and high spirited, and so on. Unlike prosaic diurnal living, whose genuine people move with masks on their faces and can be judged only by the sums of their lives, radio personalities come in types as variable as stovepipes. How fondly we remember our adolescence all day long. Periodic soulshaking and mirthquaking rhythms of studio laughter. Impressive sounds, some of them, seeming to assure you that somewhere in the world life must be tremendously diverting, exceptionally exciting, and all good clean fun in the meantime.

God, how great are these United States. Yes, you’re a pretty great people, you are. And even, now and then, truth reaches you with the penetrating power of a very quiet voice.


I came across Varmints while nosing around the Internet Archive, which has been my electronic substitute for the great libraries where I’ve always loved to spend hours scouring the stacks for the odd and intriguing. The energy, the venom and the God-like authority in the above passage grabbed me immediately and I soon downloaded a copy and kept on reading. This excerpt is part of the ten page prologue to Varmints, Peggy Bennett’s first and (apparently) only novel. Bennett was just 22 when the book was published, but she could have given Rebecca West a run for her money when it came to confidence in her perspectives. This prologue goes on to give us a survey of a half-dozen broken lives, from a woman suffering agonizing pain in North Carolina to a black cook who accidentally chops off his thumb while working in a Los Angeles diner one night.

PeggyBennettThe novel itself goes on to tell the story of three children–Ethel, Hilliard and Mutt–taken over by their grandparents after their mother’s death. They live together in a town in northern Florida, where the grandfather is a master carpenter now mostly retired. The three children take in their world in very different ways. Ethel is hyper-sensitive, sometimes overwhelmed by what she sees around her. Hilliard is a genius who grows ever more distrustful of the world outside and spends most of his time alone in his room, reading. And Mutt is highly sociable, easy-going and popular with everyone. The grandparents are neither demons nor angels but people struggling themselves with choices and the lack of simple answers.

Unfortunately, just what message Peggy Bennett wanted to get out by writing this novel is unclear. Although there’s nothing quite so iconoclastic as the prologue, the book seems filled with a great deal of anger, anger desperately seeking its targets. She dips a few times into overwrought Faulknerian language, but not so much as turn the book into a parody. There are some very funny, if caustic, lines and at least one heart-tugging tragedy. The energy of the initial pages, however, ultimately fizzles out toward the end.

Peggy Bennett went on to write a number of short stories that were published in little magazines as well as in several short story collections from the 1950s. It’s not clear that she published anything after that. She died in April 2011 at the age of 86.


The Varmints, by Peggy Bennett
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947


 

August 11th, 2014

Night School, by R. V. Cassill (1961)

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Cover of Dell original paperback edition of 'Night School'On the downhill slope of my scenic tour of the pulp fiction of novelist and short-story writer, R. V. Cassill, a tour begun back in March with his tale of wife-swapping in small town Iowa, The Wound of Love. Published in 1961, Night School was his next to last paperback original, with only Nurses’ Quarters (1962) to follow.

As with all his pulp novels, Night School draws upon Cassill’s own experiences. Cassill was one of the first to plant himself firmly in academia and teach writing while continuing to write and publish, and among his early gigs in the mid-1950s was a stint teaching an evening class at the New School of Social Research.

I’ve speculated before that Cassill used his pulp novels to experiment with various techniques and topics while weaving in enough sex and violence to satisfy his editors’ demands. If this was in fact the case, then the experiment in Night School was just the sort of thing one might expect as a night school writing class assignment: tell a story through the viewpoints of multiple characters.

It’s one of the oldest situations in the books, dating back to The Decameron and beyond. And in the case of Night School, it gave Cassill to explore the different sexual attitudes and experiences of the students in his class–as well as of its instructor.

Houston Parker, Cassill’s night school teacher, is a divorced writer with one critically successful novel and many years of writer’s block behind him. For him, the class is a turning point–the bottom from which he will rebound or the trap door to even greater failure. The class is equally a turning point for a number of its students, but their dilemmas have more to do about love than literature. One student is a shark, trolling his way through half the women in the class. Another is an ingenue trying to decide whether to become an adventuress or settle for married monogamy and the stifle fantasies of her mother. And two of them, middle-aged, with complicated lives behind them, find a happiness worth risking all the security they have.

All this confirms Parker’s suspicion “that some of these ladies and gentlemen were looking for more than instruction in writing fiction.” And the fact that it’s a night school class means that most of the students have been working and living on their own for some time. So when some of the students get together for a drink after class, it’s usually in one of their apartments, and the conversation tends to be a fix of war stories and regrets for past mistakes. Most of these people–including Parker himself–know they won’t be the great successes they once aspired to be, but haven’t given up on trying to achieve or create something.

The sex–what there is of it–in Night School is more often about what doesn’t happen. One quiet, otherwise pleasant, man is celibate because, as he reveals to everyone’s discomfort during one of the after-class session, he views most of humankind with just rabid hatred that he could never be attracted to another person. After the shark doesn’t sleep with one of the women, she turns into a vengeful demon who threatens to castrate him.

And so, despite what the editors at Dell paperbacks might have been hoping, Night School turns out to be more about life choices and consequences than sex–which is why it’s also one of the more interesting and satisfying of Cassill’s pulps. Admittedly, his protagonist is just as uninteresting as 95% of writers in fiction. (There seem to be only two models: the out-of-control wild man (ala Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan or Cassill’s Clem Anderson); and the angst-written clod. Cassill’s Houston Parker is one of the clods.) But Cassill did manage to create some convincingly grown-up characters among Parker’s students, and for that alone the book rates better than the average Cassill pulp.


Night School, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Dell Publishing Inc., 1961

 
 


 

August 7th, 2014

“Mason Street, 11 P. M.,” from A City of Caprice, by Neill Wilson

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Mason Street, Eleven P. M.

Spangles flashing, slippers twinkling.
Round and round she goes.
To the mad piano’s tinkling.
On her tippy-toes.
Waiter! Has the girl no inkling
Of the word repose?

Flagellate ‘em! Fast, Professor,
Beat the ivories hard!
Never pace a minute lesser.
While the night is starred.
Waiter! Who’s the giddy dresser
Glancing hitherward?

Cheek allures and lips abet it.
Mistress with the eyes.
Speak then: do we pirouette it
Where the sachet flies?
Ah, the prospect dazzles? Let it!
Evening star, arise!

Psyche’s nearest rival, spritely
Condiment of art.
Hug, oh hug me not so tightly.
Let me breathe, dear heart.
Less inured am I to nightly
Passion a la carte.

Listen, Circe’s little sister.
Once embraced, endeared:
You have scorched my soul; I blister.
Even as I feared.
Waiter! Chasers two! I kissed her.
And it tasted weird.

Pound the box. Professor! Shocking
Though the modern Eve,
And a lady’s lost her stocking,
I decline to leave.
What, the hour so soon for locking?
Halts all make-believe?

Gently, waiter. Friend, confessor,
Where’s the sidewalk, please?
Hail, the honest milkman! Yessir,
Morning air agrees.
Man! but couldn’t that professor
Castigate those keys?


The mix of traditionally poetic language and then-contemporary slang in this poem–and in most of those in this collection–is awkward and unstable. On its own, the whole book could easily remain forgotten. I just featured it as an excuse to post a few of the dozen or so photographs that appear ahead of the poems. Look closely at the last: you can see the reflections of the two women in the store window they are passing. I always like old photos that remind us that a photograph only captures an instant. Most of the picture is filled with things that are fixed–for years at least. But here we also catch the women a moment before they turn the corner and disappear.

from A City of Caprice, by Neill Compton Wilson
San Francisco: Overland Press, 1920

Available on the Internet Archive (Link).

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


 

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