Irvin Faust

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Steagle'“Opening this book is like clicking on a switch: at once we hear the electric hum of talent,” Stanley Kauffmann wrote in his New Republic review of Irvin Faust’s first book of fiction, Roar Lion, Roar. And if there’s one characteristic of Faust’s work, it’s energy. For over 45 years–30 of them working nights, weekends, and vacations while holding down a regular job as a a high school guidance counselor–Faust has written some of the liveliest, noisiest, most vibrant prose published in America:

Vegas. Ocean’s Eleven. Sinatra. Judy. Thirty thousand a week. Sun. Desert. Red neon. One-armed bandits. Action. Faites vos jeux. Les jeux sont faits. Nothing Monaco. Nothing Reno. Pools. Tanfastic. Bikinis. Action. Vegas.

That’s from Faust’s first novel, The Steagle (1966), about a college professor who suffers a psychotic breakdown over the Cuban Missile crisis and goes blasting off around the country on thrill-seeking spree. Of Faust’s most commercially successful book, the 1971 novel, Willy Remembers, Elmore Leonard wrote (in his introduction to the 1983 Arbor House reissue, reprinted on his blog):

There’s no one in American literature quite like Willy T. Kleinhans. And there is more sustained energy in the telling of what he remembers than in any novel I’ve ever read.

Willy Remembers takes off within the first two sentences, climbs, swoops, glides, does loops-all effortlessly-and doesn’t touch down again until he’s told us how things were. Really were.

It’s beautiful. More than that, Saturday Review describes it as ‘a great, big, beautiful hunk of Americana, “The New York Times calls it “a Book of Wonders.”

It’s so good I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped right here and turned to the first page, because all I’m going to do is tell you why I think it’s great.

A World War Two veteran who served in both Europe and the Pacific, Faust took advantage of the G. I. Bill and became a teacher in the New York Public Schools. 1954, while teaching math and English in Harlem, he decided that, “I wanted to relate to [kids] differently from the way I could in a classroom,” so he returned to school, earning a doctorate in Education at Teachers College. He returned to public schools and worked a regular Monday-to-Friday job in high schools around the New York City area for the next thirty years.

Irvin Faust, 1966As he told Don Swaim in a 1985 interview (available on the wiredforbooks.org website), he had been jotting down story ideas for years, and in the mid-to-late 1950s, he began submitting stories to a variety of small magazines. His first book, Entering Angel’s World, however, a casebook for practitioners, was based on his doctoral research and early experience as a guidance counselor. Faust once told an interviewer,

Guidance counseling hasn’t slowed me down. Actually, in many ways it has helped me to produce by getting me into the mainstream of life….

Both of these things are terribly important to me, and I love doing both. One is introverted, the other extroverted, and these are aspects of my personality. I’m very lucky to have found two things that work together for me and turn me on. I couldn’t give up either one, really.

Both Faust and his wife, Jean, were working professionals, and early in their marriage agreed that Faust would devote his precious spare time away from work to his second career as a writer. Faust’s quiet routine of working and writing has always provided a striking contrast to the vibrant, often chaotic tone of his fiction. “This pop novel pops so violently that it cannot safely be perused without welding goggles,” Time magazine’s reviewer wrote of The Steagle.

Popular culture is one of Faust’s primary energy sources. His characters revel in it, tossing in song, dance, movies, television, radio, tabloids, magazines, celebrities, and historical figures great and small with more Bam! than Emeril with a pepper shaker. A Time magazine reviewer once wrote that Faust’s protagonists “are consumed by a world of mass-produced trivia and popular mythology. They generate authentic obsessions about the inauthentic.” Again, from The Steagle:

He decided to pub-crawl and play it by ear on the outside chance of running into Selznick, who might be looking for new properties. He began drinking at eight at the hotel and worked his way along the Strip. At Lou’s Century Club he won a dance contest with a little white-haired lady who said you’re cute as a bedbug, Mr. Rooney. In the One Two Three he asked if he could sing with the combo and did “Rose Marie,” “High, Wide and Handsome,” “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” “The Piccolino,” and “Mairzy Doats.” At ten he called Selma Zorn and said baby, I’m in an all-night story conference at Metro and may have something very big. Get this: an American girl from Ohio is smuggled into Havana on a yacht owned by Harry Morgan and she does this Hayworth bit in a local bistro called Rick’s and Castro see her, and well, you get the picture, Mata Hari and Florence Nightingale, see … No, baby, I’m sorry, not tonight. No, I’m sorry. Listen, babe, listen … Selma, I’ll call you.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Roar Lion, Roar'In the title story of Roar Lion, Roar, a Puerto Rican boy’s obsession with the New York Lions football team blurs into fantasies of becoming gridiron star himself, and much of Faust’s work is devoted to the shifting lines between reality and fiction. The very first two sentences of Willy Remembers demonstrates how easily memory can jumble up facts and create its own version of history: “Major Bill McKinley was the greatest president I ever lived through. No telling how far he could have gone if Oswald hadn’t shot him.”

Reflecting on his writing in an interview from 1975, Faust remarked,

It seems to me that thus far my work has dealt with the displacement and disorganization of Americans in urban life; with their attempt to find adjustments in the glossy attractions of the mass media—-movies, radio, TV, advertising, etc.—-and in the image-radiating seductions of our institutions—-colleges, sports teams, etc.. Very often this “adjustment” is to the “normal” perception a derangement, but perfectly satisfying to my subjects.

Yet while his characters take off into flights of fantasy at the drop of a hat or the first bar of a melody, Faust has always kept his own two feet solidly on the ground. Willy Kleinhans may have confused McKinley and Kennedy’s assassins, but Faust clearly recognizes that Willy’s reveries are closer to psychotic fugues than cute, if muddled, nostalgia. Although Willy Remembers was marketed as the comic memoirs of an eccentric but lovable old man, at the core Willy’s story is full of sadness. His recollections are his escape from the grim reality of a man growing old without the comfort and company of his wife and son, who died many years before.

Sad things happen to Faust’s people, but sadness is certainly not the mood one takes away from his writing. Not everyone might be so accepting of how his characters choose to cope with their realities, but it works for them, and–with the possible exception of Faust’s 1970 novel, The File on Stanley Patton Buchta, which Jerome Charyn called “a curiously humorless book”–it usually sparkles with invention and passion.

All of Faust’s novels and short story collections are currently of a print, but all are easily available for as little as $0.01 on Amazon and elsewhere. And if you happen to wonder into a used book store that actually has inventory older than the clerk behind the counter, you shouldn’t have any trouble locating his books–they’re the ones you see glowing and buzzing on the shelves.


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Robert Phelps featured in The American Scholar

The American Scholar‘s Spring 2009 issue includes two features on Robert Phelps, who co-founded the Grove Press, edited numerous collections of the writings of Colette, Glenway Wescott, Ned Rorem, and others, was called “the best book reviewer in America” by Garry Wills, and struggled for 30 years to produce a second novel to follow his well-received 1958 debut, Heroes and Orators. The first, “Dawn of a Literary Friendship”, features the first dozen of over 200 letters exchanged between Phelps and the novelist James Salter between 1969 and Phelps’ death in 1989, an irresistable taste from what will be a future collection of their correspondence edited by John McIntyre.

Writing to Salter on Christmas Eve, 1969, Phelps gushes with admiration for Salter’s 1967 novel, A Sport and a Pastime (“my own favorite American novel of the ’60s”), his script for “Downhill Racer”, and his direction of the film, “Three”. Salter replied with praise for Phelps’ compilation of Colette’s autobiographical writings, Earthly Paradise: “I’ve given many copies away. Everything about it is beautiful. I love to pick it up.”

Salter was just hitting his stride as a writer. As Phelps struggled to create something original of his own, Salter slowly but steadily built up an oeuvre and a critical reputation as a writer who, in the words of Richard Ford, “writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” Composer and diarist Ned Rorem has described Phelps’ letters as “witty, lewd, sage, generous, gossipy, aggressively self-effacing, montrously opinionated without bitchery, engrossed by the literary life in general while being always directed to a unique recipient, and generally weaving something extraordinary out of something ordinary.” As this first sample shows, the combination of Phelps’ and Salter’s talents and genuine mutual affective and admiration promises to represent one of the most interesting and enjoyable collections of American letters of the 20th century.

The second piece, “I wanted to Be Robert Phelps”, by Washington Post critic Michael Dirda, shows Phelps both as a man of tremendous erudition and enthusiasm for writers and artists of past and present. Phelps’ study and office in his Manhattan apartment was, in Dirda’s eyes,

… the perfect room. The wooden floors had been stained black, the walls completely lined with bookshelves. Curtains were always kept drawn, blocking out the day and night. A pole lamp stood next to a rather high-tech chrome and leather easy chair, while extension lights were clamped to the corners of bookcases. On a coffee table in the middle of the room there always lay page proofs, literary magazines, publishers’ catalogues. Instead of a sofa, a daybed butted up against the back of a freestanding bookcase and was covered with pillows embroidered with scenes from classical mythology (Becki’s handiwork). Near the music corner—lots of Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Ravel LPs—stood a long low set of white shelves on top of which rested more books, some heavy tumblers and a big bottle of Tanqueray gin.

Beneath the cultured lifestyle Dirda admired, however, Phelps struggled to with his own demons. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease for years, was prone to drinking at times, and agonized over his sexuality, which was one aspect of Heroes and Orators praised by critics such as Leslie Fiedler. And he constantly took himself to task for failing to produce “worthy books”. As he once wrote Salter,

As it is, for 20 years, I have only scrounged at making a living: a low standard of survival and hundreds of articles, reviews, flower arrangements of other people’s prose, etc. Not a good form of hell at all. This has become terribly clear to me in the past 6 weeks when I have been going through sheaves of old printed matter with a view to making our publisher a book called Following. I have been appalled by the waste, the thousands and thousands of irretrievable words on which nevertheless I worked long and hard and sometimes until 5 a.m. No. Somewhere I took a wrong turning. I should not have tried to earn my living with my typewriter. I should have become a surveyor, or an airline ticket salesman, or a cat burglar. As it is, I am far far beyond the point of no return and such powers as I once counted on—the ability to write to order and out of my own battiness, so to speak—are suddenly gone.

Instead of writing more novels, Phelps collected, annotated and edited. Colette’s writings. James Agee’s letters. Glenway Westcott’s miscellania. Ned Rorem’s first diaries. And The Literary Life; a Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene From 1900 to 1950, which one reviewer called “a loving elegy, a larky swansong, a doting, dotty, but undaunted Souvenir Album for books, books, books, and for all the men and women who ever believed in making them.” And Dirda says of it, “I’ve since carried the book with me my whole life; it has been on my bedside table wherever I have lived. I have read it over and over.”

He also taught writing, mostly at the New School, and inspired dozens of his students. Dan Wakefield portrays Phelps as his primary influence in his memoir, New York in the Fifties, as does Derek Alger on the online magazine, Pif.

Perhaps Phelps just didn’t recognize–or value, at least–the talent he seems to have genuinely had, even though he admitted it in one of his early letters to Salter:

Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets…how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.

Certainly the warm spot Phelps’ pastiches of Colette and others continues to hold in the hearts of their readers suggests that his energies may have been better spent in creating them than in writing novels that might well have been forgotten as quickly as Heroes and Orators was.

Mary Astor, Author

Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart in 'The Maltese Falcon'Film and theater director Lindsay Anderson once said, “… when two or three who love the cinema are gathered together, the name of Mary Astor always comes up.” “She was an actress of special attraction”, he went on, “whose qualities of depth and reality always seemed to illuminate the parts she played.” Between 1921 and 1965, she appeared in over 100 films, dozens of plays, and plenty of television dramas, but looking through her list of credits, what strikes us today is that we remember Mary Astor despite the fact that most of her films, aside from The Maltese Falcon and a few others, are pretty forgettable.

What almost no one remembers today, however, is that Mary Astor also had a respectable career as a writer. In her 1971 memoir, A Life on Film, Astor implies that it started “as a sort of assignment to help me during a short period of psychotherapy,” but the version that appears in the book that resulted from this assignment, Mary Astor: My Story, is a little more vivid.

Astor repeats an old joke in A Life on Film about the five stages of an actor’s career:

  1. “Who is Mary Astor?”
  2. “Get me Mary Astor.”
  3. “Get me a Mary Astor type.”
  4. “Get me a younger Mary Astor.”
  5. “Who is Mary Astor?”

Somewhere between stages 4 and 5, Astor became depressed over her declining career and ever less-interesting roles, developed a fondness for the bottle, and may have attempted suicide. During her recovery, she was in the care of a Catholic priest and practicing psychologist, Father Peter Ciklic, who encouraged her to write about her life and experiences. According to Astor, the result “was not meant for public eyes, but someone convinced me it should be a book.” She lucked into the support of a fine editor, Lee Barker, at Doubleday, who helped her shape the raw material into finished shape–remarkably, for a celebrity memoir, without the aid of a ghost writer.

Published in 1959, Mary Astor: My Story was one of the first confessional autobiographies to come out of Hollywood. Astor was candid, within the limits of her generation’s standards of discretion, about her affairs, emotional turmoils, and alcoholism. At the time when Donna Reed was still a leading role model, it was a real scorcher and became a best-seller.

For most celebrities, this would have been the end of the story, but Barker then suggested Astor try her hand at fiction, “…and I’ve been hooked ever since.” A year later, Doubleday released her first novel, The Incredible Charlie Carewe.

Cover of Dell paperback reissue of 'The Incredible Charlie Carewe'Although it suffers some of the typical construction problems of a first novel, The Incredible Charlie Carewe is a remarkable work that demonstrates “qualities of depth and reality” equal to those Anderson noted in Astor’s acting. Charlie Carewe is the handsome, charming, charismatic son of a wealthy East Coast Establishment family with impeccable bloodlines. On the surface, it seems as if the sky is the limit–no doors are closed to Charlie Carewe.

Unfortunately, something is a bit, well, odd, about Charlie. At first, there is just a sense that his behavior is a bit hard to explain, but given his class and status, his parents, his sister, the help–everyone writes it off to quirks in his character. But then his sister comes across Charlie in the rocks along the shore of their country estate–bashing a playmate’s head into the rocks:

There was absolutely no savagery in the action, no passion or hatred, no viciousness, He looked up briefly as he saw Virginia and Jeff and called out a smiling “Hi!” and then went back to his task. Firmly, purposefully, as though he were occupied in cracking a coconut. In the seconds before movement came back to the paralyzed observers another wave whispered up to the two boys and receded with pink in its foam.

Charlie’s victim is rushed off to the hospital with permanent brain damage and the Carewe’s social finesse is put to the test as they graciously usher out their guests as if nothing more than an unfortunate accident had taken place. The next morning, as he tucks into his breakfast, he asks chattily, “What’s the news on Roger? Did he die?”

The Carewes can recognize that they have something of a ticking time bomb on their hands, but their upbringing and lack of psychological awareness (the incident above takes place in the early 1920s) leaves them helpless when it comes to dealing with it. They shuttle Charlie through a series of elite prep schools, smoothing over matters when he’s quietly asked to leave due to thefts, attacks on other students, or other indiscretions. For a long time, the only person who seems remotely able to accept that Charlie’s actions are more than a little abnormal is his sister Virginia, and even she is at a loss to explain it:

As usual, she thought, she was making a fuss, putting too much importance on Charlie’s behavior. She should be used to it now. Wearily she thought, at least there was one consistency; in any given situation, Charlie could be counted on to do the wrong thing, the inappropriate thing. Nobody, but nobody, could be more charming when he wanted to be. He had, it seemed, a full command of the social graces, and in any gathering, especially of people who were strangers to him, could attract attention with no effort. People would gravitate toward him, toward the sound of his pleasant voice, his contagious laugh; but always he seemed to want to destroy it….

Schools could expel him, friends were quickly made and quickly lost, his contact with any kind of social life was brief, and none of it seemed to matter to him. Nor did it matter that the cumulative effect was destroying a family.

Astor displays a clinical objectivity in leading us through every step along the way as Charlie spreads havoc into the lives of almost everyone he meets. In each situation, the pattern is the same: glittering, showy success followed by abrupt failure due to some or other act of willful brutality. His forms a company, makes a great splash, achieves fame as a tycoon and philanthropist, and within a couple of years is being escorted out by his nearly bankrupted partners. He makes a show of joining the Navy after Pearl Harbor, then weasels his way out by pretending to be a bed-wetter. He drives his wife to divorce and alcoholism, borrows and loses money from friends, seduces wives and ruins friendships.

Not even the incredibly strong defenses of family fortune and status, though, can withstand the destructive force of Charlie’s will, however, and only an unlucky trip on a staircase keeps Charlie from standing alone in a wasteland of his own fallout. What Charlie is, we can now see in a glance with the benefit of much greater awareness, is, of course, a psychopath. The psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley recognized this, citing Astor’s book in the 1964 edition of his classic work on psychopathology, The Mask of Sanity:

In many respects the most realistic and successful of all portrayals of the psychopath is that presented by Mary Astor in The Incredible Charlie Carewe. The rendition is so effective that even those unfamiliar with the psychopath in actual experience are likely to sense the reality of what is disclosed. The subject is superbly dealt with, and the book constitutes a faithful and arresting study of a puzzling and infinitely complex subject. Charlie Carewe emerges as an exquisite example of the psychopath – the best, I believe, to be found in any work of fiction.

The Incredible Charlie Carewe should be read not only by every psychiatrist but also by every physician. It will hold the attention of all intelligent readers, and I believe it will be of great value in helping the families of psychopaths to gain insight into the nature of the tragic problem with which they are dealing, usually in blindness and confusion.

By this point, anyone reading this review who’s been in a bookstore in the last decade can’t help but think of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. If asked to sum up the book in a single catchphrase, I would have to say, “Imagine American Psycho written by Louis Auchincloss (or Edith Wharton).” Where Ellis writes to shock, Astor writes to show how people of refinement and elaborate rules of conduct respond when faced with pure irrational violence.

The Incredible Charlie Carewe is a remarkable novel not just in the detail and accuracy of its portrayal of a psychopath but in the “depth and reality” of its portrayal of the society in which this particular psychopath operates. Astor is very much in the territory of Wharton and Auchincloss, and she’s clearly deeply familiar with it. This is a novel that has more than a few parallels with the story of the 20th century as a whole, which is one reason it’s a genuine shame that it vanished after a single Dell paperback release in 1963.

Astor went on to write four more novels: The O’Conners (1964); Goodbye Darling, Be Happy (1965); The Image of Kate (1966); and A Place Called Saturday (1968). The last opens with a rape and goes on to tell about the victim’s decision to bear and raise the child that results. Clearly, Astor’s imagination ranged beyond the walls of the senior citizen apartment of which a visitor commented, “My, isn’t this nice! You can sit here and watch the cars go by!”

In her last book, A Life on Film, Astor revisited her life, but this time dealing almost exclusively with her experiences as a working actor, starting with a 1921 two-reeler, “The Beggar Maid”. Astor didn’t come to film: she was shoved into with both hands by her parents, particularly her father, Otto Langhanke, who was summed up by the great director D. W. Griffith as “a walking cash register.” Her first agent changed Lucile Langhanke into Mary Astor. Lucile was too young to understand much of the insidious nature of her father’s actions at the time, and by the time she was able to take some control of her life, she was in her early twenties and a veteran of over thirty films. So she writes:

As well as I know the actress, Mary Astor–every movement, every shade of voice, and I learned to manipulate her into many different kinds of women–she is still not “me.” A year or so ago I flipped on the TV set and then went into another room for a moment. I heard some familiar words and said, “Hey, that’s Mary Astor!” not “Hey, that’s me.”

Astor survived the transition from silents to sound. She recounts in the book all the troubles associated with the early sound recording techniques, which forced actors into behaviors more stilted and artificial than anything seen in the silents. By the start of the 1930s, she was a legitimate star, if not one of the first magnitude. Her life was regularly covered in Photoplay and a dozen other fan magazines, but as likely to be cast in a B-picture like “Red Hot Tires” as in a A-film like “Dodsworth”.

Then, in 1936, her private life became headline news as her husband’s attorneys attempted to introduce her diary as evidence. Although the studio execs managed to get it suppressed, gossip held that its contents were full of lurid sexual details of her affair with the playwright George S. Kauffman and dozens of male film stars. Astor consistently maintained that this was all hogwash, but forever after she was considered as dangerous material: a solid, consistent, and reliable performer but not safe to make a first-rate star of.

Although she gained some of her best parts in the years after the scandal, including her Oscar-winning supporting role in “The Great Lie” (1941), by 1944 she was, at 38, playing the mother of 22 year old Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis”. She began to think, she writes,

“What’s so damned important about being an actress?” I saw my little world, insulated, self-absorbed, limited. And all the twenty years of hard work seemed sour and futile. It was a partial acceptance of reality, but it was still a bit like a child saying, “You mean there isn’t any Santa Claus?” I wasn’t aware of, nor ready to accept, the fact that the mere doing, the achieving, was the point. Not what I had achieved. For what I had achieved would in due time be forgotten. The doing was important, it was part of my being–of what and who I am.

Ironically, as Mary Astor got less and less to work with in her roles, she made more and more of them. In his forward to A Life on Film, writer Sumner Locke Elliott recalls working with her on a ridiculous 1950s television play intended to showcase the talents of the latest Miss America. She spoke, he writes, in “the voice of the actress who has been through it all; this is the calm of the veteran who can get you through even if the set falls down.” By her last film, “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), her reputation as a professional had reached the point where Bette Davis could turn to director Robert Aldrich and say, “Turn her loose, Robert, you might learn something!”

A Life on Film is a terrific book and it’s entirely due to Mary Astor’s intelligent, ruthlessly honest, and ever ironic voice. This may be the least ego-filled book ever to come out of Hollywood. Astor makes no bones about the creature comforts that one can enjoy as the perks of stardom, but she never confuses film-making as a business of making money by creating distractions. This is a book about craft, about learning to build a character out of two-minute takes and hours and hours and hour of sitting around and waiting, written by a woman who was among the best craftspersons of her era.

If I had to pick just one of Mary Astor’s books for reissue, it would definitely be A Life on Film. As much as I admire and marvel at her accomplishment in The Incredible Charlie Carewe, I have to say I preferred her final memoir. I not only admired it–but I thoroughly enjoyed it and regretted at the end that I was closing the cover on Mary Astor’s last words as a writer.

The Problem of Kenneth S. Davis

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Experience of War'A very long time ago, I checked a book titled The Experience of War out of my high school library. It didn’t look too inviting–the cover is a photo of small black figures–soldiers–walking across a dark gray field, silhouetted against a light gray sky. The pages were filled with long, dense paragraphs of small print. But it was two inches thick, and at the time, I thought size mattered–at least when it came to impressing my classmates with my seriousness.

I only got about 200 pages into the book before I had to return it, and for whatever reason, I didn’t check it out again. But I can remember being profoundly impressed by how … well, I guess I would say, cinematic the book was. It wasn’t like other history books I’d read–setting aside things like The Great Escape as adventure rather than history, that is. It wasn’t a sequence of “this happened and then this happened” facts, with an occasional bit of analysis. It was a series of scenes. Wendell Willkie in the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan, listening to the returns from the 1940 Presidential election. General Jonathan Wainwright waiting for the end in a tunnel on Corregidor. Navy pilots spotting and attacking the Japanese carrier Kaga just as they reach the very limit of their range, opening the battle of Midway. Harry Hopkins, already suffering from stomach cancer, flying from Washington to London and then on to Moscow to meet with Stalin in the early days after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union–and then back to Scotland to meet up with Churchill and travel to the first Atlantic conference:

For twenty-four hours he is in troubled air, his sick body tossed and buffeted. He has barely strength enough to jump from the plane to the slippery deck of an admiral’s launch, at Scapa Flow, when at last the flying boat comes down. A sailor with a boat hook hauls him sprawling across the deck to the safety of the cabin. But he laughs! He laughs at this undignified arrival of the President’s personal envoy upon a British boat. He laughs at his sickness, his weakness. He waves a cheery farewell to the crew of the PBY, whose captain will later speak in awestruck tones of his passenger’s “unbelievable courage,” his “splendid devotion to duty.”

Almost twenty years later, I pulled down a copy of The Experience of War from a bookstore shelf and began thumbing through it. My first reaction was much the same as before: “Hmm … looks very thick, slow, and dry.” But then I hit that passage about Hopkins again, and I suddenly remembered, and decided right there to buy the book and immediately begin reading it again. At the time, I was flying regularly from Washington to Denver and back, usually in the same day, and a good, thick book I could sink into was something I really needed.

But then, around 300 pages into it, I ran into the following at the start of chapter ten: “Let George do it, the saying goes. So call him George.” George is a Marine, and Davis leads us through his enlistment, his basic training, his transport to Hawaii, his transport to a ship off an island in the Southwest Pacific, to George’s part in the island’s assault and bitter conquest.

George is a fictional character.

I found this quite disconcerting. Was this whole thing just a crock, I wondered? Was Davis just toying with the reader?

But eight pages later, we were back in real history, travelling around the world with Wendell Willkie on his 1942 propaganda tour at FDR’s request, and for the rest of the book, we stayed in what I considered safe territory. Edmund Morris’ Dutch was still ten years in the future and I thought mixing fact and fiction was like adding even and odd numbers–in the end, the result would always be fiction.

In his prefatory note to The Experience of War, Davis wrote,

This is a book about the American experience of World War II. It is not designed to be a formal academic history, though every effort has been made to assure its factual accuracy. Rather, its essential purpose is literary in that it attempts to rescue from the erosions and abstractions of Time something of what Webster’s Dictionary, in the definition of “experience,” calls the “actual living through an event or events; actual enjoyment or suffering.”

Looking through the reviews that greeted the publication of The Experience of War, you can see that the majority of reviewers stumbled over exactly the same point I did. Most praise the work’s overall breadth and richness of detail, but caution the buyer to beware that the whole package could be considered tainted by the one detour into creative writing. Almost three decades later, the fine historian David Hackett Fisher could still sniff that the book “promiscuously mixes fiction and fact.” Eric Goldman, writing in the New York Times was one of the very to express unqualified praise, calling it, “…[H]istory in the grand manner, broad and powerful in its themes, eloquent in style …,” and noting its “sharply etched vignettes of people and scenes.”

Soon after publishing The Experience of War, Davis began work on the project that consumed the rest of his life–over thirty years–and ultimately end unfinished: his massive five-volume, nearly 4,000-page biography of Franklin Roosevelt. His first volume, FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny, 1882-1928 published in 1972, was a critical and commercial success, earning him the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians.

From there on, however, it was a long downhill slide. Walter Goodman’s Times review of the second volume, FDR: The New York Years 1928-1933 (1985), ended with this litany of faint praises: “He is an assiduous researcher, a creditable psychologist, a fair-minded analyst and, when he isn’t trying too hard, an inviting chronicler of the most fascinating political personality of our age.” Irving Howe was much more enthusiastic about the third volume, FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937 (1986), calling it an “admirably rich book – rich in historical substance, political thought and character portraiture.”

He did note, however, that, “Sentence by sentence, Mr. Davis is not a bewitching writer: he has a curious weakness for stiff syntax and cumbersome phrasing.” And it must be said that the significant obstacle for Davis’ readers is less an occasional dalliance with fiction but his almost nineteenth century prose style.

At times, it can be completely over the top, as in this passage from The Experience of War:

High hopes. Bright hopes …

But then, abruptly, deep disappointments. Dark disappointments, and even despairs …

The bright and the dark ran side by side in a rush of contrasting events through the weeks after Yalta; they thrust against one another and tumbled over one another as if struggling for the minds of men …

I can only imagine what Professor Sale would have written if I’d turned in a paper with that tempestuous bit of prose. It’s Bulwer-Lytton grade stuff.

Throughout Davis’ long career, which began with a wartime biography of Eisenhower in 1944 and continued through over a dozen works of biography and history and three novels for over fifty years, reviewers took exception to his stylistic foibles: thousand-word paragraphs composed from sixty-word sentences, topped off with telegraphic exclamation points for dramatic effect: “It made a great stir. Of course it would.” And, yes, those bits of poetic excess no self-respecting dispassionate historian would attempt today:

With decision came liberation. A heavy weight was lifted from Roosevelt’s mind: his long-oppressed spirits could again rise.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940'Despite the fact that Random House gave the fourth volume, FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940 (1993), the biggest publicity push of the whole series, Davis’ reputation continued to decline. Although Robert Dallek acknowledged that the work would “take its place in the Roosevelt literature,” he found the most distinctive aspect of the book “the mass of detail on all the major and many minor events of Roosevelt’s second term.” Boy, ain’t that the kind of acclaim that sells a book: “‘A Mass of Details’ says the New York Times!”

Davis died in 1999, leaving the fifth and final volume unfinished. Mary Ellen, Ralph Titus, and Robert Loomis collaborated to shape the completed portion of the book and Davis’ notes into FDR: The War President, 1940-1943, which was published in 2000. Even so, the book ends in the middle of the war, with Roosevelt screening Casablanca at the White House.

Davis was spared the indignity of the book’s reception, which reminds one of the old joke, “The food here’s terrible–and the portions are so small.” Here is Michael Lind, again from the Times:

FDR: The War President, 1940-1943 is not history. It is sensationalistic historical fiction of the kind associated with Oliver Stone and the Edmund Morris of Dutch. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reputation as a historical figure will survive this book. Kenneth S. Davis’s reputation as a historian will not.

One pictures Lind spiking his copy of the book into Davis’ grave and dancing a little touchdown jig.

Kenneth S. Davis in 1993So is that the fate of Kenneth S. Davis? To have steadily and diligently written himself into oblivion? At the moment, all but his history of Kansas are out of print. While his FDR books have been referenced by dozens of historians since their publication, as a quick Google Book search reveals, most of the time it’s for their details of color and character than the historical insights. And for readers unprepared for the task, the prospect of lugging a few pounds of a Davis book or sticking with his long, dense paragraphs probably seems like that of reading Proust without the payoff of being able to brag about it at parties.

For a few persistent and diligent readers, though, there are considerable rewards. I said early on that I remembered The Experience of War as a cinematic book. Irving Howe, on the other hand, saw the parallel for Davis’ approach in an earlier century: “… [T]he total effect of his book is strongly dramatic, reminding one of those naturalistic novels that marshal lumbering sentences in behalf of narrative drive.” Yes, there are plenty of lumbering sentences. But there are also such vivid, memorable scenes: Eisenhower pacing up and down the runway in Gibraltar, anxiously wondering how successful (or costly) the American Army’s landing in North Africa would be. John Hersey encountering the realities of combat in Guadalcanal. Oppenheimer torn between hope and dread at the first atomic bomb test. David Lillienthal wresting control of the Tennessee Valley Authority from the powerful electric utilities. An ordinary visitor experiencing the marvels of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Or FDR’s first fireside chat:

There was nothing fake about the hearty, laughing good humor, the optimistic faith (he knew everything would come out right in the end!), the indomitable courage, the incessant, stupendous joie de vivre which he exuded and which others, needful of it, soaked up as parched earth does water.

If what Davis set out to do in his books was, as he wrote in his prefatory note to Experience, to “rescue from the erosions and abstractions of Time” experience–“the actual living through an event or events,” I think we can say he succeeded, even if it was counter to critical preferences.

For the past umpteen years, I’ve usually had one or another of Davis’ books in my nightstand. In between books, I’ll pick it up, open a page at random, and dip in. And almost always, I find myself carried away through the next dozen pages by the power of his story-telling. And for that, I am grateful.

Ramsay Wood recommends a Neglected Writer: George Borrow

In passing along news of a new edition of his Kalila and Dimna: Selected Fables of Bidpai, writer Ramsay Wood shared his own recommendation:

My candidate for the two most neglected books would be Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857) by George Borrow. In a way he was the first ordinary, modern English travel writer. But it takes a good 50 pages to tune into his language, which is obviously quite removed from English usage today.

150 years ago, Borrow was one of the most popular writers in the English language: one of his first books, The Bible in Spain, even outsold Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. His novels and non-fiction books, especially those about the Gypsies of Spain and elsewhere, were considered masterpieces of their time: dramatic, colorful, and comic. And for a good hundred years afterward, you could count on finding at least one or two titles by Borrow in any good collection of classics (Everyman’s, the Modern Library). Now, you have a choice between over-priced e-publisher editions or free downloads from Project Gutenberg.

It’s true that Borrow’s prose can, at times, be at least one or two removes from today’s language:

But to return to my own history. I had now attained the age of six: shall I state what intellectual progress I had been making up to this period? Alas! upon this point I have little to say calculated to afford either pleasure or edification. I had increased rapidly in size and in strength: the growth of the mind, however, had by no means corresponded with that of the body. It is true, I had acquired my letters, and was by this time able to read imperfectly; but this was all: and even this poor triumph over absolute ignorance would never have been effected but for the unremitting attention of my parents, who, sometimes by threats, sometimes by entreaties, endeavoured to rouse the dormant energies of my nature, and to bend my wishes to the acquisition of the rudiments of knowledge; but in influencing the wish lay the difficulty.

But scan through The Romany Rye, for example, and you’ll find much dialogue, some narrative, but little in the way of heavy-lifting prose. As Anthony Campbell argues, “In fact, he is a penny plain writer, not a tuppence coloured one; you don’t find those purple passages of description that were thought to be the mark of “style” at the time. In other words, he is closer to Defoe than to De Quincy.” And you’ll also find, from a man who was employed by the Bible Society, a remarkable share of irreverence:

“One thing,” said I, “connected with you, I cannot understand; you call yourself a thorough-going Papist, yet are continually saying the most pungent things against Popery, and turning to unbounded ridicule those who show any inclination to embrace it.”

“Rome is a very sensible old body,” said the man in black, “and little cares what her children say, provided they do her bidding. She knows several things, and amongst others, that no servants work so hard and faithfully as those who curse their masters at every stroke they do. She
was not fool enough to be angry with the Miquelets of Alba, who renounced her, and called her ‘puta’ all the time they were cutting the throats of the Netherlanders. Now, if she allowed her faithful soldiers the latitude of renouncing her, and calling her ‘puta’ in the market-place, think not she is so unreasonable as to object to her faithful priests occasionally calling her ‘puta’ in the dingle.”

Isabel Paterson’s End Note to “The Golden Vanity”

On the back dust cover of the first edition of The Golden Vanity can be found the following note by the author, Isabel Paterson. I wanted to reprint it here to highlight again her wonderfully flippant and original style. Would someone please publish a collection of her columns and letters?

Every time I write a novel my publishers demand the story of my life. this is embarrassing, because as will Cuppy says we have only one like to live, if that, and I Told All the last time. The fact is, most of my life is a blank because I forget what I was doing at any given time.

During the part year and a half, my life has been comparatively blameless, except for the customary novel. All I’ve done is build a house in the country and go native. Building a house is great fun. It’s like magic. You say a few words and make marks on a piece of paper and go away and when you come back there is a house. Still more mysteriously, the magic gives out just one split second before the last pantry shelf has been put up, and never, as long as you live, can you get that shelf, or the final towel rod in the bathroom. Perfection is not attainable by mortals.

It doesn’t matter anyhow, because of the garden. The house is ultimately only a place to go into when it rains, and not then until you are thoroughly soaked. I’m not really a gardener; only a weeder. I don’t know if one ever develops from that stage. My garden consists of six zinnias, several cosmos [because of lack of space the publsihers deleted here certain particulars about Mrs. Paterson’s garden] and some shrubs, at present described as “What is that?” Many magnificent trees dot the landscape. A tree which I have decided is a mulberry lurks in the back lot. It has got to be a mulberry; I can’t be changing the name of the thing every five minutes. I have to get on with the weeding.

My friends and acquaintances express surprise that I should have rural tastes. This attitude indicates to me what is wrong with public opinion. It has no relevancy to the facts. I was born and brought up in the country, so far from any urban influences that I never saw an electric light till I was fifteen and was afraid of it when I did see one. This is why I hate clocks and appointments and can’t find a train in a time-table. My idea of time goes by the sun — morning, noon, afternoon, and night. I seldom know the day of the week and never the date of the month, so it is impossible for me to date my letters. I hate crowds, and radios, and public speakers, and cannot drive a motor car. These things being so, I lived in New York for years and years. Finally I acquired sense enough to move out. I don’t mind commuting because it gets me to the country. That is all for the present.

Caroline Slade

To an extent that puts better-known writers such as Steinbeck to shame, Caroline Slade wrote for the dispossessed, exploited, and impoverished Americans of the 1930s and 1940s. Educated at Skidmore College in the early 1900s, she spent three decades working and teaching in the field of social work before her first book was published in 1936, when she was fifty. She had begun to write years before that, though, winning an O.Henry prize in the late 1920s for one of her first short stories.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Sterile Sun'Her first novel, Sterile Sun, leaps straight into a subject few people were willing to discuss, let alone write about: prostitution. One by one, Slade takes the viewpoint of three prostitutes — Sue, a fourteen year-old runaway; Allie, a veteran of the streets who strenuously defends herself and her daughter; and Winkie, who filters everything through a romantic haze to avoid dealing with the reality of her situation. Of the three sections, the first, in Sue’s voice, is the most successful, very much a stream-of-consciousness monologue following the models set down by Joyce and others:

I wished I could get some more money then one day the old man met me down the road when I was coming from school he said Sue you go on up to the rocks and wait for me I want to tell you something I said hwo much will you give me he laughed he said well you little bitch but he said fifty cents so I said I would wait for him. He sat on a rock and made me stand between his legs he liked to feel me through my clothes he made such funny noises with his mouth I had to laugh I thought he was pretty silly but when he let me go he gave me a dollar bill I could hardly believe it he said will you meet me here again and I said I bet I would he just said you stand still Sue and then a whole dollar. I put it in my shoe I was so happy I could feel it with my foot in my shoe all that money I said it all for me and he said you bet it is then I was so scared my mother would find it.

Kicked out of school because she admits to having sex with older men, Sue hitch-hikes to a nameless city and soon turns to prostitution when her slim funds run out. She manages to avoid getting trapped into a white slavery racket, starts walking the streets, and then dies from a botched abortion. Allie and Winkie have managed to survive longer than Sue, but the novel ends with no indication that things will get any better.

At least one magazine criticized Slade for failing to suggest that society could solve the problems that led these women to their fates. But, as Paula Rabinowitz writes in her book, Black & White & Noir, “Faith in society was not going to solve these girls’ problems. Slade’s years as a social worker had taught her that already.”

Vanguard Press, which published Sterile Sun, took an odd marketing tact, advertising that it was issuing the book “in a special edition, the sale of which is limited to physicians, psychiatrists, sociologists, social workers, educators, and other persons having a professional interest in the psychology of adolescence.” Vanguard also prefaced the novel with a sober introduction by one Reverend John Howard Melish urging readers not to look upon the book’s pornographic values (which are none, by today’s standards). They still managed to sell enough copies that the book is relatively easy to find, online at least, for five bucks or less.

In her subsequent books, Slade continues to hold to the view that things get better only through a tremendous effort of will — or as a fluke. While she never puts a social worker in a heroic light, she at least shows an understanding of, if not a sympathy for, the grim job they have. Still, she recognizes the symbiotic relationship between the poor and the bureaucrats trying to help them. In Lilly Crackell, Miss Stallings, the case worker who works on Lilly’s case for years, admits at one point, “The truth is, I live upon the lives of hungry, cold, poverty-stricken people; their misfortunes make possible for me my good job. My God, I never honestly looked at my job before. Why, my own income rests upon the backs of the poor!”

Cover of Signet paperback edition of 'Lilly Crackell'I read Lilly Crackell (1944) after seeing a post on the Women Writers message board that proclaimed, “This is a great American novel(very possibly ‘the’ Great American novel) that, to put it bluntly, wipes the floor with Steinbeck.” Lilly Crackell is the story of a welfare mother back before that term was invented. The Crackells are a white trash family living on Sand Hill, next to the dump, in a shack with a dirt floor. They get a weekly care package from the town that keeps them on the edge of starvation. Lilly is a stunningly attractive young girl who fools around with one of her school classmates, a young man from one of the “better” families in town, and winds up pregnant.

The book follows her through two decades and six children. She gets a job keeping house for an older farmer and ends up having three kids by him before he drops dead of a heart attack. His heirs kick her off the farm and she returns to the shack on Sand Hill. Meanwhile, we see, from Miss Stalling’s viewpoint, social services go from private charities to government programs and influx of money and attention with the New Deal. Yet, as the book closes, with Lilly feeling another pregnancy coming on, the Crackells are still dependents. Her oldest sons can’t pass the Army’s physical due to bad teeth and other effects of long-term malnutrition and Lilly and her mother are still stuck on Sand Hill.

I can’t agree with the poster’s high regard for Lilly Crackell as a work of art. Slade’s flat prose style lacks much of the energy of her monologues in Sterile Sun. I have no doubt that her account of the Crackells and the social agencies is utterly honest and firmly rooted in real cases Slade worked on. But few of her characters are developed in more than superficial detail and Lilly herself shows almost no change in her perspective and thoughts between 14 and 30-something. Still, I can agree with the New Yorker reviewer who wrote of the book, “Mrs. Slade has the talent, rare in these days, of combining warmth and compassion with intelligence, and she writes movingly, often humorously, and with sturdy common sense.”

Slade’s other novels are:

· The Triumph of Willie Pond (1940)

A story of a family on relief and the effects of the WPA and other New Deal programs. Social Work Today gave The Triumph of Willie Pond this strong endorsement: “to say every single social worker in the United States ought to read it is to do it injustice….” According to Time magazine, Slade’s mother wrote her after reading the book, “Caroline, wherever in the world did you hear such language?”

· Job’s House (1941)

In this novel, Job Mann and his wife, an elderly couple, find themselves slammed to the bottom of the social heap by the Great Crash and the Depression and struggle to cope with the “world of hate, whores, idiots, stinking tenements and the loathed ‘Welfares'”, as Time’s review put it.

· Margaret (1946)

Margaret was probably Slade’s best-known and -selling novel. It revisits the story of Sterile Sun, telling the story of a sixteen year-old girl who becomes a prostitute to help out her family and runs into problems with gangs and juvenile justice.

· Mrs. Party’s House (1948)

This book also deals with prostitution, but from the viewpoint of a madame. In Rabinowitz’s words, it “offers a history of government, legal, journalistic, welfare, and economic investments in prostitution.”

Slade’s husband, John Slade, was an attorney for Saratoga County and a professor of law at Skidmore College. The two were active supporters of the arts and she served as the first president of the foundation that built and ran the famous Yaddo writers’ colony. She died in Saratoga Springs in 1975.

H. L. Humes

“Somewhere on the bookshelf between forgotten and neglected, between the tragic and the strange, stands the reputation of the American writer Harold L. Humes,” writes Celia McGee an article in the 13 January 2007 edition of the New York Times:

The Third Man of the postwar Paris expatriate crowd — he was a co-founder of The Paris Review in 1953, with Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton — Doc Humes, as he was known, went on to produce two novels in the late 1950s that placed him at the head of a new generation of writers to watch. But in the ’60s he succumbed to a mental illness that left him paranoid and peripatetic. Yet to those who remember him, he remained so brilliant that even in madness he dazzled, delighted, educated and touched.

Now “Doc,” a documentary by an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (one of Mr. Humes’s daughters) and fresh awareness among several publishers is raising hopes that Mr. Humes’s long out-of-print novels will finally resurface.

If availability of his books is any measure of a writer’s neglect, Humes is currently up in the top ranks. Neither of his two novels are available (even used) on Amazon, and a search of AddAll.com today produced a sum total of two copies each of The Underground City and Men Die.

Alan Cheuse wrote an essay on The Underground City in Rediscoveries II and Ted Morgan named it as one of Antaeus magazine’s “Neglected Books of the 20th Century”. Time magazine wrote of Men Die,

A talented young first novelist named H. L. (for Harold Louis) Humes last year produced an almost classic example of the ambitious book that tries to say too much. The Underground City was at once a war novel, a treatise on right and wrong, an indictment of the human condition. Its 755 pages were too many and too tiring. Now, in less than one-quarter the wordage. Author Humes, 33, has produced a new book that gives off more significance than his first could even suggest….

Author Humes does his work in flashbacks, not the smooth ones of a Marquand, but brusque revelations carved out like sections of a monument to doom. Unfortunately, he also chooses to interpolate interior monologues, which prove only that he has not read James Joyce well enough. But these form a minor irritant compared to the book’s merits — clean writing, crisp description, and a surprisingly accurate sense of the bitter relationships, mostly unspoken, between the enlisted Negroes and their commander. Author Humes is no optimist. Every page of Men Die implies an underlying sense of doom for mankind; yet every page is also immensely readable.

Immy Humes has also set up a website, The Doc Humes Institute, to promote Humes and her documentary. You can also read a short sketch of Humes’ life and work at Wikipedia.