Embarking on Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson

I recently embarked upon my longest voyage into the sea of neglected women writers, a journey through the thirteen volumes and over two thousand pages of what is easily the most neglected great serial novel, Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. I am a little late, by this site’s standards, in coming to read Richardson, who, according to a Guardian article published last May, is finally receiving the recognition she deserves. dorothy_richardson_plaqueThe article came out the day a Blue Plaque in her honor was unveiled in Bloomsbury, at the address where she lived during 1905 and 1906, marking the centenary of the publication of her first novel, and the first book in Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs. She has her own website, run by Professor Scott McCracken, who is also the lead editor for the Dorothy Richardson Scholarly Editions Project launched by Keele University, which plans to release annotated editions of all of Richardson’s works over the course of the next decade. Broadview Press released scholarly editions of Pointed Roofs and the fourth novel in the series, The Tunnel, in 2014, an online exhibition of her letters was opened a few months ago.

However, while a complete scholarly edition of Richardson’s work may become available ten years from now, today the situation is little better than it was fifty years ago, when Louise Bogan wrote, “Merely to get at Dorothy Richardson’s novels … has, of late, become so difficult that the waning of her reputation may be partly put down to the absence of her books themselves and data on their author.” The best complete edition, issued in four volumes by J. M. Dent in 1967, goes for $250 and more, if you can find it. For about $50, you can assemble the four paperback volumes issued as Virago Modern Classics in 1979, but they tend to be “well read” copies. There was also a cheap paperback set published by Popular Library in the U. S. in the 1970s, but it’s more of a wreck than a reference. I decided to compromise, picking up the four volume set published by Knopf in 1938, in excellent condition from John Schulman’s Caliban Books, supplemented with the VMC volume 4, which includes the posthumous thirteen novel, March Moonlight. However, I’ve also provided links below to free electronic editions of the first seven novels, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

And it’s very appropriate to devote a month to Richardson during this (second) year of exclusively reading the works of women. For Richardson was never anything but ferociously her own person, and that person was most definitely female. As Derek Stanford wrote in an obituary piece in 1957, “In all the two thousand pages of Pilgrimage there is not one effort to see the world from a man’s point of view.” Pilgrimage was, for Richardson, more than a work of fiction. Indeed, much of what occurs to Miriam Henderson, the heroine of the novels, is what happened to Richardson. The places, events, and characters can almost all be traced to their real counterparts in her life. As Horace Gregory wrote in his marvelous introduction to her work, Dorothy Richardson: An Adventure in Self-Discovery (1967), “To reread Pilgrimage today is to recognize that this particular work of art is closer to the art of autobiography than to fiction.”

Dorothy Richardson, circa 1920
Dorothy Richardson, circa 1920
Yet Pilgrimage is also much more than Richardson’s autobiography. I think Gregory got it right: writing the books was Richardson’s form of self-discovery. One of Richardson’s earliest supporters, the novelist May Sinclair, mistook her technique as imaginative in a purely fictional sense, referring to William James’ phrase, the stream of consciousness:

In this series there is no drama, no situation, no set scene. Nothing happens. It is just life going on and on. It is Miriam Henderson’s stream of consciousness going on and on…. In identifying herself with this life which is Miriam’s stream of consciousness Miss Richardson produces her effect of being the first, of getting closer to reality than any of our novelists who are trying so desperately to get close. No attitude or gesture of her own is allowed to come between her and her effect.

Writing to an inquiring reader some thirty years after beginning Pilgrimage, Richardson was a little uncomfortable with the “autobiography” label but most definite that what the books weren’t was fiction:

If by “autobiographical” you intend the telling of the story of a life, then, though all therein depicted is dictated from within experience, Pilgrimage is certainly not an autobiography. Nearer the mark, though too suggestive of “science” in the narrowed, modern application of that term, would be “an investigation of reality.” The term novel as applied to my work took me by surprise; but I did not then know what was beginning to happen to “the novel.

Vincent Brome, who was the last person to interview Richardson, shortly before her death in 1957, tried to capture what she described as the experience of writing the books: “She would feel herself surrendering to the consciousness of what seemed to be another person, to look out on that brilliant world, awaiting the final metempsychosis … until all signs of self-consciousness vanished and she was no longer herself; and then disconcertingly, it seemed to her that this other world had identities with a buried self dimly apprehended in states of reverie. Her plunge had become a plunge into her own unconscious.” When she reached this point, Richardson said, the writing flowed, accompanied with “a sense of being upon a fresh pathway.”

Indeed, in the final volume of Pilgrimage, March Moonlight, Miriam/Dorothy defined writing as a form of establishing reality from her reflections:

While I write, everything vanishes but what I contemplate. The whole of what is called “the past” is with me, seen anew, vividly… It moves, growing with one’s growth. Contemplation is adventure into discovery; reality. What is called “creation,” imaginative transformation, fantasy, invention, is only based on reality. Poetic description a half-truth? Can anything produced by man be called “creation?”

Richardson, asserted Louise Bogan, “is not recounting it to us retrospectively; she is sharing it with us in a kind of continuous present. Not this is the way it was, but this is the way it is.” And it is this quality that makes Pilgrimage vibrant and enthralling reading even a hundred years after it was written.

And so, we set out on Dorothy Richardson’s voyage to discovery her own reality. There is no better synopsis that the one provided by Bogan in her review of the 1967 J. M. Dent complete edition:

[W]e finally have Richardson through “Miriam” complete: the brave, if not entirely fearless (for she is often racked by fear), little wrong-headedd-to-the-majority partisan of her own sex (and of living as experienced by her own sex), in her high-necked blouse and (before she took up cycling) long skirt, from which the dust and mud of the London streets must be brushed daily; working endless hours in poor light at a job which involved physical drudgery as well as endless tact; going home to a tiny room under the roof of a badly run boardinghouse; meeting, in spite of her handicapped position, an astonishing range of human beings and of points of view; going to lectures; keeping up her music and languages; listening to debates at the Fabian Society; daring to go into a restaurant late at night, driven by cold and exhaustion, to order a roll, butter, and a cup of cocoa; trying to write, learning to write; trying to love andyet remain free; vividly aware of life and London. And continually sensing transition, welcoming change, eager to bring on the future and be involved with “the new.” And reiterating (on the verge of the most terrible war in history, wherein all variety of masculine madnesses were to be proven real): “Until it has been clearly explained that men are always partly wrong in their ideas, life will be full of poison and secret bitterness.”

Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson

Individual Novels

Collected Editions

  • Pilgrimage (4 volume set), London: J. M. Dent and Cresset Press, 1938 (included an 12th novel, Dimple Hill published for first time)
  • Pilgrimage (4 volume set), New York: Knopf, 1938 (includes Dimple Hill)
  • Pilgrimage (4 volume set), London: J. M. Dent, 1967 (includes a 13th novel, March Moonlight, which was published posthumously)
  • Pilgrimage (4 volume mass market paperback set), New York: Popular Library, 1976 (includes Dimple Hill and March Moonlight)
  • Pilgrimage (4 volume trade paperback set), London: Virago, 1979 (includes Dimple Hill and March Moonlight)

In the news: Constance Woolson, Pamela Moore, Lola Ridge … and this site


Neglected women writers have been making the news in the last month:

From the Nation, the New Republic, the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune, articles marking the release of Anne Boyd Rioux’s biography, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, as well as Miss Grief and Other Stories, a collection of Woolson’s short stories.

From Marie Claire, “The Sylvia Plath You’ve Never Heard Of,”, a fascinating piece by Koa Beck about Pamela Moore, whose precocious debut, Chocolates for Breakfast, established an artistic mold she never managed (or was allowed) to break out of.

From The New Republic, “The Forgotten Feminism of Lola Ridge,” by Terry Svoboda, adapted from her biography, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, published last month by Schaffner Press. Ridge’s poem, “Train Window,” was reprinted here a year ago.

And, in other news, from the New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, “The Custodian of Forgotten Books,” a short piece about this site and yours truly.

The Year of the Neglected Woman Writer, Part Two


A year ago, I made a public pledge to devote 2015 to covering the works of neglected women writers. I was reacting to Phyllis Rose’s comments in her 2014 book, The Shelf, who was, in turn, reacting to Chris Jackson’s post, “All the Sad Young Literary Women,” which appeared on the Atlantic’s website in 2010. In it, Jackson committed himself “to balance my own reading–consciously trying to read at least one piece of fiction by a woman for every one I read by a man.” Rose’s reaction to this pledge was to find it “lovable and, could it be legislated, highly effective, solving all kinds of problems, including, probably, the one of respect for women writers.”

Although I have covered the works of numerous women writers on this site, the fact was that, prior to 2015, men and their writings accounted for over 75% of my material. At a minimum, I felt that a year devoted to women would help correct that imbalance, but I also suspected that the experience might pry open my own blinders a little. I grew up in a household where my mom was the only female, and she was the only daughter in a family with ten sons. Living with my wife continues to be a daily learning process, and having my own daughter has been delight, even if it’s occasionally put me in situations for which I’ve had no point of reference as a male … like the day when, as the only parent home, I had help her shop for her first feminine hygiene product. But if I step back and take a look at my studies, my work, and my interests, the fact is that they’ve been dominated by male voices and perspectives.

I didn’t think that respect for women writers was a problem for me, but I would have to say that it’s largely been something I’ve tended to keep from a distance. And spending this last year reading nothing but the words of women has given me respect for something I don’t think I ever really appreciated before. For some weeks, I’ve been mulling over how to express this, and the right words still elude me, but to put it simply, throughout all the books I’ve read this year, the one absolutely consistent difference in perspective I’ve found between the writings of women and those of men is that women never assume that they–or someone like them–is running their world. They may run the household or make their own decisions about where they live, what they do, who they love, but there is always sense of a culture, government, economy, society, and geography controlled by others … meaning men.

Of course, there are many male writers who write from a position of dis-empowerment, whether it’s political, economic, class, or cultural, so that’s not quite the differentiating factor. But Solzhenitsyn, Frederick Douglass, Franz Fanon, or Victor Klemperer were writing against oppression organized and carried out by other men, and implicit in each of their messages was the assumption that a world free of the oppression they opposed would still be a world run by men.

Now, just from observing the informal organizational abilities of my wife and daughter and comparing them to mine or those of my sons, I often wonder why women aren’t running the world. Take, for example, this viral video of a college women’s swimming team goofing around at an airport or, closer home, this music video made a few years ago by some of the girls on our local high school volleyball team during a long bus ride back from the U.K.: how many boys’ teams would have the level of creative inspiration, motivational spirit, and organizational ability to put something like these together? OK, it does happen–but it’s more likely that most of them are just hunkering down, focused in on their iPhones, and killing time. So I support Sheryl Sandberg’s message that more women should “lean in” and take leadership roles, and I hope our first woman President follows our first black President without too many more years’ delay. But this isn’t the world we’re living in yet, and it certainly wasn’t the world in which any of the women I’ve read in the last year lived.

The other significant different in perspective I’ve come to appreciate is that of women’s grasp of the particular. When any of these women imagines a utopia, it is a small world, centered on their own lives, often just involving the freedom to make simple choices or be free of certain narrow social conventions. It’s not a vast, abstract concept peopled by generic bodies with no distinguishing identity. When E. F. Schumacher wrote Small Is Beautiful, it was received as something of a revolutionary message, but women writers have always understood this. And, in truth, attention to the particular almost always makes for more interesting writing.

The final observation I draw from this last year is that there is a wealth of fascinating but forgotten books written by women, and even one year’s exclusive study wasn’t enough to make a serious dent in this trove. I had been planning for some months to focus on the short story in 2016, since short story collections are, more often than not, sales dogs in the publishing world, and, unless included in some anthology, short stories tend to be far more perishable than novels. But as I reviewed the long list of titles I collected a year ago, I realize that I really don’t have a good reason to stop mining this particular vein. I recently bought a fine copy of the four volume edition of Dorothy Richardson’s pioneering novel sequence, Pilgrimage, from John Schulman’s excellent Caliban Book Shop, and the quality of Richardson’s writing captured me with the very first page, and convinced me that I would have to keep going and finish the nearly two thousand that followed it. That no one has made a connection between Richardson’s fictionalized autobiographical sequence and Karl Ove Knausgård’s much-discussed My Struggle series just demonstrated how much the world have forgotten her work.

And so, instead of bringing this experiment to a close with the end of 2015, I’ve decided to extend it for a second year, and to continue devoting these posts to bringing the neglected works of fine women writers to light. Although evidence such as the recent list of the top 200 most-used texts in college curricula published by the Open Syllabus project demonstrates that the work of women writers commands a larger share of the canon that ever before, one only has to look at counterexamples, such as Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent essay for Tin House, “On Pandering,” to see that the balance is still in need of some shifting.

And, of course, I can’t help but feel tremendous empathy for her call for readers to create their own canons:

Let us embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us by some white fucks at Oxford.

I’d like to think that Watkins’ ending manifesto speaks not just to the need to judge the work of women writers without recourse to comparisons with that of males or that of an arbitrary list of books but only based on “what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up.” I can honestly say that not a single book I read during 2015 failed to challenge me and to open me up to perspectives and sensibilities I had never really taken the time to consider. And that is reason enough to keep going.

2015, the Year of the Neglected Woman Writer


In my recent post on Phyllis Rose’s latest book, The Shelf, I mentioned that Rose’s comments about the continued challenges faced by woman writers was making me think that I should set aside 2015 as a year to focus on the neglected works of women writers. Rose was reacting to Chris Jackson’s post, “All the Sad Young Literary Women,” which appeared on the Atlantic’s website in 2010. In it, Jackson recounts a conversation he had with a fellow editor:

I was going on about some novel I was reading and loving and she cut me off and asked, “When was the last time you read fiction by a woman?” And I honestly couldn’t come up with anything for a few minutes. It was a pretty shameful moment … because I’ve spent a lot of time advocating the reading of books outside of the reader’s direct experience as a way of understanding the world … and apparently I’ve been ignoring the literary output of half the human population.

To make amends, Jackson committed himself “to balance my own reading–consciously trying to read at least one piece of fiction by a woman for every one I read by a man.” Rose’s reaction to this pledge was to find it “lovable and, could it be legislated, highly effective, solving all kinds of problems, including, probably, the one of respect for women writers.”

Reading this passage in The Shelf caused me to take a look at my own track record. Over the 8+ years I’ve maintained this site, I’ve written about 240 pieces on individual books. I’ve certainly tried to highlight the work of a number of women writers–Isabel Paterson was an early discovery, I featured Katharine Brush’s This is On Me as a unique illustration of the craft of writing for a living, and devoted considerable space to such forgotten woman writers as Thyra Samter Winslow, I. A. R. Wylie, and the diamond-in-the-rough Ada Blom. Helen Bevington was my favorite discovery of 2013 and Anne Goodwin Winslow the best of 2014. And my article on Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine led, indirectly, to that novel being reissued in 2009 and her unpublished novel, Clair de Lune, being issued by Harper Perennial in 2012.

Still, the numbers don’t lie. Less than a quarter of all the pieces are on works by women. And perhaps more tellingly, a small fraction of my Amazon Wish List items are by women. That puts me ahead of Rose’s “Joe Pubgoer,” who doesn’t even try to read writing by women, but in the ranks of her “Really Good Guys”: “The Really Good Guys know they should respect women writers, but it doesn’t come naturally.”

As any good music teacher knows, some of the best habits in the world are those that don’t come naturally. What comes naturally, as William James pointed out in his classic piece on Habit, is often what takes the least effort and attention. What becomes second nature becomes the rut in which we roll back and forth without variation. “It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice.”

Replacing a nurtured habit with good one takes more effort, particularly at the start. As James advised, “We must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible.” “Put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way,” he wrote: “Take a public pledge, if the case allows.”

Well, this case certainly allows. So let this be my public pledge to devote this site to the coverage of the work of women writers in 2015, in hopes that they will continue to have a prominent place in 2016 and beyond.

I’ve already had some help to this end. D. H. Sayer wrote recently to recommend the work of Carol DeChellis Hill, whose life and work he covered in remarkable detail in this post on his own blog from 2013, and Tom Frick pointed me toward this article from the Poetry Foundation on Rosemary Tonks, an English poet and novelist whose collected poems were released as Bedouin of the London Evening by Bloodaxe Books just before Christmas. And as I do my research for this year’s reading, I observe the same kind of domino effect I’ve noticed ever since creating this site–namely, that finding out about a book or writer I’ve never heard of leads more often to another and another and another than it leads to a dead end. Already I have a stack building: Helen Bevington’s journals from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; more novels by Isa Glenn and Anne Goodwin Winslow, both previously covered; several each by the fashionable radicals Elizabeth Hawes and Marya Mannes; short story collections by Katinka Loesser, Ivy Litvinov and Cora Jarrett; memoirs by Mina Curtiss and Joan Colebrook; and science fiction by Rosel George Brown and Naomi Mitchison. I also hope to dip into the vast number (70+) of “silver fork” novels by Catherine Gore, whom the Times once called “the best novel writer of her class and the wittiest woman of her age.”

Feel free to offer your own recommendations, which are always welcome. And if the list grows too long to finish this year, I guess we can keep going into 2016 and beyond.

Extreme Reading: Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf (2014)

shelfcoverI kick myself for letting the publication of Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf, subtitled, “From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading,” go unremarked, for it’s likely the most prominent celebration of neglected books to come out in many years.

“This book records the history of an experiment,” Rose writes at the opening of her book. “Believing that literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical–that is, writers chosen for us by others—-I wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature.”

In fact, as she goes on to explain, not just the canon is chosen for us, but much of what is generally read. Even if the decision to pick up a particular book is yours, your access to the book is shaped by others in many ways: by booksellers in their choice of they stock and what they display; by reviewers in what they praise or condemn or simply deprecate; by editors in what they select to have reviewed; by librarians by what they choose to purchase, to retain, and to discard; by schools and professors by what they choose to put on their reading lists; and by other readers, whose choices produce best-seller lists and guide booksellers and librarians through feedback mechanisms that reinforce the success of the popular and, as Rose details with examples throughout the book, ensure the neglect of the unlucky.

Rose’s experiment was to read off-piste–that is, to read a selection of books with only an arbitrary criterion, and no received advice, as a guide. In her case, she eliminated a variety of options and settled on one particular shelf in the fiction section of the New York Society Library containing books by authors whose last names ran from LEQ to LES, “running from William Le Queux to John Lescroart, by way of Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James LeRossignol, Margaret Leroy, and Alain-René Le Sage.” As she sums up in her closing chapter, the experiment covered, “Twenty-three books. Eleven authors. Short stories and novels. Realistic and mythic. Literary fiction and detective fiction. American and European. Old and contemporary. Highly wrought and flabby fiction. Inspired fiction and uninspired.”
Rose found the experiment a bit of a trial at points. Sticking to the well-trod paths does provide a sort of guarantee: if others found a book worthwhile, chances are better that you will, too. There’s risk in going off-piste: sometimes, the experience isn’t worth the time. “I did not want to report on novels I found merely interesting,” she writes. “Yes, my disappointment could be made amusing up to a point, but what was in it for either of us, me or you? I wanted to address the life-enhancing possibilities of literature.” (I’ve tried to follow much the same approach with this site.) Rose goes beyond the call of duty in devoting time and thought even to her disappointments, giving, for example, the works William Le Queux more attention than they deserve even as historical artifacts.

But had there not been a few high points along her way through the shelf, it would have been easy to give up and head back to the plowed runs. For Rose, a high point is a book that passes a certain simple test: “The fiction I esteem is fiction I would reread. The test of time is beyond us as human beings with a limited life span, but the test of times is possible.” In her case, she found three books that passed–“texts to keep me company through life”: God’s Ear, by Rhoda Lerman, The Adventures of Gil Blas by Alain-René Lesage, and Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.

Along the way, however, she also discovers a few titles more than just interesting, if not life-enhancing. These include:

Baron Bagge and Count Luna, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

These two short novels by Lernet-Holenia, an Austrian writer whose early novel, The Glory is Departed, AKA The Standard, I reviewed here about a month ago, are little gems–one a supernatural love story (Bagge), the other a black-as-death comedy of paranoia gone wild (Luna).

The Habitant-Merchant, by James Edward Le Rossignol

A collection of short stories, published in 1939, centered on a habitant-merchant–a Québécois farmer–turned shopkeeper and his family. Rossignol was something of a polymath, having studied philosophy and psychology, taught economics, and researched and written extensively on politics, education, economics, in addition to writing fiction.

Just Like Beauty, by Lisa Lerner

This, Lerner’s one and only novel, a funny, savage, and yet somehow tender tale of a sexual dystopia, fell into neglect on the strength of one bad review in The New York Times, which ensured few other papers or magazines reviewed it, and left its fate to the enthusiasms the few readers who discovered and cherished it.

While extreme reading, might, in the words of The New Yorker’s feature on the book, require “special personal traits,” including “a dash of perversity,” Rose found it had rewards more than worth the effort. In fact, it’s an act of individual empowerment:

More people should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, on their own. That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it’s just a bookshelf. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others.

All of which makes me wonder if I shouldn’t rename this site ExtremeReading.com (well … maybe not).

Unlike Rose, I spend most of my time reading off the beaten path, and so I am sparing in my choices of current books. The Shelf, however, was a thorough delight, not only introducing me to the works of a few writers even I haven’t come across, but also full of thought-provoking observations. (Her comments about the continued challenges faced by woman writers is making me think that I should set aside 2015 as the year of the Neglected Books by Women.)

So if you’re hesitant to break out into uncharted reading territory, I recommend The Shelf for an initial shot of courage.

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose
New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

“10 overlooked novels: how many have you read?,” from the Guardian, 6 May 2014


Source: “10 overlooked novels: how many have you read?,” by John Sutherland, The Guardian, 6 May 2014

Link: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/06/10-overlooked-novels-how-many-you-read

In part to plug his new book, How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities, John Sutherland–who may carry around more literary facts and trivia in his head that any other English speaker around–writes,

What other dead and forgotten works would one dig up from the dusty vaults of the British Library? Everyone will have their own overdue for resurrection list: here’s my top 10. Not all of them are what the critics would call “great novels” (a couple most certainly are) but they are, I can guarantee, great reads. And what more do you want from a work of fiction?

Sutherland’s suggestions are eclectic but not likely to pass muster from any serious fans of neglected books. #10, William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley has been out as a New York Review Classic for several years. #6 is Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant: seriously? Has it ever been out of print? Has anything by Anne Tyler ever been out of print? And #1 is Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. Not as well know as Crime and Punishment? Granted. But it’s been in print ever since Penguin started releasing its World Classics series and is certainly accepted as one of the top 10 greatest Russian novels of the 19th century. The only title on Sutherland’s list that narrowly qualifies by my standards is Junicho Tanizaki’s 1961 novel, Diary of a Mad Old Man, which is out of print at the moment, although it had a Vintage Modern Classic release back in 2000.

This list aside, however, there are more interesting genuinely neglected books to be found in How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities, which is not yet available from a U.S. publisher, but probably will be soon.

Video feature on Herbert Clyde Lewis, a neglected writer long overdue for rediscovery

Now available on YouTube–a video feature on the life and works of Herbert Clyde Lewis:

All four of his novels have been featured on this site:

I just learned that Gentleman Overboard has been published in a new Hebrew translation by Zikit Books in Israel. When will an American publisher discover this fine writer’s work?

New page added to Sources: Recommendations from Phillip Routh (not Roth)


Phillip Routh, whose blog, How Jack London Changed My Life, chronicles his prolific and eclectic reading, contacted me recently with a couple of recommendations–Gontran de Poncin’s memoir, Father Sets the Pace (“a withering biography of a supremely selfish man”), and Valery Larbaud’s short 1911 novel, Fermina Márquez. Knowing the breadth of his taste, I invited him to provide a longer list of recommendations to be included among the Sources on this site.

A few days later, he posted a list of ten titles with his comments, along with additional recommendations for most of the writers. “I had difficulty in selecting ten books, because so many were jostling for inclusion,” he wrote. I’ve just uploaded it to the site: you can read it now: Recommendations from Phillip Routh.

Thanks for your contributions, Phillip!

Invisible Ink: Christopher Fowler on Forgotten Writers

Cover of 'Invisible Ink' by Christopher FowlerBritish writer Christopher Fowler has been publishing a regular column on neglected writers in the Sunday Independent since 2008. Excerpts from these can be found on the Invisible Ink page on this site.

The first 100 of these pieces have now been collected and published by the Strange Attractor Press in the book, Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared.

The press release for the book pitches it more as a book about disappearances than about the authors’ works: “Adopting false identities, switching genders, losing fortunes, descending into alcoholism, discovering new careers, the stories of the missing authors are often more surprising than any of the fictions they wrote.” In reality, many of the writers passed from notice in the most usual fashion: popular tastes turned a different way and they were left behind. Not that it should matter to any fan of neglected books–what matters is the pleasure of discovering a writer as deserving as any you’d find in Barnes and Nobles or Waterstones, whether they were eaten by a tiger, switched sexes, or just grew old and died.

You can purchase Invisible Ink online from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and direct from the publisher.

Alexander Saxton, historian and novelist, dies at age 93

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Grand Crossing'The New York Times yesterday published the obituary of Alexander Saxton, a radical historian and novelist. Although Saxton published a number of well-regarded works of history after earning his PhD at the age of 43, he first came to critical attention when he published his first novel, Grand Crossing, in 1943. Though only 24 at the time, Saxton had already lived a varied life. He attended Harvard and the University of Chicago, and then dropped out to take on work he felt more directly useful to the world. He got a job as the brakeman on a railroad crew and began writing a column for the Daily Worker.

Although Grand Crossing had its share of a young man’s pontifications, the book was bold, ambitious in scope, and full of energy conveyed, in part, by the title of its French translation: “Chicago-Triage.” As a fan of great big Chicago novels like The Death of the Detective, I picked it up recently and it’s been sitting in my “to read” stack. I certainly must read it now.

Alexander Saxton, 1948Saxton’s most-acclaimed novel, though, was The Great Midland, which he published in 1948. Midland is even more ambitious in its scope, covering thirty years in the lives of a man and woman deeply involved in the labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The University of Illinois Press reissued the book in 1997 as part of its “Radical Novel Reconsidered” series.

Saxton’s last novel, published in 1958, Bright Web in the Darkness, was somewhat shorter than the other two, and more mature in both perspective and structure. It dealt with the experiences and relationship of two women–one white, one black–who meet while training to become welders in a defense plant in World War Two. Bright Web in the Darkness was reissued in 1997 by the University of California Press as part of its excellent “California Fiction” series.

In reviewing the reissue of The Great Midland, one writer noted that, “the novel’s exposition is at times flattened out by the writer’s documentary calling.” Other critics observed that few of the characters in Grand Crossing were more than symbols or stereotypes. It may be no surprise, then, that Saxton found his natural voice more as a historian than a writer of fiction. In an email interview conducted just two years before his death, Saxton commented, “The novel claims only a brief span in human culture and may not continue to play a key role.” Still, one may fairly claim that Alexander Saxton’s three novels merit being written of and studied every bit as much as those of his better-known contemporaries such as Nelson Algren and John Dos Passos.

Ads from the Saturday Review of Literature

I had the chance to pick up an assorted lot of bound issues of the Saturday Review of Literature from the 1920s to the 1950s and have been going through them in search of well-regarded but since forgotten books.

However, just as interesting as the reviews have been the ads–particularly the personal ads, which became a regular feature of the magazine somewhere in the early 1930s. These are touchingly open and naive, amusingly pompous, cryptic, or–often–downright bizarre. Here are a few examples:

  • Correspondence invited concerning social patterns, individual reactions, one more script, the country, pox, or your favorites. By mature man. Box 520-D.
  • AMIABLE MALE wishes employment based not solely upon his 23 years. Some education (art), much erudition; deep love of music. Long fingers, but firm palms. Though no derring-doer, worn or untrod paths considered. Box P-973.
  • HEY GALS! Let’s swap hats! If your friends are tired of seeing you in that hat send it to us with $3.00 and we will send you a new-to-you sterilized hat. What can you lose? No junk, please. Hat-to-you, 816 Broad St., Chattanooga, Tenn.

  • TO JUNKETS—alone and palely loitering. Yes.—you were saying… .? SANS MERCI.

So, to share some of these wonderful snippets of past lives, I put together a Tumblr site that will offer up other samples once or twice a day:


There’s enough of a supply to keep this going for a year or so. Check it out.

Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard Reissued–in Spanish

Several years ago, Diego D’Onofrio, one of the partners in La Bestia Equilátera, a small press located in Buenos Aires, contacted me asking for suggestions of neglected books that might be of interested to his readers. La Bestia Equilátera, which translates literally to “The Equilateral Beast,” had already published the works of a number of English-language authors that qualify as neglected–or at least until-recently-neglected: Julian McLaren-Ross; Alfred Hayes; David Markson; Ivy Compton-Burnett; and Lord Berners.

Cover of 'El caballero que cayó al mar' translation of 'Gentleman Overboard'After a quick check of La Bestia’s catalog, I knew just what to recommend: Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard, which I’d just featured on this site. Gentleman Overboard is a small masterpiece, a marvel of precise writing and imagination. One reader on Goodreads describes it as “Wodehouse meets Sartre”–which is an excellent précis. It starts out as a restrained comedy and evolves into a profoundly moving meditation on existence.

I didn’t hear from Diego again until a couple of months ago, when he contacted me looking for some more recommendations. To my surprise and great pleasure, he informed me that La Bestia Equilátera had, in 2010, published El Caballero que Cayó al Mar: a translation in Spanish by Laura Wittner of Gentleman Overboard. Diego reported that the book had sold well and earned some good reviews from critics and bloggers. They had even put together a fun little website dedicated to the book: elcaballeroquecayo.com.ar, where you can read the first chapter.

Diego was kind enough to send me a copy of the book, along with two others from La Bestia that deal, at least in part, with lesser-known books. Siluetas, by Argentinian writer Luis Chitarroni, an editor at La Bestia, is a collection of essays and reviews of a wide range of authors and their works. Many are fairly well-known, even best-sellers such as P. D. James. However, there are also a few that will appeal to any fan of neglected books–including William Gerhardie, Flann O’Brien, Logan Pearsall Smith, and Oliver St. John Gogarty. Informes de lectura/Cartas a Montale is a collection of letters written by Roberto Bazlen, a lifelong resident of Trieste, to friends, writers, and publishers about books. Bazlen was a voracious reader, fluent in a number of languages, and he was constantly championing the works of writers from far and wide. Bazlen was, in particular, a friend of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale, and the second half of the book is a selection of letters Bazlen wrote to Montale between 1925 and 1930.

I won’t mention the books I recommended when Diego contacted me again in May, for fear of jinxing them, but one of them was one of Isabel Paterson’s three amazing novels from the 1930s. I notice that all three are available now from Amazon in Kindle format, but when the heck will someone reissue one or all of them in paper?

Uncover a Classic in Hesperus Press’ Competition

The Hesperus Press, a London-based small press, is celebrating its 10th year in business with a contest in which readers can nominate their candidates for the unknown classic most deserving of reissue.

The firm, whose Hesperus Classics series specializes in reissues of short, lesser-known works by well-known authors (e.g., Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Tragedy of the Korosko or Goethe’s The Man of Fifty)–or lesser-known works by obscure authors (e.g., Two Princesses by Pushkin’s contemporary, Vladimir Odoevsky), asks readers to “Select one out-of-print book you think worthy and explain in no more than 500 words why you love it and why it deserves to be brought back into print.”

“Your 500 word introduction must be well written and eloquent, and clearly list the title of the book, author name and when the book was last in print (as far as you are aware).”

Based on the usual fare of Hesperus Classics, I would add that books that are under 200 pages, in the public domain, and have been out of print for at least 25-30 years will stand a better chance of being selected.

Email or post your written entry to [email protected] by the 1st of June 2012.

The detailed rules can be found at http://www.hesperuspress.com/Web/pages/competition.aspx.

New site with podcasts on obscure books and writers: Why I Really Like This Book

I’ve added a new site to the Links page: Why I Really Like This Book.

This site is run by Kate Macdonald, an English lecturer at Ghent University and “a lifelong browser in second-hand bookshops.” “Each week,” she writes, “I post a new podcast on a forgotten book that I think deserves new readers. The podcasts last for about 10 minutes, and appear in the feed first thing on a Friday.” The podcasts so far have covered such books as Vern Sneider’s Tea House of the August Moon and an obscure 1941 novella by Colette, Julie de Carneilhan.

Harper Perennial to release lost Jetta Carleton novel, Clair de Lune, in March 2012

Cover of forthcoming release of 'Clair de Lune'Robert Nedelkoff passed along Harper’s list of new publications for Winter 2012, which includes a listing for Clair de Lune, a hitherto unpublished novel that came to light after the Harper Perennial release of her first novel, The Moonflower Vine.

I wrote about The Moonflower Vine in late 2006 after finding a piece about it in Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. That post garnered more of a response than any other on this site. Since then, several dozen people have written to express how much they loved this book, many saying that they’re read it ten times or more.

Carleton wrote Clair de Lune between 1995 and 1997, after the death of her beloved husband, Jere Lyon. She wrote the novel, which had a working title of The Back Alleys of Spring, on a friend’s computer. Neither the writing nor the use of the PC (she’d never touched one before) was any mean feat for someone in her early eighties at the time. Before she had the chance to start looking for a publisher, however, she suffered a stroke that took her ability to speak. She died in 1999.

The story in Clair de Lune derives from Carleton’s own experiences as a young teacher in Joplin–in the same area of southwest Missouri that The Moonflower Vine is set in. Harper’s Winter catalog provides a fragmentary synopsis of the plot:

The time: 1941, at the cusp of America’s entry into WWII. The place: southwest Missouri, on the edge of the Ozark Mountains. A young, single woman named Ailen Liles has taken a job as a junior college teacher in a small town, though she dreams of living in New York City, of dancing at recitals, of absorbing the bohemian delights of the Village. Then, in her seminar, she encounters two young men: George, a lanky, carefree spirit, and Toby, a dark-haired, searching …

I’m sure it will prove less Danielle Steel-y than that last sentence suggests.

Harper’s announcement says it’s planning on a release of 30,000 copies in trade paperback, along with release in several eBook formats. Let’s hope it’s as good as The Moonflower Vine fans would wish for.

Operators and Things: Barbara O’Brien’s classic memoir of schizophrenia–now in print AND online

Cover of first US edition of 'Operators and Things'The always-alert Robert Nedelkoff just tipped me off on the release of one of the most memorable and–until now–rarest neglected books discussed on this site: Barbara O’Brien’s 1958 memoir of schizophrenia, Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic. First published by an obscure press, Arlington Books, then reissued as an Avon paperback with a cover that probably led more than stores and buyers to consider it a pulp SF novel, O’Brien’s book remains unique in its depiction of schizophrenia as experienced from the inside out.

In the book, O’Brien describes waking up one morning to find herself living in a world populated by “Operators,” who are the ultimate embodiment of the paranoic’s concept of the people in control, the ones working according to a secret plan, the ones pulling the strings of power and influence–and by “Things,” the puppets manipulated and exploited by the Operators. She, of course, is a Thing, and she spends the next six months travelling around the country by Greyhound bus, following (but also trying to resist) the instructions of the Operators.

Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic was reissued back in the mid-1970s as a mass-market paperback in both the US and the UK, but it’s been out of print since then, commanding prices ranging between $25 and $250 in the last decade. Now, however, it’s available in trade paperback from Silver Birch Press with an introduction by Michael Macoby, who’s better known for his books on leadership in the business world, a preface by scriptwriter Melanie Villines, and an afterwood by Colleen Delegan. Villines and Delegan have written an unproduced screenplay based on the boook.

However, I also found that, over a year ago, someone published Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic as an eBook on Smashwords.com. You can read it online or download a copy in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, and other formats–with Macoby’s introduction but sans Villines’ and Delegan’s pieces.

Either way, I recommend discovering this remarkable book–which moved 14 different people to post 5-star reviews on Amazon despite its being out of print and virtually unheard-of in the last decade.


After posting this, I received an email from Melanie Villines with some additional information about the new release:

The Silver Birch Press edition of Operators and Things includes a NEW (!) interview with Michael Maccoby (conducted in Sept. 2010) that offers some fascinating insights into the book. Our edition also includes beautiful period photos by iconic photographers Esther Bubley, Russell Lee, and John Vachon. My foreword also offers an overview of how the book has been received by the public and press since its publication and includes info about my personal interactions with some of the original players (agent, publishers, and others connected with the book). Thanks for your kind consideration and thoughtful attention.

Bubley, Lee, and Vachon were all members of Roy Stryker’s remarkable team of Farm Security Administration photographers, by the way, which created one of the greatest photographic records of American life during the 1930s and 1940s.

Second Reading, by Jonathan Yardley

Cover of 'Second Reading' by Jonathan YardleyNext week, Europa Editions, a New York-based publishing house with ties to the Italian publishing firm Edizioni E/O, releases Second Reading, which collects 60 pieces from the series of the same name, which appeared in the Washington Post between March 2003 and January 2010. Frustrated at having his column in the Post’s renown “Book World” section taken away without explanation after twenty years, Yardley was casting about for new ventures when the idea of a series based on his reconsiderations of selected books from a lifetime of reading came to him. As he soon discovered, he was not alone in appreciating the chance to step away from the weekly onslaught of press releases and review copies:

It didn’t take long for me to realize how much fun it was to reach back into my past reading–as you’ll see, the word “fun” appears frequently in these pieces–or to discover how much pleasure it gave many of the Post’s readers to be offered discussions of (mostly) worthy older books. The fixation of journalists on the new and the trendy is a forgivable occupational hazard, but it neglects the interests of readers who want something more substantial than the latest Flavor of the Day. My own tastes certainly are not everybody’s tastes, but the steady, heavy volume of incoming e-mail convinced me that I had stumbled onto something that readers wanted.

While I’ve never been deluged with a “steady, heavy volume of incoming e-mail,” I can certainly second the view that wandering away from best-seller lists–and even from the stock of a good bookstore’s stock of in-print titles–can be great fun. It’s certainly part of what had kept me going for a little over five years now.

The full list of the 94 books that Yardley covered over the course of seven years can be found on this site at the link to “Jonathan Yardley’s Second Readings” in the list of Sources at the left of this page.

It should also be noted that Europa Editions has already done its share in rescuing neglected books, having brought two worthy novels–Alfred Hayes’ The Girl on the Via Flaminia and Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square back to print in handsome paperback editions.

Coming in July 2011: The Neversink Library

Melville House Publishing, which succeeded in bringing the works of the German novelist Hans Fallada from deep dark neglect into the bright lights of bookshop display tables in 2009 with the publication of Every Man Dies Alone, will launch a new series devoted to long-out-of-print titles–The Neversink Library–in July 2011. The series, named after a ship in Melville’s early novel, White-Jacket, “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.” Which sounds pretty much like what this site does.

The series will start with a total of 8 titles, each published in a distinctive two-color cover design featuring silhouettes–the work of art director Christopher King. Two of the titles–The Train and The President— continues the rediscovery of the works of Georges Simenon started by NYRB Classics, which has published eleven of his novels so far.

It will also include The Eternal Philistine, by the Austro-Hungarian writer, Ödön von Horváth, a contemporary of Fallada’s better known to English-speaking audiences as a playwright. The last time one of von Horváth’s novels was published in English was 1978, when his allegory of Nazism, The Age of the Fish, came out in U.S. paperback with a truly wretched cover that helps one appreciate the elegant simplicity of Mr. King’s designs.

New Source added: “Forgotten Authors,” from The Independent

Christopher FowlerStarting in August 2008, the Independent has been publishing a series of short pieces by Christopher Fowler, thriller writer and dramatist, devoted to the subject of “forgotten authors.” As Fowler himself admits, “Nobody wants to be thought of as vanished, but shelf-life is fleeting. With stock in chain stores governed by computers, the only way of finding certain books is to head for independents or to search online.”

Looking through his articles, I’m surprised, as a veteran browser of shelves of used books, to find names like Mazo de la Roche, Mary Renault, Georgette Heyer, and John Dickson Carr. But on reflection, that probably says more about my age than the awareness of today’s readers.

Unfortunately, The Independent has not made it easier to go through the archives of this series, so I have included the full set (thus far) here.

Thanks to Robert Nedelkoff, who found out himself from Mike Orthofer’s note at the Complete Review, for passing this along.