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.

An Audiobook Landmark

I want to veer off topic for a moment to take note of a remarkable accomplishment that seems to have gone largely without notice.

I’ve been a big fan of audiobooks ever since I discovered they’re a great way to make short work of a long drive. Nowadays, thanks to the convenience of MP3 players, I tend to have one going for workouts and commutes all the time.

When scrolling through Audible’s new releases about a month ago, I was astonished to see listings for William Gaddis’ The Recognitions and JR. I would never have expected to see these titles released as audiobooks. Together, the two books represent nearly 1700 pages of challenging prose. Neither was written with the slightest expectation of ever becoming widely read, and it took Gaddis nearly twenty years after publishing JR to finally gain acceptance as one of the finest American writers of the second half of the 20th century. The Recognitions is a thick book of dense prose telling a story made up of many layers of symbolism and artifice, but it still generally conforms to the structure of a straight-forward narrative.

JR, on the other hand, is one continuous tapestry woven of snatches of conversation linked by brief descriptions of landscapes and cityscapes, with almost nothing in the way of landmarks to help the reader find his way through the story. And most of the conversations take place in schools, offices, train stations, restaurants that make the stateroom in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera seem sedate. Here’s a small sample:

–What’s that?
–The American flag, said Mister Pecci joining them, glittering at the cuff.
–Oh, the film. It’s on film, a resource film on ahm, natural resources, Mister Hyde’s company was kind enough to provide …
–What America is all about, said Hyde, standing away from the set with a proprietary air. –What we have to …
–To use, or rather utilize …
–like the iceberg, rising to a glittering peak above the surface. For like the iceberg, we see only a small fraction of modern industry. Hidden from our eyes is the vast …
–Gibbs? Is that you? Come in, come in.
–No, don’t let me disturb you …

I tried reading JR a few years after it was first published and had to give up short of 100 pages because I just couldn’t make sense of what was happening in the midst of all that chatter. And even though it’s now earned a place in the modern canon by way of publication as a Penguin Modern Classic, it remains one of the most intimidating texts of the last 50 years.

So, from curiosity alone I decided to make it my month’s selection and give it a listen.

Nick SullivanWithin the first fifteen minutes, I knew that this recording of JR was a work of audiobook narration in a class of its own, a tour-de-force of interpretive skills that represents a real landmark in this medium. Nick Sullivan, the reader, manages to create distinct and convincing voices for the characters in the book’s first scene–the two elderly Bast sisters, one a bit dotty and the other a bit catty, the lawyer Cohen–and to make sense of a collage of dialogue among three people, none of whom is really listening to the others and none of whom manages to finish any of their statements. Then he goes on to tackle a cast of at least ten different characters riccocheting in and out of a principal’s office, including phone calls and in-house televised classes playing on monitors. By the time the book is over, Sullivan has to deal with over 100 (123, to be precise) different characters and easily as many scenes. He manages to be convincing as everyone from an eighty year-old spinster to a twelve year-old boy, as well as lawyers, bankers, brokers, teachers, politicians, low lifes, secretaries, salesmen, artists and ad men.

And not only does Sullivan juggle this huge cast and the many abrupt leaps from scene to scene and viewpoint to viewpoint, but he brings out the powerful moods and emotions to be found in JR–the comedy, satire, anger, pathos, and pessimism. JR is a pretty bleak view of the corrupting effect of capitalism, but Gaddis filters that view through a manic style of comedy that operates at times at the speed of an old Fred Allen routine. This is a very funny book, and, at points, a deeply sad and affecting one. What I recalled from reading it as a somewhat incoherent barrage of words proves, through Sullivan’s interpretation, to be a rich and affecting story.

This is the audiobook equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. There won’t be another one like this for a long, long time.

I was so impressed by his work that I sent Nick Sullivan a fan email, which he promptly and generously responded to, offering some of his own reflections on the recording of JR and The Recognitions, which he agreed to let me quote for this post:

When I agreed to audition for a couple William Gaddis novels I had never heard of him but the two selections I auditioned with were beautifully written. I “booked” the books… and had no idea of the journey I was about to embark upon. The two books together took me nearly three months to complete.

I have never spent so much time preparing a book. You simply couldn’t record JR without carefully unraveling every scene, determining who was speaking solely by context, verbal tics, and other clues.

I’ll admit that at first I was annoyed at Gaddis for being so willfully obscure … but once I began to record it … well, the man was a genius. A bit of a pessimistic cynic with a dark vision of humanity, perhaps … but a genius. I don’t want to give anything away but I was surprised to find myself choked up a bit in several places. And many was the time I busted out laughing at a particular turn of phrase (usually from Jack Gibbs)….

In some respects Gaddis WAS neglected … at least initially. The Recognitions is an astonishing work as well and received very little consideration until after JR. (so maybe he could be considered a “previously-neglected-author-who-got-his-recogntion”). I’d love to hear his name come up when people talk about “uber-works” from Proust or Joyce.

Out of the 300-plus books I’ve recorded, these two are in a class by themselves. And something fans of Gaddis should know: Gaddis’ writing translates exceptionally well into an audio format.

I have to qualify Nick’s last statement: Gaddis’ writing translates exceptionally well into an audio format when read by a virtuoso.

I realize that audiobooks are not always considered much as media go, but Nick Sullivan’s work on these two polymathic novels deserves a standing ovation from anyone who appreciates the aural and mental pleasure of hearing a piece of fine writing read well. Gaddis’ books are probably still too obscure to gain an Audie nomination for his performances, but I encourage any of my readers who are fans of audiobooks to check out JR or The Recognitions and enjoy two of the finest examples of narrative art ever recorded. Bravo, Mr. Sullivan!

New List Added to “Sources”: The New Republic, 1934

Malcolm Cowley, around 1940In early 1934, Malcolm Cowley, then literary editor of The New Republic magazine, sent out a series of letters to a number of America’s leading novelists and critics. “Each year,” he wrote,

… a few good books get lost in the shuffle. It may not be the fault of the publisher, the critic, the bookseller–it may not be anybody’s fault except that of the general system by which too many books are distributed with an enormous lot of ballyhoo to not enough readers. Most of the good books are favorably reviewed, yet the fact remains that many of them never reach the people who would like and profit by them, the people for whom they are written. Then, after a while, the publisher remainders them and they are forgotten.

Some week we should like to run a list of books like this, as a means of making amends to their authors–and perhaps also to the public that has so far missed the chance of reading them. Couldn’t you think of two or three or four and jot down their names, preferably with a few sentences identifying them?

About a dozen writers responded–and they include some of the biggest names of the era: Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, and Edmund Wilson. Cowley reprinted their lists and comments in two articles: “Good Books That Almost Nobody Has Read,” which appeared in the 18 April 1934 issue; and “More About Neglected Books,” which appeared on 23 May 1934. In addition, several readers responded to the first article with suggestions of their own, and their letters appeared in the 30 May 1934 issue. Although Cowley concluded the first article with an observation that, “American criticism ought to be given a chance, too, for sober second judgment of the books that deserve it,” the New Republic did not return to the subject until its brief series, “Lost and Found”, which is included among the Sources on this site.

Several titles came up on multiple lists–most notably Robert Cantwell’s Laugh and Lie Down, Catherine Brody’s novel of striking Detroit autoworkers, Nobody Starves, and Rudolf Brunngraber’s Karl and the Twentieth Century. Of these three, none has ever been reissued. The few available copies of Cantwell’s novel start at $150 and Brody’s at $55. Brunngraber’s novel, a fable of how Taylorism and mechanization ground down the common man, commands a mere $14.95 for a good copy without dust jacket.

Although a few titles, such as Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Kafka’s The Castle are now well-established classics, there are more titles that even I haven’t heard of than in perhaps any other of the Sources included on this site so far.

So dig in and enjoy this treasure trove of forgotten books.

See the full list at The New Republic, 1934

Libertarianism has its Benefits: Download Isabel Paterson’s “Never Ask the End” for Free

Libertarianism has never struck me as more than anarchism with a day job (which comment will probably bring a heap of abuse upon this site). But the good folks at the Ludwig von Mises Institute have brought at least one benefit to lovers of neglected books: the ability to download one of the best books I’ve ever written about, a novel so intelligent, adult, and female in its sensibility that it’s almost unfathomable that it’s not sitting on every bookstore’s shelves alongside the works of Jane Austen: Never Ask the End (the full URL: http://mises.org/books/never_ask_the_end_paterson.pdf).

When I featured the book about three years ago, I wrote:

The story in Never Ask the End is almost ridiculously simple: Marta Brown and Pauline Gardiner, two American women in their early forties, are visiting Paris. They have dinner with an old friend of Marta’s, Russ Girard, another American, who’s now an executive with a firm based in Antwerp. Russ invites the women to visit him in Antwerp. They spend a weekend together in the Ardennes. They agree to meet again in London, but Russ is delayed and arrives after Pauline has to board a liner back to the U.S. Marta and Russ enjoy London for a day or so, then return to Paris together, where Russ then heads off to Italy on business.

The extraordinary richness of Never Ask the End is certainly not to be found in the plot. It’s most definitely a book written in the wake of Ulysses, Virginia Woolf, and other early stream of consciousness novels.”[T]he mind is a deep pool, froth and ripples and straws on the surface and God knows what down below, water weeds and drowned things,” Marta thinks to herself at one point, and Paterson freely switches between physical events and the thoughts of her characters throughout the novel. Even for an experienced current-day reader, accustomed to narrative techniques of considerable complexity, Never Ask the End can be a challenge at first. I have to confess that I stopped after about seventy-five pages and started over again, reading more slowly and carefully the second time, in order to catch and keep track of the references to past experiences Paterson seeds in the flow of her characters’ thoughts.

Fortunately, there is much to reward the careful reader.

To tell the truth, I really didn’t do Never Ask the End justice in my original post. It inspired me to seek out and write about Paterson’s three other contemporary novels (she wrote several historical novels that are scarce as hen’s teeth and probably about as rewarding to locate): The Shadow Riders, The Golden Vanity, and If It Prove Fair Weather. All three are fine novels that deserve to be brought back in print, but Never Ask the End is a genuine masterpiece. (Actually, I consider If It Prove Fair Weather something of a masterpiece, too, but more on the order of a minimalist masterpiece along the lines of Henry Green’s Nothing, something one out of two readers probably wants to hurl out the window after the first twenty pages).

To the reader willing to take a while to tune into Paterson’s unique voice and style, Never Ask the End offers a wealth of pleasures: razor-sharp but deft observations of the manners of women and men, a running commentary on American and European life full of wit and historical insight, and literary references as dense as anything in Joyce but far more effortless.

So, until some publisher puts this book into formal print, let’s salute libertarianism for a moment and download our individualistic copies of Never Ask the End.

Jonathan Yardley’s Second Readings added to Sources

Source: Second Readings, from the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2005/04/19/LI2005041903474.html

In early 2003, Jonathan Yardley, dean of the Washington Post’s book critics began what was modestly called, “An occasional series in which The Post’s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.”
Jonathan Yardley
Ever month or so, Yardley would set aside his stack of review copies of new books to take up one that had been in or out of print for a decade or more–“books I remember with affection and admiration but have not read in many years, books I would like to encourage others to discover.”

His first piece dealt with John P. Marquand’s H.M. Pulham, Esq., also featured on this site about a year ago. His choice of Marquand, as Yardley put it, was motivated not because, “His are not the best books I’ve ever read, but they are among the books I love most, and the neglect into which they have fallen is a literary outrage.”

When he concluded the series almost seven years later, with a fond revisit to The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor, he wrote,

With that, this series of Second Readings comes to an end. It began in February 2003 and has covered nearly 100 books. Probably it could go on a while longer, but it’s best to quit before you start repeating yourself. Let me say by way of wrapping things up that except for a couple of the books I’ve written, nothing in my career has given me so much pleasure as these reconsiderations, not least because they have elicited such warm, generous responses from you, my treasured readers. I hope that I’ve steered you to a few good books you might otherwise have missed, and that those books gave you as much pleasure as reading and writing about them gave me.

Not all of the books Yardley covered can be considered neglected–certainly not such fixtures of the literary canon as Pride and Prejudice or The Catcher in the Rye. But he did often reach beyond the limits of the well-known and well-remembered to bring back to light titles such as Edwin O’Connor’s novel of a veteran vaudevillean,I Was Dancing (“I’d be hard-pressed to say that any book discussed therein is more undeservedly neglected than this one”), and The Second Happiest Day by John Phillips (pen name of Marquand’s son John Phillips Marquand, Jr.). He even took time to consider a book such as Philip Wylie’s rather dated critique of American society of the mid-20th century, Generation of Vipers to demonstrate that sometimes the test of time is a fair judgment of a book’s merit.

I’ve added the full list of books Yardley reviewed as a new Source list on the left.

Books to Watch “Mad Men” By, Part 2

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d really tapped the vein of Madison Avenue books in my first post on books to watch “Mad Men” by, so I returned to the coalface and started digging some more.

It turns out that by the time of “Mad Men”, the early 1960s, most of the literature of the New York advertising world–not that much of it deserves the “literature” label–had already been written. 1958, in fact, appears to have been the highpoint of Mad Lit, as this article from Time magazine suggests, which surveys a half-dozen novels published that year set in and around the advertising business. Although the reviewer dismisses most of them as easily interchangeable with camp science fiction with a simple switch of scenery–“the bug-eyed monsters will be replaced by tyrannical clients, the clean-cut spacemen by bright-eyed space-buyers, and the half-dressed blondes by other half-dressed blondes”–his description of their heroes sounds remarkably similar to that of the protagonists of “Mad Men.” “They are drumbeatniks who brood during a few drinks about the morality of what they are doing, then get over it.”

Here, then, are some more sagas of Scotch, sex, and sales campaigns for those who can’t get enough from a weekly session on the tube.

A Twist of Lemon, by Edward Stephens

“A young man’s desparate scramble up the cold and treacherous plate-glass cliffs of Madison Avenue,” according to its dust jacket. Here is a book that Barry Goldwater would love. What’s wrong with being a Mad Man is not the business, which in the end only “honestly and intelligently and faithfully advertises sound products to people who are glad to know about them. And that, after all, is what makes the economy go around.” What’s wrong is doing it in the plate-glass cliffs, which is why the hero heads to Phoenix to set up his own mom-and-pop ad company, in a steel-and-stucco cliff, one assumes.

Cover of 'Pax'

Pax, by Middleton Kiefer

Harry Middleton and Warren Kiefer, one-time PR men for Pfizer, stick it to the Man with this novel about false promises and misleading advertising in the pharmaceuticals business. It’s pure coincidence that SmithKline Beecham later adopted the name Paxil for their successful anti-depressant. It is a fact, however, as shown in the cover of the paperback version of Pax, that there was a brief period in 1958 when advertising executives enjoyed dressing up as airline pilots.

The Admen, by Shepherd Mead

Mead, who’s best remembered now because his 1952 book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, was the basis of a successful Broadway musical and a fun 1967 starring Robert Morse (resurrected forty years later to play Bert Cooper in “Mad Men”), was a Man Mad himself, VP of Benton & Bowles. Mead, who wrote a slew of mostly ephemeral satirical books (The Big Ball of Wax, The Carefully Considered Rape of the World, Free the Male Man!, How to Get to the Future Before It Gets to You), considered this his best book. Time’s reviewer had a different opinion, well and truly skewering it: “This time the author does not try for laughs, instead achieves a notable first: a novel whose characters will have to be deepened before they are translated to the screen.” The book did earn Mead one of the Establishment’s highest forms of recognition, though: it was issued as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.

The Detroiters, by Harold Livingston

Set in Detroit rather than Manhattan, but an ad-biz saga nonetheless. “Call-girls, debutantes and wives–the big novel about big operators, big deals, and beautiful women” trumpets the cover of this novel–and who would deny that fascination with a time when blatant sexism was not just tolerated but encouraged is part of the attraction of “Mad Men”? Livingston displays the schizophrenia of his fellow ad-man writers: “Good writers … look down their noses at advertising. They’d rather starve. So what does it get them? Self-respect? Integrity? Try paying your bills with integrity.” You thought that last line was a cliche, right? Nope, someone actually wrote it. I believe Livingston later attempted to copyright “Try paying your bills with integrity.”

Cover of A Really Sincere Guy

A Really Sincere Guy, by Robert van Riper

Yes, that really is the book’s title. Riper, who worked for the prominent PR firm, N. W. Ayer, wrote several novels about the intersection of PR and politics. In this one, his PR man hero sets aside his principles to tout a louse running for governor, fools around with a fast woman, then straightens his life out. Straightening his life out consists in returning to his wife, dumping the louse, and setting up his own mom-and-pop PR company. Probably a case where the cover is better than what comes after it.

The Insider, by James Kelly

Kelly, an exec with Compton Advertising, once wrote an article titled, “In Defense of Madison Avenue” for the New York Times magazine. The Insider earned the best reviews of all the books on this list–“told thoughtfully, and is worth reading,” wrote Time; “Not only a very good first novel but solid evidence that Mr. Kelly is a writer of perception and skill,” concluded Saturday Review. Perhaps, in part, because he chose an anti-hero–an amiable account exec married to a drug company heiress who suddenly has to make some real decisions for the first time in his life–rather than a “man of principles” like most of the other novels’. And in Kelly’s case, it was he, rather than his protagonist, who left Manhattan and headed off to the Southwest, settling in New Mexico.

The Golden Kazoo, by John G Schneider

When published in 1956, this satire about Madison Avenue finding a candidate and getting him elected as president (in the far-off year of 1960) as easily as it could pitch “a can of beer, a squeeze tube of deodorant, a can of dog food” seemed far-fetched enough to be considered as material for a Broadway musical. Now, of course, it’s business as usual.

Cover of 'The Advertising Man'

The Advertising Man, by Jack Dillon

This 1972 novel, by a VP of the legendary Dane Doyle Bernbach, was well-received by some critics. Time’s reviewer offered this left-handed compliment: “If this were a polished writing job, it would be one more of those slick commercial novels about an ad agency. Instead, it is clumsy, serious and painstaking, and perhaps as a consequence, considerably more enlightening.” It’s essentially a familiar story: work too hard and the rest of your life will eventually go on the fritz–but rich on authentic Man Med atmospherics.

Chocolate Days, Popsicle Weeks, by Edward Hannibal

Just recently reissued by the Authors Guild epublishing service, iUniverse, this 1970 is, in the words of a Times reviewer, “a rung-by-rung” account of climbing the Madison Avenue ladder in the late 1950s. It won Hannibal a Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship and became a best-seller. The title comes not from advertising, but from its protagonist’s first job, working in an ice cream factory–days making chocolate-covered bars were tougher than those making popsicles. In keeping with its time and the formula for most of the novels discussed here, Hannibal’s ad exec eventually decides to drop out and pursue life away from the rat race–not, however, by setting up his own mom-and-pop ad firm.

Madison Avenue, USA, Martin Mayer

Probably the one to read if you really want to soak up the atmosphere of “Mad Men.” Written in 1958, Madison Avenue, USA is one of Mayer’s specialties: factual, intelligent, and authoritative accounts of how an industry really works.

BBC Radio 4’s Neglected Classics Contest

BBC Radio 4 logoBBC Radio 4’s program, Open Book, recently launched a contest to rediscover “forgotten treasures of the literary world – books that have been overlooked or become inexplicably out of vogue.” The winner will be dramatized on Radio 4 sometime during 2010. You can find out more at the website they’ve set up: “Neglected Classics”.

To get their audiences’ thoughts cranking, Open Book is devoting two programs to discussions with leading U. K. authors on some of their own candidates for this prize. The first, broadcast last Sunday (18 October), can be heard online now at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n6z0d. The second will be broadcast on Sunday the 25th. The ten books proposed on the two programs can be found now at the “Neglected Classics” page.

Several U. K. papers and magazines have noted the contest and invited their own readers to propose candidates in their comments threads. The Times covered it in their 17 October book section with an article by Adam Sherwin and commentary by Erica Wagner. Wagner proposes several favorites of her own, including P. V. Glob’s The Bog People, reissued in 2004 by New York Review Classics, and a collection of essays and lectures, The Voice That Thunders, by Alan Garner, whose The Stone Book Quartet has been mentioned on this site before. The Guardian’s Alison Flood also commented on the contest (“Remembering forgotten classics”) the day after the first broadcast. And the Reader Magazine’s “Reader Online” site picked up the idea, also asking for suggestions. I look forward to a rich crop of new titles to investigate and share with fans of this site.

Books to Watch “Mad Men” By

Like millions of other viewers, my wife and I have been enjoying frequent plunges back into the early 1960s as we blast through the first two seasons of A&E’s “Mad Men” on DVD. I was born in 1958 and have remarkably strong memories from that period: the cars, kitchens, and clothes, in particular.

Though I’d hardly recommend a return to the stereotypes and prejudices of that time, I do feel a certain nostalgia for the style and certainty of the time. So I thought I’d take a moment to note a few titles that readers might find interesting if they’re in the mood for taking a deeper plunge back into the days of “Mad Men.”

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Hucksters'

The Hucksters, by Frederic Wakeman (1946)

This best-seller from 1946 (OK, I’m stretching the boundaries of the era) was the first “expose” of the twisting and turning of the truth that was advertising back in the days before the FCC found its backbone. Its hero, Vic Norman, was an early anti-hero, refusing to kowtow to his boss while devising new ways to sell soap on the radio–a conforming non-conformist rather like “Mad Men”‘s Don Draper. Now out of print.

Aurora Dawn, by Herman Wouk (1947)

Subtitled, “The True History Of Andrew Reale,” this broadly satirical novel tells the story of an utterly unscrupulous young man who scampers to the top of the corporate ladder in an advertising firm leaving more than a few victims along the way. Wouk always emphasized that he’d actually written his book before Wakeman’s, even though it was published a year later. Still in print.

The Price is Right, by Jerome Weidman (1949)

Cover of early paperback edition of 'The Price is Right'Technically, this is a novel about getting ahead in the newspaper business, but it is set on Madison Avenue. Its hero, Henry Cade, decides that, “… you could no more want a little success than you could want a little love … To want less than everything was to get nothing.” “Mad Men”‘s Peter Campbell appears to share this philosophy.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson (1956)

Probably the best-known novel associated with the white collar WASP culture of the 1950s, the fictional counterpart to William Whyte’s classic, The Organization Man. Tom Rath, the hero, is in public relations rather than advertising, a distinguished war veteran, and faithful to his wife, Betsy. So maybe this isn’t the book to read while watching “Mad Men.”

The Naked Martini, by John Leonard (1963)

This first novel by a man who would come to be considered by some “the best critic in America” was panned by Harrison Salisbury in the New York Times: “… it possesses a certain wry wit, but 255 pages seems a long, long journey with no better company than a young adman, his bottles and his babes.” Sounds like a much more promising candidate in this case, however.

Cover of paperback edition of 'From Those Wonderful Folks'

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, by Jerry Della Femina (1971)

Jerry Della Femina has been called one of the “100 most influential advertising people of the 20th century.” This tongue-in-cheek memoir of some of his wilder adventures during the Mad Men era is full of laugh-out-loud passages. Interviewed recently by USA Today, Della Femina said of the time, “It was a business of drinking. The way we lived really would make the characters in “Mad Men” all look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. We drank and screwed around.”

Confessions of an Advertising Man, by David Ogilvy (1985)

A more restrained but still occasionally outrageous memoir, this one by the most famous Mad Man of his time. A 1962 cover article in Time called Ogilvy a “literary wizard,” though some of his most memorable ads had more to do with visual impact (the Hathaway shirt man’s eye-patch) than his copy.

Barnes & Noble launches “Rediscovers” series devoted to out-of-print worthies

Source: “Barnes & Noble Launches Out-of-Print Imprint,” Publisher’s Weekly, 19 August 2009

Barnes & Noble, one of the U.S.’s largest booksellers, combining online and “brick and mortar” outlets, launched a new series devoted to the reissue of neglected books this month. As described on the B&N website:

Barnes & Noble Rediscovers brings back to print — in affordable hardcover editions — books of special merit in history, literature, philosophy, religion, the arts, and science. Many have been long unavailable or hard to find. Each is now reset in a modern design to welcome a new generation of readers.

The Rediscovers initiative is something of an extension to the Barnes & Noble Classics, which includes 200 well-recognized classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and David Copperfield in low-cost paperbacks with new introductions by contemporary writers and critics. However, unlike the Classics, the Rediscovers list is intended to be shaped directly by reader/buyer feedback: “The retailer will include customer feedback and online customer behavioral data as criteria for selecting books to publish through Rediscovers,” according to Retailer Daily.

The B&N Rediscovers series was launched with healthy kick, with 33 titles included in the first release. I am frankly impressed by how diverse and esoteric this list is. Here is a sample of what’s now available:

Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It, by Loren Eiseley

A study of Charles Darwin’s work and ideas within the intellectual context of Victorian England. More a scholarly than a lyrical work, written–as one Amazon reviewer put it–“while Eiseley was wearing his Professor hat instead of his Philosopher cap.”

Cover of Barnes and Noble Rediscovers reissue of 'The History in English Words'

The History in English Words, by Owen Barfield

One of the books I included on my “Editor’s Choices” list when I first started this site, this is certainly the most approachable of Barfield’s books–but it has the same capacity to shake up your world perspective. Essentially a survey of how the etymology of individual and groups of English words can reveal not just where they came from, but the dramatic differences in how the world was seen and understood in other times.

Maimonides, by Abraham Joshua Heschel

From the B&N site: “Originally published in German in 1935—the 800th anniversary of its subject’s birth—Maimonides was Abraham Joshua Heschel’s first important work. In it, the author combines an account of the life of this most influential of Talmudic scholars and most celebrated of medieval Jewish philosophers with a subtle introduction to his writings and their place in the broader tradition of Jewish thought.”

Physics for the Rest of Us: Ten Basic Ideas of 20th Century Physics, by Roger S. Jones

The youngster on this list, dating only from 1993. Jones’ objective was, “To combine a conceptual approach to modern physics with an exploration of its deeper meaning and philosophical significance.” Thus, this book is not only a clear, well-written explanation of ten concepts of physics developed in the 20th century, but a reflection on the benefits and limitations of science itself.

Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, by George Santayana

Drawn from one of his Harvard courses, which could claim T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Conrad Aiken among its students, this book is the text of a series of lectures Santayana gave at Columbia University in 1910. At it’s also a pretty good demonstration of just how strong Barnes & Noble’s faith in the “if you reissue it, they will come” theory is. This is one of those titles that university presses usually trickle out in a few dozen copies a year over the course of a few decades–as it the even more intimidating Philosophical Sketches: A Study of the Human Mind in Relation to Feeling, Explored through Art, Language, and Symbol, by Suzanne Langer. Courage et bon chance, mes amis!

Alpha and Omega: Stories by Isaac Rosenfeld

Rosenfeld has been something of an insider’s legend for decades. After publishing a well-received coming-of-age novel, Passage from Home, in 1946, he wrote some fine stories and influential reviews, labored at some unpublished novels, and eventually faded into complete obscurity. Coming on top of the release earlier this year of Steven J. Zipperstein’s fine biography, Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing, Alpha and Omega should help revive interest in this classic neglected writer–although I suspect D. G. Myers got it right when he wrote in review of Zipperstein’s bio:

Rosenfeld’s name remains alive for two reasons. First, because he impressed, with his personality and literary promise, the reputation makers of his generation—Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Eliot Cohen (the founding editor of Commentary). He was embraced as the “golden boy” of the New York intellectuals, and then died far too early to fulfill their dreams for him. As Theodore Solotaroff recalled, some of his friends spoke the name Isaac as if it were “a magic word for joy and wit,” others as if “it were the most poignant word in the language.” Second, he was Saul Bellow’s best friend.

Bellow wrote the introduction to Alpha and Omega.

Cover of Barnes and Noble Rediscovers reissue of 'Really the Blues'

Really the Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe

Mezz Mezzrow was a clarinet-playing Jewish kid from Chicago who got into jazz back in the mid-1920s and played and hung out with most of the greats from that era–Armstrong, Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton. Unfortunately, his love of jazz was outmatched by his love of reefers. “Mezz” came to be slang for marijuana due to his own use, rather than vice-versa. As a musician, he was no great beans. But teamed up with the young and verbally-inventive Bernard Wolfe, he managed to put together a 400-page swim through more jazz lingo and life that you’ll find between any other two covers. Albert Goldman once wrote of the book and its subject, “Mezzrow was 1) the first white Negro, 2) the Johnny Apleseed of weed, 3) the author of a great American autobiography, Really the Blues, the finest eyewitness account of American counterculture ever published. The book is, likewise, the master-piece of the counterculture’s most characteristics literary medium: the slang-laced, jazz-enrhythmed, long-breathed and rhapsodic street rap and rave-up.” So pick up your shovel and dig it, man!

ABBA ABBA, by Anthony Burgess

One of Burgess’ shortest novels, ABBA ABBA–whose title refers to the sonnet rhyme pattern–is a lively hodgepodge of historical fiction, literary criticism, original translations (and transformations) of poems of Giovanni Belli, and an excuse for Burgess to blow fine verbal riffs on the theme of writing and translation.

On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner

Recently recommended by Maura Kelly on this site, On Moral Fiction was one of the more controversial books of 1978–and one of the best-selling works of literary criticism as a result. Gardner challenged modernism and the pursuit of literary invention for its own sake, advocating a return to the traditons of Dickens and Tolstoy.

Marcus Leaver, president of B&N’s publishing subsidiary, Sterling Publishing, suggests the initiative has much grander ambitions than the somewhat esoteric list of initial titles would indicate:

The Barnes & Noble Rediscovers series opens a new door for us and a new window for writers and estates who have earned no income on their works for years. We plan to expand the capabilities of the program to include both e-book and print on demand options.

This sounds as if Barnes & Nobles is taking a lesson from the Faber Finds venture, which has managed to push out over 400 titles in little over a year, thanks to diligent copywrite research and the magic of publish-on-demand. Both of which put the recently-announced AmazonEncore program (with a whopping one title, from 2006, to its credit).

Thanks to Robert Nedelkoff for passing this news along.

Ruminator Finds added to Sources

Ruminator Finds (originally known as Hungry Mind Finds), which was part of the catalog of Ruminator Books (originally known as Hungry Mind Books), the publishing arm of Ruminator Books, a legendary St. Paul, Minnesota bookstore (originally known as Hungry Mind Books), which also published the literary quarterly The Ruminator Review (originally known as–you got it–The Hungry Mind Review), has been added as a new Source (see under “Sources” to the left) with a list of the dozen or so titles issued during the first five years of Ruminator Books.

The Ruminator Books storeThe story of Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books is a parable of how far a passion for books can take you … until simple economics kick in. David Unowsky, who founded his independent bookstore, Hungry Mind Books, near the campus of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1970, and it acquired a reputation as one of a handful of truly great American bookstores. In the mid-1990s, he and his wife, Pearl Kilbride, along with other partners, started up an independent press, also known as Hungry Minds Books. Over the course of its nearly ten years’ existence, the press published 50 titles, with an emphasis on literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, including a series of reissues of quality non-fiction under the rubrics of Hungry Mind Finds and Ruminator Finds.

In early 2000, they changed the company’s name to Ruminator Books after selling the name to Hungry Minds, publisher of the hugely successful [Fill in the Blank] For Dummies® series. Hungry Minds was later acquired by the technical publishing giant Wiley.

Unfortunately, that move was motivated mainly as an attempt to inject a positive cash flow into what was already a failing business. By mid-2004, the bookstore was forced to close its doors. The press was abandoned as an unsupportable venture, and the literary magazine Unowsky and Kilbride had also established became the last casualty in late 2005.

The Ruminator Finds list is an eclectic sample of some of the best non-fiction writing of the late 20th century and includes such well-recognized classics as Pat Jordan’s baseball memoir, A False Spring, and Bill Barich’s Laughing in the Hills, as well as a few fine but lesser-known works like Carl Raswan’s 1934 memoir, Black Tents of Arabia (My Life Among the Bedouins).

Black Squirrel Books added to Publishers Page

Thomas DePietro, who’s published several books of conversations with authors such as Don DeLillo and Kingsley Amis, wrote to mention another publisher of neglected books: Black Squirrel Books. A special imprint from Kent State University Press, Black Squirrel Books is devoted to “reprints of valuable studies of Ohio and its people, including historical writings, literary studies, biographies, and literature.” Which in and of itself wouldn’t rate a mention here were it not for the fact that the series includes two reissues from the once-legendary tough-guy writer, Jim Tully, who wrote trailer-trash fiction well before trailer parks were invented, and who gave Hemingway and other artistes the space experiment with brutality, violence, and bare-boned sexuality with gutsy novels like Laughter in Hell and Circus Parade.

DePietro provided the preface to a forthcoming reissue of the novelist Raymond Decapite’s 1961 book, A Lost King. The book was adapted for the screen as “Harry and Son” in 1984 by Paul Newman, who wrote, directed, and acted in the film. DeCapite’s most recent books are still available from Sparkle Street Press. DeCapite passed away just a few days ago at the age of 84, having lived in Cleveland, in which most of his stories are set, all his life.

“Why Do Some Writers Disappear?” from the Wall St. Journal

Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204556804574260451110396092.html

“Why do exceptional writers disappear?” a reader of Cynthia Crossen’s regular “Book Lover” column in the Wall Street Journal:

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'That Summer in Paris'Morley Callaghan is my favorite 20th-century novelist. His That Summer in Paris is among the best of memoirs. His writing is splendid, but he is forgotten. Every book lover can list authors who were wonderful and maybe even great (John Marquand, John Dos Passos, Erico Verissimo) but who are gone. Why do exceptional writers disappear?

Crossen admits that Callaghan’s name is unknown to her, but in her defense, notes that,

… even in the 1960s, Mr. Callaghan was “perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world,” wrote Edmund Wilson, who hypothesized that Mr. Callaghan might have been the victim of geographical snobbery. Critics seemed to doubt that even a literary genius comparable to Chekhov or Turgenev “could possibly be functioning in Toronto.”

She concludes with a mention of this site: “A very fine Web site, neglectedbooks.com, has many links to lists of lost classics as well as its own ruminations on the subject.” But then she also points out that, “… a site search showed not a trace of Morley Callaghan.”

Well now it does, courtesy of Ms. Crossen.

Just added to Sources: 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read, by Karl Bridges

100 Great American Novels You've Probably Never ReadPublished in 2007, 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read is an attempt by Karl Bridges, librarian and associate professor at the University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe Library, to provide a resource for readers of American fiction who’ve read their way through the standard canon of classics. “One goal of this book,” Bridges writes in his Introduction, “is to represent a wide time span–one equaling the length of American history”, and the novels listed cover a full 200 years: from Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walkerstyle=border:none (1797) to Charles T. Power’s In the Memory of the Foreststyle=border:none (1997).

For each listing, Bridges provides:

  • A paragraph or so extract from the work to give a sense of the writer’s style;
  • A synopsis of the story;
  • Bridges’ own critical commentary, informed by what he estimates as over 50,000 hours of reading;
  • A biographical sketch of the author;
  • A selected list of his/her other works;
  • References and other suggested sources about the author and the novel

In some cases, the information Bridges assembles represents more than anyone has ever collected on the author and novel. His choices also reveal a broad and eclectic taste, one that includes not only mainstream fiction but genres such as science fiction, serials, detective tales, and novels for young adults.

You can find the complete list of 100 titles under Sources to the left of this page: Karl Bridges.

What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960, by Gordon Hutner

Cover of 'What America Read'“Why are so few novels remembered while so many thousands forgotten?” This is the question Gordon Hutner, professor of English at the University of Illinois, takes up in his new book, What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960, due out this month from the University of North Carolina Press. In it, Hutner surveys four decades of American fiction from the viewpoint of the reading public and the mainstream critics of the time, and reveals just how shifts in the currents of critical tastes can leave many good works stranded and quickly forgotten.

“There is no critical conspiracy to keep these books from being read,” Hutner writes. Instead, he shows how mainstream critics such as Bernard deVoto, Clifton Fadiman, and Henry Canby were eclipsed by a younger, more politically-oriented generation with the likes of Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and Dwight MacDonald, who favored modernism over realism and the marginalized over the mainstream. With their rise, writers such as John Marquand, who had enjoyed both popular and critical success, came to be considered hacks and reactionaries.

Hutner does not claim that there are dozens of lost masterpieces to be found among the books he surveys. He merely argues that their neglected ultimately represents our own “impoverishment, since their fiction reveals the epic story of a nation’s self-invention as a modern society through the filter of middle-class experience.” Although he doesn’t single out any title for special attention, opting instead for a comprehensive survey, Hutner did mention a few noteworthies in a recent interview:

Really there are just too many! I gained a great appreciation for many women writers I had never heard of before, like Margaret Barnes, who won a Pulitzer for a novel about the rise of Chicago [Years of Grace, winner of the 1931 award–Ed.]. I also liked Josephine Lawrence, who wrote in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s! Her novels were smaller affairs, written to be read in an evening, dealing with problems like how to manage a budget or how to deal with the aged in a world before the Social Security Act. (Reviewers sometimes asked why she wasn’t more highly esteemed.) Margaret Culkin Banning wrote similar novels about women a rung or two higher on the social ladder. Caroline Slade wrote some interesting books about women in the Depression and the sex trade. Maritta Wolff wrote terrific novels in the 40s, including the very best one about women’s experience with returning GIs called About Lyddy Thomas; a posthumous novel of hers came out a few years ago [Scribner’s has reissued three of Wolff’s novels–Whistle Stop, Night Shift, and the posthumous Sudden Rain–Ed.]. I also liked Margaret Halsey’s comic writing: With Malice Toward Some is a delight. She wrote a novel and a nonfiction book about black GIs and race relations, drawn on her USO stint, but the nonfiction book is more trenchant.

There were good books by plenty of men too, and I would be remiss if I did not mention Michael Foster’s American Dream. With such a title, the book better be good, and it is. I really developed a taste for John Marquand too, especially Point of No Return. I also “discovered” wonderful novels by African American writers—Waters E. Turpin’s migration novels of the 30s [These Low Grounds (1937) and O Canaan! (1940)–Ed.] may be known to specialists but scarcely make their way onto many syllabi in twentieth-century African American fiction.

I plan to add Hutner’s book and a list of many of the titles he discusses, to the Sources section on this site later this month, but the above sample provides an excellent start. I highly recommend What America Read to any fan of 20th century realistic fiction.

Excellent new article on Jetta Carleton and The Moonflower Vine

Harper Perennial’s reissue of Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine has garnered coverage in a number of newspapers, but by far the best to date–in fact, the most substantial piece on Jetta Carleton’s life and work yet published–appears this week in the St. Louis Riverfront Times: “Moonflower Resurrection.” Staff writer Aimee Levitt penned a long and sensitive article that gives considerable due to both the novel and Carleton’s life and work before and after its publication. I recommend it highly to any fan of this site.

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.

1500 Books added to Publishers List

Thanks to a visitor’s Amazon purchase, I discovered an admirable venture into republishing neglected classics: 1500 Books. Founded by two veterans of the publishing business, Eileen Bertelli and Gavin Caruthers, 1500 Books’ list is devoted to the art of the memoir: “We believe memoirs—when it’s a good story, well told—can be some of the most compelling reading you will ever experience.” Their star release so far is the reissue of Lucy Norton’s three-volume 1967 English translation of one of the juiciest memoirs ever written, that of King Louis XIV’s advisor, the Duc de Saint Simon: 1691-1709: Presented to the King; 1710-1715: The Bastards Triumphant; and 1715-1723: Fatal Weakness. As sober a source as the Catholic Encyclopedia remarked of these memoirs, which were last available from the late Prion Lost Treasures in the UK, “Whatever the historical value of the ‘Memoirs’ may be, they are, by their sparkling wit, one of the most original monuments of French literature.”


Neglected Books gets a mention in Publishers Weekly

Source: “Web Site and Author Rescue a Forgotten Book,” by Lynn Andriani, Publishers Weekly, 2/2/2009 (http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6633740.html)

In anticipation of Harper Perennial’s forthcoming reissue of Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine, Publishers Weekly recently included a story about how the book can to be republished. It turns out that the Neglected Books Page had something to do with it:

The Moonflower revival began when a small press contacted Carleton’s grandniece, Susan Beasley, telling her it wanted to reissue Moonflower, which is set on a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the 20th century. Beasley got in touch with agent Denise Shannon, who didn’t know the book but Googled it and wound up on NeglectedBooks.com, a site launched in 2006 that features thousands of books that have been, according to the site, “neglected, overlooked, forgotten, or stranded by changing tides in critical or popular taste.”

The Moonflower Vine is due out from Harper Perennial on 24 March 2009.

What Makes a Book “Neglected”?

D. G. Myers, associate professor of English and religious studies, just posted a fine and admiring review of John Fante’s novel, Full of Life on his always interesting A Commonplace Blog. In passing along a link to the post, he remarked, “I don’t know whether a book is ‘neglected’ if it is still in print, but this is not usually said to be even his best novel (although it is).”

A few years after setting up this site may be a bit too late to get around to defining its fundamental concept, but I thought I would take a moment to disclose the personal preferences that guide my selection of books to feature.

With an occasional exception, I focus on books that are out of print–and out of print for ten years or more. There are a number of fine publishers–Persephone Books, Pushkin Press, Crippen & Landru, and, of course, New York Review Books, to name just a few–that are doing a service to past, present, and future by discovering and reissuing a wide variety of books that have been out of print or just out of the mainstream for years or decades. And I do them all a disservice in not announcing their each and every release and regularly selecting a few for in-depth discussion.

But one of the privileges that comes with doing the work to create the content for this site and pay the bill for hosting it is the right to chose what I do and don’t cover. This is one of my hobbies. I wish it was profitable enough or my needs simple enough that it could be a vocation, but for the foreseeable future, I will have a day job to hold down, kids to raise, and no shortage of other time commitments. So I have to trust that these presses will succeed in getting the publicity, shelf-space, and display table exposure to keep the business of publishing neglected books profitable. And so I will devote my time to the ones they miss.

The fact that a book has been out of print for at least ten years is a pretty reliable indicator that very few people are asking for it at their local bookshop or online store. While it’s easier to locate a used book today than it ever has been in the history of printed books, it still remains, as anyone who’s tried to run a used bookstore can tell you, that far, far, far fewer people make the effort to do it. Most books that are now out of print will never be reissued.

And most of them don’t deserve to be reissued. Set aside all the out-dated reference books, manuals for obsolete machinery and processes, superseded textbooks and other examples of the many types of short-term utilitarian content that gets published between covers, and there still remain thousands of uninspired, unimaginative, unoriginal, and otherwise uninteresting books that barely justified publication in the first place. They may be pot shards for some archaeologist, but they’re no more worth reading than pot shards are worth carrying water in.

But the law of large numbers suggests that the vagaries of publication, book review assignments, display table selection, and publisher’s publicity mechanisms will result in relatively stable number of good books not getting properly noticed and evaluated each year. And just getting good reviews or even good sales is not enough to keep a book from quickly fading away into obscurity. Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine got fine reviews and made it into the New York Times’ best seller list and yet disappeared utterly from any critical discussion for over thirty years–until Jane Smiley covered it in her Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Even then, it’s taken another five years for a publisher (Harper Perennial) to reissue it.

So it’s a sure bet that there are books out there that didn’t get their lucky break. Books like The Moonflower Vine. Books like Winds of Morning that got good reviews and sold OK, if not great, and disappeared. Books like Michael Frayn’s Constructions that got good reviews, never had a chance of selling more than a few copies, and disappeared. And books like W. V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks that got one paragraph in one paper, sold a handful of copies, and barely appeared in the first place, let alone ever attracted notice again.

They deserve better. And so that’s the coalface I’ve chosen to work at. I guess I’m like the kid in Ronald Reagan’s favorite joke:

Worried that their son was too optimistic, the parents of a little boy took him to a psychiatrist. Trying to dampen the boy’s spirits, the psychiatrist showed him into a room piled high with nothing but horse manure. Yet instead of displaying distaste, the little boy clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to all fours, and began digging. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

With all those out of print books, there must be some ponies in there somewhere. My mission is to find a few.

“The Gospel at Colonus” now available on DVD

The Gospel at Colonus DVDI’m going to shift my spotlight away from neglected books for the first time to draw attention to the long, long-overdue release on DVD of the 1985 PBS “Great Performances” production of the Lee Breuer/Bob Telson landmark show, “The Gospel at Colonus”. Recently, I was talking to an acquaintance about memorable theater experiences. He and his wife had seen “The War Horse” at the National Theatre in London, and he said the first sight of the horse puppet, designed by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, sent a shiver up his spine.

I told him I had the same reaction to the opening moments of the theatre production of “The Lion King,” when the dancers, in Julie Taymor’s incredible costumes, begin to come onto the stage from the wings and through the aisles. “I think there have only been three or four times I’ve had that reaction something in theater,” I said, but my mind instantly went blank when I tried to think of the others. And then it hit me: “The Gospel at Colonus”, of course.

It was in 1990, when my wife and I went to see Breuer’s revival of his 1985 production for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. About 10 minutes into the show, Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama enter from the left wing, dressed in shining silver tuxes. They are the collective, choral Oedipus. “Daughter, lead me on,” Fountain calls out, and Jevetta Steele, playing Ismene, begins to lead them in a classic sufferin’ gospel show trudge, toward center stage. From the right wing goes out a shout: “Stop!” The Soul Stirrers, as the defenders of Colonus, all dressed in deep burgundy suits, with Sam Butler, Jr. on guitar in the lead, begin moving out to stop them. “Stop, do not go on,” they sing. “This place is holy. You cannot walk this ground.” A vocal battle of sorts then erupts, as the Oedipi come on and the Soul Stirrers push back. With each step, the tension mounts. Behind, a large gospel choir sways back in forth to the rhythm of the march. Butler and Fountain come face to face, duking it out: “Can’t do it!” “I’ll do it!” “Can’t do it!” “I’ll do it!” Finally, in frustration, Fountain lets out with a wild, falsetto howl that slices right through to the heart. I had tears in my eyes, it was so thrilling.

I had first heard about “The Gospel at Colonus” in the Village Voice back in 1983, when it opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the academy’s Next Wave Festival. I was intrigued at the whole concept of the show: an interpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy, “Oedipus at Colonus” in the music of modern American black gospel. I was already a big fan of black gospel music. But the fact that Breuer had been able to enlist the participation of not just the Five Blind Boys but the Soul Stirrers left me dearly wishing I was living on the right, not the left coast.

Fortunately, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan fame was also a fan of the show and arranged to release an original cast recording on Warner Brothers Records in 1984, and I swooped my copy up the moment it hit the racks. I copied it to cassette (remember them?) and played it over and over in the car. Some critics have written that “Stop! Do Not Go On” is the only memorable song from the show, but having listened to the album at least a hundred times over the last 20+ years, I think this is unfair and seriously wrong.

Virtually even number is good enough to take its place alongside the best gospel tunes of the last fifty years. “How Shall I See You Through My Tears?”, Ismene’s plaintive cry for her long-lost father is matched Oedipus’ desparate wish that the Lord would “Life Me Up (Like a Dove)”, so that “I could look with the eyes of the angels/For the child that I love.” The joyous resolution of the choir’s answer to Oedipus’ plea to find a resting place: “Live where you can/Be happy where you can.” The stunning oratio of “Numberless Are the World’s Wonders”, in which the singer lists all the powers of man, spiralling up to a series of “From every wind/He has made himself secure”, only to end with the chorus reminding us, “From all but one/In the late wind of death he cannot stand.” And the stomping, rousing celebration of the peace Oedipus finally finds: “Lift Him Up.” These songs are among the most moving I know.

Although “The Gospel at Colonus” only ran for about two months when Breuer took it to Broadway in 1985, he’s managed to stage a number of revivals at fairly regular intervals, so that by now, the show has been performed over 1,000 times. A second recording of the songs from the show, with mostly the same cast members as the first, was released in 1985 and is now available on CD (although I personally prefer the Warner Brothers version).

PBS recorded a performance in Houston in 1985, when Morgan Freeman was still playing the speaking Oedipus, and showed it on their “Great Performances” series. This was briefly available on VHS tape, but it’s effectively been out of reach until a month or so ago, when NewVideo finally issued it on DVD. Given the show’s record, this release may disappear just as quickly as all the past revivals and recordings, so I urge everyone to buy or rent a copy and see while it’s still available. The video quality is not the best, being just a digitized version of the first release without any apparent touch-up. But the power of the music, the performances, and the visual impact of the staging easily overcomes this shortcoming. Until you have that once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it live, don’t stop and do go on to see it now and DVD. Your life will be richer for it.

“The Gospel at Colonus”

Book by Lee Breuer
Based on “Oedipus at Colonus,” “Oedipus Rex,” and “Antigone” by Sophocles; Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone” adapted by Robert Fitzgerald; Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone” adapted by Dudley Fitts
Music by Bob Telson
Available from New Video (ISBN: 1-4229-1948-X)

Neglected No More: Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road

Although it was a National Book Award finalist when first published in 1961, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road has been a perennial on lists of neglected books, starting with David Madden’s first Rediscoveries compilation in 1971.

As the old joke goes, death was a good career move for Yates. Slowly but steadily, his star has been rising since his passing in 1992, despite the fact that as late as 1999, Stewart O’Nan was writing in the Boston Review of “The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the great writer of the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print.” However, it’s safe to say that it’s now reaching its apogee with the impending release of the Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio.

In anticipation, two of America’s biggest literary magazines, the Atlantic and the New Yorker published feature reviews of the book by two “first call” critics–Christopher Hitchens for the Atlanticand James Wood for the New Yorker. Of the two, Wood’s is the must read, as his often are–respecting, insightful, but cutting when necessary, as in this comment:

That first novel was Revolutionary Road (1961)—the basis of a new movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet— and it could be said to have dissolved its creator’s career even as it founded it, because Yates never published a novel half as good again. To put it brutally, he had about ten good years. His later fiction was compulsive but not compelling, necessary to him but not to his readers, who would always chase the fire of his first novel in the embers of its successors.

Having read all of his novels short of Cold Spring Harbor and most of his short stories, my experience of reading Yates was very much one of chasing the fire.

Thirty years after first reading Revolutionary Road, I can still remember the amazing scene in the hospital, where Yates subtly shifts the point of view to that of Shep Campbell so that he can land the narrative punch with maximum impact. After locking us into April Wheeler’s perspective, we wander off with Shep to grab a cup of coffee only to come back and find that April is dead. It remains one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in reading.

After that, I went on to read most of Yates’ work over the next year, and although he often succeeds in drawing the reader into the world of failure, disappointment, and desparate dreams, The Easter Parade aside, he never quite manages to bring the pieces together as well.

In further recognition of Yates’ ascendancy, Everyman’s Library is releasing in January 2009 a one-volume edition collecting his three best books: Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade , and his first short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.

Reading Hitchens’ and Wood’s reviews reminded me of one aspect of Revolutionary Road‘s story of the disillusioned young couple, Frank and April Wheeler. Their dream for escaping the conventional suburban Connecticut life they believe they should abhor is to run off to Paris, where April will get a job working at NATO Headquarters (then still in Paris) and Frank will work in his writing. Ironically, this is very nearly what Fred Holland and Sally White do in George Goodman’s A Time for Paris, recently reviewed on this site. And after Fred and Sally have their European adventure and lived Frank and April’s dream, what do they end up doing?

Getting married and settling down in the suburbs outside New York City.

UW Press to Reissue “Two Kinds of Time”–Forgotten Classic China Travel Book

Cover of UW Press reissue of 'Two Kinds of Time'On the rare occasions when I’m back in the U.S., I always try to take time to stop by a public library and do some browsing through back issues of Book Review Digest. This evening, flipping through the 1950 volume, my eye was caught by the entry for Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Time. Here is what Robert Payne had to say about it in the Saturday Review:

The present work, jam-packed with anecdotes, incidents, observations, theories, portraits, drawings, obscene jokes, quiet jokes, terrifying jokes, even ordinary jokes, has everything to commend it. It bursts at the seams, but so does Gargantua and Pantagruel. He has not written the modern Chinese Gargantua and Pantagruel, but he has done the nearest thing to it.

I took down the title, of course, and when I got back to the hotel, quickly googled it. To my surprise and pleasure, I found that this book, cited by numerous writers as one of the best books ever written about China by a Westerner, is about to be reissued in full, unabridged form for the first time in nearly sixty years–and from my alma mater, the University of Washington Press.

Peck, a Yale graduate, artist, and heir to a small hairpin fortune, first arrived in China in January 1936 while on a round-the-world trip. He ended up spending the better part of a year there before returning to Derby, Connecticut, where he then spent two years writing up his notes and collecting dozens of drawings into his first book, Through China’s Wall, which was published by Houghton in 1940. The book’s critical reception was superlative: “… the most important, the most fascinating travel book on China”; “remarkably unadulterated travel writing, transmitting observation and experiences close to the sensations of the moments when they occurred to a man of unusually balanced and sensitive intelligence”; “a better characterization in a paragraph than most venerable sinologists could achieve in a volume.” And, as Time‘s reviewer put it, “It is part exquisite travel book, part exciting history, part exotic philosophy.”

Peck returned to China in 1939 and remained there for the next six and a half years, surviving Japanese air raids, accompanying Mao’s Communist forces, and working for the U.S. Office of Information. He then left China for good and returned to his family home in Derby, Connecticut. Although he wrote several children’s books and collaborated with the veteran “China hand” John K. Fairbanks on China: The Remembered Life, it appears that Peck spent most of the rest of his life after 1946 looking backward, not forward. He died in 1968 at the age of 54.

Two Kinds of Time will be published on 30 October 2008 by the University of Washington Press.

Nobel Committee Salutes Neglected Books

In an indirect tribute to neglected books, the selection committee awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature to the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, who has managed to be successfully ignored by most of the English-speaking reading public for the last forty-some years. But this neglect is understandable, at least in the eyes of Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, who told an Associated Press reporter, “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature …That ignorance is restraining.”

For a quick and admittedly crude assessment of where the US and UK stand with respect to other countries in the recognition of Monsieur Le Clézio’s work, I checked a variety of online bookstores to see how many of his books were currently in print and available for sale. Here are the results:

Overall, this rough survey suggests that U.S. publishers are not doing too bad in keeping up with Le Clézio’s work, at least compared to other countries. And though his novels have never rated very high with any but a small circle of academics and fans of the avant-garde, the fact is that the Atheneum Press was a faithful supporter, issuing fine hardback editions of most of his major novels until the mid-1970s. With the celebrity of a Nobel on his side, Le Clézio is certainly back in demand, and there is a good chance that at least some of these now out-of-print English translations will be coming back. So, in spite of Mr. Engdahl’s assessment, the American publishing industry and reading public tends to be pretty responsive to the Nobel Committee’s championing of a neglected writer–certainly more than they are to this site’s!

Harper Perennial reissue of “The Moonflower Vine” by Jetta Carleton Confirmed

Cover of new Harper Perennial reissue of 'The Moonflower Vine'Easily the most popular neglected book on this site, Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine is now firmly planted in Harper Perennial’s release schedule for the first quarter of 2009. In fact, you can pre-order it on Amazon today–if you’re willing to wait about six months to get the book, that is. A sneak peak at the cover is shown to the left. Jane Smiley, who wrote about the novel in her 2005 book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, will provide the foreword for this new edition.

Neglected Books and Movie Tie-ins

As I read Nicholas Lezard’s review of the new Pushkin Press edition of Stefan Zweig’s novel, The Burning Secret, I thought, “I think I saw this movie.” And sure enough, thanks to IMDB, I quickly confirmed my suspicion: it was filmed in 1988, under the same title, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer and Faye Dunaway.

About a month, ago, my wife and I watched the DVD of “Separate Lies”, starring Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. It’s a perfect sort of movie for tired married people to watch on a quiet weeknight: human drama, a bit of tension, a murder, good acting, and well-dressed characters. Not great art, but certainly fine craft. But one credit caught my end at the opening: “Based on the novel, ‘A Way through the Woods’, by Nigel Balchin.

I recognized Balchin’s name from this page–his World War Two novel, The Small Back Room, is mentioned a number of times. Its story was also, incidentally, filmed in 1949, a Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger production. A Way through the Woods proved, upon a bit of research, to be a 1951 novel motivated, according to Clive James in what is perhaps the most extensive work on Balchin easily acccessible, “The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin“, in part by the break-up of Balchin’s own marriage due to infidelity.

Just this year, Persephone Classics , a model publisher of neglected books, had the biggest break in its history when Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a novel by Winifred Watson that Persephone rescued from oblivion, was made into a film starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, thereby raising the book’s visibility and sales considerably.

I won’t start excavating the many other examples available of film versions of neglected books–but I will recommend paying close attention to the writing credits: you never know when a good (or even bad) movie will lead you to discover an even better book.

Old Street Books publishes Max Blecher’s “Scarred Hearts”

UK publisher Old Street Books has just released the first English translation of Scarred Hearts, a 1937 novel written by the Romanian-Jewish novelist, Max Blecher. The publisher provides the following precis on the novel:

It is Paris in the 1930s and Emanuel, a young Romanian student, finds himself dangerously ill with spinal tuberculosis. He is sent to a sanatorium near the French coast where for a year he remains wrapped in a plaster body cast – the conventional treatment for his disease in the thirties.

In the eerie, isolated world of the sanatorium Emanuel discovers that life goes on. He suffers his horrendous cure and his body slowly deteriorates – but, unexpectedly, he falls in love. This tender, doomed love affair between two patients is at the emotional core of an rare, unforgettable novel that leaves the reader with a fresh understanding of what it means to be human.

In his introduction to the book, Paul Bailey calls it, “… a masterpiece, and all the more poignant for being so beadily accurate about human behaviour in extremis. It is a book to live with, to read again and again, as only great literature demands us to.” Its recent German translation has sold well and been cited as a notable work by several papers.

Writing in the The Independent, on the other hand, Mark Thwaite rates it, “… a weak pastiche of Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Sadly, this is a lost classic that did not need to be found.” The Financial Times reviewer found it, “an elegant and powerful rejoinder to Emmanuel’s despair at life’s futility.” The always fair-minded Complete Review takes a more balanced view:

Like many books in the briefly flourishing sanatorium-genre (think The Magic Mountain), Inimi cicatrizate [the original Romanian title] describes an isolated world standing almost still, full of longueurs and the frustration of not being able to move towards a future, many of the patients almost completely immobilized in a body-armour that keeps the world even more at bay. Blecher conveys this atmosphere more convincingly than most: presumably writing from experience helps, though occasionally he seems almost too close to his material, trying but unable to maintain the distance that he’s trying to achieve in this fiction.

A site visitor alerted me to another work by Blecher now available in English–in this case for free, from www.maxblecher.org. Titled Adventures in Immediate Unreality (from the Romanian original ÃŽntâmplări în irealitate imediată ), it’s translated by Jeanie Han and available in an easy-to-read 97-page PDF file.

Terry Teachout on Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

In Commentary magazine “Contentions” blog, critic Terry Teachout salutes the fine series of reissues from New York Review Books and reflects on one of its titles, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes:

Originally published in 1956, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was a deliberate attempt to write a novel in the style of Dickens and Trollope whose subject matter was unambiguously contemporary. It tells the tale of Gerald Middleton, a wealthy, washed-up historian who at the age of sixty upends his comfortable but unsatisfying life by investigating a Piltdown Man-like archaeological fraud for which the great friend of his schooldays turns out to have been responsible. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is at once deeply felt, brilliantly witty and morally serious to the highest degree, a combination of traits rarely to be found in a single novel.

This is a far more generous view than Time magazine’s reviewer took when the book was first published in 1956:

Angus Wilson is a social satirist with an itchy trigger finger. The novel is his shooting gallery, and the characters he sets up as targets not only have clay feet but clay minds and clay hearts as well. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is his longest, cleverest and most annihilating display of literary marksmanship to date, and after it is all over, what hangs in the air is the acrid odor of an unrelenting misanthropy.

Wilson’s renown may be back on the rise again. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is back in print on both sides of the Atlantic–from NYRB in the US and Faber Finds in the UK. His work is certainly worth a look for anyone who wants the richness of a 19th century novel combined with the moral complexity of a 20th century work.

Catching Up

I wanted to take a quick moment to note some items of interest to neglected books fans:

Reviews of two novels by Vance Bourjaily

Malaysian blogger Raj Dronamraju recently posted reviews of two novels by Vance Bourjaily. Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Man Who Knew Kennedy'Bourjaily’s is among the names most often mentioned in the emails I receive from site visitors. Dronamraju covers the two Bourjaily novels I’ve always been most intrigued by: The Hound of the Earth (1955) and The Man Who Knew Kennedy (1967). Hound is about a scientist involved in the construction of the first atomic bomb who deserts the Army in disgust with the results of his work and spends seven years as a fugitive. Kennedy is about a man of the same generation who briefly comes into contact with John F. Kennedy in the war and is more elegaic in tone. Dronamraju describes Bourjaily’s writing as, “… a cross between Nelson Algren and Dostoevsky ….Like Dostoevsky, he is a master psychiatrist and shows motivation very well without being too transparent….Like Algren, he speaks in a hard boiled voice with a lot of similes and metaphors.”
[Editor’s note: Kennedy takes its title from another neglected book, Sinclair Lewis’ 1928 short fiction, The Man Who Knew Coolidge (subtitled “Being the soul of Lowell Schnaltz, constructive and Nordic citizen”) is a set of monologues by a Babbitt-like character that one reader summed up as, “… all voice, a very long-winded voice that won’t shut up, even long after ceasing to amuse readers (at least this one).”]

Release of Strange Harbors, its 15th annual anthology of international writing in translation

Each year, the Center for the Art of Translation, based in San Francisco, releases a compilation of poetry and prose translations, often of writing little-known in the English-speaking world. This year’s anthology includes an excerpt from a 1986 Spanish novel, Beatus ille, by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by the renown Edith Grossman as A Manuscript of Ashes, along with pieces from over two dozen other writers.

Forgotten Book Fridays

I finally came across Forgotten Book Fridays a tag-team blogging effort launched by Patti Abbott, aimed at garnering “recommendations of books we love but might have forgotten over the years” from a group of fellow book bloggers. In the course of a little over four months, a growing army of bloggers have provided recommendations, both on Patti’s site and their own. The majority of titles proposed and discussed so far have been mysteries and thrillers, but with such a diverse group, everything from Peter Beagle’s lovely fantasy, A Fine and Private Place, to Dumbo the Flying Elephant has popped up. There’s no simple way to keep track of all these posts, although the search string, “forgotten books Friday” works pretty well.

Amazon’s Kindle brings a few neglected books back to e-life

I’m still a die-hard, old-wave real-book reader, but I was pleasantly surprised and impressed to find that there are a few titles still out of print but now available in e-print thanks to Amazon’s Kindle. And I’m not counting the many freely-available public domain texts Amazon repackages at a mark-up.

Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, for example, which is consistently recognized as one of the finest SF novels of the 20th century–and is actually, if we can be so adult as to free ourselves from the bounds of genre apartheid, one of the finest novels of the last century, period. Thirty-some years after I first read it, Dying Inside remains one of the most touching human tragedies I’ve ever read. Yet it’s been out of print for years and doesn’t show up that often in the SF shelves of your local used bookstores.

It’s a classic tale: a man with extraordinary gifts wastes them for most of his life and only begins to appreciate his error when those gifts are clearly and rapidly on the wane. The fact that the gift is telepathy in no way diminishes the power of Silverberg’s narrative. Indeed, it gives the story an elegant and ironic twist: David Selig’s tragedy is that he must come to grips with life as an ordinary human.

So, if you’re a Kindler, I encourage you to download a copy for a mere $5.75. Or you can make do with a used paperback edition for a little as 96 cents plus shipping.

Harper Perennial to reissue Jetta Carleton’s “The Moonflower Vine” in 2009

Robert Nedelkoff just passed along the news that Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine, which has easily generated more responses from readers of this site than all other featured books combined, will be reissued by Harper Collins under their Harper Perennial label in April 2009. I’m sure there are many who hope that this time Carleton’s fine novel will get the critical and popular attention it deserves.

Michael Frayn’s “Sweet Dreams” on OneBook

Gary Smailes invited me to nominate a neglected book for his OneBook blog. Gary set up OneBook as a living project to which he invites a variety of writers to discuss the book they’d recommend to others–the desert island book, if you will–if they could only recommend one.

It was easy for me to pick my OneBook: Michael Frayn’s Sweet Dreams (featured here on this site). There are so many delightful and wise things to be found there that I find myself turning to it again and again–reading it five times now since I first discovered it back around 1978. Sadly, it remains out of print in the U.S., but Gary’s graciously included links to the UK paperback edition still available through Amazon.co.uk.

An Interview with John Seaton, editor of Faber Finds

Serendipity has always played a large role in my experiences with neglected books, and serendipity today led me to pass a very interesting and enjoyable hour with John Seaton, editor of the new Faber Finds series. When I learned of Faber’s new venture into republishing a large and diverse list of out-of-print titles, I took up their public invitation and sent them an email offering my perennial nominee, W. V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks. A few days later, I got a reply from John himself, expressing interest and asking for help in locating a copy.

As it happened, I was scheduled to come to London for a project management conference a few weeks later, so I offered to drop off a copy of my own photocopy while in the city. John invited me to stop by for a chat. So after a day full of project management methods and practices, I headed to Faber and Faber’s offices on Queens Square. Along with discussing Tilsley’s book, I took the opportunity to interview John about the series in general.

Faber Finds is both bucking a trend and setting one. Most mainstream British publishers, John explained, have become focused on their front list (the new releases) and near backlist–the recent releases–and allowed much of their deep backlist–the titles that sell a few copies a year for a decade or more–to evaporate. In the same way, most major booksellers devote their shelf space to these titles, leading to something of a tunnel vision effect.

At the same time, however, print-on-demand technology has matured to the point where new models of production and distribution become possible. Faber Finds is among the most innovative applications of print-on-demand to emerge to date. The idea came from Stephen Page, CEO of Faber and Faber, who brought John into the firm specifically to launch the venture. Faber’s target is not the High Street retail customer, but what Chris Anderson referred to as “the long tail.” Publishers with extensive backlists have long been challenged to balance the steady, if undramatic revenue from sales of older titles with the expensive of storing and managing the physical stock. With print-on-demand, publishers now have the opportunity to continue offering their backlists while limiting their costs to the initial “capture” and as-ordered printing of the books.

Part of the “long tail” argument is based on the diminishing unit costs of involved in digital production. Although it costs Faber roughly £4 pounds to print a book of some 300 pages, this is considerably less than that of printing and holding a physical stock of several hundred or several thousand copies for years or decades. And the print-on-demand unit cost is, if anything, bound to go down, while the warehousing costs can only go up.

At the same time, the Internet has opened up a sales channel that makes it far easier for customers to locate and buy lesser-known titles. I can remember, for example, looking up the publishing information about Michael Frayn’s slim book of philosophy, Constructions; going information in hand to my local bookstore and submitting the special order; then waiting months for my copy to arrive. If Constructions were available through print-on-demand, on the other hand, I could find it, order it like any in-print title, and have a copy delivered to me in about the same time as any in-print title. The availability of a new discovery and ordering capability courtesy of the Internet, combined with print-on-demand, is a perfect example of the “long tail” effect.

Print-on-demand has been around for years. Companies such as Kesslinger offer a rich catalog of out-of-copyright titles on this basis. But most of these companies merely scan in and reprint images taken from old editions. Faber and Faber has always been a press known for its high standards of culture and style, and Faber Finds is very much in keeping with this tradition. They scan to text, proofread the result, and then integrate any black-and-white images into the text. Then they print the text on good-quality stock in an attractive typeface, and bind it into a sturdy trade paperback format featuring a unique computer-generated graphic for each title. John was somewhat apologetic for the design of the books, but I think he should be proud. There is a big difference between minimalist and generic. And there is nothing generic about the look of Faber Finds titles.

In keeping with the “long tail” model, Faber Finds is not starting out with a modest list, gingerly testing the waters. Instead, the series debuted with 100 titles and John has managed to clear the rights to another 300 titles. Faber plans to announce 20 to 30 new titles each month. If the business case proves sound, the list could grow into a thousand or more, which would easily surpass any other venture into republication of neglected books to date.

John and I discussed some of the potential effects of this new approach to publishing titles well in the margins from the standard canon of great books. I’ve long felt that the tendency to view literature as the exclusive domain of a few great authors and books rather than a broad, varied, and wonderfully unpredictable melange of the great, the good, the respectable, the near-misses and glancing hits, and even the occasional utter failure is reinforced by the tendency of non-“great book” titles to go out of print. A professor can hardly teach a lesser-known book if a student can’t buy a copy in the college bookstore or check out copy 23 of 37 from the library. With the Faber Finds model, Angus Wilson has a chance of keeping a spot on a modern English novelists syllabus alongside William Golding and Doris Lessing

Angus Wilson, in fact, is one of the authors John takes some personal satisfaction in having rescued. John came to Faber after spending three decades at Penguin. Penguin had stood by Wilson, keeping many of his novels in print through the 1970s and 1980s, when realistic novels were languishing in the critical doldrums, but they finally tossed in the towel over a decade along. Ever since, Wilson, inarguably one of the most significant English writers since World War Two, has been essentially out of print and out of circulation. Faber Finds will bring all of Wilson’s novels back in print–as it will those of P.H. Newby and, if negotiations go well, Joyce Cary.

At the far end of the spectrum from Angus Wilson and Joyce Cary stands another writer Faber Finds will bring back to print in August 2008. Roy Horniman’s novel Israel Rank has kept a small place in history for being the inspiration for one of the finest of all British comedies, the 1949 film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Even though the novel sold a respectable number of copies when first published in 1907 and was republished in 1948 while Graham Greene was working for Eyre and Spotiswoode, printed copies have become as hard to find as skeletons of the dodo. John was finally able to locate a copy though a distant relative of Horniman’s, and this sly satire of Edwardian mores and anti-Semitism will finally be available for a price quite a bit less than that of a mid-sized car.

Not that Israel Rank is a lost masterpiece. The point of Faber Finds is not to rescue a few great books that have become forgotten, but to make available–at a reasonable price for both consumer and publisher–a large number of fine books that merely fell victim of a bad business case for a few decades. Children’s books are coming as well, says John, as well as color images in a year or two. Altogether, Faber’s expedition into the “long tail” of the publishing business is one of the most exciting “mash-ups” I’ve heard of, and it was a genuine pleasure to get a chance to get an insider’s view of what I hope will be history in the making.

SUNY Press added to Publishers List

Susan Petrie from the SUNY Press kindly pointed out a number of little-known and forgotten titles they’ve released in recent years. In particular, their Women Writers in Translation series has brought out such books as:

The Ravine, by Nivaria Tejera

“Set in the Canary Islands at the outset of the Spanish Civil War, The Ravine is the provocative, disturbing account of a child’s experience with war.”

Become Who You Are

“… [A]bout a woman, Agnes Schmidt, whose husband has died and who is grappling with finding an identity for herself as an aging widow—reflecting the restrictions imposed especially on aging, widowed women who often yearn for a life and identity of their own.”

The Education of Fanny Lewald

” … [T]he autobiography of the most popular and prolific German woman writer of her period (1811-1889). The author of more than fifty books of fiction, travel memoirs, and articles about current events, Lewald was a friend or acquaintance of many of the prominent intellectual, artistic, and political figures of nineteenth-century Europe.”

And, for you James Fenimore Cooper fans, if there are any, there’s also a dozen-plus of his books, including such long-forgotten titles as Lionel Lincoln: or, The Leaguer of Boston, which the SUNY website tells us was, “… [A] radically new experiment in historical fiction. To recreate its events with the utmost accuracy, Cooper visited Boston in person in 1824 to study buildings and terrain, examine battlefields, read affidavits, consult records of the weather, and compare primary sources. George Bancroft declared in 1852 that Cooper had ‘described the battle of Bunker Hill better than it is described in any other work.'”

New from NYRB Classics: First English translation of Stefan Zweig novel

NYRB Classics continues to set the standard for publishing long-lost treasures. Its latest release is of particular note: The Post-Office Girl is the first English translation (by Joel Rotenberg) of Rausch der Verwandlung (trans: “The Ecstasy of Transformation”). This novel was found among Zweig’s papers after he and his wife committed suicide in Brazil during World War Two and only published in the original German in 1982.

The novel tells the story of Christine Hoflehner, a postal clerk in a small Austrian town: 25, but already on her way to become a career fonctionnaire:

Her hand with its pale fingers will raise and lower the same rattly wicket thousands upon thousands of times more, will toss hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of letters onto the cancelling desk with the same swiveling motion, will slam the blackened brass canceller onto hundreds of thousands or millions of stamps with the same brief thump.

Then, out of the blue, she gets an invitation to join a wealthy aunt in Switzerland. She’s exposed to money, glamor, fashion, society … and then sent back home. As an old tune from World War One put it, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree?” Well, as Zweig shows with his typically bitterly realistic touch, you can’t … but neither can Christine just leap over the walls of income, expenses, class boundaries, social mores. You’ll have to buy a copy of the book yourself to find out how it ends. And you probably don’t even need the publisher’s cheap-shot description of the novel as “Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde” to entice you, if you’re a fellow lover of fine neglected books.

The Village Voice polls writers on favorite obscure books

Source: “Our Favorite Writers Pick Their Favorite Obscure Books”, the Village Voice, 13 May 2008

In an attempt to get folks thinking about something other than best-sellers for their summer reading lists, the Village Voice polled sixteen writers to name their favorite obscure book. At least one suggestion is utterly cryptic: of Jim Dodge’s Fup, which has been in print forever and had its steady stream of fans, Colum McCann writes, “The less said about it, the better.”

On the other hand, Jennifer Egan got me interested in Harold Q. Masur’s detective novels from the 1940s and 1950s with these opening lines from You Can’t Live Forever:

It started with a summons, a brunette, and a Turk.

The summons was in my pocket, the brunette was in trouble, and the Turk was dead.

Egan writes, “In his savvy, stylish novels of the ’40s and ’50s, Masur manages to wink continuously at the detective genre even as he revels in it.”

Novelist Donna Tartt offers Blood in the Parlor, by Dorothy Dunbar, commenting that, “Each of the 12 stories is an account of a 19th-century murder told with a light, macabre sense of humor. I’d love to see it back in print with illustrations by Edward Gorey.” Ed Park names an early novel by Harry Stephen Keeler, whose goofily bizarre mysteries have been rediscovered lately and who now has his own society of fans. Jonathan Ames nominates The Lunatic at Large, one of several of the prolific Scots comic writer J. Storer Clouston you can read or download online from Project Gutenberg. Between this article and this site, we may be able to put a dent in the sales from Oprah’s book club.

“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” brings Neglected Writer Winifred Watson to Screen

Released by Focus Films in March 2008, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” brings to the big screen the novel of the same name by Winifred Watson, one of a generation of British women writers sometimes referred to as “the middlebrows”.

The film probably owes its existence to the fine work of Persephone Books, which reissued the book in 2000 and has devoted itself to rediscovering writers such as Watson, E. M. Delafield, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and others. And thanks to the film, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has sold over 23,000 copies, by far the press’ best seller to date.

Watson lacks a Wikipedia entry so far, but you can read her Independent obituary online at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/winifred-watson-640426.html.

Faber Finds: a Major Neglected Books Series Launches

Debuting June 2008: Faber Finds, the biggest venture into republication of neglected books since the start of NYRB Classics. In the words of the publisher, the aim of the series “is to restore to print for future generations a wealth of lost classics.”

With an initial list of 100 titles, Faber Finds will already be well on its way to keeping pace with NYRB Classics. The first set includes a few books that appear on a number of lists on this site–Keith Douglas’ Alamein to Zem Zem, which Faber reissued back in 1992 and Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, for example–but some other previously unmentioned ones, such as A Sword for Mr. Fitton, the first of a series of novels along the lines of the Patrick O’Brien’s popular Jack Aubrey stories, and Miss Willmott of Warley Place, a biography of one of the first woman landscape gardeners that currently fetches over $100 in first edition.

Faber promises that the list “will grow and embrace fiction, thrillers, sci-fi, memoirs, biographies, history, poetry, travel books, popular science and books for younger readers.” The publisher also invites readers “to let us know what you’d like to see back in print” by emailing suggestions to [email protected]. You can even enter a prize drawing for a free copy of P. H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, which won the very first Booker Prize back in 1969.

A most welcome addition to the bookshelves.

“Bison Frontiers of Imagination” reissues from the University of Nebraska Press

A site visitor tipped me off to a series of reissues of neglected and long out of print science fiction classics from the University of Nebraska Press, which already deserves credit for keeping many of the works of the fine American novelist Wright Morris in print.

Titled the Bison Frontiers of Imagination, the series includes over 50 titles now. Each title includes an introduction or afterword by a worthy science fiction writer or critic such as John Varley, an original cover painting, and, in some cases, original illustrations as well. In keeping with the press’ long-standing practice, the reissues are high-quality trade paperback editions.

Some of the titles will be familiar to fans of neglected books: Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus all appear on more than one list on this site. Perhaps not all of the titles are of equal literary and historical merit (I remembered cringing at the wooden characters and cliches when I read When Worlds Collide back in 8th grade), but this worthy university press earns a standing ovation for its commitment to these pioneering works of speculative and science fiction.

The Outmoded Authors Reading Challenge

Source: http://outmodedauthors.blogspot.com/2007/08/welcome-to-outmoded-authors-challenge.html

Imani, a “Jamaican lost in Canada”, and a bunch of other Blogspot bloggers have joined together to issue “a reading challenge for all interested in exploring authors who were kicked out of the “in” crowd”. “The idea behind this challenge”, states the site, “is to give some needed attention to authors who have fallen by the way side.”

Their Rules and Requirements are simple:

  • The challenge will last for six months and end on February 29th 2008.
  • During that time you may choose to read however many books by however many authors you like.
  • For reviews or any author-related information or musings you think would be interesting, please submit it to the blog as well as to your own, if you like.
  • With each post you add the relevant tags/labels such as the author’s name (“Dawn Powell”), whether it’s fiction or poetry, a review or a news item (“news”), perhaps a quote from a good essay you found on one of the writers you’d like to share (“essay”) and so on.

The list of outmoded authors is posted on the right side of the blog, linking to sites or pages with information about each. It includes such well-known, but certainly less-read, authors as Walter Scott, Somerset Maugham, and John Galsworthy — and such truly little-known and largely unread writers as Alfred Chester and the Catalan novelist Mercè Rodoreda.

I encourage all fans of neglected books and authors to participate — as the site says, “Owning a blog isn’t required.”

On “The Last Puritan”, by George Santayana, from the Financial Times

Source: “A life worth living for”, by Harry Eyres, published August 17 2007 on the Financial Times website.

Harry Eyres, the Financial Times’ “Slow Lane” columnist, writes about “one of the slowest novels I’ve ever read”, the philosopher George Santayana’s The Last Puritan.

“Leisurely as it is,” writes Eyres, “it packs a surprisingly hard punch — at least at the end. A more sustained attack on the American puritan ideal has never been penned.” As Eyres describes the book,

Santayana’s attack on American puritanism is anything but crude. It is conducted through a long character study of the most noble and admir-able American puritan it would be possible to imagine. Oliver Alden is the wealthy scion of a leading Bostonian family – beautiful, intelligent, gifted and kind. He is thoroughly good, but, as becomes increasingly clear, incapable of happiness. A brilliant student and heroic footballer and oarsman, he has no idea how to live – or perhaps, too many ideas.

Despite its leisurely, meditative style and Santayana’s critism of mainstream American values, The Last Puritan was a best-seller and Book of the Month Club selection when it was first published in 1936. Back then, Time magazine’s reviewer offered an accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Santayana’s sole novel:

It is characteristic of all Santayana’s writing that the weightiest subjects are handled with lightness and grace. The Last Puritan, no exception, contains amusing portraits of crabbed New Englanders, sophisticated New Yorkers, self-important Englishmen, sentimental Germans, to temper the gravity of the tale. It also contains extended digressions, discussions of German philosophy, of Shakespeare, Goethe, English education, yachting, sports, war, and rises in its record of Oliver’s last decision to some of the most eloquent prose that Santayana has written. Yet critics are likely to disagree for a long time to come over the question of whether The Last Puritan deserves to be reckoned with great U. S. fiction, whether it should even be considered a novel at all. Challenging comparison with The Scarlet Letter in its theme, it is obviously pale, frail, overintellectualized beside Hawthorne’s masterpiece. Evil for Hawthorne’s puritans was intense, powerful, a demon to be fought. For Santayana’s characters it is distant, abstract, a moral problem to be solved like geometry. Thus the characters in The Last Puritan are real as symbols of Santayana’s philosophy rather than as people.

Amazon shows The Last Puritan as out of print, but MIT Press still sells a pricey hardback edition from its series of Santayana reprints.

Antioch Review’s Neglected Books Contest

In his preface to the Spring 2007 issue of the Antioch Review, editor Robert Fogarty issues this challenge:

The reader who sends the best and most persuasive list of “neglected” books will get a free one-year subscription to the Review. You must include a paragraph stating your reasons and it must arrive here by December 31, 2007.

Send your lists to:

Neglected Books Contest
c/o The Antioch Review
P.O. Box 148
Yellow Springs, OH 45387

Good luck!

Classics of the Future, by Alan Cheuse

In the Spring 2007 issue of the Antioch Review, noveliest and critic Alan Cheuse speculates on “what variety of fiction might have a chance to survive what Norman Mailer in a recent interview dubbed ‘the thirty-years-out rule,’ by which he means that the test of a contemporary writer’s work begins at about thirty years after his death when we can see whether his work is still in print.”

As evidence of the evanescence of contemporary fame Mrs. Fanny Trollope’s list of good American writers of the early 1830s in her Domestic Manners of the Americans. Among the best, in her opinion: Timothy Flint. “There is a vigor and freshness in his writing that is exactly in accordance with what one looks for, in the literature of a new country….”

Timothy who? Flint doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry, although you can find his Columpia Encyclopedia entry on Answers.com. It turns out that Flint was a clergyman whose biography of Daniel Boone, The First White Man of the West (subtitled Life and Exploits of Col. Dan’l. Boone, the First Settler of Kentucky; Interspersed with Incidents in the Early Annals of the Country) can be found online at Project Gutenberg.

Cheuse goes on to offer “a group of test cases” of the durability of contemporary fame:

John O’Hara

At the height of his powers, O’Hara was writing stories thick and fast for the New Yorker, when that distinguished magazine stood at the pinnacle of contemporary fiction publishing. A
snapshot of that moment — which lasted, actually, for nearly twenty years (from 1930 to 1949) — would show a fiction writer with a devoted audience destined to stay around for a long time…. Not even Geoffrey Wolff’s intelligent biography of O’Hara [The Art of burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara] has done much to bring him back into the American canon.

Lawrence Durrell

Another writer whose day was seen as one that would last into infinity…. Justine, the first volume of his “Alexandria Quartet,” first published in the United States in 1961, turned all our heads toward his future and ours, which we saw as intertwined. Like some creature trapped in a bog, the book slowly sank out of sight. Has anyone recently tried rereading Justine?

Marguerite Young

… Young’s two-volume novel [Miss Macintosh, My Darling]… was highly praised at the time of publication in the New York Times Book Review, among others, by novelist William Goyen (his own quickly faded reputation now nearing the death-plus-thirty-year mark), by Anaïs Nin (who only last month reached the death-plusthirty-year mark), by the, fortunately, still vital Kurt Vonnegut and, when the novel appeared in a reprint edition in 1993, by the astute Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. Even so, she is not read much today.

John Fowles

… whose reputation had languished even within his own lifetime (due in some part to the accident of a debilitating stroke) and now in the wake of his recent demise comes into question. Last year I reread The Magus and found that it cheered my soul (in a shivery sort of way). Let’s all reread Daniel Martin, the novel we all took to be a work of genius when it first appeared, and meet next year and compare notes. Is Fowles a writer for the millennium? Or is he just another flash in the pan whose novelty we mistook for brilliance?

In Cheuse’s view, these examples raise “the larger question of exactly what is, if we can determine anything in human studies with any exactitude, a classic? Classic. A classic writer is a writer of the first rank. A classic work is outstanding work of the first order. Classic works are those works that endure over time, over generations, over centuries.”

He offers a few books he considers “valuable, which few others seem to care enough about to read and reread”:

“But we can never be sure…. Reputations rise and fall, and rise again.”

He concludes with the example of the novelist Mary Lee Settle who died in Charlottesville, Virginia on September 28, 2005. “She did some work that will last,” George Garrett said.

“Yes,” agrees Cheuse. “That’s the best tribute one writer can give to another. But the thirty year clock is ticking — twenty-eight years to go — and despite all our best predictions chances are her work will, alas, end up like her ashes, cast on the Rivanna River, on a rainy early autumn afternoon, disappearing into the flow.”

“Or, again, maybe not. Perhaps her wonderful love story Charley Bland will come back to haunt the lives of deep-hearted Americans in, say, thirty or forty years. And her joyful novel of quandary and religious faith, Celebration, will find a home in the minds of future citizens trying to live with the large and awful questions of destiny and vocation.”

Cheuse also reprints the complete list of titles from David Madden and Peggy Bach’s Rediscoveries II, obviously cut-and-pasted from this site.

“The Coast of Utopia” and The Romantic Exiles

Cover of 1949 Penguin edition of 'The Romantic Exiles'The New York Review of Books devotes a long article in the 31May 2007 issue to Tom Stoppard’s play trilogy, which just finished playing on Broadway.

One of key sources Stoppard acknowledges in his forward to the plays is Edward Hallett Carr’s The Romantic Exiles, which Francis Steegmuller recommended in Writer’s Choice. Serif Publishing just reissued the book, which pops back into print every 20 years or so.

If you’re interested in getting a taste of The Coast of Utopia but don’t have a theater company near you willing to undertake a nine-hour production, The Romantic Exiles is a good substitute. Like the plays, it tells the story of the life in exile, mostly in France and England, of a group of Russian political thinkers, artists, writers, lunatics, and their wives, children, maids, and mistresses. These were people who liked to “live loud and live large,” as a character in one of my kids’ first computer games said.

Carr does a wonderful job of blending first-person accounts from diaries, letters, and memoirs with the perspective of a professional historian and the dry wit of a decidedly un-romantic skeptic. Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, Ivan Turgenev, and other characters carom off political theories, art, literature, financial problems, and romantic entanglements with passion and energy, committed to a “stubborn refusal to compromise with reality.”

Thomas Rogers, 1927-2007

I neglected to note the death earlier this month of Thomas Rogers, whose first two novels, The Pursuit of Happiness and Confessions of a Child of the Century were both nominated for the National Book Award (in 1968 and 1972, respectively) … and have both been out of print since 1982.

In a review of Roger’s other two novels, At the Shores (1980) and Jerry Engels (2002), both of which dealt with the adolescence and sexual education of an Indiana boy in the 1940s, Cathleen Shine wrote,

One of Thomas Rogers’s many gifts as a novelist is his ability to imbue the less appealing realities of both love and landscape with a gentle, elegiac beauty. Rogers writes about adolescent boys and the industrial towns of eastern Indiana. Nothing, at first glance, could excite less admiration. Yet, in Rogers’s loving hands, drunken frat boys are revealed in all the sweetness of their humanity, and the fires of steel mills decorate the evening sky like sunsets.

The Other Press, which issued Jerry Engels and reissued At the Shores, has a small set of pages devoted to Rogers. But more touching is the obituary from the Centre Daily Times, in which neighbors recall his garden and the sound of his typing away on quiet summer days.

I read The Pursuit of Happiness decades ago and remember it as surprisingly strong but written with a light touch. It’s the story of a privileged young WASP who, as I recall, leaves the country not because of the draft and the Vietnam War, which always lurk in the shadows of the story, but because of a stupid hit-and-run accident. I may go back and reread it now. Vale, Thomas Rogers.

Two Reasons to Read Second-Rate Books

from John Berryman’s afterword to the Signet Classics edition of Theodore Dreiser’s The Titan:

Thank the Lord for second-class novels, or what would we read after the age of twenty-one, and how insufferable would be a criticism that devoted itself solely to first-class novels (the fifty-two or eight-six there are).

and from Zadie Smith’s wonderful essay, “Fail Better,” which appeared in the Guardian on 13 January 2007, but is no longer available online:

If it’s true that first-rate novels are rare, it’s also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them. The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt….

Few of the books featured on this site qualify as first-rate or first-class, by Smith’s or Berryman’s standards, so it’s good to know that there are such eloquent justifications for reading them.

“Reputations revisited” from the TLS’s 75th anniversary issue added to Sources

Just added to the Sources lists on this site: “Reputations revisited”, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement’s 75th anniversary issue.

The TLS asked a number of writers and academics to name the writers and books from the past seventy-five years they considered most overrated and underrated. This feature is remembered now for two reasons: first, the revival of the reputation and works of the English novelist Barbara Pym; second, for Vladimir Nabokov’s odd choice of H. G. Wells’ lesser novel, The Passionate Friends, which one Wells biographer described as, “by anybody’s standards … a solemn and boring book.”

Interview with Mark Moskowitz of “The Stone Reader” and the Lost Books Club

In his blog, Things I’d Rather Be Doing, “reformed” critic John Kenyon interviews Mark Moskowitz, director of The Stone Reader, and founder of the Lost Books Club. Despite the appearance of its website, he says, the club is still at work:

It took us more than two years to get tax-deductible status for the non-profit (the two are not synonymous) so we can now accept donations, which are needed. It takes about $10,000 per book. We have a list of about a dozen we’d like to help bring back, with hundreds more waiting to be read and thought about (each week we get suggestions).

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'The LBJ Brigade'Moskowitz mentions that the club has William Wilson’s The LBJ Brigade, one of the earliest novels about the Vietnam War, awaiting a deal with the right publisher. He also offers several more suggestions to the list of neglected books discussed in The Stone Reader:

  • Heckletooth 3, by David Shetzline, out of print since first published in 1969, a tale of a Forest Service ranger whose accidental poaching of an elk turns into a rebellion against society in general and leads to a manhunt and then a forest fire.
  • Silk and Cyanide, Leo Marks’ irreverent memoir of code-breaking during World War II.
  • Robert Spitz’s Barefoot in Babylon authoritative and engrossing account of the organisation of the landmark Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.

Northwestern University Press reissues The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith

Northwestern University Press this month reissued Mark Smith’s The Death of the Detective, a novel considered by some of the readers who’ve discovered it since it went out of print nearly 25 years ago to be one of the greatest works of American fiction of the 20th century. Although nominated for a National Book Award when first published in 1974, its critical reception was, on the whole, mixed. The New York Times Book Review said of it,

[Smith’s] large and eccentric melodrama is marked by lavish skill at doing what novelists always need to do–write scenes, weave narrative threads, hatch and construct characters, see and smell and feel and describe. Good sentence piles upon good sentence until the novel sags and cracks. What it sorely needs is a blue pencil and an artistic point of view.

Its status hasn’t improved much over the years. One of its Amazon reviewers gave it five stars and the tag-line, “Ross MacDonald meets (the american) John Gardner,” and this is as apt a summary as any. Like Gardner’s magnum opus, Nickel Mountain (now out of print), The Death of the Detective is ambitious, grand in scope, and overloaded with atmosphere, moods, and characters. Novelist Wallace Markfield slammed Smith (getting his name wrong) and Gardner in one swat in a 1978 interview available online at the Dalkey Archive Press website:

Markfield: There’s a stench given off by novels written by academics. A point in case is John Gardner. It’s a stench of unreality. There is no contact between Gardner and the real world. He’s fanciful and he has a few pathetic tricks. Another case in point is an academic named Frank Smith; he wrote something called The Death of the Detective

Interviewer: I don’t know it.

Markfield: You’re not missing very much. I read it and why I finished it I don’t know. It was a terribly boring book. You know, clearly modeled upon whomever. But of no interest whatsoever in the world.

The Death of the Detective is one of the books that inspired me to start this site and has been one of my Editor’s Choices since day one. While I can see the point of the New York Times critic who wrote that it could stand some “blue pencil” editing to trim off some of its excess and improve its artistic merit, I don’t think artistic merit is the reason to seek out and read this book. The Death of the Detective is a book about Chicago, and like that city, prone on occasion to extremes of temperature, drama, and violence, which is what makes it such an engrossing and memorable reading experience. It’s the novelistic counterpart to Sandburg’s “Chicago”:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

If it were ever made into a movie, its settings would be dark, its lighting melodramatic, and its score heavy with pipe organ chords, and you’d sit there in the theater, reveling in the sensory overload. But why wait for the movie? Find a copy, crack open its covers, and dive in. You will surface a few days later — perhaps a bit drained, but in awe of Smith’s ability to achieve sensory overload with nothing more than words on a page.

The Winds from Nowhere

Here in northern Europe, we’ve been battered by record high winds over the last 48 hours (see BCC story). These and the growing number of climate change disasters being reported bring to mind The Wind from Nowhere, the first of J. G. Ballard’s novels and the first of a series of four, each of which dealt with a world experiencing (or coping with the aftermath of) a global climate change:

  • The Wind from Nowhere (1961) is the most conventional of all Ballard’s novels and one he now dismisses the work as forgettable. High winds flatten the earth and survivors live in pits dug out in the remnants of ruined cities.

  • The Drowned World (1962) foretells global warning and describes a world where London and New York are largely submerged and much of the planet is a series of large and strikingly beautiful tropical lagoons.

  • The Drought (1964) (also published in the U.S. as The Burning World describes another man-made ecological disaster, in which the dumping of radioactive waste causes a shell to form over the seas, turning water into man’s rarest and most precious commodity.

  • The Crystal World, the least overtly about climate change, is generally considered the finest of these novels. The story, about a British doctor journeying a leper colony, encountering a deep African forest to that progressively turns into crystalline forms, has obvious parallels with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and marks Ballard’s own transition into more abstract and experimental worlds such as The Atrocity Exhibition

Only The Crystal World is in print in the U.S., but you can find The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World in print in the U.K..

You can view artist Richard Power’s covers for these and other of Ballard’s works at Rich McGrath’s treasure trove of Ballard artifacts and criticism, http://www.rickmcgrath.com/jgb.html.

James Guetti, 1937-2007

Novelist and critic James Guetti died 11 January 2007 at his home in Leverett, Massachussetts. Guetti’s 1972 novel, Action, was one of the titles featured by Roger Sale in his 1979 American Scholar article, “Neglected Recent American Novels”. Sale wrote of Action, “… the best novel I know about gambling, and indeed is so much better than most that the others cease to count. Furthermore, it has a grand opening sequence that is, by itself, a first-rate short story, and, to boot, a wonderful indicator for any wary reader of what is in store.”

Guetti taught for 36 years at Rutgers in New Brunswick, before retiring in 2000. Although most of his publications were critical works on Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, he published a second, autobiographical, novel, Silver Kings, after his retirement. Portions of Silver Kings can be read online at the publisher’s website. His obituary from the New Jersey Star-Ledger is currently available online.

A Talk about Neglected Books

Source: Syracuse University Library News

On Friday, December 1, 2006, Nicholas Birns will give a talk entitled “When Neglected Books Are Revived: The Cases of William Godwin and Dawn Powell” at the E. S. Bird Library at Syracuse University.

Using William Godwin’s 1793 novel Caleb Williams and the novels of the 20th-century American novelist Dawn Powell as test cases, this talk will explore what it means for a book to be lost and to be revived, the different ways that revived books are received in academia and in the general literary culture, and the nature of revivals themselves as cultural phenomena. The talk will close by drawing lessons from these cases for considering “revivals of neglected books.”

Birns is on the faculty of Eugene Lang College, The New School, in New York City.

Messiah: A Neglected Book by Gore Vidal

In a review of Gore Vidal’s new memoir, Point to Point Navigation, in the New York Review of Books Larry McMurtry drops his nominee for unjust neglect:

One reason I wouldn’t mind taking my near-complete holdings of Gore Vidal away to a far place is that there maybe I could just enjoy reading the writer and not always be having to ponder the Personality. There’s not much wrong with the Personality: he’s usually on the right side, and eloquently so. But the best of the writing is much more telling than the Personality—or any Personality, is likely to be. I refer particularly to Julian, to Homage to Daniel Shays, and to the excellent Messiah, a book that’s not remotely had its due.

Messiah deals with the rise of the next great religion of Western civilization, and the collapse and destruction of Christianity. It takes the form of the memoirs of Eugene Luther, a former apostle of Cavism. Founded by one John Cave, a California Undertaker, Cavism holds that it is a good thing to die–a holy thing, in fact, preferable to living. After the experience of the Jonestown massacre, David Koresh, and the Heaven’s Gate cult, Vidal’s distopia seems less fantastic than it did when the book was first published in 1954.

Oh, yes, and note the sly jokes: John Cave (J. C.) and Eugene Luther (Vidal’s full name is Eugene Luther Gore Vidal).

What’s fantastic is to imagine Myra Breckenridge or Duluth written by Luther Vidal.

Richard Yates on Fellow Neglected Writers

Source: An Interview with Richard Yates by DeWitt Henry and Geoffrey Clark, Ploughshares, Winter 1972

Here, in an interview from 1972, Richard Yates, who was one of America’s better-known neglected writers during much of his career, nominates some candidates of his own for overdue recognition:

Q: Who among your contemporaries do you feel have been seriously neglected? What about the work of Edward Lewis Wallant?

A: A fine writer; and yes, seriously neglected today, though he was by no means overlooked or unappreciated when his books first came out. Wallant worked with tremendous energy and tremendous speed. He didn’t even start writing until he was over thirty; then he managed to produce four novels in five years before he died very suddenly of a stroke at the age of thirty-six, ten years ago. He and I were pretty good friends, though we used to argue a lot about working methods: I thought he ought to take more time over his books; he’d disagree. It was almost as if he knew he didn’t have much time. If he’d lived, God only knows how much good work he might have accomplished by now. Anyway, the four books are there, and I do believe they’ll last. [Editor’s note: Wallant’s four novels are The Pawnbroker, The Tennants of Moonbloom, reissued in 2003 by New York Review Classics, The Human Season, and The Children at the Gate.]

Q: What about the novels of Brian Moore?

A: Another very fine writer, also seriously neglected, though he’s very much alive today and still going strong. I just don’t understand why he hasn’t yet won a wider audience. Every good writer I know admires his work. I’ve always thought Judith Hearne is a masterpiece, and An Answer from Limbo comes pretty close. Even in his lesser books there are always fine things — great scenes, fine characterizations. And he’s such a steady producer, a real professional. He’s never yet allowed more than three years to go by without getting out a new book since he began, back in the Fifties.

Q: What about Evan S. Connell?

A: All I’ve read of his work so far is Mrs. Bridge, which I thought was beautiful, and a number of excellent short stories, but I know he’s produced a large body of fiction that’s much admired by people whose judgment I trust; so yes, sure, he too deserves to be much better known. Another excellent, underrated writer is Thomas Williams — or has he become well-established by now? If not, he ought to be. [Williams is best known for his 1975 National Book Award-winning novel, The Hair of Harold Roux

Q: Who do you consider some other good, neglected writers?

A: Read the four spendid books by Gina Berriault, if you can find them, and if you want to discover an absolutely first-class talent who has somehow been left almost entirely out of the mainstream. She hasn’t quit writing yet, either, and I hope she never will.

And read almost anything by R.V. Cassill, a brilliant and enormously productive man who’s been turning out novels and stories for twenty-five years or more, all the while building and sustaining a large influence on other writers as a teacher and critic. Oh, he’s always been well-known in what I guess you’d call literary circles, but he had to wait a long, long time before his most recent novel, Doctor Cobb’s Game, did bring him some widespread readership at last.

And George Garrett. I haven’t read very much of his work, but that’s at least partly because there’s so very much of it – and he too has remained largely unknown except among other writers. I guess his latest book [Latest in 1973, that is: The Death of the Fox, his long and ornate novel about Sir Walter Ralegh], like Cassill’s, did make something of a public splash at last, but that too was long overdue.

And Seymour Epstein — ever heard of him? I have read all of his work to date — five novels and a book of stories, all expertly crafted and immensely readable – yet he too seems to have been largely ignored so far.

But hell, this list could go on and on. This country’s loaded with good, badly neglected writers. Fred Chappell. Calvin Kentfield. Herbert Wilner. Helen Hudson. Edward Hoagland. George Cuomo. Arthur J. Roth — those are only a few.

My God, if I’d produced as much good work as most of those people, with as little reward, I’d really feel qualified to rant and rail against the Literary Establishment.

Sightings: Neglected Books in Scotland

We spent the last couple of weeks in Scotland — a few days in Edinburgh and a week or so in the Highlands. Although not part of the agenda, neglected books cropped up on several occasions.

In a small bookshop near Edinburgh University, I found a few titles new to me:

The Seizure of Power, by Czeslaw Milosz

The Nobel Prize-winning poet’s first novel, about the Soviet-orchestrated establishment of a Communist government in Poland at the end of World War Two.

My Sinful Earth, by William Gerhardie

A copy from the 1947 “Uniform Edition” of Gerhardie’s works. One could hardly consider Gerhardie neglected in 1947 if he had a uniform edition of his works being published. However, among neglected authors Gerhardie is one of the hardiest perennials, coming back into critical bloom (and print) every decade or so. In an essay collected in Power of Delight, John Bayley writes that:

[Evelyn Waugh’s] favorite William Gerhardie novel was to be Jazz and Jasper. This almost forgotten work appeared in 1927, two years earlier than Vile Bodies. Its author wanted to call it Doom, a title not adopted until the 1974 edition. In 1947 it made a brief appearance as My Sinful Earth, and the 1928 American edition was called Eve’s Apples [in fact, it was Eva’s Apples — Ed.], the American publisher having decided, no doubt wisely, that the word “jazz” had been “worn threadbare” in crossing the Atlantic.

The Tragedy of the Korosko, by Arthur Conan Doyle

A short novel about the capture and rescue of a group of Western tourists by Muslim extremists. A remarkably contemporary book, reissued in 2003 as a Hesperus Classic.

The Life of Samuel Belet, C.F. Ramuz

An autobiographical novel. Ramuz is considered by many the greatest Swiss writer of the 20th century. His best-known book in English is When the Mountain Fell, which was a Book-of-the-Month club selection in 1947. Time magazine wrote of the novel, “U.S. readers will get here what few other recent books have given them — a genuine literary experience.”

Then, in the bookcase of the small house we rented in the Highlands, I came across a few more. Amongst the best-selling thrillers and romances one usually sees in such holiday rentals, I found some unexpected titles:

Assassins, by Nicholas Mosley

An early novel by this great English experimental writer, about the abduction of a diplomat’s daughter in the midst of a crucial summit meeting.

The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross

A collection of mostly autobiographical short stories by an Estonian writer recommended by Doris Lessing and others.

So Many Loves, by Leo Walmsley

The autobiography of a novelist best known for his books about life on the north Yorkshire coast. From the excerpts I read, it seemed a lively and entertaining tale, ranging from his apprenticeship on a fishing boat to travels through Africa.

The Ballad and the Source, by Rosamond Lehmann

In this 1944 novel, Lehmann tells the story of Sibyl Jardine — her unhappy marriage, her flight from it, her life as a single mother, and the descent of her daughter into mental illness.

Underappreciated Literature: from WNYC’s “Leonard Lopate Show”

Source: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/underappreciated.html

During July and August 2006, WNYC’s “Leonard Lopate Show” devotes time to a series of features on “authors that are little-known in America, authors that mysteriously fell out of fashion, and authors who never gained wide recognition in the first place.” Authors discussed include:

The programs can be heard or downloaded in MP3 format at the link above.

Eland Books added to Publishers page

Just added to the Publishers page:

Eland Books, on the web at www.travelbooks.co.uk

Owned and run by travel writers John Hatt, Rose Baring, and Barnaby Rogerson, Eland “specializes in keeping the classics of travel literature in print.” Although its list has well under a hundred titles, Eland easily takes the first place award when it comes to bringing long-lost travel books of particular excellence back to print. And the quality and diversity of its titles is remarkable: Norman Lewis’ A Dragon Apparent, excerpted here; Leonard Woolf’s novel of Sri Lanka, The Village in the Jungle; and the intriguingly-titled A Cure for Serpents, Alberto di Pirajno’s memoir of life in Ethiopia and Libya (during the periods of Mussolini-led colonisation).

Doris Lessing added to Sources

In Time Bites, a 2004 collection of book reviews and essays — her first published collection of criticism — Doris Lessing discusses a good number of neglected books: by my count,easily a third of the titles covered qualify.

A list of these books and excerpts from her comments can now be found at the following new Sources page:

Doris Lessing

Lessing has often been a champion for lesser-known writers and their works. If one were to cull through the rest of Lessing’s criticism, I’m sure several dozen more titles could be collected.


Neglected book mentioned in Mental Floss magazine

In his article, “Judging a Book By Its Cover: 12 Book Designers Who Changed the Publishing Industry Forever,” in the May/June 2006 issue of Mental Floss magazine, Jason Tselentis recognizes a neglected book by Zelda Popkin, whose Time Off for Murder was recommended by Fay Blake in Writer’s Choice.

Tselentis singles out Popkin’s No Crime for a Lady not for its content but for its cover by designer Gerald Gregg. Of Gregg’s work, Tselentis writes,

When designer Chip Kidd cited many 1940s and 1950s paperbacks as influences to his work, he was no doubt referring to those of Dell Publishing. Founded in 1921 by a 27-year-old named George Delacourte, Dell gained success thanks to its racy and alluring paperback covers…. Having airbrushed hundreds of these using secretaries and cartographers as models, Gregg called his style, “a cominbation of graphic design and stylized realism.”

…. Usually scandalous, his covers resembled the film noir of that time period. Popkin’s mystery stories starred Mary Carner, one of the first female private eyes in detective novels; her character is rumored to have been the inspiration for Angela Lansbury’s character Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote.”

New List added to Sources: Robert Nedelkoff

A new list of neglected books added to Sources: Robert Nedelkoff.

Archivist Robert Nedelkoff, who’s written on neglected books for McSweeney’s and other magazines offered an even dozen recommendations to the Editor not long after this site opened.

Among these is Operators And Things by Barbara O’Brien, of which he writes,

When I came across an Ace paperback edition of this book, published in the early 1960s, I at first thought I was reading one of Philip K. Dick’s greatest achievements. It opens with a solemn introduction by a psychiatrist explaining that this is the story of a young woman who not only has managed to cure herself of schizophrenia, but has written well of the experience. The next chapter reads like a breezy magazine article about mental illness. Then we’re plunged into the story: a woman, apparently in her late 20s, wakes up to find three people standing by her bed: an old man, a boy, and a weird-looking, long-haired man. She is a “Thing,” an automaton, like most everyone else on earth. The old man has been her “Operator” – one of the handful of people who “own” and control everyone else on earth. He is handing her over to the control of the long-haired man, who has decided a) to make her aware of her status as a Thing and b) to have her walk away from her job and get on a Greyhound bus – the only way to go for a smart Operator, because the drivers are all Operators themselves and are contractually obligated not to interfere with the chattelship of Things. Then the book gets really unpredictable….

Valancourt Books added to Publishers

Just added to the Publishers page:

The Valancourt Books, www.valancourtbooks.com.

Founded by James D. Jenkins, Valancourt Books is named after the hero of The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe’s classic Gothic novel, and specializes in quality reprints of rare 18th and 19th century literature. It has launched three series:

  • Gothic Classics, which “exhumes great novels from the 18th and 19th centuries and endeavours to make them accessible to a new generation of readers.” “We strive,” writes the publisher, “to select the most important and entertaining books, and to reprint them in the most attractive and affordable editions possible. Each volume is newly designed, with stylish cover art, and each includes a new introduction and notes to put the work in context for 21st century readers.”

  • Irish Classics, which kicked off with a reissue of Bram Stoker’s The Snake’s Pass (1890), “Stoker’s first novel and his only book set in his native Ireland.” According to the publisher, “Future volumes in the series will feature works by Charles Maturin, Regina Maria Roche, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and others.”

  • Valancourt Classics, “which reprints the truly great books of the 18th and 19th centuries which for whatever reason have fallen out of print or been otherwise forgotten by the literary establishment. Each book in this series features an in depth introduction and extensive notes and appendices for modern readers, students, and scholars.” The first two books in this series are Ann Radcliffe’s Gaston de Blondeville (1826) and The Magic Ring (1825) by Baron de la Motte Fouqué.