The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft (1946)

The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft

Graham Greene once wrote that T. O. (Thomas Owen) Beachcroft was “likely to become, after Mr. H. E. Bates, the most distinguished short-story writer in this country.”

Well, this wasn’t one of his best predictions. Beachcroft’s last collection of stories was published over sixty years ago and his work has vanished, aside from a rare story included in an anthology. It’s hard to put one’s finger on just what led to this neglect, but a quick comparison with Bates–with whom he had much in common when it came to his choice of social classes and settings–reveals two obvious deficiencies: a lack of bestsellers and a lack of film and television adaptations. One reason that so much of Bates’ work is still in print is that his books–and particularly several of his novels–were popular with both the reading public and producers looking for source material. Beachcroft’s novels, on the other hand, gained little notice even when they first came out, and I suspect that there was enough similarity with Bates’ work that Beachcroft’s stories were just too easily to overlook. An excellent sample, The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft, however, can be found for free online at the Internet Archive (link).

Although Beachcroft came from a solidly middle-class background, attended Balliol, and worked in advertising and broadcasting, he was better at writing about the working class. He had a good ear for the dialogue of people used to pinching pennies and a different moral code from that of stolid Anglican churchgoers:

“Come on, Elsie,” said Phil, “don’t get behind. We’re nearly there.”
“I’ve dropped a parcel,” said Elsie.”
“Here,” said Phil, “give it me.”
He picked it up and took off the wrapping.
“Why,” he said, “it’s a kid’s motor, toy omnibus. What are all those parcels ? Can’t you leave ’em somewhere? What’s this motor for?”
“Why,” said Elsie, “I mustn’t lose that: that’s for my little Charlie–he’ll be ever so pleased to see that.”
“Your Charlie?” said Phil. “What do you—mean?”
“My little boy–I was taking all these toys home for him and the baby.
“You got two kids?”
“Yes–three years old, and ten months.”
“What the sweet hell?” began Phil, and stopped.
“Here,” he said, “take that glove off.” He snatched her hand.
“Oh, you’re hurting.”
“Hurtin’–you bitch: you ought to be killed. Look at that–married woman!”
from “A Glass of Stout”

He also knew that a life of work could be more than mere drudgery and mindless clock-punching. In “Busting Him One,” for example, his protagonist is a master mechanic with more respect for his machines than for the foreman who tries to maintain his authority through bullying and bravado:

He had a lathe in almost constant use, remaking, re-turning, regrinding, re-edging a number of the cutting and punching tools which shaped and stamped the tins as they went through. There were dozens of different patterns, and several sizes were needed on each machine, according to the thickness of the material and variations in speed and exact effect that was needed. This part of his work was highly skilled, and he had to know all the machines and all their tricks and habits backwards. It was his extra grasp of the complete work that all the machines in his shop were handling that had got him out of the line five years before: just as somewhere in an orchestra there’s one man who knows the whole score well enough to conduct a performance.

T. O. Beachcroft, 1947
Many of his stories take place at work, and the variety of jobs worked by Beachcroft’s characters demonstrates that his time in advertising had allowed him to get around to quite a number of settings, from white collar (doctor, cancer researcher, priest) to blue (publican, machinist, sailor, carpenter, farmer, soldier) and even to jobless (panhandler, homeless men). He knew the sight of men coming home from a day working in the fields: “… brown and yellow and gnarled. They looked like roots and tubers freshly taken from the ground, with the earth still clinging to them.”

And he knew the same England that Orwell described in The Road to Wigan Pier, the England of bleak economic and spiritual depression:

Then he saw the wheeling shadow of the hard times swing across his town and settle on men’s homes like a blight. The hungry thousands with sunken eyes and faces pressed round and called to him–from cheap dosses and cheerless wards and crypts that took in the destitute, from the open, from doorsteps and prison cells where they had been scattered. And he felt his own life merge into the lives of the many thousands of men like him: once whole, and now broken.

Perhaps what condemned Beachcroft to neglect was what he was best at: simple, undemonstrative stories told in subtle shades, rather than dramatic effects or social causes. As poet and novelist Stevie Smith wrote of one of his later collections, “Simplicity is the word for Mr. Beachcroft’s stories, but it is a poet’s simplicity, the most subtle in the world.” Such simplicity, sadly, may take infinite care to create, but can also be too easy to take any notice of. And so T. O. Beachcroft joins the ranks of such neglected masters as Anne Goodwin Winslow, Isabel Bolton, John Guest, Herbert Clyde Lewis, and dozens of others mentioned on this site.


The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft
London: John Lane – The Bodley Head, 1946

Tomato Cain and Other Stories, by Nigel Kneale (1949)

Nigel Kneale is best known now for his novels and screenplays featuring the alien-battling scientist, Dr. Quartermass, but his first book, the collection Tomato Cain and Other Stories was considered remarkable enough to merit a foreword by Elizabeth Bowen:

Within the last few years, readers have become less shy of the short story. That this form of fiction is also a form of art had fairly long ago been recognised; what is more important, from the point of view of popular favour, is that the high potential of entertainment in a good collection of stories may now be seen. There exists, too, a growing body of people who no longer turn to a book in search of “escape” but are genuinely interested in writing—who value craftsmanship and react to originality. To such readers, the short story—in its present rather fascinating position half-way between tradition and experiment—must particularly appeal.

The experimentary story-writer, lately, has in fact been given a good deal of rope: that the best use has invariably been made of this I cannot say. There has been a danger that, because of its literary privilege, the short story might fall under a certain literary blight, and become an example of too much prose draped around an insufficiently vital feeling or a trumped-up, insufficiently strong idea. The declared reaction against plot —as constraining, rigid or artificial—was once good up to a point, but possibly went too far: the fact that a story must be a story was overlooked. There are now
signs of an equally strong (and, I think, healthy) reaction against plotlessness. Of this Nigel Kneale’s stories are symptomatic.

Indeed, in one sense, these tales in Tomato Cain show a return to the great main stream of the English story tradition—with which one associates Kipling, Wells, Saki, Somerset Maugham. When I say that Nigel Kneale’s stories have plot, I mean that they make their effect by the traditional elements of invention, tension, a certain amazement and, ultimately, surprise. Like his great predecessors, he is impersonal, not using his art either for self-expression or exhibition. His art is the art of narration—the world’s oldest. He knows how to rouse interest; and, which is still rarer, knows how to hold it. He is adept to giving a situation a ?nal twist. These Tomato Cain stories vary in quality, as stories in any collection must; but, personally, I ?nd the author guilty of not one single story which bogs down.

The writer of stories of this type must be bold; he disdains the shelter of ambiguity; it is essential that each of his pieces should come off. He is gambling—in an honourable sense, for are not Kipling, Wells, Saki, Somerset Maugham gamblers also?—on the originality of his imagination, on his power to grip, on the persuasiveness of his manner of story-telling. It might be too much to say that all the world’s classic stories have had an element of the preposterous about them; one might safely say that any memorable story carried something which had to be put across. A part of the fascination of Nigel Kneale’s story-telling is that he takes long chances ; a part of the satisfaction of it is that in almost all cases he justifies the risks.

This writer is a young Manxman. He has grown up in, and infuses into his stories, an atmosphere which one can cut with a knife. He is not dependent on regionalism—not all of his work has an Isle of Man setting—but it would appear that he draws strength from it: his work at its best has the ?avour, raciness, “body” that one associates with the best of the output from Ireland, Wales, Brittany, and the more remote, untouched and primitive of the States of America. He turns for his inspiration to creeks in which life runs deep, to pockets in which life accumulates, deeply queer. Is the Talking Mongoose a sore subject with the Isle of Man? That interesting animal—of which the investigations of the late Harry Price never entirely disposed—might well be the denizen of a Nigel Kneale story. Has he not made frogs avengers; has he not made a deformed duck a tragedian?

In far-of days [he says, at the opening of “The Tarroo-Ushtey”] before the preachers and the school-masters came, the island held a good many creatures besides people and beasts. The place swarmed with monsters. A man would think twice before answering his cottage door on a windy night, in dread of a visit from his own ghost. The high mountain roads rang in the darkness with the thunderous tiffs of the bugganes, which had unspeakable shapes and heads bigger than houses; while a walk along the seashore after the sun had set was to invite the misty appearance of a tarroo-ushtey, in the likeness of a monstrous bull. . . . At harvest-time the hairy trollman, the phynodderee, might come springing out of his elderberry tree to assist the reaping, to the farmer’s dismay; for the best-intentioned of the beings were no more helpful than interfering neighbours. . . .

This is the background atmosphere of one group of Kneale’s stories; call them the local pieces. “Tomato Cain” itself, “The Excursion,” and “The Putting-away of Uncle Quaggin” have (for instance) a naturalism not unworthy of Maupassant : the supernatural never raises its head, but eminent human queerness is at its height.

It is the function of every emerging writer to create, and stamp, his own universe. This Nigel Kneale has done. In his universe, love, in the sentimental or social sense, plays almost no part; but the passions stalk like those island monsters. Like the unfortunate bungalow in “Minuke,” his characters are wrenched and battered and heaved up. What is remarkable, given the themes of many of the stories, is that the writer so seldom—if, indeed, ever ?—crosses the bounds into extravagance; his forte is a sort of control, restraint. His Quiet Mr. Evans, tale of an injured husband’s revenge in a ?sh-and-chip shop, threatens at one point to approach in horror H. G. Wells’ “The Cone,” but the last twist gives a pathetic-ironic end. It would be fair to say that his children and animal stories, with their focus on suffering
(e.g. “The Photagraph,” “Oh, Mirror, Mirror,” “The Stocking,” Flo,” and the semi-fantastic “Curphey’s Follower”) most dangerously approach the unbearable. It may, however, be found that Nigel Kneale knows how to relax any too great realism at the saving moment.

To the sheer build, to the something better than ingenuity of the best of the stories, attention should be drawn. “Peg” and “Bini and Bettine” would seem to me to be masterpieces in a genre particularly this writer’s own. This is a ?rst book: Nigel Kneale is at the opening of his career ; he is still making a trial of his powers. To an older writer, the just not overcrowded effect of inventive richness, the suggestion of potentialities still to be explored, and of alternatives pending, cannot but be attractive. That the general reader will react to Nigel Kneale’s stories, and that the perceptive reader will relish
what in new in his contribution to ?ction, I feel sure.

Bowen’s comparison of Kneale and Maugham proved prophetic, as Tomato Cain went on to be selected as the Somerset Maugham Award winner for 1950. It’s been out of print for decades, but if you can read Scots Gaelic, you can find it in print as Paart Dy Skeealyn Elley in a translation published in 2014.


Tomato Cain and Other Stories, by Nigel Kneale
London: Collins, 1949

The Door in the Wall, by Oliver La Farge (1966)

I picked out a yellow-jacketed copy of Oliver La Farge’s posthumous collection of short stories, The Door in the Wall, from a striking display in the window of Any Amount of Books, one of the few remaining used bookstores on Charing Cross Road, when in London recently. I’ve never learned just why so many British publishers put out books with bright yellow paper dust jackets in the 1950s and 1960s, but someone in the store had the bright (sorry) idea to collect a couple dozen of them and put them together on a display in one of their windows. Still on the hunt for short story collections, I spotted and quickly grabbed this book, La Farge’s third, published by Victor Gollancz in the U.K. and by Houghton Mifflin in the U.S..

The La Farge family’s contributions can be found all over the records of U. S. cultural history. His grandfather John La Farge was a distinguished painter and muralist; his father Christopher was part of one of the prominent architectural firms that shaped the face of American downtowns around the turn of the last century; his brother Christopher guaranteed his place in neglected American literature with a series of verse novels; and his son Peter was one of Dylan’s generation of American folksingers. And if that wasn’t enough, La Farge was named for his great-great-grandfather, the naval hero of the War of 1815, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.

Yet Oliver La Farge was never one to rest on his family laurels. Instead, he early on discovered a passion for anthropology, and in particular for the native Americans of the Southwest. In his foreword to this collection, La Farge’s New Yorker editor, recalls visiting the writer at his home in Santa Clara, New Mexico, where La Farge had immersed himself in Hopi and Navaho culture. La Farge’s first novel, Laughing Boy (1929), a Pulitzer Prize winner, was set in the Najaho territories in New Mexico, and he remained an advocate for their rights, even serving as president of the Association of American Indian Affairs in the mid-1950s. You can see a video clip of La Farge as spokesman for the Association from the Longines Chronoscope on YouTube (link). (Indeed, the first story in the collection, “The Creation of John Mandeville,” make a passing reference to the horrific experience that David Grann recently chronicled in his best-selling Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI: “Bill asked why the Indians wouldn’t sell their oil, and Applegate said it was partly that they knew what oil had done to some of the Oklahoma Indians….”)

Anthropology and the study of native peoples of the Americas is at the heart of The Door in the Wall. La Farge’s protagonists are almost all anthropologists and academics, drawn to field work and usually never less than half-frustrated when cooped up in a classroom or office. As such, the whole tone of this book could strike some readers as dry or even dessicated. They are men (exclusively) who are driven more by intellectual curiosity (and sometimes superiority) than by emotion, and not one of them would ever be likely to utter the words, “I feel …” unless they really meant to say, “I think ….”

But they were also men whose work depended upon their ability to keep their eyes and ears (and minds) open. Maxwell recalls La Farge telling him,

You can behave very much as you would anywhere else–with certain limitations. It goes without saying that you don’t ask questions about tribal customs and ceremonies. And since they don’t know you, I think it is probably a good idea not to ask questions at all. Keep your eyes open, and see what there is to see. And don’t try to charm them. It throws them off balance if you rush in and try to make friends with them immediately…. So you wait. You don’t do anything until they have had a chance to sense who you are, the aura around you.

For my part, I liked them and the book. It fed a certain nostalgia I have for a time when a show with a name like “Longines Chronoscope” could take up air time with a geeky guy in glasses like Oliver La Farge explaining and defending the interests of people with almost no political or economic power or influence whatsoever. La Farge was not naive, and he would never pretend that selflessness isn’t often a flimsy cover for selfishness and ego. And he was not blind to considerations that are just now getting the attention they deserve: “His tone made what he told of himself seem unusually intimate and she knew, as a woman can know, that there was only a narrow line between that intimacy and another that she did not want at all.” I mean–just how La Farge expressed this shows a combination of insight and discretion that makes me wish we had a few more grown-ups like him around today.


The Door in the Wall, by Oliver La Farge
New York City: Houghton Mifflin, 1966

Vertical and Horizontal, by Lillian Ross (1963)

Covers from various editions of “Vertical and Horizontal” by Lillian Ross

Lillian Ross’s death at the venerable age of 99 has been widely noted, starting with Rebecca Mead’s obituary in Ross’s beloved The New Yorker. A number of her more successful books, including Portrait of Hemingway, have been reprinted in recent years and I suspect more will follow now. Less likely to be reissued is her one foray into fiction, Vertical and Horizontal (1963), which has been variously described as a novel or a collection of short stories.

Vertical and Horizontal portrays a world that some of us thought only existing in Woody Allen’s jokes: the classical Freudian psychoanalyst whose office on the Upper West Side, complete with couch, sees a recurring cast of patients whose treatment plays out, several times a week, for years at great expense and, perhaps, to some therapeutic benefit. In nine stories, all previously published in The New Yorker, Ross shows the handsome and much-sought-after bachelor, Dr. Spencer Fifield, and his mentor, Dr. Blauberman.

Fellow The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean called Ross “the consummate reporter, listener and observer,” and Vertical and Horizontal often shows off Ross’s remarkable ear for voices. As in this description of how people laugh at a cocktail party:

“You’ll love this! Tell him, Soph!”

“The latest on why people in Great Neck aren’t building any fallout shelters,” Sophie said.

“This’ll kill you!” Freisleben shouted.

“Because they figure they won’t need them,” Sophie said. “They figure if war comes the men will all be at their offices in New York, the women will all be out shopping, the kids will be in school. So why build? For the help?”

Everybody laughed the same kind of laugh, united and exact, a laugh that was divided clearly into two parts, two syllables–an “ah” that went uphill quickly moving into a knowing “hah.”

Critic Granville Hicks felt that “one could only judge” Vertical and Horizontal “harshly as a novel, whereas the stories as stories are fine,” and, indeed, two of the nine stories are only loosely connected with the rest. He described Fifield and Blauberman as walking compendia of “breezy attitudes, pseudo-clinical jargon and second-hand upmanship.” Playwright Edward Albee was even blunter: “Both men are near-monsters. They are hollow men; they are insensitive, small, mean, are amoral; they are climbers, these men, and it is their effect on each other, and on the people whose lives touch theirs, that is the core of the book.”

Yet, Albee wrote,

… the most astonishing thing about Vertical and Horizontal and the most extraordinary of Lillian Ross’s enormous gifts, is that we care. Spencer Fifield is, for lack of a better word, the hero of the book, and we truly care about this man, about this hollow, hopeless man, and we care because Miss Ross makes us see that he is helpless–the monster is victim, that the hopeless man cries out hopelessly, that the emptiness can never be filled, only circumscribed, that the most miserable of men, the man who knows he suffers but cannot grasp his suffering, cannot feel it, is not any less a human being, only a much sadder one.

It is Miss Ross’s compassion that surfaces. Without it, the book would be cold, cruel, and distasteful. With it, the book is a triumph.


Vertical and Horizontal, by Lillian Ross
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963

The Third Reich of Dreams, by Charlotte Beradt (1968)

Cover of 1968 Quadrangle Books edition of 'The Third Reich of Dreams'
Robert Ley, head of the German Labour Front under Hitler, once said, “The only person in Germany who still leads a private life is the person who sleeps.” In The Third Reich of Dreams, Charlotte Beradt proves that Ley underestimated the power of his own regime over the people’s unconscious.

Working quietly and covertly, through an understandably informal network of acquaintances, journalist Charlotte Beradt began collecting accounts of dreams involving the Nazis soon after Hitler assumed power as Reich Chancellor in January 1933. Unable to work due to her association with the Communist Party, Beradt took numerous precautions to prevent the disclosure of her project, smuggling out bits and pieces of her notes in letters to friends and hiding them in her apartment. By the time she and her second husband, the lawyer and novelist Martin Beradt, fled Germany in 1939, she had recorded over 300 such accounts.

She collected and analyzed roughly fifty of these in the short book, Das Dritte Reich des Traums over twenty-five years later, in 1966. Translated into English, it was published, with an afterword by psychologist and concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim, as The Third Reich of Dreams by Quadrangle Books in 1968. As Bettelheim writes, “This is not just a volume of dreams but one of cautionary tales. They warn us about how strong are the tendencies of the unconscious, when we are torn by anxieties, to believe in the omnipotent external power. It is this, our anxiety, on which the success of all totalitarian systems is built.”

Beradt was, of course, familiar with the works of Franz Kafka, and more than a few of the dreams she recounts are Kafka-esque nightmares:

In place of the street signs which had been abolished, posters had been set up on every corner, proclaiming in white letters on a black background the twenty words people were not allowed to say. The first was “Lord”–to be on the safe side I must have dreamt it in English. I don’t recall the following words and possibly didn’t even dream them, but the last one was “I.”

As in many of Kafka’s stories, Nazi power was perceived by Beradt’s dreamers as blind, irrational, omnipotent, and omnipresent. One doctor told her that he dreamed he was reading in his apartment when the walls around him suddenly disappeared. Suddenly, from the street outside, a loudspeaker boomed, “According to the decree of the 17th of this month on the Abolition of Walls….”

Other dreams evoke memories of Orwell’s 1984. Beradt tells of the dream of a man who had spoken with his brother on the telephone earlier that day. Having taken the precaution to praise Hitler in his conversation, he later let slip the remark that “Nothing gives me pleasure anymore.” Later, he told Beradt, he dreamt:

In the middle of the night the telephone rang. A dull voice said merely, “This is the Monitoring Office.” I knew immediately that my crime lay in what I had said about not finding pleasure in anything, and I found myself arguing my case, begging and pleading that this one time I be forgiven–please just don’t report anything this one time, don’t pass it on, please just forget it. The voice remained absolutely silent and then hung up without a word, leaving me in agonizing uncertainty.

The man recalled inventing numerous bureaucratic entities in his dreams, including the “Training Center for the Wall-Installation of Listening Devices,” and regulations such one “Prohibiting Residual Bourgeois Tendencies Among Municipal Employees.” As with the citizens of Orwell’s Airstrip One, Beradt’s dreamers lived “from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overhead, and, except in darkness, every move scrutinized.”

In one dream Beradt collected, a woman saw Hitler being pulled from the Reichstag by airplane with a lasso, taken out over the North Sea, and dropped into the water. But among Beradt’s dreams, acts of resistance in dreams were exceptionally rare. Instead, the power of the regime to erase the sense of self was pervasive. One young woman recalled seeing banners with the slogan, “Public Interest Comes Before Self-Interest” fluttering in endless repetition along a street.

As Bettelheim writes, “Under a system of terror we must purge even our unconscious mind of any desire to fight back, or any belief that such rebellion can succeed, because therein alone lies safety.” In its most extreme form, the power of the Nazi regime over the unconscious prohibited any form of realism. One man told Beradt, “I dreamt that I no longer dream about anything but rectangles, triangles, and octagons….”

By far, the dreams themselves are the most interesting parts of The Third Reich of Dreams. I found much of Beradt’s commentary awkwardly written, and it would have been fascinating to learn more about her process of collecting the accounts and getting them out of Nazi Germany successfully. However, though long out of print, it remains an eloquent testimony to the psychological power of a totalitarian state. As theologian Paul Tillich wrote, reflecting on how slowly he came to realize the impact of Hitler’s control over the German people, “In my conscious time I felt that we could escape the worst, but my subconscious knew better.”


The Third Reich of Dreams, by Charlotte Beradt, translated from the German by Adriane Gottwald
Chicago, Illinois: Quadrangle Books, 1968

The Cucumber King and Other Stories, by Edwin Samuel (1965)

I’m pretty sure this is the first book written by a member of the House of Lords I’ve included on this site. I came across The Cucumber King and Other Stories while looking for short story collections on the Open Library, and downloaded a copy to my tablet. I had no idea who Edwin Samuel was, and it was only when preparing this piece that I discovered that he was, in fact, better known as Edwin Samuel, 2nd Viscount Samuel. Not just a member of the House of Lords but an officer in the Jewish Legion in World War One who’d had Private David Ben-Gurion serving under him, and a long-time administrator of British Palestine. And he’d written four collections of short stories, starting with A Cottage in Galilee (1958) and continuing on to My Friend Musa (1963), The Cucumber King (1965), and finishing with The Man Who Liked Cats (1974).

After finishing another book on a recent flight, that I opened the file with Samuel’s book–for no better reason than that it was the next one listed–and began to read. The book opens with “The Cucumber King,” in which a fat and powerful Hollywood producer and his starlet third wife visit the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Although ostensibly on vacation, the producer has no idea how to properly relax, and so has brought along a film crew to help make a home movie to die for of their trip. Samuel clearly agrees with Blake that a lovely bird in a cage “puts all Heaven in a rage,” and manages to give the producer a just reward and leave the wife in the arms of a handsome and gentle Cambodian man.

The exotic setting and black humor of “The Cucumber King” reminded me of a number of Graham Greene’s short stories, as did a good share of the rest of Samuel’s stories. Like Greene, he clearly seems to have done his share of globe-trotting, as his settings range everywhere from Tokyo and Shanghai to the Middle East and Italy to London, Ireland, and New York City. He’s also comfortable with travel through time and space, taking us to “Israel in the Year 2000 A.D” (spoiler alert–no Internet, mobile phones, or Hamas) and the waiting room for Heaven.

Samuel’s taste in fiction tends toward the humorous, although with more than an occasional appetite for bitter irony and poetic justice. Death pops up on a regular basis and Samuel is not at all reluctant to shove one of his characters in front of an oncoming train to make his point. In “The Man Who Was Too Late,” Samuel leaves a fellow member of the House of Lords reflecting on the positive points of his death: “Perhaps it is lucky that I’ve now been run over by a taxi and killed–in my 64th year. Better than lingering on, with a small pension, but no wife or children or grandchildren.” As he wait for the angel to fetch his raiments, Lord FitzHugh ponders what to expect of Heaven:

Presumably, once I get beyond the Pearly Gates, it’ll be quite different. Rather splendid, in fact, in compensation for all that we’ve had to suffer on earth. I do wonder what Heaven will be like. The ardent believers, especially in earlier times, were quite sure they’d find a beautiful landscape, always sunny and warm —not too warm, I hope; I’ve had my fill of that in the tropics–with green lawns and shady trees, the murmur of a waterfall, soft music, good food—what a relief after that terrible cooking in East Africa. Some nice people, I hope–beautiful women, like this Angel, for example–after all those frightful Colonial wives. A few interesting men, too; not those awful Sports Club bores in Nairobi.

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in The Cucumber King. They are a fine combination of British attitudes and rituals, exotic settings, and a rich sense that God has more than a few good laughs at our expense. On the other hand, they are also more like the sort of thing you might find in Collier’s or The Saturday Evening Post–if they’d published stories written by a British Jew: magazine fiction, in other words, which means a good story, a touch of novelty, but nothing too unsettling to one’s sense that whatever might be wrong with the world can be put right with a gin and tonic.


The Cucumber King and Other Stories, by Edwin Samuel
London/New York/Toronto: Abelard-Schuman, 1956

The Goodby People, by Gavin Lambert (1971)

Cover of first US editiion of 'The Goodby People'In my post on Gavin Lambert’s 1959 book, The Slide Area, I wrote that the character sketch was his forte, and the best proof of that is The Goodby People (spelled “Goodbye” in all subsequent reissues). In it, Lambert puts all his talents into crafting three remarkable portraits: Susan Ross, a one-time model and widow of a wealthy movie producer and businessman; Gary Carson, a draft dodging golden boy making his way through the world one bed at a time; and Lora Chase, a long-faded yet legendary actress–sort of a Greta Garbo–who attracts as an unlikely follower a young, blonde, motorcycle-riding woman.

As in The Slide Area, the challenge is that these characters from the fringes of the movie world, are well-practiced in adapting themselves to the expectations of those around them and hence, somewhat at a loss to know just who they are themselves. Born in Arizona and raised in Nebraska, Susan Ross takes on the look of a sleek, beautiful woman, a sophisticate accustomed from birth to the finer things. She marries a man the opposite of her sun-leathered, taciturn father: “He had a dry disenchanted humor, a fascinating inside knowledge of shady political deals and the secrets of the Pentagon and the FBI, and that aura of joylessness which surrounds so many rich, powerful and clever people and makes them truly dangerous.”

When her husband dies, Susan has money, influence, and reputation enough to carry her in luxury to her last days. She throws enormous parties at the spectacular home she has inherited: “I saw Susan surrounded by all the sons of the millionaires, and a movie actor with long sideburns, and I think a rock group, and various girls. She sat on a high-backed chair and it looked like a throne.” Unfortunately, as a widow and not a wife, as a former model and not a model, and as a farm girl long gone from the farm, she has, as the narrator puts it, “no tribe.” Finally, she builds a stark modernist house high on a ridge above Malibu and retreats there to study self-consciousness. “It’s a perfect place, up here,” she tells the narrator when he calls to check on her. “I’ve come to realize the mind can achieve anything so long as reality doesn’t get in its way.”

The narrator–as in The Slide Area something of a stand-in for Lambert himself, only this time ready to acknowledge his homosexuality–meets Gary Carson through a friend, an aimless heir whose hobby is “sheltering young wanderers and fugitives.” A year or so later, he calls up the narrator and invites his way into the man’s bed. “I am never seduced,” he later remarks.

Gary, it becomes clear, is without prejudice when it comes to his partners. Looking through the young man’s luggage, the narrator finds a bundle of letters:

Kept neatly in their envelopes and packaged together with a rubber band, they were notes from about thirty different people, all over the last two years. He’d apparently had brief affairs with most of them; the rest made offers…. They came from a French girl at the Sorbonne, another who was a model, the male secretary of an Italian industrialist, the wife of the same industrialist, a movie actress in Rome who’d had a walk-on in a Fellini film, a girl once quite well known in Hollywood movies and now married to an English producer, from whom there was also a letter. Gary had apparently spent a month with the wife in St. Tropez and ten days with the husband in Tangier.

Gary at one point refers to himself as “A blank envelope. But, address it, and it’s just another bill, or a love letter.” After a short spell living with the narrator, enjoying the attention, fine wines, and cultural refinements, Gary moves on, disappearing for a while. “He was never quite here, was he?,” friends ask. In keeping with the times, when Gary makes contact again, he is living in the hills outside L. A., part of a small cult family gathered around a would-be Jesus going by the name “Godson.” When the narrator asks Gary whether he ever worries about being arrested for draft evasion, Gary shakes his head: “That’s the future, and it doesn’t exist.” In other words, his quest is not to find himself, but to leave his past and ties to his identity behind.

In a brief epilogue, the narrator overhears a conversation between one of his friends, a very successful screenwriter on the prowl, and a young woman who’s been stranded at his house in Malibu: “Is there anyone you should call, Frances? Anyone who’ll be wondering where you are?” “No. There’s no one in the world,” she replies. Lambert leaves the reader to wonder: are these people saying goodbye to the worlds they came from? Or have their worlds said goodbye to them? The Goodby People is itself a sad farewell to the optimism that briefly lit up the initial innocence of flower power, sexual liberation, and the swinging Sixties.


The Goodby People, by Gavin Lambert
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971

The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert (1959)

“The action begins just before Christmas 1956 and ends two years later,” Gavin Lambert writes at the The Slide Area. From that, a reader could easily conclude that the book is a novel, and, indeed, Lambert refers to his stories as “sections.” I’m not sure that it makes much of a different whether one labels The Slide Area as short story collection or novel. It’s a marvellously well-written work of fiction regardless how it’s categorized.

As anyone who’s lived in Los Angeles knows, the city sits on the wrong side of a great geological fault line and its hills aren’t much more than temporarily-stabilized piles of earth and rock and have a tendency to fall away in great hunks with little notice, taking with them the big, showy, and expensive houses built along their flanks and ridges. So L. A. residents get used to seeing “Slide Area” signs, usually surrounded by scattered chunks of dirt offering hints of things to come. What goes up must come down–and afterwards, there’s room to erect yet another showcase home.

In much the same way, L. A. residents get used to see people falling from great heights while others are fighting their way up. The Slide Area is filled with such stories. There is the Countess Osterberg-Steblechi, “a great aristocratic wreck,” “a balloon blown up into roughly human shape and ready to burst.” But she has enough cash still left to entice her hangers-on to stage, in “The End of the Line,” a grand tour of the Continent that never actually takes her beyond the confines of her living room. It’s a cleverly-told tale but by far the weakest in the book, the closest Lambert ever comes to a stock magazine short story.

His forte is the character sketch. But in Lambert’s case, his characters are as shifting and unstable as ground they walk upon. They aspire to leave Nebraska or Oklahoma or Colorado behind, change their names, change their looks, lose their histories, and become what everyone else wants to be. Of Julie Forbes, a Joan Crawford/Bette Davis-like eternal star, coming into her living room as if walking onto a stage, he writes,

Her skin was golden, her figure trim and pliant as a young girl’s. She had been created a moment ago. There was no childhood, no past, nothing. I thought of a joke about the mortuaries in California: they supply human ashes to cannibals in the South Seas, who make them flesh by adding water. Instant people, like instant coffee. Julie Forbes, I decided, was an instant person. That must be her secret. Every few years she was reduced to ashes, then reconstituted in a new form. Different. Shining. Instant.

And of all Lambert’s characters, perhaps the greatest is Los Angeles itself. The Slide Area is studded with some of the best writing about L. A. ever put on paper:

Los Angeles is not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes….

How to grasp something unfinished yet always remodelling itself, changing without a basis for change? So much visible impatience to be born, to grow, such wild tracts of space to be filled: difficult to settle in a comfortable unfinished desert. Because of the long confusing distances, the streets are empty of walking people, full of moving cars. Between where you are and where you are going to be is a no-man’s land. At night the neon signs glitter and the shop windows are lighted stages, but hardly anyone stops to look. A few people huddle at coffee stalls and hamburger bars. Those dark flat areas are parking lots, crammed solid.

The city itself is a mirror of the constant metamorphosis of inhabitants. And, of course, the combination of shape-shifting people and ever-remodelling city creates a reality that’s almost unreal. Looking down upon the city from high on one of its unstable hills, one of Lambert’s characters observes, “Looking down on the straight intersecting lines of pink and yellow and green is like finding a vast abstract painting laid out on the earth. It has nothing at all to do with living.”

When I first read The Slide Area about four years ago, I dog-eared at least two dozen pages featuring this sort of striking writing, and reading it again recently, I dog-eared at least a couple dozen more. Indeed, I could easily just fill this piece with quotes from the book. Although best known for his novel, Inside Daisy Clover, which was made into an even better-known movie starring Natalie Wood, “Inside Daisy Clover”, Lambert deserves to be recognized for The Slide Area, which ranks with The Last Tycoon, The Day of the Locust, and anything Raymond Chandler ever wrote about Los Angeles.


The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959

Collected Stories, by Viola Meynell (1957)

Cover of 'Collected Stories" by Viola MeynellViola Meynell worked hard as a writer all her adult life, publishing short stories, novels, and nonfiction to critical acclaim, steady if not exceptional sales, and the respect of her peers, helped support D. H. Lawrence in hard times and brought Moby Dick back to recognition as a classic, and helped her husband run a productive farm in Sussex. And for all that, she hasn’t got a single book in print today.

Collected Stories, which Meynell was helping to edit when she died in October 1956, offers perhaps the best introduction to her work. These 17 stories, compiled from previous collections–Young Mrs. Cruse (1925); Kissing the Rod, and Other Stories (1937); First Love and Other Stories (1947); and Louise and Other Stories (1954)–as well as several stories published in The New Yorker a year or so before her death. As an anonymous reviewer once wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “The delicate and assured talent of Viola Meynell is admirably suited to the short-story form. Dealing in qualities and emotions which it would be easy to overemphasize in a novel, she is discreetly content with the brevity suited to a fragment of the truth.”

Some of the stories are not much more than fragments. In “Compassionate Leave,” a wife works out with her husband what to write to tell their son he will have to come to tend the farm because the father has fallen and shattered his leg. “Half of a Bargain” is nothing more than a few pages of dialogue between husband and wife, along with a few glimpses into their thoughts–but enough to show us the gulf separating them:

“Oh–surely–isn’t it something you could possibly put off?”

He hesitated. If he had had anything special to do he might have put it off. It was all the infinite chances that attended him on his rounds that he could not give up–the casual encounters, the attractive bits of business cropping up at odd turns, the knack of finding the way to where there was most to be gained, which made his daily life a pleasant adventure. One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.

“One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.” That is just the sort of fine observation one finds throughout this collection. A fellow neglected short story writer, Elizabeth Bibesco, once wrote that, “With Miss Meynell, you find yourself continually loitering over a phrase. You walk into a word as you might walk into a patch of sunlight.” As in this passage from “The Letter,” in which a pregnant farm girl being hounded by her parents to write to the man responsible walks through a morning field: “She had not walked far through the first field before each of her ankles was bound round and round with threads of moist cobweb, spun between one stalk and another. If those threads had been cords, she would have been a close prisoner, neatly caught and fastened up. But as it was she went idly through the stubble, unconscious that with each step she was bursting bonds, dragging chains, and escaping a thousand prisons.”

“This art is built straight upon reality, reality observed with such precision that perception not usually given to the physical eye seems to be involved,” Louise Bogan wrote in a review of Young Mrs. Cruse. She “notices the gestures, the inflections, the turns in manner and speech by which people betray themselves, the slight signs which Ibsen marked, from behind his unread newspaper, during long hours in cafes.” Bogan was a great fan of Meynell’s work and often recommended it to her acquaintances. “It is at first difficult to understand Bogan’s high opinion of Meynell,” Elizabeth Frank writes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Louise Bogan: A Portrait:

… whose ordinary, middle-class characters are immersed in utterly quotidian lives. The novels are singularly free of melodrama, plottiness, and contrived effects. Not even the faintest trace of social criticism or political awareness invests the page. Yet it is just this fidelity to the domestic and insular scale of her characters’ lives that allows her to render them with great psychological keenness and extraordinary warmth and intuition.

In some stories, the lives she depicts are, in Thoreau’s words, ones of quiet desperation. In “Diminuendo,” a woman driving home with her husband through a bitter winter night finds in her thoughts a moment of happiness. “It was the kind of happiness allowed to a diminished life, the happiness of the wretchedest woman on earth.” In others, Meynell reveals comedy with the lightest touch:

The Butts were staying with the Longstaffes–very successfully too. It was not one of those plans, hearty in origin, which are wished at an end almost as soon as they have begun. The tensions which can exist when a middle-aged couple forsake their own surroundings to go visiting, and when another middle-aged couple are invaded in their Englishman’s castle, did not arise.

It might be only a small thing, but it so happened that four armchairs of absolutely equal comfort and accessibility to the fire–for it was winter–were part of the equipment of the living-room. Here no one usurped, no one was dethroned. Also there was no false delicacy about the necessity to be always on parade as hosts and guests. In those four armchairs could sit four people with four books, silent and separate, congratulating themselves that among less sensible people a futile stream of remarks might have been considered essential.

It’s ironic that Meynell’s very last stories were published in The New Yorker, for her technique and tone were consistent with what some have called The New Yorker formula: brief, spare anecdotes, really more sketches of incidents that tell the reader much about their characters while almost nothing seems to happen. Like a fine liqueur, however, in the hands of a master, even formulas can produce something consistently wonderful.


Collected Stories, by Viola Meynell
London: Max Reinhardt Limited, 1957

The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett (1966)

Cover of 'The Girl in the Black Raincoat'

Once upon a time, a student in one of George Garrett’s writing classes at the University of Virginia turned in a story about a girl in a black raincoat that was about a real girl in a black raincoat in the class. “It’s a good short story,” Garrett writes in the introduction to The Girl in the Black Raincoat, “but a lot of the class reacted unfavorably. It didn’t seem right to them to make fiction out of something so close and near.” In Garrett’s view, such a choice was neither right nor wrong but exemplary of the kind of choices creative artists always have to make.

So he set the whole class the assignment of writing a story or poem about girls in black raincoats. Soon after that, talk of the assignment went around the English department and spread out to a variety of Garrett’s friends and former students, and he started to get other stories about girls in black raincoats. It was kind of a game, “innocent and scoreless as Frisbee.” The rules were simple: there just had to be a girl in a black raincoat in the story or poem. Eventually, he had so much material that he decided to collect them into this anthology. “What little editing there was to do was in choices,” he writes in the introduction, “for there was far too much in the end to be in one book.” As for sequencing, Garrett took the arbitrary option of placing the stories in reverse alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

In this case, the arbitrariness of the whole exercise also proves serendipitous. As in many short story collections, a really good story may be followed by a forgettable one, but quality spikes up more often than down and there are no extended dull patches in the whole book. Also, Garrett’s contributors are a mix of recognized, unrecognized, and later-to-be-recognized names. Later Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mary Lee Settle contributed a sketch, “Paragraph,” only lightly adapted from her memoir, All the Brave Promises (1966). The journalist and historian William Manchester contributed a rare piece of fiction, “Out in the Crazy, All Alone,” a monologue by a sad, lonely, and slightly drunk young wife contemplating adultery. Novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote contributed what is basically an old dirty joke in a flimsy wrapper of fiction. Leslie Fiedler wrote Garrett saying he was too busy to contribute a story and then proceeded to write the first of the “Four Academic Parables” included here. William Jay Smith, later a Poet Laureate, offerded two poems and his soon-to-be ex-wife, the poet Barbara Howes, contributed “Roselma,” a far better fable than any of Fiedler’s:

Her name was Roselma Pantry, from Tiffin, Ohio, a slender girl of medium height, presumably pretty, but as she was never without her long black mackintosh, topped by a sort of snood or hood, one could not be sure. The textile industry might have despaired had they known of her, for she never sported a tweed or jaeger coat, or even silk or gabardine; she out-minked, or out-foxed, no one; winter and summer, night and day, she trotted up and down those gravel paths in the same black fabric–composed more likely in a test tube than on a loom. Nights, it gave off a faint phosphorescent sheen; once at a college dance she floated by in the arms of the French professor, but still in her black apparel, now unbelted, which under the bright chaperoning lights was near diaphanous.

UVA faculty and former students understandably predominate, including Annie Dillard (a poem, “The Affluent Beatnik”) and her first husband, R. H. W. Dillard (a story, “The Little Man with the Long Red Hair”), and later Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Henry S. Taylor (one of the best stories of the bunch, “And Bid a Fond Farewell to Tennessee”), as well as lesser-known alumni such as John Rodenbeck, later a translator and expert on Egyptian literature (a wonderful story of unsuccessful college romance, “Keep Your Eye on the Feet”).

“The raincoat girl in all her guises and disguises” is, as Garrett writes, “erratic, inconsistent, contradictory, sad, whimsical, mostly irrational and often marvelous. And so is The Girl in the Black Raincoat. I’ll take this arbitary anthology over any deliberate one any day of the week.


The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett
New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1966

The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale (1955)

Nancy Hale was one of The New Yorker’s most prolific short story writers and author of a numerous well-received novels, including the 1942 best-seller, The Prodigal Women — and yet today, she’s virtually forgotten. She didn’t have a Wikipedia article until I just wrote one and her only work in print is a small sample of stories, along with several appreciative essays on her work, in the obscure university press book, Nancy Hale: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master, published in 2012.

The only child of two artists, Philip Leslie Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale, granddaughter of the Rev. Edward Everett Hale, and great grand-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hale’s Boston Brahmin stock was of blue-plate quality. But she also came to maturity during the Roaring Twenties and soon after finishing school, she moved to New York City, where she quickly got a job working for Vogue magazine and, not long after that, snagged herself a handsome and well-to-do husband named Taylor Scott Hardin. She played the part of a Smart Set-er to the full, even parading down Fifth Avenue smoking a “torch of freedom” for PR pioneer Edward Bernays.

Hale went through husbands like shoes until she found the right fit with University of Virginia English professor Fredson Bowers and stayed with him for over 45 years, until her death in 1988. Hale settled easily into the life of a faculty wife in Charlottesville, and a fair number of her later short stories are set in and around the town.

If there is any unifying theme to her third collection of short stories, The Empress’s Ring (1955), it’s memory. But Hale has spent too much time in Manhattan to allow much room for the sentimental in her writing. In the story “The Place and the Time,” for example, the narrator decides to pull off the main highway while driving from Washington to Charlottesville and drive around Starkeyville, a quiet little Virginia town where his first wife had lived.

Parking across from the home of his former mother-in-law, he muses about walking up and knocking, unannounced, on the front door. He imagines several possible receptions, starting with a warm and gracious Southern welcome: “I’d say, ‘Hullo, Miss Grace. Do you remember me?’ And she’d say, ‘I reckon I remember my own son-in-law.’ I’d mention Elizabeth and she’d simply put her hand on mine.” But as he thinks a bit more, the cold truth cuts through his nostalgia:

What else could she say? Could she say, “You killed my daughter, with your neglect and your scoffin’, and your stayin’ out all night when the baby was comin’. That poor little baby, that never saw the light of day.” Could she say, “My daughter loved you, Mr. Peters, she was a lovely girl, a simple, singlehearted girl, and she gave you all her heart. And you repaid her with jeerin’, and belittlin’, and all your grand intellectual friends that she wasn’t good enough for.”

It had been a bad match from the start, and that fact is still too apparent to let him think otherwise. Guiltily, he heads back to the highway. “What the hell do I want, anyway, he asked himself. Do I imagine I want to live in Starkeyville?”

Many of the stories in The Empress’s Ring deal with adults coming into connection with memories of their childhood. Hale would go on to write two collections of her own memories of childhood–A New England Girlhood (1958) and The Life in the Studio (1969)–and it’s hard, despite the disclaimer at the start, not to believe that there is a strong autobiographical element running through this book as well.

In “Charlotte Russe,” for example, the fancy dessert–too sophisticated to serve to children–symbolizes the brilliant, unreachable world of adults that so tantalized the narrator. Any child who’s had to lie in bed and listen to a dinner party going on downstairs can relate to Hale’s recollection:

When I was in bed, I would lie still with the window open to the dark, snowy winter night, and let my feelings soar. I could faintly hear the hum of conversation in the dining room underneath me; when the door between the dining room and the kitchen was opened, a burst of laughter would float up the back stairs. The people at the dinner party were Olympian, seated around a Parnassan table loaded with the fare of gods. I could hear the footsteps of the maids, hurrying over the wooden floor of the kitchen to wait upon them. They drank from crystal goblets, their napkins were vast, satiny; they jokes were, surely, magnificent and immortal.

The connection of memories runs in both directions–putting the adult back in the child’s world and enabling the child’s perspective to illuminate the adult’s current experience, as in the case of “The Year I Had Colds”:

As I lie here, trying to get over this idiotic cold before the Hanson’s party, my mind becomes restless and inattentive if I try to read; I set up a game of patience on a tray and even then it is as though my mind’s eye were focussed on some other scene; until sometimes I give up altogether trying to distract myself and simply lie here, resting, and letting my thoughts wander about as they will in my childhood, in the time when I was kept out of school so much by colds.

The empress’s ring of the title story–a tiny gold ring given to the narrator as a girl that she was told had belonged to the Empress of Austria–represents just the kind of object that can create such a connection: “I worry about it still, even today, thirty odd years later. I close my eyes to go to sleep at night, sometimes, and I am back at the old, disintegrated sand pile where I lost it, digging in the dirt-mixed sand with my fingernails to find my little ring.” Her mother’s scoldings over the ring’s loss are echoed in her self-admonishments as an adult for various shortcomings–not having enough matching drinking glasses, not being able to sew clothes that quite fit. But there is also still the possibility that one day another little girl will find it–a bare bit of hope to offset the sense of loss and inadequacy.

In all, The Empress’s Ring is an elegant, cool, and moving set of reflections on life, memory, connections, and disconnections that rings clear and true even over a distance of sixty years.


The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale
New York City: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1955

The Stories of James Stern (1968)

When James Stern died in 1993 at the age of 88, most of his obituaries acknowledged him as a writer but noted that he was better known as a friend to the famous. An early acquaintance of W. H. Auden, he went on to break bread and knock back whiskies with a fair share of the good writers of the Anglo-American world of the mid-twentieth century. Malcolm Cowley once remarked to Stern, “My God, you’ve known everybody, his wife, his boyfriend, and his natural issue!”

The Stories of James Stern actually represents four fifths of his output, since it collects the best stories from his earlier collections (The Heartless Land (1932); Something Wrong (1938); and The Man Who Was Loved (1952)), along with a few new ones. By the time it was published, Stern had pretty much given up writing, aside from letters to his friends.

Those letters were somewhat legendary. He wrote as many as eight a day, in fine, precise handwriting. His correspondents included Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, David Garnett, Brian Howard, Arthur Miller, Lewis Mumford, Sonia Orwell, William Plomer, Katherine Anne Porter, V. S. Pritchett, and Patrick White. His one and only biographer, Miles Huddleston, was able to draw heavily upon them in his 2002 book, James Stern: A Life in Letters.

And he was a very well-traveled man. Born in County Meath, Ireland, to a Anglo-Irish banking family with an estate, servants, horses, and annual fox hunting parties, Stern attended Eton and Oxford, tried his hand at farming in Rhodesia, worked in the family bank in London and Frankfurt, then quit and went to Paris to try his hand at writing. “That I ever published a page of prose,” he once wrote, “was due primarily to the dread prospect of spending the rest of my days in a bank.” His first book, The Heartless Land, was touted by Auden and Christopher Isherwood as one of the great works of fiction of the Thirties.

In Paris, he met and married the German physical therapist and writer, Tania Kurella, and they moved to New York City just before the start of World War Two. Stern worked as a journalist in New York, and in late 1944, he was approached with an offer to join the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Bombing Survey, which studied the effects of Allied bombing on Germany. This experience led him to write his only book to be republished, The Hidden Damage (1947). Although some critics felt the book demonstrated remarkable sympathy for the plight of the Germans but was, overall, shapeless and unclear in its ultimate message.

This capacity for empathy is evident throughout The Stories of James Stern. With settings ranging from the Rhodesian bush to Welsh mines, Irish estates, Manhattan apartments, and a graveyard in Germany, these stories demonstrate a confident grasp of setting and a fine ear for the words of his characters.

“You bin down t’pit?”

I nod.

“Which one’s that’ bin down?”

“Number Five.”

Five! he shouts. “Why, tha’s seen best conditions in t’colliery. Who sent thee down, lad?”

“The Manager.”

“Ah!,” and his eyes narrow and he clenches his fists. “Down ‘ere, lad,” he suddenly bursts out, “in Pit One–four hundred yards under where ah’m standin’, is men an’ boys workin’ on theer stomachs, on theer backs, in two-an’-‘alf-foot seams. They can’t kneel, lad–t’ain’t ‘igh ‘nough. Seven-an-‘alf-hour shifts–roof may fall in an’ kill ’em tomorrow–fifty shillin’s a wik w’en lucky….”

This comes from “A Stranger Among Miners,” which Stern notes is actually a piece of non-fiction drawn from his visit to Welsh and English coal mining communities in the early 1930s. Also non-fiction are the last two pieces in the book, which are taken from The Hidden Damage. In “A Peaceful Place,” Stern recalls a graveyard he would often visit while stationed near Kempten in Bavaria:

Reading the fringe of the cemetery, I stood still and found myself admiring the good sense and taste of the man who had chosen such a spot to bury the dead. In a large, protected circle cut out of the pines, hundreds upon hundreds of crosses–all identical except for an occasional, surprising Star of David–gleamed white against a background of beautifully mown, very green grass. It was the first clean, orderly, peaceful place I had encountered in bomb-battered Bavaria. I stood for several minutes in the intense evening silence and though: If I should die tomorrow, I suppose this is where my bones, if not my dog-tags, would lie for ever….

Although the remainder of the pieces in the book are fiction, it’s clearly fiction that never stretches too far from Stern’s own experiences. In “The Broken Leg,” for example, he seems to be working through long-standing conflicts with his parents, who were avid fox-hunters and, apparently, quite intolerant of anyone who wasn’t–especially their son. Max, the younger son riding off with great trepidation to his first hunt, soon embarrasses himself and his parents by falling clumsily from his horse:

He felt that nothing he did in the future could ever atone for the humiliating performance his mother, father, and brother had just witnessed. He knew, moreover, that he had committed a great sin, two sins: he had shown fear while on a horse, and he had ‘cried before he was hurt.’ In the great hollow abyss of misery that only a child can know, he felt utterly, terribly alone; the whole of his tiny world was against him; there was none to whom he could turn; he was doomed.

It’s no wonder that one of his later friends, the novelist David Hughes, described Stern’s stories as “reports on his traumas lightly disguised as fiction.”

Yet Stern’s thin skin also made him extraordinarily sensitive to the hurts of others. In “The Woman Who Was Loved,” an ever-so-sophisticated socialite, struggles when she has to perform in the one role in which she can gain no notice in the columns: “The periods between governesses–the family averaged two a year–were not easy days for Mrs. Turnbull, for then she had to take charge of her children, a task for which she knew herself to be unfit and which embarrassed both her and them.” Stern himself provided perhaps the most accurate assessment of his work in an obituary he drafted in the early 1960s: “He is to be judged by the highest standards; but his art remains a probing of wounds and somehow, lacking as it is in power of invention and ultimate detachment, fails to achieve its own release from pain.”

Whether it was the growing rawness of his nerves after too many years of laying them bare to the sufferings of the people and characters he observed or struggles with drink or simply a decision to pursue translation (from German, of works by Mann, Kafka, and others) instead, Stern decided to give up writing for publication about the time he penned his own obituary. One assumes it was a decision he was content with. Stern’s literary executor, John Byrne, said that he “was not reticent about his friendships with writers better known that himself. In a way it was a compensation for not writing other things.” As Alan Ross wrote in Stern’s obituary in The Independent, “… if the gift for friendship is one of the most precious gifts of all, then Jimmy Stern was more blessed than as if he had written 15 books instead of five.”

The Stories of James Stern is also available online at the Open Library (Link).


The Stories of James Stern
New York City: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968

Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, by Howard Nemerov (1971)

I was skeptical when I started reading the poet Howard Nemerov‘s 1971 collection, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions. It gave all the appearances of being a minor work–a writer working outside his primary form; an early volume from a small (if well-respected) press; short (barely 121 pages); a title suggesting nothing more than a hastily-applied label for a miscellany. And the first few stories are more fables than stories and more jokes than fables.

But I hung in, and with the fourth story, entered a new class of writing. Almost like a specimen brought into focus under a microscope, a wholly unfamiliar perspective came into view, minute in detail, with wildly exaggerated features. In “Bon Bons,” a lonely widow, Mrs. Melisma, decides one day to undertake an odd and original study:

Inspired, she purchased a pack offiling cards and began, as she ate away, to note down a Descriptive Catalogue of Chocolates, measuring the dimensions and identifying the surface characteristics of each chocolate, and correlating with these both the objective qualities and the subjective sensations communicated to her by the inside. A series of rather odd thoughts began to form itself and emerge from the darkness.

Her dedicated and meticulously-observed research quickly reaches an inevitable obstacle: she realizes that she does not like chocolate. And yet she carries on, driving herself to penetrate her sensations ever more deeply, opening her imagination to new associations, venturing into new realms of philosophy, and eventually, into nihilism:

She perceived, in effect, that what she ate was not chocolate at all, but only anticipation, suspense; she was eating, as much as anything, not the chocolates themselves, but only the moment between one and the next; now, what did that moment taste of?

Nothing. It tasted of nothing at all. Mrs Melisma wept.

And finally, she is overtaken by a vision of wondrous breadth and tenderness, in a passage that reminded me of that amazing scene in Gravity’s Rainbow that begins, “Near her battery one night, driving Somewhere in Kent …”:

In which she saw the jungles, and, beside the jungles, the sugar cane in fields, the plantations of nougat and almond, the herds of cows giving their milk to be turned into fondant; she saw the black men and the brown men, naked to the waist, going among the trees and through the fields where lonely white men stood with rifles; she saw the great white ships riding, she saw the mumbling stainless steel factories from whose monotonous and automated ruminations a myriad moments of chocolate filled with mysterious sweetness came forth—endless they seemed—; and she saw the candy shops, with their cloying smells and their attendants dressed like nurses in starched uniforms; and she saw by miracle in a million rooms the lonely hunger that existed for the sweetness of life, that sweat and starvation and cold-eyed greed equally and helplessly competed for; and somewhere in all this a child sat, a monstrously chubby child with open mouth, who stretched out pudgy hands before him while he blubbered for the agonizing beauty of this world.

From this point on, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions rolls through a series of imaginative and philosophical whirlwinds, each carrying off in their force other wonderful fragments of prose. “The Native in the World,” for example, opens with this stunning sentence:

The climb from sleep was difficult, a struggle up a staircase of soft pillows into which he sank again and again, drowsily defeated, from which he clumsily climbed again to a sight of the room that, seen in the equivocal wisdom of sleep, seemed to him any room, or all the rooms, in which he had ever slept, or ever been at home.

In “The Nature of the Task,” Nemerov focuses his microscope on the smallest of subjects–literally nothing more than a man in an empty room–and demonstrates how quickly close observation can verge into madness: “But where—this problem proposed itself inevitably and at once—where did simply looking divide itself from looking and thinking at once?” It’s a powerful illustration of a comment Wallace Shawn makes in “My Dinner with Andre”: “I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware … of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant … I think it would just blow your brains out.”

Not every story in this little book has such mind-expanding power, but a good half-dozen do, and those are certainly worth rediscovery. This was Nemerov’s second collection of short stories. His first, A Commodity of Dreams , was published in 1959 and I have ordered a copy in hopes of finding more.

Stories, Fables and Other Diversions is available online at OpenLibrary.org (link).


Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, by Howard Nemerov
Boston: David R. Godine, 1971

Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green (1962)

I’ve probably looked past a copy of the Signet paperback edition of Peter Green’s Habeas Corpus fifty times or more while browsing through used bookstores over the decades and looked right past it. But on the look-out for short story collections now and having the good fortune to spend an hour in one of Seattle’s last great used bookstores, Magus Books, a while ago, I finally saw it for the first time.

Habeas Corpus provided an excellent counterpoint to Hugh Walpole’s The Thirteen Travellers, which I’d read just before. Most of Peter Green’s stories are set 30-40 years after Walpole’s, but Green’s England is a very different world. It’s been through a second world war and a long grey time of rationing. The upper class is in retreat, the working class is getting into university, and everyone is drinking and smoking–hard. The veneer of English gentility is wearing through to the wood in spots.

Jack Newhouse, the … well, one can hardly say protagonist, once you’ve read what he does … of Green’s title story, for example, is quite the contrast to Walpole’s dandy, Absalom Jay:

… somehow an ineffectual figure despite the carefully calculated raffishness–bottlegreen corduroys, the old tweed jacket patched like a prep school master’s at elbows and cuffs, blond hair not so thick as it had been, too fine anyway to be worn quite so long by a man in his over-late thirties, blown now every which way by the tangling wind…. A fair if fashionable judge of College wine; slightly suspect politically, and apt to appear on television programmes rather more often than the unspoken norm allowed….

Newhouse proves to be just the sort of heel you might suspect from this description, but his sort of misdeed is less one of great evil than of the petty, cowardly kind–not doing wrong, just simply failing to do right. Many of Green’s characters are compromisers and prevaricators. Ideals are just bubbles waiting to be popped, as in “The Tea Party,” in which a naive but ambitious young student comes to realize the truth about an idolized professor: “And Grandison, his old world in shreds, saw from the heart of his confusion that the Professor was as naked as himself. Do not reject me, cried the stony mask beneath its stone.”

Illustration from the cover of the Signet paperback edition of “Habeas Corpus”

You might think from this that Habeas Corpus is a drab, depressing book, but in all but perhaps one of Green’s eight stories, there is a strong narrative, a sense of a revelation yet to come, that makes for irresistible reading. His characterizations are often enhanced through just the simplest details, and in each story, there is a vivid sense of place. Thumbing back through the book as I write this, I find myself recalling the settings as if I’d actually seen them. I tend to skip around stories in a collection, particularly if there is, as in this case, no evident pattern or sequence intended, but I read straight through Habeas Corpus and was only tempted to look elsewhere during “Proof of Identity,” which was a throw-away compared to the other stories in the book. It’s a shame that this is Green’s one and only collection of stories.

Although Green attended Charterhouse, one of the poshest public schools, his time at Cambridge was interrupted by the war, during which he spent five years in the R.A.F. in the heat and dirt of India and Burma, where everyone’s finer points eventually got blunted. After finishing with a degree in classics at Trinity, he scrabbled along for some years as a journalist until moving to Greece, where he wrote several works of fiction. By the time that Habeas Corpus was published in the U.S., however, he had moved into teaching and writing classical history, which has remained his focus ever since (he is still on the faculty of the University of Iowa as an adjunct professor at 92). Habeas Corpus was his last work of fiction.


Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962

The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole (1920)

I put off my plan to devote a year’s worth of posts to neglected short story writers and collections for a year when I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave my year of the neglected woman writer quite yet. So I stretched that year into two and have made a pretty poor start of things by putting off this year’s project until–Jeepers, the middle of March. Yes, life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

In any case and not to procrastinate further, let me start things off with a lovely package of ripping yarns: Hugh Walpole’s 1920 collection, The Thirteen Travellers. I’ve wanted to cover this book ever since reading its first story, “Absalom Jay,” which manages to be both satirical and heart-tugging in its portrait of an aging and forgotten fop.

At the height of the Yellow Book era of the late 1890s, Absalom Jay was the perfect embodiment of the London dandy, caricatured in Punch and other magazines:

Everyone always noticed his clothes. But here again one must be fair. It may not have been altogether his clothes that one noticed. From very early years his hair was snow-white, and he wore it brushed straight back from his pink forehead in wavy locks. He wore also a little white tufted Imperial. He had an eyeglass that hung on a thick black cord. His favourite colour was a dark blue, and with this he wore spats (in summer of a truly terrific whiteness), a white slip, black tie, and pearl pin. He wore wonderful boots and shoes and was said to have more of these than any man in London. It was also said that his feet were the smallest (masculine) in the British Isles.

But when Walpole finds Absalom, a year or so after the Armistice, society as he had known it–which had been Society with a capital S–had been left behind, one of the war’s many victims, and good manners and light conversation no longer gained one reliable invitations to dinner parties and dances. He is now an old man, whose living has become increasingly tenuous due to a bit of imprudent speculation just before the war, and whose elbows and welcomes have worn exceedingly thin.

Absalom is one of Walpole’s thirteen travellers–all residents of Horton’s, a respectable residential hotel somewhere between Picadilly and St. James’ Square. Some of them, like Absalom, are moving down, some are moving up, and others are just passing through. For each, Walpole constructs an efficient, well-balanced, and soundly-built story as dependable as Mr. Nix, the manager of Horton’s. He even tosses in a jolly good ghost story.

One could see in The Thirteen Travellers a predecessor to Vicki Baum’s best-seller of a decade later, Grand Hotel, but this is format that’s been around since at least the time of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales: the linked story collection. In Walpole’s case, the link is Horton’s Hotel and the transitional time just after the Great War and before the Twenties started to roar. His cast ranges from young to old, rich to poor, nobility to working class, but they share a common set of English values and prejudices. Not that Walpole is so obtuse that he can’t see that some of these values got banged out of shape in the war and are rapidly being replaced by harsher facts.

Hugh Walpole was one of the most successful English writers of his time, but his reputation took a serious hit after W. Somerset Maugham mocked him in fictional form as the sycophantic social climber, Alton Kear, in his novel Cakes and Ale. By the time he died in 1941, he was considered such a joke that his Time obituary dismissed his work with remarks such as, “He could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English.” Since then, however, some of his works, particularly the six novels of the Herries Chronicle, have remained in print and held a small but loyal following. In recent years, his standing has been restored somewhat, but an honest critic would have to acknowledge that he is better remembered as a story-teller than as an artist. And his ghost stories in particular are well worth seeking out and now easily available in the collection, All Souls’ Night, released last year from Valancourt Books.


The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole
London: Hutchinson & Company, 1920

The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles (1947)

gentlebush-paul
I will admit guilt for committing an occasional theft. Once in a while, I find a book that cries out, “Please take me home with you.” These are always, naturally, neglected books. I usually find them in hotels or vacation rentals, in those little libraries of books that previous guests have left behind–perhaps in hopes that someone else would find them interesting, perhaps simply because they weren’t interesting enough to be worth carrying home.

The scene of my last crime was a small hotel in Luxembourg, a pretty forgettable place where I stayed one night while on a business trip. Taking up part of the landing on the staircase up to the rooms was a tall, narrow bookcase with a mix of French, German, and Dutch paperbacks–Dan Brown, John Grisham, and their Euro counterparts. But one book was definitely not new, not a bestseller, and in English. It was a thick, old (1955), and somewhat unusually-sized paperback (halfway between a pocket book and a trade paperback): The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles. Although clearly in English, the book’s publisher, Panther Books, had an address in Leipzig, which was in the German Democratic Republic at the time. Other Panther titles listed inside the back cover included English classics such as Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter, but also a few I didn’t recognize: The Volunteers, by Steve Nelson, and Goldsborough, by Stefan Heym. Nelson turned out to have been an activist, volunteer in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and member of the American Communist Party. Heym was a German writer who emigrated to the U.S. to escape Hitler, fought for the Allies during the war, wrote and organized for left causes after the war, and moved to East Germany in the early 1950s.

A little more digging confirmed that Panther Books mutated into Seven Seas Books, which was run by Heym’s American wife, Gertrude Gelbin, and continued to publish English-language books, mostly novels and mostly on leftist subjects by such writers as Ring Lardner, Jr., Alvah Bessie, and Dorothy Hewett, as well as many of Heym’s own books and those of fellow East German writers such as Anna Seghers and Christa Wolf.

I had, of course, slipped the book into my duffel bag before checking this aspect of the book’s back story, and I started to read at home the next evening. Giles takes her title from a line from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes: “Let the gentle bush dig its root deep and spread upward to split one boulder.” Her story is set in bayou Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century, among the many members of the Durels, a family in slow decline from the grand beginnings made by their grandfather, who established a large plantation before the Civil War.

The only Durel still thriving financially is Agricole, who is looked down upon by his kinsmen: “Everyone knew that Agricole’s father, the first Agricole, had not married cette femme in New Orleans until his son was at least ten years old.” This doesn’t prevent Agricole (junior) from attempting to insinuate himself (and his three children) back in the family’s good grades. And from that point forward, the story is one big race to decay: will the poor but upright Durels decline into penury before wealthy Agricole (junior) loses his last shred of decency in his pursuit of filthy lucre?

I can’t say that I stuck with the story. I quickly lost track of Durels, what with Tante Abelle, Michel, Nicole, Auguste, Alcee, Amelie, Leonie, Lizette, and a good dozen more, along with the many other characters in the neighborhood of Bayou Teche. The 500-plus dense pages of The Gentle Bush require more commitment that I had in me.

gentlebush-firstAnd Giles was looking for readers with commitment. A frequent contributor to The New Masses, she seems to have taken her inspiration from a odd duo: Karl Marx and Taylor Caldwell. Particularly Caldwell’s saga about a family of American arms manufacturers, The Dynasty of Death, The Eagles Gather, and The Final Hour. She captures the energy of a successful entrepreneur but favors the poor but honest and down-trodden, the working whites and serving blacks, who seem to shine with a uniformly stalwart glow. Even as evil triumphs, we know that ultimately the workers of the world will unite and seize control of the means of production, or something like that.

The Gentle Bush was generally well-received when it was first published–by a mainstream publisher, Harcourt, Brace and Company–in 1947. The chill winds of the Red Scare were picking up, but it was still possible for activist writers such as Giles, Alexander Saxton, and Cedric Belfrage to get published by the big firms. A year later, The New Masses closed its doors. Giles continued to maintain her Communist Party membership even after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, only leaving in the mid-1960s when she felt it had become irrelevant. Giles never published another book.


The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947

The Hepzibah Omnibus, by Olwen Bowen (1936)

Illustration by L. R. Brightwell, from Beetles and Things
Illustration by L. R. Brightwell, from Beetles and Things

Cover of The Hepzibah OmnibusWhen I saw The Hepzibah Omnibus in a bookstore in London a few months ago, I began wondering, “Why do I know the name Olwen Bowen?” A quick glance at the title page cleared up the mystery: “Foreword by Clemence Dane.” Kate Macdonald and I had read and discussed Dane’s massive theatrical saga, Broome Stages, earlier this year, and though neither of us much cared for the book, I did remember a few facts from the author’s life–in particular, that she and Bowen had lived together for nearly forty years.

nb_0640Unlike Dane, who wrote fiction, drama, and nonfiction, Bowen confined herself strictly to writing for children. Although her last book, Tales from the Mabinogion, was a retelling of stories from the King Arthur legends, most of her books were set in worlds inhabited almost exclusively by animals and insects. Her titles were simple and straightforward: Runaway Rabbit; Taddy Tadpole and the Pond Folk; Dog’s Delight; A Terrier’s Tale.

The Hepzibah Omnibus collects four of her animal tales. The first two, “Hepzibah the Hen” and “Hepzibah Again,” take place in the farmyard shared ruled over by the vain Hepzibah and her friend, the equally self-absorbed pig, Gertie Grunter. Most of the Farmyard Folk stick with alliteration when in comes to names: Reginald Rat, Kathleen Cow, Cuthbert Cockerel, etc.. Each chapter is a small object lesson that usually comes as the result of some animal foible–vanity, pride, jealousy–but always ends happily. Rather like Aesop with the edges sanded down. It’s a world where even the rodents loved their most fearsome predator:

And all the Farmyard Folk were very grateful to Barny, the Barndoor Owl. They liked to hear him at night as he flew about among the barns, calling out to himself as he flew, “I see you! I see you!” just out of habit; for they knew that he was a very friendly person really and they all felt much safer when he was about.

yapThe next tale deals with Yap, a young fox with still a bit too much fellow-feeling in his heart to realize that the rabbits might not feel quite comfortable with him crashing their Rabbit Fest in a rabbit suit. In most chapters, though, he proves exceptionally adept at team-building. At different times, he joins causes with a toad, a vole, an otter, three badgers, and a hedgehog. The alliances usually seem to involve getting some kind of food, but I guess we don’t have too feel too much remorse over the sacrifice of eggs, fish, or fruit. And when it does involve something a little closer to home, it’s a roast chicken that Yap’s father, Barker Fox, steals from a circus tent, not a live one.

beetles-bwI found the last tale, “Beetles and Things,” by far the most charming, perhaps because of the illustrations by Harry Rountree (the illustrations for Hepzibah and Yap are by L. R. Brightwell). Montgomery Beetle, in particularly, looks a bit like Harry Langdon. As with the farmyard, the insects exist in a peaceful, alliterative form of coexistence, in which Septimus Spider would never dream of ensnaring Ena Earwig or Bill Blue-Bottle. The only inter-species competition in the book is over a lot of overripe plums (and, of course, that gourmand Thomas Tit gets most of those).

It’s hard to imagine that many kids would enjoy The Hepzibah Omnibus these days. Bowen wrote for children capable of dealing with compound sentences and with a wider vocabulary that the sort of 4-5 years olds who might still go for simple animal stories: “Lena Fly and Bill Blue-Bottle flew quickly away, while Cedric, Ena Earwig, and many of the others spend a cramped and uncomfortable afternoon curled up in any tiny niches and crevices they could find in the tree itself.” And, on the other hand, I’m not sure I would put Hepzibah on a par with The Wind in the Willows as a timeless classic of children’s literature. But I was happy to give up an hour or so of my time to see what Olwen Bowen was up to while her partner was busy hammering away at Broome Stages.


The Hepzibah Omnibus, by Olwen Bowen [Davies]
London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1936

What to Talk About, by Imogene B. Wolcott (1923)

nb_0635What proportion of your business is selling drugs?

Do you sell more drugs to keep people well or to help them recover from sickness?

What would you do if a man came into your store to purchase some bichlorid of mercury tablets?

These are a few of the questions that Imogene B. Wolcott (Mrs. Roger Wolcott, the title page advises us) proposes her reader ask a druggist. What to Talk About is a simple pocket-sized handbook full of what Mrs. Wolcott suggests are “Clever Questions” that aid in “Social, Professional, and Business Advancement.” Her theory is that the key to a successful conversation is to express interest in people: “Forget yourself and think only of the person to whom you are talking.”

And so she offers the reader nearly three hundred pages worth of questions to use in a conversation. What to Talk About is a classic of the first great era of the American self-help book, a contemporary of James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh and Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, when the shortest path between a person’s problems and their solution was a straight line. Like the first pre-packaged foods, all you had to do to enjoy the banquet you craved was add water and stir.

In Mrs. Wolcott’s world, a man’s line wasn’t something he used to pick up women in bars–it was his job, and his job was his identity. The first third of her book is devoted to questions organized by jobs and professions. Of civil engineers, she proposes one ask that probe their expertise: “Why is steel used to reinforce concrete?” “Which usually offers the greater engineering difficulties: drainage or irrigation?” She offers contemporary questions: “How much progress has been made on the tunnel under the English Channel?” “What use has been made of the valuation of the railroads made by the Interstate Commerce Commission?” And she explores the civil engineer’s philosophical side: “Which of these characteristics is most important to an engineering career–a mind of precise accuracy, the power to dream great dreams, or the ability to carry visions to a successful completion?”

Mrs. Wolcott’s selection of professions offers us insights into the working world of a century ago. Lumbermen and newspapermen rubbed elbows with trolley officials, steamship officials, detectives, dry goods merchants, jobbers, public office holders, and sculptors. Because it was the Roaring Twenties, she was careful to include flappers (“Why don’t you like chaperones?”), debutantes, and “Matrons (Society)”–for whom she offers the obvious question, “What do you think of the conduct of the younger generation?” (And its follow-up, “Does the fault lie with the young men of today, with the girls, or with their parents?” Me, I blame Society (Matrons)). She does not, however, provide a category for gangsters or rum-runners, so were the reader to run into Al Capone, he would have to make do with “Importers and Exporters”: “What proportion of our foreign trade is done on American bottoms?”

Mrs. Wolcott also wrote in the midst of the first great wave of American leisure time. And hence, she provides a substantial section devoted to questions based on a person’s hobby. This might be a sport (Ice Hockey, Jiu Jitsu, or Tobogganing) or an indoor occupation (Weaving, Stamps, or Painting). She was not above recognizing that some might indulge in minor vices (Billiards, Poker, or Smoking). She includes a sample of questions for the person interested in “Heredity and Eugenics” that would certainly liven up a conversation today: “Should first or second cousins marry?” “What is meant by the mutations theory?” Or, if you should run into a fan of this site, you can ask, “Which do you think is more healthful, the coarseness of the eighteenth century novel or the brutality of a school of our novelists?”

Finally, What to Talk About reminds us that there was a time when, no matter where you went, you never quite shook the dust of your home ground off your shoes. A time when people wore such labels as “Yankee,” “Dutchman,” “Irishman,” and “Philadelphian.” In fact, she suggests asking a Californian, “Do you see many Mexicans? Japanese? Chinese? Iowans?” Iowans? So it is only natural that Mrs. Wolcott ends her book with questions to ask the natives of such places as Denmark, Deauville, Indianapolis, Palm Beach, and “The South” and “The West.” Most aim at confirming some stereotype about each place and its inhabitants: “Is it ture that people of Charleston dine at four o’clock in the afternoon?” “Is cheapness of labor the only factor that permits China to compete in a commercial way with the rest of the world?” “Do the majority of the women who spend the winter in Florida try to get tanned or to avoid a coat of tan?” “Is it true that one seldom sees a sunset in Pittsburgh?” “What has been done in your section of the South to combat the boll weevil?”

A few of her questions, though, would probably stump even a native nowadays:

“What is meant by the three-cent cult?” (Cleveland, Ohio)

“What has the Pan-American Conference accomplished?” (South America)

“In what regard do Philadelphians hold Edward Bok?”

“Did you see many lepers?” (Holy Land)

“Were you shown the site of Annette Kellerman’s diving activities in the preparation of her most famous moving picture?” (Anyone? Anyone? … The correct answer is Bermuda.)

A book as full of questions as this one cannot help but raise a few that reach beyond the limits of place, profession, and hobby, timeless questions we could all do well to take a moment to ponder:

“Does the fear of death become stronger or less strong as one grows older?”

“Does personality or ability count more in business?”

“At what age does a hen cease to be profitable?”

“What is the future of Palestine?”

And one many of us have asked recently:

“Why is it that so many of our Vice-Presidents have come from Indiana?”


What to Talk About: The Clever Question As an Aid to Social, Professional, and Business Advancement, by Imogene B. Wolcott
New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923

Jacques Barzun on The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow

Cover of first US edition of 'The Springs'A few weeks after my post on Anne Goodwin Winslow’s 1949 novel, The Springs, I came across the following, from American Panorama (1957), edited by Eric Larrabee, a collection of essays on the 350 books chosen by the Carnegie Corporation as “most descriptive of life in the U.S.A.”:

Mrs. Winslow’s reputation as a novelist is based on an exquisite specialization. She writes about the Southern gentry at the turn of the present century. This might well prove trivial or suffocating if it were not for the author’s astonishing power to make life pulse vigorously in the constricted places, situations, and people that she chooses. Her outlook is perhaps best expressed in the contrast between the title of one of her other novels—— A Quiet Neighborhood (1947)——and the violent events, the passions leading to murder, which inform the work.

Mrs. Winslow belongs to no school, for although some of her perceptions are akin to William Faulkner’s and her technique is in the tradition of William Dean Howells, her temperament, style, and biography set her in a world apart. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, which is to say a “border state” in the great North-and-South struggle of the past century, Mrs. Winslow married a Northern army engineer and spent many years in New England and abroad. She has returned to live in her home state and it is the distillation of her childhood memories through her traveled mind—emotions recollected in tranquillity — that she gives us in her novels and tales.

The Springs is a study of character which by its subdued atmosphere makes one think of Henry James’s The Europeans. But the “culture” in which the characters evolve is markedly different, as is the fact that Mrs. Winslow’s interest in household detail lends a peculiar vividness, almost a pathos, to the scene. It is as if, suddenly transplanted to those quiet old days we sometimes long for, we discovered their slow terror, which not even conventional happiness could allay.

Barzun’s last sentence captures the unique quality of Winslow’s writing that I probably haven’t done justice to: it’s delicate, subtle, and somewhat nostalgic, but there is an underlying potential for same anger, pain, and violence that percolates much closer to the surface in Faulkner. And if we had forgotten that this potential is apparently an ineluctable element of the American character, the events of the last year have done much to remind us.

Four Memoirs of the Aftermath of War

As a veteran, I would like to take this day as an opportunity to remember that one of the worst things about a war is the suffering that continues after its end. In the stereotypical versions of the end of World War Two in Europe one sees in America and Britain, the symbol of V-E Day was the great joyous crowd doing the Lambeth Walk in Piccadilly Circus. But on the Continent, the end of the war merely opened a time of displacement, disruption, and slow, painful reconstruction.

Four fine neglected books, all written by women, remind us of one of the greatest tragedies to follow the war in Europe — namely, the plight of the millions of prisoners, forced laborers, and refugees who were displaced from their homes and stranded in foreign countries, often without the means to return.

Aftermath, by Francesca M. Wilson (1948)

aftermathWilson, an English academic who had already worked with refugees from the First World War, Russia, and the Spanish Civil War, joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in early 1945, and was one of its first staff members to arrive in Germany to begin to deal with the enormity of the problem created with the liberation of concentration camps by the Allies. The first DP (Displaced Persons) camp she worked at was Feldafing in Bavaria, which the U.S. Army set up to house a trainload of Hungarian Jews one of its units found near Mühldorf , a satellite camp of Dachau. In these early days, those organizing relief quickly realized that they were dealing with people who had been subjected to a dehumanization more extreme than anything that even an experienced worker like Wilson had ever experienced:

They had the furtive look and gestures of hunted animals. By years of brutal treatment, by the murder of relatives, by the constant fear of death, all that was human had been taken away from them. We went into the dormitories where they were eating — the collected their food from the kitchen and brought it back to devour in relative privacy: nothing would persuade them to eat in communal dining-rooms. I noticed a man who was trying to eat but was too weak to finish his food. Three boys were staring at his plate. I had once seen the same look of burning yet cautious intentness on the Russian steppes. When the sick man pushed his plate away a thin arm shot out and seized the lump of meat left on it. The lad who had secured it slid out of the room, like a starving dog with a bone.

Despite the challenges of woefully inadequate supplies and staff, an oncoming winter, and a population devastated by malnutrition, disease, and depression, UNRRA and other relief organizations gradually established some degree of sanitation and comfort in the camps. But none of them was quite prepared to delete with the special challenge presented by the former residents of lands now incorporated into the Soviet Union. And their responses were not always something to be proud of:

They are now in exile because they do not wish to become Soviet citizens. Only they can decide about this. Soviet citizenship should be accepted voluntarily, and the policy not to compel their return is a right one: but the policy of leaving them to rot in DP camps is utterly wrong. Poland will not accept her former Ukrainian citizens — those who tried to go back there were turned back from her frontiers. Military authorities in Austria were trying last September to make a temporary solution. They reduced their rations, which had been kept to the 2,000 calorie level, to the 1,200 of the surrounding population, saying at the same time that all those who were physically able must pay for their board and lodging in the camps…. But unless these uprooted peoples are to be permanently absorbed in the German or Austrian economy — and this neither they nor their hosts desire — this is only a temporary solution. When all have gone home who will or can, there will still be three-quarters of a million irrepatriable DPs….

The Wild Place, by Kathryn Hulme (1952)

the_wild_placeIn 1945, Kathryn Hulme arrived as UNRRA director of the Wildflecken DP camp in northern Bavaria. Like Wilson, she encountered a desperate situation and struggled in the first months to establish conditions fit for the people in the camp. Her first impressions, she wrote “entered with such sharp shock that never again would I be able to look on a refugee mass, even in pictures, and see it collectively, see it as a homogeneous stream of unfortunate humanity that could be handled with the impersonal science of the engineer who does not even think of the drops of water when he is controlling the flood.” At Wildflecken, she also met Marie Louise Habets, a Belgian nurse and former nun. The two became close friends and were to remain together as companions when they left the camp. Hulme would later fictionalize Habets’ experiences as a nun in the 1958 best-seller, The Nun’s Story. The Wild Place won the Atlantic Monthly award as best non-fiction book of 1953. Although not rare (AddAll.com lists over 50 copies for sale), it’s become something of a collector’s item, with prices starting at $35 and running to over $400 a copy.

The Walls Came Tumbling Down, by Henriette Roosenburg (1956)

walls_came_tumbling_downRoosenburg was a young Dutch woman imprisoned in 1944 by the Nazis as a Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) inmate for her activities as a member of the Dutch Resistance organization. When the war ended, she and four other Dutch women were inmates of a prison near Waldheim in Saxony, in the Russian zone of occupation. Because one of the women was too ill to walk, they were left behind in the initial evacuation, and after turning their friend over for medical care, they had to work their way back over four hundred miles of territory that was still in chaos. It required an extraordinary amount of strength, ingenuity, and persuasiveness, and reading The Walls Came Tumbling Down serves as another illustration of the fact that a group of women is usually ten times smarter, better organized, and more practical than any equivalent group of men. Roosenburg, who worked as a journalist after the war, first wrote about these experiences in a four-part series in The New Yorker titled, “Annals of Liberation — The Journey Home.”

The Children, by Charity Blackstock (1966)

the_childrenThe Children was the only book of non-fiction published by Ursula Torday under the pen-name of Charity Blackstock that she used mostly for murder mysteries and light thrillers. In it, she recounted her five years’ work as director of a scheme organized by an association of British Jews organized to help locate and reunite family members who had survived the Holocaust. The scheme involved arranging for displaced Jewish children being kept in group homes in France to be placed — only temporarily at first — with Jewish families in England. The Children provides a vivid demonstration of the paradoxes of memory: how quickly people in France and England could forget their own troubles during the war and grow callous to the plight of children orphaned and displaced in its wake; and how long these children remained scarred and disturbed by their experiences. Even for herself, Torday admits, “This business of going back is dangerous: by doing it one virtually stands still, and tomorrow is surely more interesting than today.” And she is able, writing nearly fifteen years later, to recognize that for the children, “The Scheme, the families, the Homes, are all part of a black and stinking past, to be remembered by all of us, but to be forgotten as far as it is possible by them. Even I myself, even the best of hostesses, must be unwilling reminders of a time when they were dependent on charity, deprived children, pathetic victims.”