My Literary Life, by Mrs. Elizabeth Lynn Linton (1899)

Eliza Lynn Linton, scanning the horizons for another victim
Eliza Lynn Linton, scanning the horizons for another victim
Between John Sutherland’s wonderful encyclopedia, The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, and the Internet Archive, I can lose hours wandering through the three-volumed forest of English 19th century fiction, particularly in the last year that written by women. It can be soul-leeching, though. There is something relentlessly earnest and deliberate in so much English fiction after Amelia Opie. There aren’t many female counterparts to Thomas Love Peacock, Thackeray, Dickens or Wilde to lighten things up.

I thought I’d stumbled across a hidden gem when I started reading Amy Dillwyn’s 1884 novel, Jill, in which our heroine, making her own way through the world, is not above padding her travel claims or pocketing a precious object her employers clearly failed to appreciate adequately. And then I found that Jill was reissued by the Honno Press a few years ago as part of its Welsh Women’s Classics series.

And then I came across the following sentence in an essay about George Eliot: “She held her hands and arms kangaroo fashion; was badly dressed; had an unwashed, unbrushed, unkempt look altogether; and she assumed a tone of superiority over me which I was not then aware was warranted by her undoubted leadership.” It was attributed to Eliza Lynn Linton, a minor Victorian novelist and essayist, and a brief memoir that was published after her death in 1898. Such undisguised nastiness, so uncharacteristic of memoirists before Frank Harris and Beverly Nichols made it acceptable to add a hearty shake of bitters into the mix, deserved further investigation.

And the good old Internet Archive didn’t let me down. I quickly located an electronic copy of Mrs. Linton’s My Literary Life and proceeded to read the whole thing online (it’s a short book).

You know you’re in for some splenetic prose when the book opens with a warning — in this case from Mrs. Linton’s friend, another neglected late Victorian novelist, Beatrice Harraden (Ships that Pass in the Night — Anyone? Anyone?): “It is to be regretted also that she is not here herself to tone down some of her more pungent remarks and criticisms, hastily thrown off in bitter moments such as come to us all.” “Mrs. Linton’s pen was ever harsher than her speech,” Harraden offers in excuse, but My Literary Life rages on while Mrs. Linton’s dulcet tones have been silenced for more than a century. “It has been thought,” her publisher writes in introduction, that the incomplete sketches she was able to write before her death “possess an independent value which justifies republication.” Perhaps the same value upheld on a weekly basis by the National Enquirer.

Linton opens with a quick series of sketches of “My First London Friends,” who included the painter, Samuel Laurence, George Henry Lewes (not yet involved with Mary Ann Evans), and the poet Walter Savage Landor. Laurence, we learn, “by his experiments in glazes, grounds, and varnishes, some of his oil paintings were soon ruined by peeling off in broad patches, or by sinking into the canvas.” And was married to “a tall, fine, handsome woman, who overtopped him in height and I should say surpassed him in weight.” Lewes, she tells us, “would discourse on the most delicate matters of physiology with no more perception that he was transgressing the bounds of propriety than if he had been a learned savage.” And Landor, who is otherwise portrayed by Linton as a man of great kindness and learning, was a bit challenged in the haberdashery department:

He was dressed in brown, and his whole style was one of noticeable negligence. His clothes were unbrushed and shabby; his shirt-front was coarse and plain, like a nightshirt ; a frayed and not over-clean blue necktie, carelessly knotted, was awry; his shoes were full of bumps and bosses like an apple pie….

Linton goes on to discuss Thackeray and Dickens, contrasted the two men in both character and literary style for pages before adding the caveat, “I did not know either man intimately, but if not the rose itself, I knew those who stood near.” For their sakes, we can be grateful, since she quickly adds, with ominous tone, “Many secret confidences were passed on to me, which, of course, I have kept sacred; and both men would have been surprised had they known how much I knew of things uncatalogued and unpublished.”

She concludes with a chapter on “A First Meeting with George Eliot” in which she offers her timeliness comparison of the great author to a kangaroo. But not before polishing off a sampling of the women writers from the generation before hers — or, as Linton describes them, “remnants of a palaeozoic age.” These include Jane Porter, once celebrated for her historical tales such as The Scottish Chiefs, but in Linton’s eyes, “a kid of ghost from the tomb — a living monolith of pre-historic times.” Sadly, Linton confesses that “Charlotte Bronte I never saw; nor Harriet Martineau….” Lucky ladies. Linton only met Mrs. Norton only once, but that was enough to slip a quick knife in (it was “in later years, when her beauty was more a memory than a possession”).

Needless to say, the reader learns nothing of importance about George Eliot and far too much about Mrs. Linton’s squinted perspective on her contemporaries, and with her judgment that Eliot’s relationship with Lewes was nothing more than a house of cards, closes the cover on this short, brutish, and nasty book. Utterly forgettable and more than justly neglected, of course.

But after a long and heavy meal of Victorian seriousness, a palate cleanser nonetheless.

My Literary Life, by Mrs. Lynn Linton
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1899

Gems from the Internet Archives: Women’s Autobiographies

Not having access to a major library, I often indulge my love of browsing in the Internet Archive. I’ll admit that it often requires much sifting through extraneous material to locate the occasional gem, but even after ten years I’m surprised at what I manage to find. Here, for example, is a selection of some exceptional autobiographical works by women, mostly published between the 1920 and 1960.


Modeling My Life, by Janet Scudder (1926)

Born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, Janet Scudder was one of the first American women to make a name and career for herself as a sculptor. Passionate about art from childhood, she studied drawing and sculpture and then moved to Chicago, where she worked carving decorative features on furniture before being hired by Lorado Taft as one of his White Rabbits, a remarkable team of women sculptors who created dozens of statues and decorative friezes for buildings in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. She then traveled to Paris, where she studied under Frederick MacMonnies. She writes of the experience, “I’m sure, if I had known it when I was studying in MacMonnies’ Paris studio, the only woman among a number of men who were working from nude models, I should have seen the ghosts of the whole congregation of missionaries rising up in their wrath to denounce me.” She found Paris liberating, but hardly the sinpot it was considered in America: “Zulh Taft ([Lorado’s sister] and I were there quite alone, unchaperoned; she was studying painting in a studio, while I worked away at sculpture; we ate about in restaurants, we were thrown with all sorts of people who were responsible only to themselves, we had no one watching us and no one to whom we were accountable, we went to life classes in the evening and tramped home from school late at night and we felt as protected and safe from harm as though we had been living in the heart of a family in the Middle West.” She went on to Florence, where she began to create the classically-inspired fountains that became her specialty. Returning to the U. S., she struggled, but eventually managed to establish a reputation and a steady stream of clients. Modeling My Life ends with an account her return to France as part of a YWCA mission that helped care for and entertain troops with the American Expeditionary Force.

The Stone Wall: An Autobiography, by Mary Casals (1930)

The Stone Wall is something of a landmark in American LGBT history, perhaps the first autobiography in which the author openly acknowledges her attraction to another woman and their long and happy partnership. Born and raised on a New England farm to family with deep Puritan roots, Casal recalls having to defend herself from sexual assault from hired hands and other men while still a teen. She began to realize her feelings towards women early on, and had her first physical contact (kisses and hugs) with another woman while in college. She felt great pressure to conform to conventions, and even married a man, an entirely unsatisfying experience that ended in divorce after she gave birth to a stillborn child and, in her grief, fled to New York City. There, she came to peace with her feelings for the first time: “My city contact had caused me to look at myself less and less as a sexual monstrosity.” She writes candidly of the practical difficulties of finding ways to spend time with another woman in public, given the rigid social customs of the time, let alone taking the risk to express her feelings. It was not until she was in her thirties that she met her long-term lover, Juno, and they set up house together in an apartment in Greenwich Village. Today’s reader will probably cringe at a few aspects that date the book (she refers to homosexuals as “inverts”), but it’s a window into how one gay woman managed to make a life for herself in a time of considerable intolerance.

Louise Baker, playing tennis (press photo from 1955)
Louise Baker, playing tennis (press photo from 1955)
Out on a Limb, by Louise Baker (1946)

Reviewing Out on a Limb in the Saturday Review, Grace Frank quipped that Louise Baker could have easily called her book “The Leg and I,” in imitation of Betty Macdonald’s best-seller of the same period. The two books certainly share the same comic outlook, with every character an eccentric and every episode retold with tongue in cheek. While still a girl, Louise Baker was struck down by a passing automobile and had to have her right leg amputated. “When I regained consciousness ten days later in a white hospital bed, with the blankets propped over me like a canopy, I had one foot in the grave.” Such are the sort of puns with which Baker fills her book. Baker’s parents insisted that she make every effort to get along with her bi-pedal friends, and she soon developed a spirit of independence that led her, in the course of time, to learn to ski, skate, and play tennis (she was encouraged to write the book to provide inspiration to the many disabled veterans just returned from World War Two). She preferred using crutches to wearing an artificial leg, and accumulated a considerable “crutch wardrobe”: “Crutches don’t come in gay colors but any good enamel works the enhancing transformation. I am now just as likely to complain, ‘I haven’t got a crutch I’d wear to a dog fight,’ as I am to say, ‘I haven’t got a decent dress to my name.'” Baker also wrote a comic novel, Party Line, about the 43-year career of switchboard operator Elmira Johnson in the small town of Mayfield, California, and a humorous account of her time working in a boy’s boarding school in Arizona, Snips and Snails, which was made into a gawdawful movie, Her Twelve Men (1954).

Journey Down a Blind Alley, by Mary Borden (1946)

Published the same year as Out on a Limb, Borden’s book is its polar opposite in tone. The book recounts Borden’s experiences in organizing and leading the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit throughout much of the Second World War, beginning in France in February 1940 and then, after evacuating to England and regrouping, in Syria and Egypt, and finally, in France again after D-Day. This was Borden’s second experience of battlefield nursing: she wrote of her time in field hospitals on the Western Front in The Forbidden Zone (1929). Borden, an American heiress and novelist (I featured her ambitious 1927 novel, Flamingo, here in 2009), was married to Brigadier General Edward Spears, who was Churchill’s military liaison with the French government up to its defeat and then with DeGaulle’s Free French forces. Much of Journey Down a Blind Alley is colored by a bitterness towards DeGaulle that stems in part from his at times petty treatment of Spears and in part from the many egos and attitudes among the French military with whom Borden had to deal, since the ambulance unit spent most of its time assigned to support Free French forces. She does admit that much of the difficulties had their roots in the complexity of interests among the French: “Looking back I realized now that the confusion and discord in the hospital reflected what was happening throughout France. Was not France herself in the winter of 1945 a medley of discordant elements with her F.F.I. and F.T.P., her heroic resistance and her bogus resistance, her Petainists and her milice and her armies from overseas who were straining their strength to the utmost limit of endurance so that France should not be said to have been liberated by strangers?” Journey Down a Blind Alley offers a sobering antidote to anyone still harboring an inclination to view the Second World War in simple good-and-bad terms.


The Journey, by Lillian Smith (1956)

“I went on this journey to find an image of the human being that I could feel proud of,” Lillian Smith writes at the start of The Journey. Smith, whose 1944 best-seller, Strange Fruit, was one of the first books to openly deal with segregation and racism in the South, finds herself reconsidering memories from her childhood and decides to travel along the coastal roads of South Carolina and George, “trying to recover the feel of the country where my family once
lived.” Along the way, she encounters people with varying views of life, race, and faith, including a motel owner whose ideas of progress, she realizes, come from a very different place than hers:

The manager of the motor court came to my door to offer a television set. He was of the swamp country, I saw now, as he stood there. He had the look that is left on a face when hookworm and malaria and malnutrition have done their destructive work early in life. And in his speech were the old accents which were natural to the wire grass and swamp people who found schooling as hard to come by in the old days as shelter and food. People who, in my childhood, were almost as remote from books and learning and science and art and comforts as are the peasants of China and India.

Now he operated a motor court, looked at television, drove a Buick, took a trip in a plane each fall (so he told me) to the World Series, and read a newspaper.

As I made use of the conveniences with which our scientific age has filled this motor court, set close to the swamp — old and mysterious and deep-rooted in time as our human past — I kept thinking of this man.

“Everything in the place is modrun,” he proudly told me, as he flung open the door to show me the mauve-colored lavatory and the mauve-colored toilet and mauve-colored toilet paper. And as I stared at the splendor I knew that his sanitary facilities as a child had been limited to a wash pan, a lean-to privy and the ancient corncob. No wonder he was proud of participating in these modern times.

As with many books, the best parts of The Journey are those that deal with the specific, the individual. As Orville Prescott wrote in his New York Times review, when Smith “writes about people she has known — quoting their conversation and telling their stories — she does so with sure skill and considerable emotional power.” However, “When she writes about abstract ideas she occasionally lapses into spasms of embarrassingly lush rhetoric and passages where her generous feeling is obvious, but where her precise meaning is lost….”

Dickey Chapell, 1959
Dickey Chapell, 1959
What’s a Woman Doing Here?, by Dickey Chapelle (1962)

Dickey Chapelle rarely followed a conventional path in her life. At age sixteen, she was studying aeronautical engineering on a scholarship to M. I. T.. Though she flunked out after two years, her love of airplanes and flying remained, and she earned her pilot’s license, paying for lessons with articles she sold to aviation magazines. When her husband was stationed to an Army unit in Panama after Pearl Harbor and she was told that wives could not accompany the men, she figured out that she could follow as an accredited journalist, and her career as a war correspondent began. Chapelle worked as both reporter and photographer. Her first combat assignment took her to Iwo Jima a week after the first landings. There she had a sudden wake-up call when encountering a wounded Marine whose “story probably is one of the reasons I’ve kept on being a chronicler of wars”:

After I took his picture, while the chaplain administered the last rites as the corpsman began transfusing him, he came back to consciousness for a moment. His eyes rested on me. He said, “Hey, who you spyin’ for?”

“The folks back home, Marine.”

“The folks-back home-huh? Well-fuck the folks back home,” he rasped. Then he closed his eyes. I didn’t see where his stretcher was carried.

After we had ceased loading for the day, his voice haunted me. What lay behind that raw reflex answer? What dear-John-I-know-you-understand letter? What other betrayal?

I remembered his wound. A piece of a giant mortar shell had sliced across his stomach. So I went down into the abdominal ward with my notebook in my hand. There were no names in it yet because I wasn’t willing to hold up moving stretchers while I spelled out names. But I had copied the dogtag numbers of each man as I made his picture. The nurses’ clipboard listed the serial numbers of the men being treated. The number I wanted wasn’t there. I thought perhaps I had been mistaken about the kind of wound he had, so I tried to find him in the other wards, the other decks, even those of the officers. I couldn’t find his number.

There was only one more set of papers aboard. This showed the dogtag numbers of the men who had died on deck. The number for which I was looking was near the top of the list.

So I think I was the last person to whom he was able to talk. And I had heard him die cursing what I thought he had died to defend.

It was my first and most terrible encounter with the barrier between men who fight, and those for whom the poets and the powers say they fight.

Chapelle went on to report on the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, on the U. S. Marine intervention in Lebanon, on Castro’s war against Batista in Cuba, and on the civil war in Algeria. She was captured by the Russians while accompanying a group of Hungarian resistance fighters along the border with Austria in 1956 and spent seven years in a Budapest jail. She had strong anti-Communist views and, with her husband Tony Chapelle, formed a relief organization, AVISO (American Voluntary Information Services Overseas), that provided food and information support on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the years following the Second World War. She was killed in Vietnam on November 4, 1965 while on patrol with a Marine platoon near Chu Lai. She was the first female American war correspondent killed in action. A selection of Chapelle’s photographs was published on the Washington Post website in December 2015 and over 500 of her pictures are available online at the Wisconsin Historical Society website.

The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson (1945)

I found this intriguing book on the Internet Archive (link), started reading it, and kept on and on, wondering where its meandering and, at times, mirage-like thread would lead. By the time I realized that it didn’t fully qualify as neglected (it’s been reissued, along with over a dozen other titles by Storm Jameson, as an e-book by Bloomsbury Publishing), it was too late.

Although Jameson presents it as the journal of the fictional Mary Hervey Russell, daughter of the domineering Sylvia (portrayed with both empathy and acidity in The Captain’s Wife) and her husband, captain of various small freighters, the intersections between the fictional Mary and the real-life Storm Jameson are too many to mistake this as anything but Jameson’s own journal, lightly disguised. It’s also not always a journal, as it includes a short play featuring Odysseus and a conversation about contemporary English poetry conducted by the corpses of several British soldiers killed during the German invasion of France in 1940.

Many of the entries are undated, but one can safely say that the journal covers the period between the Sudetenland crisis of 1938 and early 1943. Much of the first half of the book deals with the fears and trials of European intellectuals that Russell/Jameson encounters and assists in her role as president of the British branch of PEN, and the second half with her experiences during the first years of World War Two, including the Blitz and rationing. While I initially thought Jameson’s reflections on these contemporary events would be the most interesting parts of the book, there is often such a relentless seriousness that too much of it becomes tedious. (Or ridiculous: “Turning her back on us, France is bequeathing us a summer. Very kind. It would be kinder still if she sent us her Fleet.”)

Instead, perhaps the strongest connecting thread in the book is that of Russell/Jameson’s memories and emotions about her family. Her mother was imperious, selfish, unloving, and dismissive of her husband and children. Though seen from a distance of thirty years or more, her actions and words left wounds still raw. Jameson mourns the loss of her brother, a pilot killed in the First World War and then, just at the end, of her sister, killed in a German bombing raid. And she reflects upon the parallels between her family’s small dramas and the great changes she has witnessed in her lifetime:

Mine is the last generation brought up to know a great many hymns. And the last which remembers, as a thing felt, the Victorian certainties, hollow as these were, wormed inside, in 1900. Isolated, sarcastically indifferent to the rest of England, our Victorianism was almost of 1840. I rebelled against it, but it had formed and deformed me; even my revolt was filial. My deepest self, when I am conscious — you won’t expect me to answer for any sleeping or disinterested self — is patient, stubborn, a little cracked in its dislike of being told what to do. Anything which is repeated a great many times, a chair, a sentiment, words, repels it.

The lyricism of some of Russell/Jameson’s recollections are almost Proustian in their intensity, and I will have to excerpt one later to illustrate this.

While some parts of The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell are abstruce, dated, histrionic, or simply tedious, there are also some wonderful passages:

My landlady, a woman about forty, was in her room on the ground floor, the door open, while her hair was waved. Looking in the glass she could watch it as well as note who came in and out. In a monotonous voice she was telling the hairdresser that her husband had spent the night “with those women”, and was asleep in his room. “First thing when he wakes he’ll ask me to give him a clean shirt, and then what money I have in the drawer. What disillusion!”

The lines of her mouth formed a single word, of surprise and bitterness.

The streets here, behind their mask, unsmiling, of sunlight, are grey and hard with age. The life going on continuously, every inch occupied by it, in every room someone coughing, working, bartering, baking, or pressing offal into a cheap pate, ironing, giving birth, dying, was self-supported and self-devouring, completely cut off, by a hard membrane, from the soil.

This was the eighth book Jameson published during the war, and over the course of a sixty-year career, she published well over five dozen books. As with Ethel Mannin, Phyllis Bottome, and a number of her other contemporaries, Jameson’s work was a remarkable combination of the prolific, the popular, the psychological, and the political. It’s hard to imagine all of these qualities coexisting in a successful writer today.

The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson
London: Macmillan, 1945

Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book, edited by Ethel Armes (1935) – reviewed by Agnes Repplier


[Editor’s note: Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book, subtitled, “The International Romance of a Young Lady of Fashion of Colonial Philadelphia with Letters to Her and About Her,” compiled and edited by Ethel Armes, was published in 1935 and is available free on the Internet Archive: Link.

The following review, written by the remarkable Philadelphia essayist, Agnes Repplier, appeared in the March 1936 issue of The American Mercury and is available online at Link.]

The Masculine Era

“Surrounded by lovers, I could at first see you without great danger,” wrote M. Louis Guillaume Otto, afterwards Compte de Mosloy, to Miss Nancy Shippen, aged sixteen; and, reading his words, we are irresistibly reminded of Lydia Bennet, aged fifteen, “tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.” The close of the eighteenth century, whether it was closing in England or her colonies, saw little to fill a girl’s mind but costumes and lovers, followed in the course of time by marriage and domesticity. “I was formed for the world, and educated to live in it,” said Nancy a few years later, when her world was shrinking and darkening, and when the three hours consumed in dressing for a “bride’s visit” seemed no longer worth the while.

And what did it mean to be educated for the world in I779? Miss Shippen at fifteen could play a little on the harpsichord, sing a little “with timidity”, speak a little French, dance creditably, and embroider very well. While still at school she worked a set of ruffles for General Washington, no easy task as, in the absence of lace, the threads had to be drawn to give them a filmy look. She does not appear to have been very intelligent, but she was good tempered and docile, and she married the wealthy man who was her father’s choice rather than the agreeable young attaché to the French Legation who was her own.

Generally speaking this was a course to be commended. Fathers have longer sight and clearer vision than do girls under twenty. But in this particular case, prudence failed to justify itself. Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston had everything to recommend him save the kind of character and disposition which would have enabled a wife to live comfortably by his side. Nancy was not long suffering. After two years of profound discomfort, she took herself and her baby daughter back to her father’s home in Philadelphia, thus starting the endless complications which, in that staid and conventional era, beset the defiant wife. For Colonial America was a man-made world. Unmarried women had far more liberty, according to French visitors, than was good for them; but, once married, they fell into line, content to reign absolutely in their own domain, and to assume the responsibilities thus entailed:

To take the burden, and have the power,
And seem like the well-protected flower.

There was a great deal of chivalrous speech (it was the fashion of the time); and behind it a hard masculine sense that had nothing in common with the deep sentimentality of our day.

Nancy Shippen Livingston was to find this out to her cost. Her husband made no great effort to compel her return to him; but insisted firmly that the child should be placed under the care of his mother, Margaret Beekman Livingston, the only person in the confused narrative who commands our unfaltering respect. It is a relief to turn from unreason and emotionalism to Gilbert Stuart’s masterly portrait of this unpretentiously great lady; to the firm mouth, the amused eyes, the serene repose of a woman who understood life, and conquered it. Her generous support of her daughter-in-law is the best assurance that the unhappy young woman deserved more sympathy than she got.

To seek a divorce was so unusual a proceeding in 1789 that Nancy’s uncle, Mr. Arthur Lee, considered her desire for freedom as a joke; a joke in very bad taste, he admitted, but none the less absurd. That mysterious crime, mental cruelty, which has today been stretched to cover any action which an ordinarily human husband might perform in the course of twenty-four hours, was still a hundred years off. It would have provoked ribald laughter from a hard-headed eighteenth-century legislature. Henry Livingston was as safe then (he did not deserve safety) as he would be defenseless today. It is indicative of the decency of Colonial America that the word alimony was never mentioned by his supporters or by his wife’s.

The rest of the Journal Book, which is the raison d’etre of Miss Armes’ massive volume, is filled with pictures of social and domestic life in the days which charm us by their seeming serenity, but which must often have been empty and dull. Dull certainly for young Mrs. Livingston who loved frivolity and could not get enough of it; who hated the country which grew “more disagreeable” to her every day she lived in it; who tried hard to read Blair’s “excellent sermons”; and who wept copiously over The Sorrows of Young Werther. “There is luxury in some kinds of grief,” she remarks with unwonted sapience. Always in the offing is the good-looking Compte de Mosloy who would gladly have espoused his early love had she been free; but who filled up his time by marrying two other women, who made him reasonably happy.

We have no doubt that life today is too crowded, too noisy, too assertive, too pretentious in matters of the intellect, too combative about material things. Standards are lowered year by year to meet the demands of mediocrity. Yet out of this welter emerges clear and plain an effort to aid the uneasy human beings who know only that things go wrong. We are all pushing harder than is seemly, but perhaps we push to some purpose. The Sorrows of Young Werther echoed “the dim-rooted pain of thinking men” — hard to heal, but comparatively easy to forget.

Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book, compiled and edited by Ethel Armes
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1935

Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness (1958)

doubleexposureYou don’t read Double Exposure, the dual-narrated memoir of identical twins and society dames Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Thelma Morgan, Lady (later Viscountess) Furness as literature, but as a combination of specimen and spectacle. And as the latter, it offers more nooks and crevices than a Mandelbrot set.

For those into abnormal psychology, there is their half-Irish, half-Chilean and 100% drama-queen mother, Laura Delphine Kilpatrick Morgan. Nora Ephron once wrote that, “If you give your kids a choice, your mother in the next room on the verge of suicide versus your mother in Hawaii in ecstasy, they’d choose suicide in the next room.” If you asked Gloria and Thelma, they’d go for the Hawaii option: anything to get away from that woman. Their daddy, on the other hand, the fine, dignified and long-suffering diplomat, Harry Hays Morgan (Senior), could do no wrong. Is it any wonder that both girls pretty much marry the first men who show any interest in them and who shared the outstanding attribute of being about the age of their father when they were born?

No matter, for each is quickly disposed with. Thelma’s first husband, Jimmy Vail Converse, grandson of AT&T co-founder Theodore Vail, turns out to be an abusive and bankrupt alcoholic. A quick trip to California produces a divorce, followed in about a year by marriage to Marmaduke Furness, British shipping magnate and member of the House of Lords … and also over twenty years her senior. His good manners and huge fortune could not hold a candle to the likes of Edward Prince of Wales, and Divorce Number Two followed within eight years of Divorce Number One. Sadly, Thelma lost out to another American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and had to drown her sorrows in a quick fling with Prince Aly Khan (later husband to Rita Hayworth). She managed somehow to overlook the fact that, for once, she was the older one.

Meanwhile, Gloria fell for and married Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, heir to the fortune established by “Commodore” Vanderbilt. Gloria and Reggie got along famously (sorry), but sadly, Reggie had to go and ruin things by choking to death on his own blood due to a mysterious throat hemorrhage medical condition he had kept secret from her. A man whose chief accomplishment, according to his Wikipedia entry, was that, “He was the founder and president of many equestrian organizations,” Reggie left his widow and daughter (the Gloria Vanderbilt of fashion fame) comfortably off. Unfortunately, he and his lawyers left open a legal loophole through which his sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (yes, those Whitneys, swooped a few years later, making off with daughter Gloria and most of (mother) Gloria’s money. Nothing for it but a few more affairs. Oh, and a few years after that, daughter Gloria and lawyers swooped again, took mother Gloria’s annual allowance, and donated it to a charity for the blind. Had the expression been invented back then, one imagines (daughter) Gloria’s lawyers shouting, “BOO-YAH!”

But wait–there’s more! There are the rare and elusive Vanderbilt siblings–three of them. You have to keep a sharp eye out for them, though: no sooner than you spot one and it’s off into the mists for another decade or two. There are more transatlantic steamship trips than there are Washington-New York shuttle flights. There are their many close, intimate acquaintances–humble folk “such as Peggy Stout, who married dashing Lawrence Copley Thaw and later divorced him; Jimmy and Dorothy Fargo, whose name is associated with Pony Express fame; the two daughters of Mrs. Richard T. Wilson, Marion and Louise; Juan Trippe, now president of Pan-American Airways; the two Jimmys, Leary and O’Gorman; and Margaret Power, who had introduced us to Margaret Hennessy. They were both from Montana; their families at one time jointly owned the Anaconda copper mines.” And you: who do you watch polo with? Thought so.

Kirkus Reviews praised the twin authors for “sparing no detail no matter how unorthodox,” but half the fun of this book are the details they left out. Like, say, a moral and ethical framework. As Thelma is falling in love with Prince Edward, she and “Duke” Furness head off to Africa for a spot of safari and shooting. Lying in her tent one night, Thelma wails, “Why did I have to be the big white hunter?” A short ellipsis later, and she totes up her toll: “I shot an elephant, a lion, a rhino, and a water buffalo.” Even in those days, scruples were so passé. If you ever needed proof positive that the very rich are different from you and I, take a stroll through Double Exposure. For us proles, it’s available for free on the Internet Archive (Link).

from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness
New York: David McKay and Company, 1958

Out! damn crumbs, from Notes from Sick Rooms, by Mrs. Leslie Stephen (1883)


Among the number of small evils which haunt illness, the greatest, in the misery which it can cause, though the smallest in size, is crumbs. The origin of most things has been decided on, but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer. I will forbear to give my own explanation, which would be neither scientific nor orthodox, and will merely beg that their evil existence may be recognized and, as far as human nature allows, guarded against. The torment of crumbs should be stamped out of the sick bed as if it were the Colorado beetle in a potato field. Anyone who has been ill will at once take her precautions, feeble though they will prove. She will have a napkin under her chin, stretch her neck out of bed, eat in the most uncomfortable way, and watch that no crumbs get into the folds of her nightdress or jacket. When she lies back in bed, in the vain hope that she may have baffled the enemy, he is before her: a sharp crumb is buried in her back, and grains of sand seem sticking to her toes. If the patient is able to get up and have her bed made, when she returns to it she will find the crumbs are waiting for her. The housemaid will protest that the sheets were shaken, and the nurse that she swept out the crumbs, but there they are, and there they will remain unless the nurse determines to conquer them. To do this she must first believe in them, and there are few assertions that, are met with such incredulity as the one — I have crumbs in my bed. After every meal the nurse should put her hand into the bed and feel for the crumbs. When the bed is made, the nurse and housemaid must not content themselves with shaking or sweeping. The tiny crumbs stick in the sheets, and the nurse must patiently take each crumb out; if there are many very small ones, she must even wet her fingers, and get the crumbs to stick to them. The patient’s night-clothes must be searched; crumbs lurk in each tiny fold or frill. They go up the sleeve of the night-gown, and if the patient is in bed when the search is going on, her arms should hang out of bed, so that the crumbs which are certain to be there may be induced to fall down.

Mrs. Leslie Stephen, born Julia Prinsep Duckworth, is better remembered today as the mother of Virginia Woolf. She published this little book about a year after Virginia’s birth, with the simple aim of sharing “things which have come under my actual observation, either as giving relief, or causing discomfort to the sufferer.” Notes from Sick Rooms, which has been reissued recently by Paris Press to accompany Virginia’s essay, “On Being Ill,” is also available on its own from the Internet Archive (link).

It’s a short book brimming with common sense and a certain measure of humor. “I have often wondered,” she writes at the start, “why it is considered a proof of virtue in anyone to become a nurse. The ordinary relations between the sick and the well are far easier and pleasanter than between the well and the well.” Of course, relations between care-giver and cared-for are often not easy or pleasant, but her point is well-taken: overall, the odds of both parties being accommodating are better.

When Notes from Sick Rooms was reissued back in the early 1980s, Penelope Lively wrote of it in the London Review of Books:

It is as though Mrs Ramsay had stepped out of the pages of To the Lighthouse – cool, kind, sensible and meticulous – and set out to tell us, with the minimum of fuss, how to wash an invalid, make the bed, comb the hair, give an enema, arrange the bedside lighting. The tone has that combination of humanity and practicality that ought to pervade the medical profession and so frequently does not. It makes one yearn to collapse at once between linen sheets smoothed by Mrs Stephen and give oneself up in gratitude to the calm, unhurried, reassuring presence, the therapeutic rubbings and the beef tea. The section on the removal of crumbs from the bed is a masterpiece. This is the voice of a woman for whom the unsentimental alleviation of distress in others is a way of life; hearing it, you know this is someone whose advice would always have been equally precise, rational and wise – the sort of person you would want to meet in a hospital consulting-room, or at the scene of a disaster. And you think also of the frequently-reproduced photograph of Julia Stephen – a face of unforgettable beauty. And of Mrs Ramsay: ‘Was it wisdom? Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty, so that all one’s perceptions, half-way to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh? or did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all?’

Notes from Sick Rooms, by Mrs. Leslie Stephen
London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1883

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks

oldindispensablesI’ve been saving this one up for a rainy day. So, as I watch the grey drizzle blanketing our neighborhood, I have to share one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years: The Old Indispensables–not a romance, but a wonderful comedy of bureaucracy raised to the nth power.

Set in the Circumvention Branch of the Circumlocution Office, The Old Indispensables is a farce in which no one–not the reader and certainly not any of the characters–quite knows what’s going on. Working in dogged earnest in commandeered hotel rooms sometime toward the end of the first year of the World War One, the staff of the Circumvention Branch–a mix of veterans of the civil service wars, well-meaning but clueless young men down from university, and bright-eyed young women continually being sent off with great stacks of papers–labors away on a constant flow of requests of uncertain intent.

All they ever seem to do with these requests is to allow them to age in their in-baskets for a few days, after which they scribble down a brief note and send the package off to another part of the vast machine of the wartime government. And there is such a variety of offices to choose from: Derogation of Crown Appanages Office; the Controller of Tombstones; the Director of Delays and Evasions; the Divagation Commission; the Board of Interference.

The primary focus of the Branch’s civil servants is on advancement of their own careers–as long as it involves the minimal amount of effort. Mr Evans, for example, somewhat self-conscious of having taken his degree from the little-known University of Llangollen, constantly mulls over his chances:

His bath that morning had been disagreeably chilly; and, as he had stepped into it, he had reflected that he was nearly thirty-four and that he would be due for compulsory retirement at the age of sixty. This gave him only twenty-six years in which to reach the summit of his desires and he fancied that he had lost ground rather during the last three weeks. All through the day dark thoughts filled his mind and oppressed him with sinister suggestions. Perhaps he would never be Permanent Under-Secretary, never a K.C.B., perhaps not even a C.B.; and when his good angel whispered to him that the C.M.G. and the I.S.O. still existed, the mocking demons of melancholy arose and extinguished even this gleam of hope.

Meanwhile, the senior bureaucrats battles with rival departments to gain ever-larger numbers of staff–and then to evade the dreaded Towle Committee, which is busily rooting out examples of over-staffing in the government.

A junior member of the Branch, sent off with the vague instruction to “get some facts,” learns that another distant branch of the bureaucracy, the Manx Office, has managed to ensure its existence by disappearing almost entirely:

Here were no machine-guns in sight, no detachments of troops. There were not even any plain-clothes men loitering purposefully about, for, when the grocer had completed his mission by mbarking the empties, and had driven rapidly away, the street was quite empty. Cyril proceeded down it, looking for a brass plate; and at length on the railings outside a small and respectable house, in no other way distinguished from the rest, he saw a brass plate plainly inscribed with the words, “Manx Office.” He paused a moment, finding the appearance of the closed door a trifle unfamiliar in a Government department. At last he went up the steps and pushed at the door. It was locked; and another brass plate requested the visitor not to ring unless he required an answer.

Cyril therefore rang and waited. After several minutes, feeling his desire for an answer still undiminished, he rang again. A prodigious interval went by; and then he heard an uncertain shuffle of feet approaching the door from the inside. There followed the sound of bolts being pushed back and chains undone, mixed with the heavy groans of a lethargic person stirred to uncongenial activity. At last the door fell open and Cyril beheld an elderly man in shirt-sleeves, with no collar, who stood rubbing his eyes and blinking, presumably at the unaccustomed light.

“Is Mr. Choop in?” Cyril asked politely.

“Mr. Choop?” the porter repeated. “Mr. Choop? Is ‘e in? I’ll go and see. Just you wait there.” Cyril advanced into the semi-darkness of the hall and waited, while the porter lumbered into the complete darkness of the stairs and was lost to sight, though not to hearing. After several minutes he returned and said in a dull voice:

“Yes, Mr. Choop, ‘e’s in.” After this he seemed to expect that Cyril would go away.

He does finally get escorted up to the dark alcove from which Mr. Choop presides, and is warmly welcomed. After offering a cigarette and going into great detail about the many fine points of his new lighter, Mr. Choop then rises, saying, “Well, I’m sorry you must go,” and sends the young man off without disclosing a single fact about the Manx Office or its purpose.

In the end, the Circumvention Branch manages to earn a favorable report from the Towle Committee and various staff members earn various sorts of honors. The Armistice is signed–although whether with or without the contributions of the Branch remains a mystery.

For anyone who’s a fan of Yes, Minister, I heartily recommend taking a look at The Old Indispensables

Edward Shanks served on the Western Front until wounded in 1915 and went on to write over a dozen books of poetry and fiction, including the dystopian SF novel, The People of the Ruins. He received the very first Hawthornden Prize in 1919 for his book, The Queen of China and Other Poems.

The Old Indispensables is available online at the Internet Archive (link).

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks
London: Martin Secker, 1919

Ginx’s Baby and Little Hodges, by Edward Jenkins

Son of a missionary and minister who took his family to India, Canada and the U.S. and who was ordained in three different churches–Wesleyan, Methodist, and Presbyterian–Edward Jenkins had stronger Protestant and anti-imperialist roots than perhaps any other Victorian radical, which is why he might be considered 19th Century England’s closest counterpart to Jonathan Swift. And like Swift, he used the infant as the instrument for his most savage satires.

edwardjenkinsJenkins’ first book, Ginx’s Baby: His Birth and Other Misforuntes (1871), used its title character–the thirteenth child both to Mr. and Mrs. Ginx, a London navvy and his wife–to mock the pretensions of religious charities and high-minded reformers, who claimed to serve the poor but more often used them to serve their own interests. Ginx, his wife, and all their children manage to fit into one tiny room filled mostly with on “thirteenth-hand” bed:

When Ginx, who was a stout navvy, and Mrs. Ginx, who was, you may conceive, a matronly woman, were in it, there was little vacant space about them. Yet, as they were forced to find resting-places for all the children, it not seldom happened that at least one infant was perilously wedged between the parental bodies; and latterly they had been so pressed for room in the household that two younglings were nestled at the foot of the bed. Without foot-board or pillows, the lodgment of these infants was precarious, since any fatuous movement of Ginx’s legs was likely to expel them head-first. However they were safe, for they were sure to fall on one or other of their brothers or sisters.

Although the Ginxes, like good Victorian subjects, take their lot in life for granted (“They regarded disease with the apathy of creatures who felt it to be inseparable from humanity”), the latest Ginx is one too many, and Mr. Ginx considers drowning the newborn in the Thames as a solution. A crowd gathers, and a debate erupts among them as to where the responsibility for the situation lies. One man blames Ginx and his wife for having children when they couldn’t afford them and another wonders why “Parlyment” doesn’t provide better care for the poor. Finally, a nun intervenes and persuades a policeman to let her take the baby back to “the Sisters of Misery.”

There, the nuns consult with the Church authorities and soon little Ginx–now named Ambrosius–becomes the centerpiece of a campaign to encourage procreation as a means for creating more Catholics. This draws the wrath of Protestant churches, and an “Evangelical Alliance” forms to rescue him. They “favor of teaching him at once to hate idolatry, music, crosses, masses, nuns, priests, bishops, and cardinals,” and form a Committee of the Protestant Detectoral Union on Ginx’s Baby to determine the correct approach to the infant’s religious education. Unfortunately, after holding twenty-three meetings and releasing countless announcements, the Committee is forced to disband for lack of funds.

In the meantime, Mr. Ginx resorts to abandoning the baby on a shopkeeper’s doorstep, which then leads to his being placed in one poorhouse and then another. Now near death, the child is rescued by a visiting doctor and his case becomes a cause celebre in the press. The respective guardians of the two poorhouses go to court to determine which is at fault. The baby is returned to the Ginxes, who have given up any hope of surviving in England and decided to emigrate to Australia, and once again Mr. Ginx abandons him, this time on the doorstep of a political club in Pall Mall.

Here he comes to the service of the Radicals, who attempt to launch a debate in the House of Commons on the plight of the poor. However, the Minister for the Accidental Accompaniments of the Empire takes them by surprise by launching his own debate in the House of Lords. Though “he never seen the Baby, and knew nothing or very little about him,” this does not prevent him from delivering “an elaborate speech in which he asked for aristocratic sympathy on his behalf” and proposes a practical solution: send the child to Australia. Unfortunately, this motion runs afoul of the great economic authority, Lord Munibagge, who protests, “Ginx’s Baby could not starve in a country like this. He (Lord Munnibagge) had never heard of a case of a baby starving.” The Lords conclude that “there was no necessity for the interference of Government in the case of Ginx’s Baby or any other babies or persons.”

In the end, passed along from charity to charity, Ginx’s baby grows into a young and still hungry delinquent and decides one night to resort to his father’s first solution: he quietly jumps off Vauxhall Bridge and drowns himself in the Thames.

littlehodgeSeveral years after publishing Ginx’s Baby, Jenkins took another satirical stab at the inertia and hypocrisy of Victorian society through the instrument of a baby–this time in the form of the world’s tiniest baby, known as Little Hodge (1878). Weighing just over three pounds at birth, Little Hodges’ fame soon spreads: “Many visitors came to the workhouse — physicians, surgeons, comparative anatomists, and one or two social science philosophers.” They all come to the same conclusion: “that he was very small,” and “that he could not live.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Hodges, a farm laborer with eight other children, he does live, and, with his mother dead from childbirth, he needs to eat. Hodges turns to his landlord, then to his parson, then to his local poorhouse, and so on, finding all of them greatly concerned and utterly unable to help. When he tries to forage and poach to find some free food for his family, he’s brought up on charges. His plight inspires some of his fellow farm workers to form a union and revolt against the landowners, but this movement also fails to provide solution to the immediate problem of getting enough to eat. Hodge dies one night, probably murdered by his landlord, and his children are taken off to America by a Yankee philanthropist.

Like many other attempts to rework a fictional formula, the tone of Little Hodges seem tired and bitter compared to the gusto with which Jenkins skewered English society high and low in Ginx’s Baby. Where in Ginx’s Baby Jenkins pumped up his targets to exaggerated proportions before bursting them with quick jabs, in Little Hodges, mockery too often gives way to anger and sermonizing. One could trace a line from Swift to Kafka’s The Trial that passes through Ginx’s Baby; Little Hodges, though, is closer to Ten Nights in a Bar-room than anything in the way of lasting satirical literature.

Both Ginx’s Baby and Little Hodges are available at the Internet Archive.

Ginx’s Baby: His Birth and Other Misfortunes, by Edward Jenkins
London: Strachan & Company, 1871

The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao

If I were looking for an Amazon review headline for The Conquest of Rome, Mathilde Serao’s 1885 novel, I’d probably opt for “Zola Does the Italian Parliament.” For, like a number of Zola’s novels, such as The Belly of Paris, Money, or The Ladies’ Paradise, the story is really just the author’s excuse for a long, leisurely and meticulously detailed description of the workings of the behind-the-scenes world of some enterprise most people would have taken for granted.

conquestofromeIn this case, it’s the world of the Montecitorio, the Italian Parliament, as seen through the eyes of Francesco Sangiorgio, the newly-elected deputy from a remote rural area of Basilicata, one of the poorest parts of southern Italy. Intensely driven, with great ambition despite deep insecurity for his poverty and humble status, Sangiorgio has fought his way from school teacher to country lawyer to district advocate, and now heads to Rome to launch his political career.

A man with little in the way of personality, Sangiorgio soon learns how low is the position of an unknown deputy from a backward district in a parliament as large as the U. S. House of Representatives. Taking a cheap room in a dank and dirty boarding house, he makes almost no acquaintances until he is befriended by Tullio Giustini, a hunchbacked deputy from Tuscany. Shunned for his physical defects, Giustini uses his position as an outsider to act as an acerbic critic of the Montecitorio and its social strata.

“Why should it be concerned with you,” he asks Sangiorgio, “an infinitesimal atom, passing across the scene so quickly? It is indifferent; it is the great cosmopolitan city which has this universal character, which knows everything because it has seen everything.” To conquer Rome, he advises, one must have “a heart of brass, an inflexible, rigid will; he must be young, healthy, robust, and bold, without ties and without weaknesses; he must apply himself profoundly, intensely to that one idea of victory.” It’s obvious that Giustini considers this a fool’s goal, but instead, Sangiorgio is inspired and vows to become the next conqueror.

With no money and no social connections, Sangiorgio has little chance of being noticed, but Giustini takes him along to a reception hosted by Countess Fiammanti, whose salon is one of the true centers of power. Sangiorgio’s looks are nothing to speak of, but the Countess is attracted by his passion for political success, and spins an idle web to see if she can instigate an affair between him and Donna Angelica Vargas, the wife of a Cabinet member.

Although Donna Angelica never puts her position at risk, she encourages Sangiorgio just enough to fill him with a dangerous blend of romantic and political passion, supercharged by his utter naivety. He rushes headlong into a session of Parliament, at which Donna Angelica’s husband is giving a long and dull speech introducing the new budget. It is a predictable matter, and after droning on for an hour, the Minister concludes and begins accepting the congratulations of his colleagues when another speaker is announced: “Honourable colleagues, I beg for silence. The Honourable Sangiorgio has the floor.”

“‘Who ? Who ?’ was the universal inquiry.”

Taking advantage of the suprised silence, Sangiorgio plays the moment for its full dramatic value.

Hereupon the curious eyes of the members sought out that colleague of theirs, whom scarcely anyone knew. … No one thought him insignificant. And then divers speculations grew rife in the Chamber. Would this new deputy speak for or against the Minister? Was he one of those flatterers who, scarcely arrived, hastened to make a show of loyalty to the Government? Or was he some little impudent nobody who would stammer through a feeble attack before the House, and be suppressed by the ironical murmurs of the assembly? He was a Southerner and a lawyer — only that was known about him. Therefore he would deliver an oration, the usual rhetoric which the Piedmontese detested, the Milanese derided, and the Tuscans despised.

Instead, the Honourable Sangiorgio began to talk deliberately, but with such a resonant, commanding voice that it filled the hall and made the audience give a sigh of relief. The ladies, whom the warmth had half lulled to sleep, revived, and the press gallery, empty since the conclusion of the Minister’s discourse, began to refill with reporters, returning to their places.

Sangiorgio delivers a riveting speech that condemns the Government for its neglect of the very peasantry that elected him, and gains the attention of the press, opposition, and a few members of the Government.

matildeseraoIt is, however, just a flash in the pan. Sangiorgio’s only real agenda is to be accepted, and when Donna Angelica begins to take him a little more seriously, he quickly loses all interest in anything aside from having her accept him as a lover. He neglects the affairs of his electorate. He spends money he doesn’t have to create an elegant love nest to entice her. He succeeds only in annoying a better-placed would-be suitor, and the two end up fighting a duel. Sangiorgio wins, but in a manner that merely further alienates him from the people he would engratiate himself with. And so he climbs aboard the train back to the Basilicata, Rome having never really noticed his existence.

It’s a fairly predictable story pattern, one that could be found in dozens of other novels about an ambitious young man from the sticks trying to make it in the big city, and on its own would provide little incentive to read The Conquest of Rome.

What the book really is, though, is a rich and carefully observed journey through Rome as it existed in the 1880s. Serao started as a journalist, and The Conquest of Rome is probably more successful as descriptive rather than artistic work. Here, for example, is Serao’s sketch of the room in which constituents wait for hours on end in hope of an audience with their deputy:

It might have been the anteroom of a celebrated physician, where invalids came, one after another, waiting their turn, looking about with the indifferent gaze of people who have lost all interest in everything else, their thoughts for ever occupied with their malady. And as in such a lugubrious anteroom, which he who has once been there on his own behalf or for one dear to him can never forget, as in such a room are assembled people with all the infirmities that torment our poor, mortal body — the consumptive, with narrow, stooping shoulders, with lean neck, his eyes swimming with a noxious fluid; the victim of heart disease, with pallid face, large veins, yellowish, swollen hands; the anaemic, with violet lips and white gums; the neurotically affected, with protuberant jaws, bulging cheekbones, emaciated frame; and the sufferers from all other diseases, hideous or pitiful, which draw the lines of the face tight, which make the mouth twitch, and impart an unwelcome glow to the hand, that glow that terrifies the healthy — thus, in such a room, did the possessors of all the moral ills unite, oblivious of all complaints but their own. … Every one of those people has a grievance in his soul, an unfulfilled desire, an active, torturing delusion, a secret sorrow, a fierce ambition, a discontent. And in their faces may be seen a corresponding spasmodic twitching, a contraction of angry lips, a dilation of nostrils trembling with nervousness, a knitting of the brows which clouds the whole countenance, hands convulsively doubled in overcoat pockets, a melancholy furrow in the women’s smile, which deepens with every new disillusion. But all of them are completely self-centred, entirely oblivious of foreign interests, indulging in a single thought, a fixed idea, because of which they watch, meet, and conflict with one another, although seeming neither to hear nor to see each other.

There are several dozen such set-pieces in the book–the galleries in the Montecitorio, the grimy quarters of the poorer deputies, the teeming life in the slums along the banks of the Tiber. Like Zola, Serao sometimes forgets to come up for air when she dives into the details, but you just have to slip a page or so further to avoid suffocation. But if you appreciate the chance to step back into a world from 100-plus years ago and soak up the sights and sounds and smells, I can recommend taking a trip through Matilde Serao’s The Conquest of Rome.

You can find electronic editions of The Conquest of Rome on the Internet Archive (Link).

The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao
New York City: Harpers, 1902
First published as La conquista di Roma, 1885

Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth

Artistic failures are often more interesting than masterpieces–or more accessible, at least. Hayden Carruth’s first and only novel, Appendix A (1963), is a good example of this. “I did the novel in the first place because that was the only way I could get my first book of poems published,” he admitted years later, in an interview published in American Poetry Review.

“I had already written a long story, which I didn’t know what to do with, about a kid in France during World War II, who had been orphaned and adopted as a sort of a mascot by a German unit,” he told the interviewer, Anthony Robbins. “So when Emile [Emile Capouya, his editor at Macmillan] said he had to have a novel, I said I’ll expand the story into a novel, and basically that’s what I did. I added three other sections to the book, making it cover a longer period.”

appendixaThis ad hoc structure is quite evident in the book. Carruth incorporated the story of the French orphan by transporting him to post-war Chicago, giving him the American nickname Charley, and making him the cuckold of an affair between the narrator, known only as E., and Charley’s wife, Alex. The first section shows the affair in midstream, centered around a sweltering July weekend. The second half is set about a month or so later, as Alex decides to leave E.–and Charley–over the course of long and boozy day and night. Framing these three parts is one set ten years later, as E. reflects back on the experience from an asylum somewhere in upstate New York.

It’s an awkward collage. The Charley/Gaston story is a crude graft, a pointless excursion from the main thread of the novel. And Carruth never provides a convincing explanation of what drove E. to isolate himself in a cottage in the Connecticut woods to write his account of the affair ten years later, or how this led to his being sent to the asylum.

Yet Appendix A remains an intriguing book, particularly when you know a little about Carruth’s life. E. is very much based on Carruth. Like Carruth, he served with the U. S. Army in Italy during the war. Like Carruth, he becomes the youngest editor of a prestigious and amply-endowed literary journal (E.’s Pegasus is Carruth’s Poetry). Whether Carruth had an affair similar to E.’s, he certainly did spend a time in an asylum, and spent some time after that in the care of a psychiatrist (Peter Laderman, to whom the novel is dedicated). The book’s second half revolves around a comical account of a reception, attended by the “poetocracy” and a set of ridiculous donors, for an English poet whom Carruth later identified in Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays as a fictional version of Stephen Spender: “… [B]ut I remember almost nothing of it now. I was no doubt drunk.”

As Carruth told Anthony Robbins, “It was a very anxious experience for me because I didn’t really think I knew anything about writing novels. In fact I didn’t.” Inexperience led him into a fair amount of experimentation in the book. A publisher’s note at the beginning states that the book is “part of a subdepartmental dossier in the files of a state bureau of public health.” One chapter is simply a dialogue between E. and Charley about an M. G. sportscar they co-own. Another contains a series of excerpts from such disparate sources as John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, the censure of Samuel Gorton, an early Colonial dissenter, and The Voyage of the Rattletrap, a comic Midwest novel written by an earlier Hayden Carruth. He omits Chapter 26 entirely: “if I left it in it would give the whole show away.” E. even refers to the book as a “levon”: “a feeble invention, but let it pass.”

Carruth considered the book “over-written in places.” And there are some pretty awful sentences, such as: “We are the principles of love, Linda and I, and so you need not remember us; indeed, you cannot — you can discover us only within yourselves, in which event we shall have different names and faces.” But there is something about a book being set in Chicago that guarantees an occasional punch of muscular prose:

Traffic thickened as we left St. Joseph, and would continue to thicken all the way to Chicago as more and more people heading home from points along the Indiana shore joined the stream. The concrete highway was a steady rolling formation of cars, like a railroad train a hundred miles long. At first the pace was quick, but then it slowed, cars jammed up, sometimes there would be a crescendo of aphonic squeals as drivers, one after another, jumped on their brakes; for a mile ahead in the late afternoon light you could see red glowing taillights, and the air would turn blue and acrid with exhaust fumes from idling motors.

I had almost forgotten what it was like to come back into town on a hot Sunday afternoon back in the days before freeways, but reading this sent me right back to the rear seat of my father’s Rambler, stuck with sweat to the vinyl as we inched past mile after mile of drugstores and used car lots.

And there are wonderful observations: “the momentary shame men feel upon seeing their own nakedness exposed before the elegance and subtlety of a woman.” “Chicagoans are as well schooled as most people and have studied their geography lessons in childhood, yet in their hearts they don’t know what lies beyond: space, distance, the incredible vectors and tangents of the nebulae themselves.” And this priceless comment on what we can never experience:

Instantly four poems came to my mind, four celebrations of that tender arrangement of loved flesh, four poems that should have been written by Skelton, Wyatt, Ben Jonson, and perhaps Sackville or Waller; but they didn’t write them, and neither did I. People who complain — with some justice — about the number of poems that are published, should think of the number, including some superb examples, that are never written.

None of which argues that anyone should rush to reissue Appendix A and proclaim it a lost masterpiece. Carruth may not have known much about how to write a novel, but that didn’t stop a fair amount of good writing, combined with astute and sometimes acerbic insights, from shining through the awkward seams and sometimes unchecked verbosity.

Fortunately, there is no need for a reissue, anyway: you can find electronic versions, for free, on the Internet Archive (link).

Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth
New York City: Macmillan, 1963

At the Green Goose, by D. B. Wyndham Lewis

greengooseAt the Green Goose, by D. B Wyndham Lewis (“not to be confused with the novelist Wyndham Lewis,” as nearly every biographical sketch notes), is an utterly throw-away book that you will either love or wonder why anyone would have published it.

It’s nothing more than a collections of absurd philosophico-academic monologues–or rather, monologues with occasional interruptions–by one Professor Silas Plodsnitch, “great poet, philosopher, and neo-Pantagruelist.” The professor walks into the Green Goose, orders a coffee, lights up his pipe, and begins to talk. His subject may be bees and bee-keepers, celebrity, matrimony, the works of Ethel Biggs Delaney (writer of stories for women’s magazines) or the Sitwells (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell), but he veers off into other topics, carries on erratically, and then exits, usually without reaching a point.

“For three pence you can buy the index to the Estimates for Civil Services for the year ending March 31, which I have been looking through with some interest,” starts one of his lectures:

I calculate, after reading under the index letter I that every third man in these islands is an inspector of something or other–agriculture, aliens, alkali works, ancient monuments, audits, bankruptcy, canal boats, explosives, fisheries, inebriates, milk, mines, prisons, town planning–heaven knows what beside! This does not include, I suppose, the hordes of sub-inspectors, assistant inspectors, and pupil-inspectors (at present taking a correspondence course), nor yet the Inspector of Inspectors and his staff.

This leads to an imagined dialogue between a harried Inspector of Bankruptcy and an Inspector of Ancient Monuments, whose schedule is considerably more relaxed, which ends in one biting the other on the leg. Then he cuts abruptly into a meditation on the various ways of pronouncing the line, “Bring in the body,” which he’s recently read in a contemporary poem, and the various meanings one might take from them. After detours into a couple of more topics, he breaks off abruptly and marches out of the pub.

These pieces came from Lewis’ humorous column, Beachcomber, which he started writing for the Daily Express starting in 1919. Equally worth finding, if not quite so anarchic in style, are two collections of Lewis’ “Blue Moon” pieces from the column he wrote after switching over to the Daily Mail: (At the Sign of the Blue Moon (1924) and At the Blue Moon Again (1925)). They are, arguably, the funniest and most surreal things to have been printed in a major newspaper until the Irish Times started publishing Flann O’Brien’s amazing Cruiskeen Lawn column.

If you’re a fan of shaggy-dog tales, Tristram Shandy, Professor Irwin Corey, or Monty Python, you’ll find At the Green Goose well worth a read. If, however, you prefer to get from Point A to Point B by the shortest path, keep moving. Nothing to see here.

At the Green Goose is available on the Internet Archive.

At the Sign of the Green Goose, by D. B. W. Lewis
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923

The Big Drag, by Mel Heimer

“Life along the Big Drag is a pinwheel, a rollercoaster, a fast-motion movie; everything is stepped up twenty times in tempo, and the Broadwayite, whether for better or worse, has at thirty-five lived four times as many lives as the Kansan at seventy.” That sentence tells you everything you need to know about Mel Heimer’s 1947 ode to Broadway, The Big Drag. Yeah, it’s a bucket-full of eyewash and a crystalline gem of the Big Apple myth. “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere”: you know how the number goes before you’ve finished the first line.

melheimerHeimer’s New York City is “a town full of thieves, touts, fanatics, pigeon-lovers, pigeon-haters, dreamers, schemers, professional bums, dancers, refugees and knife-throwers.” His man wears slacks with a razor-sharp crease–even if the seat is shiny with wear–and loud neckties: “Riotous colors, weird designs, lush batik prints, paintings of horses or ducks or geese the Broadway boy goes for them all.” His Broadway is “a winding path full of shooting galleries,
movie houses, shirt shops, pineapple juice stands and cafeterias.” His list of celebrities includes the still-remembered (Milton Berle, the somewhat-remembered (Tallulah Bankhead), and the hardly-remembered (Rags Ragland, Richard Maney, and Renee Carroll, the hat-check girl from Sardi’s who was once enough of a name in her own right to publish a book about her experiences in the club (In Your Hat (1933)).

This book is an express ticket to “Guys and Dolls” land:

Nine out of every ten guys along Broadway are betting men; they were when they came to the main stem, and if they weren’t, they soon were converted. They will bet on everything and anything on the respective speed of two raindrops skidding down a restaurant window, on the poker hands involved in automobile license-plate numbers, on which horse will finish last in a given race, on whether the next batter will walk or strike out.

In other words, if you’re a sucker for the New York you’ll never see again, except on a movie screen, The Big Drag is like a big bag of potato chips: empty calories that are utterly irresistible. If Damon Runyon’s work now rates being packaged as a Penguin Classic, then Mel Heimer’s The Big Drag rates at least an honorable mention as its postwar counterpart.

You can find The Big Drag in electronic format for free on the
Internet Archive (link).

The Big Drag, by Mel Heimer
New York City: Whittlesey House, 1947

Ira Wallach, parodist

Humor is a bit like wine: a lot of it doesn’t age well, and depending on your taste, it might not even young well. And unlike other forms of literature, for which there’s a chance that the right teacher or critic might help you appreciate what first turned you off or left no impression at all, it’s pretty hard to make something funny by persuasion.

Cover of 'Hopalong Freud Rides Again'Given that, I caveat all that follows by saying that while I found Ira Wallach’s four collections of parodies–How to be Deliriously Happy (1950); Hopalong-Freud and Other Modern Literary Characters (1951); Hopalong-Freud Rides Again: Another Literary Ambush (1952); and Gutenberg’s Folly: the Literary Debris of Mitchel Hackney–funny, they may strike you as stale as sixty year-old bread. Or, as they say on the Internet, your mileage may vary.

If you Google “Ira Wallach,” you’re more likely to find pages about the millionaire philanthropist than about the novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, playwright and, back in the early 1950s, industrious writer of parodies. Even the bios of Ira Wallach the writer focus on his work for Hollywood and the stage. Frankly, unless you’re S. J. Perelman, writing parodies is unlike to earn you a significant spot in literary history. Parodies rank pretty low on the totem pole, just slightly above “How To” books.

Actually, “How To” books have a better chance of surviving in the eyes of the reading public. Dale Carnegie still sells thousands of copies a year, while no one cares about How to be Deliriously Happy, Wallach’s send-up of the blithely optimistic Carnegian school of self-help books.

Wallach, who turned to satire after his first book, The Horn and the Roses (1947), had better luck with Hopalong-Freud and Other Modern Literary Characters, which not only went into five printings but spawned a sequel, Hopalong-Freud Rides Again.

Both Hopalong-Freud books collect parodies of a wide variety of then-current writers and styles. Fortunately for today’s reader, most of Wallach’s targets have since earned a lasting place in the literary canon, so one can easily appreciate his success or failure in exaggerating their quirks and flaws. Hopalong-Freud, for example, is a take-off of T. S. Eliot’s 1949 play, The Cocktail Party, which was his greatest popular success. Freud, Wallach’s twist on Eliot’s psychiatrist-comme-priest, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, offers up such weighty pronouncements as,

No, no, one never knows the Glutzes.
One may have the glimmer of the Glutzes
Or feel the shadow of the Glutzes as they pass,
But to know the Glutzes is to know oneself,
And to know oneself is more than
It is given to man to know.

Of course, shooting at Eliot as his most solemn is a bit like shooting at a balloon: it’s already laden with enough gas to be on the verge of bursting. The same goes for “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Soup,” which blasts Hemingway with a mortar–rather as Wallach’s protagonist does a duck (along with “one sparrow, one caneton, and a B-36″) in the story’s opening scene.

A couple of Wallach’s pieces no longer have a solid point of reference to stand up against. How many will recognize Lin Yutang’s somewhat dated bits of Chinese wisdom, let alone Wallach’s pastiche (which naturally involves large quantities of tea). On the other hand, while Bob Hope’s ghostwriters have long since put down their pens, the best-seller lists are still full of routines by stand-up comedians recycled as books. Wallach’s “Modern Joe Miller” is a wonderful example, taking the following story and running it through the wringer several times in a row:

Walter Hampden told this to Eddie Cantor when they were visiting Eleonora Duse at George Bernard Shaw’s house shortly after they had all been guests of the Prince of Wales at the Ascot Races. Seems the late Czar of Russia once met a familiar figure walking down the streets of Moscow. Seizing him by the shoulders, the Czar exclaimed, “Rasputin, how you’ve changed! You used to be tall. Now you’re short. You used to have a beard. Now you’re clean-shaven. You used to be stoop-shouldered. Now you stand erect.”

The Czar’s friend stopped him. “Your Majesty,” he said, “my name’s not Rasputin. It’s Kerensky.”

“Oho!” cried the Czar. “So you’ve changed your name, too!”

Cover of 'Gutenberg's Folly'The best of the four books, for me, is Gutenberg’s Folly, which provides a sampler of the works of the late Mitchel Hackney, a contemporary of Hemingway, who tried his hand at most of the major literary styles and genres of the 1930s to 1950s, along with a selection of critical commentaries. This device allows Wallach to play upon the worst aspects of Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, William Saroyan, William Faulkner, and others.

I particularly liked “The Pilgrimage of Bixie Davis,” Hackney’s attempt to trump Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Having recently tried to listen to an audiobook version of another Bellow novel, I was ready to appreciate Wallach’s spot-on version of Bellow’s style, which always seems hell-bent on tossing another ingredient into an already-overloaded prose stew:

Uncle Gordon who lived with us had a stand where he sold rubber goods, razor blades, sundries, and life insurance. His face was clear of wens but he had blebs, straggling hairs anchored at the top of his head, the whites of his eyes green, and above the eyes two eyebrows, one black, one red, condor-nose horning a Roland-call for breakfast. Which was oatmeal and tea. He was a Tenth Avenue Marco Polo and he Cathayed the years away, Gordon, until he parlayed a fortune into three more, Midas-fingered, gilding his daughter into the arms of Bolo Snider, the bookie.

Bolo gave me my first job taking the phone and keeping book behind the cigar store, buttering the cops and dunning the deadbeats while the ponies dug hooves into Belmont. A two-buck-across-the-board life. In general Bolo was a good man but constricted, a frog in the mouth of a snake, bug-eyed, face wenned and warted, full of blebs, long hairs dropping from his nose to his chin, one ear quartered, the other halved–O judgment of Solomon!–nose straight, Praxiteletic, from having been knocked to one side in a fight and knocked back in another. Well, “le présent est chargé du passé, et gros de l’avenir.” Or if you wish, dolce far niente. What the hell!

After publishing Gutenberg’s Folly, Wallach headed Hollyward, where he wrote a few novels and a lot more screenplays. His 1959 novel, Muscle Beach, a typical satire of Los Angeles life, was eventually filmed as “Don’t Make Waves” (1967). His 1960 novel, The Absence of a Cello, was recently remembered by one of the tweeters responding to a request by the Guardian’s Hannah Freeman for “the best and most obscure book you have read?”: “Wonderful slice of late 50s US middle-class angst.”

Wallach returned to the East Coast, where he lived, mostly writing for Broadway, until he died of pneumonia in 1995 at the age of 82.

If you’re interested in sampling Wallach’s work as a parodist, you can find electronic versions of Hopalong-Freud: and Other Modern Literary Characters on the Internet Archive: Link.

Agnes Repplier, Essayist

Agnes Repplier“If the unresponsive gods, so often invoked, so seldom complaisant, would grant me one sweet boon, I should ask of them that I might join that little band of authors, who, unknown to the wide careless world, remain from generation to generation the friends of a few fortunate readers.” This was Agnes Repplier’s introduction to Epistolae Ho-Elianae, a two-volume collection of the familiar letters of James Howell a 17th Century English bureaucrat and man of letters.

At the time, Repplier was one of the better-known American writers, and it was Howell she was referring to as unknown. Today, the statement could well be considered her literary epitaph. About four years ago, the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute released a collection of her essays titled, American Austen: The Forgotten Writing of Agnes Repplier, with an introductory essay by John Lukacs taken from his 1981 book, Philadelphia, Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950.

If ISI intended this quite misleading title to attract more attention than, say, “Selected Essays by Agnes Repplier,” it succeeded, garnering at least a few reviews in the major press. Michael Dirda covered it in the Washington Post. Titled “A Woman of Masterful Persuasion,” the review included Dirda’s admission that, as a lifelong scourer of bookstore shelves, he’d seen used copies of Repplier’s books hundreds of times, but that,”in appearance they all seemed mere period pieces, ladylike albums revealing a sensitive soul’s adventures among the masterpieces.” It was, however, “An understandable mistake. After all, there were so many similar litterateurs of that era–Augustine Birrell, Edmund Gosse, Alice Meynell, Robert Lynd, Logan Pearsall Smith.”

The main reason ISI’s title is misleading is not that Repplier was in no way a contemporary of Austen’s (she was born 38 years after Austen died, and lived to the ripe age of 95–twice as long as Austen). It’s that Repplier wasn’t even a novelist. After publishing a dozen or so short stories, she abandoned fiction almost entirely. Repplier was an essayist.

The literary canon seems to allot each century an average of one or two essayists for remembrance. Born in 1855 and still writing until 1937, Agnes Repplier didn’t make the cut for either of her centuries.

Not that she would have lost any sleep over it. She was pretty sanguine about her place in literature: “My niche is small,” she said, “but I made it myself.” She gave up fiction in favor of essays at the advice of her first editor, Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic World magazine. “‘I fancy,'” he said, ‘that you know more about books than you do about life, that you are more of a reader than an observer.'” He suggested she write a piece about her favorite author, John Ruskin. “And make it brief,” he added.

“That essay turned my feet into the path which I have trodden laboriously ever since,” she wrote. Her choice of genre was entirely pragmatic, however. Her father, a coal broker, lost his fortune in a failed iron foundry south of Philadelphia, and it fell to Agnes to be the main breadwinner, caring for her father, sister, and a feeble-minded brother who lived to the age of eighty. “The imperious necessities of life have driven me, in common with other workers, to seek the best market I could find for my wares.” “I have been a mere laborer in the trenches, with no nobler motive underlying my daily toil than the desire to be self-supporting in a clean and reputable fashion,” she wrote in a 1909 essay, “Catholicism and Authorship.”

The piece on Ruskin was published in 1884. Within a year of that, her work was appearing in almost every issue of the Catholic World. Her great ambition, though, was to be published in the Atlantic Monthly, the leading American literary and cultural magazine of the time. It took two years, but in 1886, her essay, “Children, Past and Present,” was accepted and appeared in the April issue.

The piece is a classic of the compare-and-contrast school. She cites numerous examples of child-rearing in the past, ranging from abuse to “Spare the rod and spoil the child” to simply leaving the child to fend for itself. Then she discusses contemporary views, influenced by a mix of romanticism (“the innocent babes”) and early professional educators. As is often the case in her essays prior to the First World War, Repplier sees merits and demerits on both sides. She acknowledges the charm of children brought up with “relaxed discipline,” but maintains that “The faculty of sitting still without fidgeting, of walking without rushing, and of speaking without screaming can be acquired only under tuition.”

While “Children, Past and Present” isn’t a good place to start if you’re interested in experiencing the pleasures of Repplier’s best work, it does display one of her greatest strengths: a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of literature, from the great classics to obscure books and writers. Among the names she mentions or quotes from in just the first half of the essay are Maria Edgeworth, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, Giacomo Leopardi, Jehan le Cuvelier, Madame de Rochefoucauld, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Edgar Quinet, Sir Francis Doyle, Adam Smith, and her favorite, John Ruskin.

“What Children Read,” which appeared in the January 1887 issue, is a better example of Repplier’s voice and viewpoint. In it, she mourns for the passing of a time when there were few books actually written for children, and what many young readers had to choose from were books intended for an adult audience: “Those were not days when over-indulgence and a multiplicity of books robbed reading of its healthy zest.” By the time Repplier was writing, no end of “Ripping Yarns” and tales of stalwart young heroes and heroines ala Horatio Alger were flooding the book market, substituting a safe world full of moral models for one in which an unsuspecting child might pick up “A Tale of a Tub,” “The Faerie Queen,” or The Three Musketeers.

Repplier convinced Houghton, Mifflin to publish a collection of seven of her early essays in her first book, Books and Men (1888). As Geore Stewart Stokes puts it in his 1949 biography, Agnes Repplier: Lady Of Letters (available on the Internet Archive), “she had become convinced that a book is a necessary form of advertisement for a periodical writer.” As it was, she had to subsidize the book, and the publisher “made it painfully clear that she was very probably throwing her money away.” Instead, it sold well enough to lead to three more printings, and Repplier went on to publish nineteen more collections of essays over the next fifty years.

At her best, Repplier is pragmatic, cuttingly insightful, and funny. Take her piece, “Lectures,” from her 1894 book, In the Dozy Hours: “Now, is it industry or a love of sport which makes us sit in long and solemn rows in an oppressively hot room, blinking at glaring lights, breathing a vitiated air, wriggling on straight and narrow chairs, and listening, as well as heat and fatigue and discomfort will permit, to a lecture which might just as well have been read peacefully by our own firesides?” (Remember, this was at the height of the Chatauqua movement). She remarks that, “The necessity of knowing a little about a great many things is the most grievous burden of our day”–an observation still true today. Or take her comment in “How the Quaker City Spent Its Money,” from Philadelphia, the Place and the People (1912), about a Quaker preacher: “He came to make a dull world duller.” This is an echo of the statement in one of her most famous pieces, “The Mission of Humor,” from Americans and Others (1904), that ” A man destitute of humour … is often to be respected, sometimes to be feared, and always–if possible–to be avoided.”

Something muddled her thinking and writing around the time of the start of the First World War. She developed a deep hatred of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Prussian militarism, and the German Empire. In his review of American Austen, Michael Dirda writes, “Repplier isn’t really squishy in the least; she regularly delivers sentences and similes of epigrammatic sharpness,” and he cites a passage from “The Cheerful Clan,” published in Points of Friction (1920):

Things are as they are, and no amount of self-deception makes them otherwise. The friend who is incapable of depression depresses us as surely as the friend who is incapable of boredom bores us. Somewhere in our hearts is a strong, though dimly understood, desire to face realities, and to measure consequences, to have done with the fatigue of pretending. It is not optimism to enjoy the view when one is treed by a bull; it is philosophy. The optimist would say that being treed was a valuable experience. The disciple of gladness would say it was a pleasurable sensation. The Christian Scientist would say there was no bull, though remaining–if he were wise–on the tree-top. The philosopher would make the best of a bad job, and seek what compensation he could find.

These are some wonderful lines. But one has to overlook these lines, which come a few pages earlier in the same essay:

Germany cannot–for some time to come –spring at our throat. If we fail to readjust our industries on a paying basis, we shall of course go under, and lose the leadership of the world. But we won’t be kicked under by the Prussian boot.

Her bitterness towards Germany may have just been part of an increasingly acerbic view of the world. The last essay in Points of Friction is titled “Cruelty and Humor,” and in it, she offers a contrarian view of the Reader’s Digest adage of “Laughter is the Best Medicine”:

We hear so much about the sanitary qualities of laughter, we have been taught so seriously the gospel of amusement, that any writer, preacher, or lecturer, whose smile is broad enough to be infectious, finds himself a prophet in the market-place. Laughter, we are told, freshens our exhausted spirits and disposes us to good-will–which is true. It is also true that laughter quiets our uneasy scruples and disposes us to simple savagery. Whatever we laugh at, we condone, and the echo of man’s malicious merriment rings pitilessly through the centuries. Humour which
has no scorn, wit which has no sting, jests which have no victim, these are not the pleasantries which have provoked mirth, or fed the comic sense of a conventionalized rather than a civilized world.

Repplier got to be a tough old gal in her later years. In the introduction to his biography, Stokes recalls their first meeting, when “We sat and talked that afternoon in October in the Victorian parlor of Miss Repplier’s Clinton Street apartment, her Grandmother Shorb’s tea set spread on a little table between us, its cups serving as a series of convenient ash trays.” She grew less and less patient with interruptions and unwanted visitors. There is a perhaps apochryphal story of a young admirer who came to call and then kept dithering about as she began to leave. “There was something I meant to say, but I’ve forgotten what it was,” she confessed. “Perhaps, my dear, it was ‘Good-bye,'” Repplier replied.

Repplier died in 1950, thirteen years after publishing her last book–a collection of essays titled Eight Decades (1937). All of her books up to Points of Friction are available in electronic form on the Internet Archive.

Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Hizzoner the Mayor'Zumphmeeeabmeeab!

Joel Sayre’s 1933 satire of machine politics, Hizzoner the Mayor, opens with the sound of a pesky mosquito attacking the big toe of John Norris (Jolly John) Holtsapple, four times Mayor of the Greater City of Malta, as he awakens from another wild night of drinking with the boys. “Barrelled again,” he thinks, and swears to get back on the wagon until his election is over.

In Hizzoner the Mayor, Sayre–who went on to work as a writer on such classic films of the 1930s as Gunga Din–revels in cariacatures and wise cracks every bit as much as his subject does in booze and babes. The City of Malta is obviously a stand-in for New York City and Jolly John a cartoonish take on James John (“Gentleman Jimmy”) Walker, who charmed the proles, indulged in all his favorite vices, and openly condoned bootlegging and other rackets.

Like Gentleman Jimmy, Jolly John considers himself quite the ladies’ man:

“Ladies,” the Mayor resumed, “I’m deligh’ed see you. I’m always deligh’ed to see a lady. Thass me alla time. I doan care if she’s white or black, Democrat or Repub’ican. It ain’t the race with me, friends, it’s the lady. I doan care if she’s Protes’ant or Cath’lic, I doan care if she’s a Jew or Gentile, I doan care if she’s Chinaman or Jap, I doan care if she’s rich or poor, I doan care if she’s drunk or sober. Just so long she’s 100 per cent American and a lady.”

Like Walker, Jolly John is more of an entertainer than a politician. He’s more than happy to shake hands, kiss babies, cut ribbons, and even wrestle with Waldo, the Wrassling Bear, while leaving the business of running the city to the operators of the Malta Democratic Club and gangsters like Jerry Gozo. With Holtsapple’s help, Gozo manages to rack up a total of 241 arrests and only two convictions:

… a suspended sentence (when he was twelve years of age) for possessing burglar’s tools and thirty days in the County Jail for getting behind in his alimony (imposed by a woman magistrate in Family Court). The other charges, all unsubstantiated, had run the gamut from disorderly conduct (61 times) and horse-poisoning (17 times) through carrying concealed weapons (54 times) and violation of the Eighteenth Amendment (83 times) to kidnapping (10 times) and murder (11 times). The remaining items were distributed pretty evenly over such offenses as felonious assault, grand larceny, arson, extortion and public nuisance (playing a radio after 11 p.m.).

Unfortunately for both of them, Gozo is discovered dead that morning, sitting in a men’s room stall with the imprint of a horseshoe on his forehead. And over the course of the following weeks, other notorious Malta figures and Holtsapple supporters suffer the same fate.

At the same time, a crusading reformer, Phillip Dorsey, is organizing a campaign to unseat Jolly John. Hizzoner the Mayor is the tale of the battle between virtue and corruption. The themes of the infiltration of unions, manipulation of black voters, contract fraud, and abuse of city construction projects will be familiar to anyone who has read Robert Caro’s classic, The Power Broker.

Sadly for Dorsey, however, Sayre’s heart is clearly on the side of the rogues. It’s hard to argue with his choice: the rogues are painted in brash, lurid colors and speak in pure Noo Yawk slang when the reformers dress and speak in proper Yankee grey. And the fun in Hizzoner the Mayor is all in the language:

What Al Smith christened “boloney pictures” the previous summer were posed for in profusion: the Mayor on one knee at the finals in the State-wide Marble Shooting Championship; Satchells in a Boy Scout hat being sworn as a Tenderfoot into Troop 16; the Mayor in the cab of the largest B. & O. engine at the Grand Union Depot with the far too small cap of the engineer on his great head; Satchells with his arm around the skinny shoulders of Micajah Hudgins, Malta’s oldest voter, who had first marched to the polls for William Henry Harrison. . . In every conceivable position the two were snapped: kissing babies, dandling gluey-mouthed children, laying wreathes, baking bread, tanning hides, throwing baseballs, kicking footballs, riding gang plows, shooting, swimming, waving at people. The Divine Cal himself had no more versatile a repertoire.

Both sides sent out their dirt-squirters, each carefully instructed never to squirt before more than one person at a time. The Mayor held a long conference over just what squirted on Satchells would do him the most harm. Mike Raffigan told him about Inge.

“Who is she?”

“She’s a massooze, John.”

“A what?”

“You know, she gives massadge to the society dames. Got a big jernt of her own on Federal

“Good Gawd,” said the Mayor, “do you want to elect the guy? Lay off that dame stuff or the people are li’ble to think it’s swell and vote for him!”

Hizzoner the Mayor was Sayre’s second novel. His first, Rackety Rax, was a similarly over-the-top satire, in this case of the intrusion of gambling interests in college sports–a topic that still comes up on a regular basis in the news. Rackety Rax gave Sayre his first screenwriting job, as he was hired by Fox to turn it into a 1932 film starring Victor McLagen. He published two more books in the 1940s: Persian Gulf Command (1945), a collection of his New Yorker articles on military operations in that region during the Second World War, and The House Without a Roof (1948), a novel about the experiences of an ordinary German family under Hitler. His daughter, Nora Sayre, was a writer and long-time film critic for The New York Times. He died in 1979.

Copies of Hizzoner the Mayor are rare and go for prices of $250 and up. Luckily, however, you can enjoy this delightful period piece for free thanks to the Internet Archive: Hizzoner the Mayor.

Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre
New York: John Day Company, 1933

Kingdom on Earth, by Anne Brooks

In his story, “Just One More Time,” John Cheever portrayed the Beers, a couple hanging tenuously onto respectability, a pair of “pathetic grasshoppers of some gorgeous economic summer” who nevertheless possessed some enduring charm, the power “to remind one of good things–good places, games, food, and company.” Anne Brooks’ 1941 novel, Kingdom On Earth, we come to know the Randolfs, a family equally charming but whose parasitic nature is revealed when their fortunes collapse.

The book–Brooks’ first novel–takes place in seven snapshots between mid-1938 and Labor Day 1940. In the midst of a relaxing summer break at their Connecticut country home, the Randolfs’ banker arrives to break the news to the mother, Elaine, that what little capital her late husband had left the family has evaporated in the stock market. She has to sell off their heavily mortgaged country home and Manhattan apartment and move into a cheaper apartment with her two daughters and son-in-law, soon to be joined by her son Joel and his new wife, Harriet.

We watch the story unfold through Harriet’s eyes. The only daughter of an introverted and widowed professor, she is dazzled by the Randolf’s effortless grace. She confides to her brother-in-law, “We think they live life more completely, they feel things physically, because they act by instinct. We think they’re complete naturals. That charms us; they have more fun, we think, than the thoughtful people.” Harriet feels sorry about their plight only because “it wasn’t fair that people like the Randolfs should have to worry and think about money.”

At first, they take it in as a momentary inconvenience. Living on the remnants of their fortune is a comic bit of “roughing it,” the cramped apartment “a sort of camping place.” As time wears on and the money continues to evaporate, however, their charm wears as thin as the elbows in Joel’s old jackets. He gets a job with an advertising firm but his good looks and ingratiating manner fail to compensate for his utter incompetence. He loses the job and starts drinking earlier and earlier in the day. One daughter, Kit, gets a job in a fine department store and soon learns to get ahead through pure ruthlessness masked by a thin veneer of style. Pris, the youngest, is incapable of doing anything but attracting clueless men with her beauty.

And Elaine, utterly useless, does little but pine for her comfortable past. “The trouble with Elaine was that she was really stupid,” Harriet comes to realize. Her only assets were “a lovely, sensitive face, and excellent taste in dressing herself and arranging her home.”

Of all the family, it is Harriet who proves the most resourceful. She not only does all the cooking and housekeeping for the lot, but she teaches herself typing and gets a job when Joel gives up any pretence of looking for work. And the Randolfs appreciate it–in the way that a wealthy family might appreciate the work of a particularly good maid or butler. “You’re good at this sort of thing, aren’t you, Harriet?,” remarks Pris.

“This sort of thing” is a phrase that recurs throughout the book. It always refers to accommodation to the practical necessities of life–something the Randolfs seem to regard as either onerous or unthinkable. As Joel and Elaine grow more helpless and dependent, Harriet discovers her own strength and independence.

In the end, however, the Randolfs, like the Beers in Cheever’s story, manage to survive through a series of decisions that defy Harriet’s conventional reason:

The resilience of this family was almost immoral, she thought. In the books, weakness and irresponsibility fall when the props are taken away just as the Randolfs had fallen. But in the books weakness never picks itself up again, and here were the Randolfs bright as day and just as charming as ever. All because Pris has kidnaped a rich man into marrying her, Kit has booted out a poor husband and relentlessly cut a few throats, and Elaine is sponging off her son-in-law.

Although Kingdom On Earth was written when Brooks was just twenty-five, it displays a remarkably mature and well-rounded perspective. While showing the Randolfs with all their flaws, she is sympathetic rather than caustic, understanding rather than mocking.

Anne Brooks published a second novel, Hang My Heart, a year after Kingdom On Earth. The story of an ambitious woman starting her career in the magazine business, it received even better reviews, and Brooks was described as one of the more promising young American novelists. From that point on, however, she seems to have disappeared, at least from the world of publishing. I would be interested in finding out the rest of her story.

Although several direct-to-print publishers offer copies of Kingdom On Earth, you can download it for free from the Internet Archive at

The Court of Charles IV, by Benito Pérez Galdós

The Court of Charles IV was the second of the forty-six historical novels, referred to as Episodios Nacionales, written by the great Spanish novelist, Benito Pérez Galdós, whose masterpiece, Fortunata and Jacinta, was the first title featured on this site in 2012. It’s a considerably lighter work–less than a fifth the length of Fortunata and Jacinta and told in first person by young Gabriel Araceli, a poor but amibitious lad whose backstage adventures in both the theaters and court of Madrid around the year 1807 make up the book.

Gabriel, son of a poor Cadiz fisherman, was first introduced in Trafalgar, Galdós first Episodios Nacionales novel, which depicted Nelson’s great victory from the eyes of a bystander on the losing side. Gabriel has made his way to Madrid and is now in the service of Pepita Gonzalez, one of the most successful actresses of her time. Among his duties, which he itemizes at the book’s start, are to hiss performances of “The Maiden’s Yes,” a play by Leandro Fernández de Moratín, whose work she despises.

Which leads to the first of several delightful set-pieces that are the book’s real highlights. In the company of a failed poet, Gabriel attends the play to make his obligatory interjections. Galdós weaves together Gabriel’s mocking account of the performance, his observations of the antics of the theatre’s audience, which is as busy talking and fighting among themselves as watching the play, and the poet’s non-stop commentary on the flaws of the writing and references to superior elements of his own work.

Indeed, the whole of The Court of Charles IV is something of a weaving demonstration by Galdós, with the threads of love, sex and politics as the raw materials. Gabriel’s mistress Pepita is in love with and insanely jealous of her director and leading man, Isidoro Maiquez–a real-life character from the time. Isidoro, in turn, is madly in love with Lesbia, the beautiful niece of a minor member of the Spanish nobility. And Lesbia, in her turn, is being watched and manipulated by Amarantha, another duchess with whom Gabriel becomes enthralled.

Gabriel’s experiences form the backing material against which Galdós winds and twists his fictional and historical characters. Some back the King, Charles (Carlos) IV; others support a coup by his son, Ferdinand, who favors the British. All despise the prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, known as “The Prince of Peace.” As the various intrigues of court and stage are being played out, the figure of Napoleon looms in the distance, utterly misinterpreted and misunderstood by all. Within a few months after the novel’s ending, he will invade Spain and drive them all into exile.

Typical of the clueness nobles is Lesbia’s uncle, a marquis and one-time diplomat, who has perfected obscurity as a tool for appearing to be all-knowing: “He always took care to maintain a studied reserve and utter himself in half-sentences, never expressing himself clearly on any subject, so that his hearers in their doubt and darkness should question him and insist on his being more explicit.” “What will Russia do?,” he often wonders aloud, to the perplexity of his listeners.

Gabriel is a Huck Finn-like character who maintains a healthy dose of skepticism about all he sees around him. Gabriel observes of the nobility at one point, “For my part, these typical specimens of human vanity have always been a delight to me as being beyond dispute those who amuse and teach us most.” One hears the voice of Galdós in these words. Though Lady Amarantha manages to lure him into acting as a spy, he wisens up before things get out of hand and lights out from the palace of El Escorial rather as Huck lit out from Widow Douglas’ house.

Galdós wraps up his story with a last bravura set-piece, in which the different love triangles come crashing together during a private performance of Othello–or rather, of Teodoro de la Calle’s translation of Othello, which was itself based on a French translation by Jean-François Ducis. And Gabriel manages to turn the tables on Lady Amarantha with a bit of dirty linen from her own past, allowing him to exit stage right with dignity intact and another boost up the ladder of success.

Overall, a fast and enjoyable tale–nothing too deep and certainly not a book that Galdós meant to be anything more than a historical entertainment, something like a precursor of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.

The Court of Charles IV was translated into English by Clara Bell (who also translated Ossip Schubin’s fine comedy, Our Own Set, another neglected gem) and published by W. S. Gottsberger in 1888. You can find electronic copies of this translation, full of usual OCR errors, on the Internet Archive at

Gems from the Internet Archives, courtesy of the University of Florida

From time to time, I go panning in the ever-widening stream of electronic texts in the Internet Archive. It takes a certain amount of strategy, as there are probably a hundred or a thousand more statistical reports (The Fats and Oils Situation for November 1945, anyone?), court reports, NASA test reports, government reports (e.g., Annual Report Of The Archaeological Survey Of India 1924-1925), and texts in languages I’ll never learn to read (警世通言(十三) might be terrific–what could I be missing?) for every book possibly worth considering.

Sometimes, though, I manage to stumble onto a vein of high-quality material. Today’s find was a collection of several hundred books from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s scanned and uploaded to the archive courtesy of the George A. Smathers Libraries of the University of Florida, with the help of Lyrasis and the Sloan Foundation. I’ve had to accept that I will never manage to read everything I’ve discovered so far, let alone what remains to be found, so I can only offer the following as possibilities for others to try:

Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand (1954)

Now this one I actually own and have sampled from. It’s a collection of short stories and non-fiction articles Marquand published after becoming a professional writer in the 1920s. For me, the most interesting material can be found in the middle section, “The Wars: Men and Places,” which contains both stories and articles drawing on Marquand’s experiences of serving in the Army during World War One and of traveling as a reporter to the Pacific theater during World War Two. The Smathers Libraries have also uploaded Marquand’s Melville Goodwin, U. S. A. and H. M. Pulham, Esq.–the latter, in my opinion, his best novel.

More in Sorrow, by Wolcott Gibbs (1958)

Another collection, this one from a contemporary of Marquand’s. Gibbs was a member of the New Yorker staff for thirty years, contributing more words to the magazine than any other writer during that time. As Thomas Vinciguerra, who edited Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker put it in an article for the Weekly Standard, Gibbs “turned out trenchant fact pieces, cutting yet perceptive criticism, finely wrought short stories, and hilarious vignettes.” More in Sorrow opens with his most famous piece, “Time … Fortune … Life … Luce,” which appeared in 1936 and parodied the awkward prose style favored in Henry Luce’s magazines. Vinciguerra took his title from the line, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which appears in the piece.

Touch of Nutmeg, and More Unlikely Stories, by John Collier (1943)

Collier keeps being rediscovered every twenty years or so. His stories combine horror, black comedy, and pure eccentricity in a way that no one, aside from Roald Dahl, has managed to equal. Many of these stories can be found in Fancies and Goodnights, which was reissued as a New York Review Classic, with an introduction by the late Ray Bradbury, back in 2003. If you’re debating buying that volume, I encourage you to try this free sampler. I warn you, though: it’s like taking just one potato chip.

The Boat, by L. P. Hartley

Hartley is sometimes described as Henry James’ closest successor–a writer of fine-grained and subtle psychological observations. His Eustace and Hilda trilogy goes in and out of print–and is back now, again thanks to the New York Review Classics. But The Boat, which deals with the experiences of an English writer forced by the outbreak of World War Two to return to rural England after years of living in Venice, was his personal favorite. One critic has called it “the nearest thing to a great novel I can discern in the post-war years.”

The Big Laugh, by John O’Hara

This was O’Hara’s big Hollywood novel, and, as with any of his novels, a big step down from his stories. It’s too long, too loud, and too melodramatic–but you can also count of plenty of great dialogue (O’Hara is one of the great dialogue writers of all time). This was good enough to be one of the last books reissued by Ecco Press before they were taken over by Harper Collins in 1999, so it can’t be all bad.

Get away from me with those Christmas gifts, and other reactions, by Sylvia Wright

From a quick glance, this collection of satiric pieces from the mid-1950s looks a bit like Erma Bombeck channelling Dorothy Parker. Kirkus Reviews described it as, “salty and astringent observations on Life’s little lunacies.” For soccer moms with a taste for dry martinis, perhaps.

Eye in the Sky, by Louis Grudin

A readable collection of pieces combining prose and poetry, recounting the life of Manhattan in the course of a winter somewhere in the 1950s. Looks pretty interesting if, like me, you’re a fan of New York books. Grudin’s style is lively and spiced with street chatter, as in this, from “Another Beggar,” where a man recalls running into a street character he can’t stand:

On Broadway in the forties, all dressed up like Monsieur in a temps perdu. Was he cherchezing on that honkytonk street, that island of ginmills for the sailor boys? What was he doing there when he popped out of the darkness as Myrtle and I turned into the wind, hurrying from the show? Still following me! (as we edged away and walked on) and hurled that parting insult.

The Armchair Esquire, Esquire’s First Sports Reader, and Esquire’s Second Sports Reader

Three anthologies taken from the pages of Esquire, which in its day was a bit like Playboy without the photo spreads–the magazine for the midcentury metrosexual. The first is a best-of sampler from the 1930s through the 1950s; the second is a collection of non-fiction sports articles; and the third a collection of short stories on sporting themes. Lots of well-known names such as James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, Bellow, Waugh, Algren. The first includes Arthur Miller’s story, “The Misfits,” which was later made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable that is probably better remembered for its making than its merits.

A Name for Evil, The Velvet Horn, and A Novel, A Novella and Four Stories, by Andrew Lytle

Lytle was one of the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers that included Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. They fought against the prevailing prejudices that stereotyped the South as a place of backwardness and cultural stagnation. The Velvet Horn was nominated for the National Book Award in 1957 and is considered his best novel. It’s out of print now, even though several others he wrote are still available in J. S. Sanders’ Southern Classic Series.

The Sin of the Prophet, by Truman Nelson

According to the Kirkus Review, this novel is, “A handsomely panoplied, fictionalized reconstruction of one of the most sensational fugitive slave trials in which the Massachusetts Abolitionists were involved before the Civil War, and a full-blooded, shade-more-than-life-size portrait of the thunderous Boston clergyman, Theodore Parker.” Nelson was a life-long liberal advocate whose books often dealt with the issue of race in American history. A later novel, The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, was reissued a few years ago by Haymarket Press.

The Fly and the Fly-Bottle, by Ved Mehta (1962)

A collection of pieces–also from a long-time New Yorker contributor–about contemporary (as in 1962) British intellectuals. I must confess that I read this years ago, when I was on a Wittgenstein streak inspired by Ray Monk’s superb biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. (I must digress for a moment to quote a line from Monk’s book that I often think sums up my own predicament. Discussing an acquaintance named Barry Pink, Wittgenstein remarked, “Pink wants to sit on six stools at one, but he only has one arse”). The Fly and the Fly-Bottle takes its title from a statement in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “What is your aim in Philosophy?” “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” I found the book–as well as a succeeding collection, The New Theologian (1965), fascinating, but I suspect it may sit in a disrespected no-man’s land–neither a work of philosopher nor a purely entertaining collection of profiles. But if you’re the type who enjoys TED talks, I’d give it a try.

Hour, by Bernard de Voto

This short book, a light-hearted review of the place of alcohol in American history and in any civilized life, was recently reissued with an added subtitle as The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto with a preface by Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket).

Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay

Cover of 1968 reissue of "Personal Pleasures"
Forty-some years before Ian Dury recorded his shopping-list song, “Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3,”, listing fifty-some sources of everyday delights–from “some of Buddy Holly” to “saying ‘Okey-dokey'”–Rose Macaulay came up with her own list. Roughly equal in number, but a little longer (well, at 395 pages, quite a bit longer) in explication, Personal Pleasures is, like Dury’s tune, a wonderful reason to be cheerful on its own.

Just a glance at the table of contents will prove it: “Arm-Chair” is the third entry, followed two later by “Bakery in the Night,” and two more by “Bed,” which is further broken down into “1. Getting into it” and “2. Not getting out of it.”

Now this is a woman who had her priorities straight.

“The great and recurrent question about Abroad is, is it worth the trouble of getting there?” she observes at the start of the first piece in the book. “Do tickets, passports, money, traveller’s cheques, packing, reservations, boat trains, inns, crouch and snarl before you like those surly dragons that guard enchanted lands?” To which today’s traveler can add, “Security checks, airline seats, airline food, and featherweight plastic cups instead of proper glasses in the hotel bathroom.”

Dame (Emilie) Rose Macaulay, copy by Elliott & Fry,  - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, LondonOf course, Macaulay answers. All it take, she–a fine product of a Victorian childhood–advises, is “A little firmness, a nice mingling of industry, negligence and guile.”

Some of the pleasures are very much of a particular time and place. “Candlemas” and “Turtles in Hyde Park” may be a bit too dated to register with today’s readers. And will anyone ever again list “Flying” as a pleasure? Well, to be fair, Macaulay’s flying was as the passenger in a Klemm two-seater, helmeted and goggled against the elements in an open cockpit, which is something few of us will have a chance to experience but most would agree would have been a thrill. “Driving a Car” was also more of an adventure in the days before freeways and traffic lights.

Most of her choices, however, are timeless. If there comes a day when there is nothing to enjoy about “Eating and Drinking,” “Hot Bath,” “Listening In,” or”Taking Umbrage,” then I suspect it’ll be because books like Personal Pleasures are being hauled off the shelves and tossed onto bonfires again.

One could almost argue that Personal Pleasures is almost a textbook on how to enjoy life. Who knew that “Departure of Visitors” hid within itself a little goldmine of delight?

The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand. “I am afraid the room is rather littered….” The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.

Personal Pleasures has been in and out of print several times over the decades. It is currently out of print, but Bloomsbury Publishing will be releasing a Kindle edition this month. And it’s certainly one book worth having just the touch of a button away, as you’re more likely to dip into it from time to time than to read it straight from cover to cover–which would be a bit like eating nothing but cake for a week.

And as a good child of Victoria, Macaulay is quick to caution that all pleasures exist only when there is something against which they can be measured:

But how true it is that every pleasure has also its reverse side, in brief, its pain. Or, if not wholly true, how nearly so. Therefore, I have added to most of my pleasures the little flavour of bitterness, the flaw in their perfection, the canker in the damask, the worm at the root, the fear of loss, or of satiety, the fearful risks involved in their very existence, which tang their sweetness, and mind us of their mortality and of our own, and that nothing in this world is perfect.

Or, to paraphrase Mary Poppins: a spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down.

Macaulay wrote most of these essays as she was assembling The Minor Pleasures of Life, a compilation of poems, essays, and assorted bits of prose by other writers on many of the same pleasures and more. Quite a bit more, in fact, over 300 pages more. Most of the pieces are less than a page long, which makes Minor Pleasures a perfect bathroom book, if such things have any appeal for you. And no matter where you happen to keep your copy, it’s nice to know you can dip into it and find little gems like Henry More’s remarks on the pleasure of having “A Coach to One’s Self”:

I hired a whole Coache to my selfe which cost me, but it was the best bestowed money . . . that ever I layd out, for the ayre being cool and fresh, and the coach to be opened before as well as on the sydes, I quaff’ d off whole coachfulls of fresh ayr, without the pollution or the interruption of the talk of any person.

And, if you prefer the electronic version, you can find Minor Pleasures available for free downloading at the Internet Archive:

Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay
London: The Macmillan Company, 1936

A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

Cover of US paperback edition of 'A Sunset Touch'I found A Sunset Touch in the Internet Archive, which is interesting, as the book was published in 1960 by Scribner’s, so you’d think its copyright would have been renewed. A cursory check of the online U. S. copyright catalog failed to locate any registrations for Moira Pearce or this book in particular, however, so it seems legit. It’s one of dozens entered into the archive from the collections of Osmania University in Hyderabad, India. These include titles such as Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, Cass Timberlane and John Hersey’s 1960 novel, The Child Buyer that certainly are still under copyright.

In any case, legal or not, here is a perfect example of a forgotten book. A Sunset Touch was published by a major mainstream house, earned favorable, if not exceptional, reviews in Kirkus Reviews and a few other national publications, and was reissued as a mass market paperback. Now, the paperback publisher, Macfadden Books, has also since become forgotten, but at the time it was putting out best sellers such as Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Pearce published one other novel, Upstairs at the Bull Run, in 1971. Kirkus placed this book “in Josephine Lawrence country” (no doubt comparing it to Remember When We Had a Doorman?) and was equally positive in its assessment. But her second book earned no paperback release and appears to have marked the end of her publishing career. Since then, if anyone took any note of her work in print, I’ve been unable to find it.

I probably wouldn’t have given A Sunset Touch a second look had the book’s first paragraph not seemed too likeable and eccentric to pass up:

The church in Leicester wasn’t an old one, having been built in the 1920s after the original had burnt down. Designed by an architect who soon afterwards turned to farming, it was constructed inexpensively out of the local stone, which, happening to be marble, lent it a certain dignity. Neither inside nor outside had it much beauty or grace. On this breathless July day the presence in a coffin of Medusa Nash gave the church a certain interest macabre perhaps it didn’t otherwise have.

Medusa’s friends note the contrast between the body in the open casket and the woman they had known, the result of the handiwork of Mrs. Greef, the undertaker’s wife and self-taught beautician:

…[T]he thick, wildly curling hair that was responsible for her name and that Medusa during her lifetime had seldom, if ever, submitted to a hairdresser, preferring the more individual look she achieved herself with a pair of nail scissors, this hair was now pressed flat to her skull and set with an iron in
tight, formal waves. She had been vain of her long eyelashes and customarily coated them heavily with mascara, outlining the lids with black pencil, but since the idea of eye makeup had never impinged on Mrs, Greeff’s consciousness Medusa’s face now appeared for the first and last time in public without it.

In the course of Medusa’s service and funeral, we are introduced to most of the major characters in the book. They are a mix of wealthy and middle-class–but all middle-aged–residents of an area of rural Massachussetts popular with weekend visitors and escapees from Boston. Together, they indulge in a heavy amount of drinking, a moderate amount of commentary on the local yokels, and an occasional venture into adultery.

In the course of two hundred-some pages, not much really happens. There is a weak attempt at an affair, and several attempts by Medusa’s sister-in-law to dump her brother, the surviving spouse and a partially-disabled stroke victim, on one of the group. And there are several parties where the idiosyncracies of the various friends are displayed:

Cora, though she loved all her dogs passionately, did not believe in ruining their figures by providing them with more than one sketchy meal a day, that is, if someone remembered to set it out. Aristocratically lean in the haunches they would sit at your feet and watch you gloomily as you ate canapes. Occasionally,
summoning up a burst of energy, one would slap a grimy paw onto your knee and pant up at you in a desperate plea for a handout before lapsing back into its anemia-induced torpor.

In one way or another, most of them spend some time contemplating what lies ahead on their lives’ downhill slopes. Throughout the book, there is a grim, grey backdrop to its otherwise lightly comic tone:

Where another woman might call on the vet for assistance in putting down the excess animal population, she took matters into her own hands. “After all,” she’d tell you briskly in her flute-like accents, “animals have no souls, what is the use of getting sentimental about them?” Also, the vet, with his fancy gas chambers and humanitarian injections, ran into money. So every so often Cora got out a certain sack,
filled it with puppies or kittens and descended, cheerfully humming a hymn tune, to finish them off in the brook below the house.

In the end, no one is much changed or much the wiser, and the story just sort of fades out.

So is this a justly or unjustly neglected book? I guess it depends on whether one decides based on literary merit or reading pleasure. On the first criterion, A Sunset Touch is certainly no milestone in the development of the novel. Aside from a certain post-Peyton Place relaxation of morals, it could have been written twenty or thirty years earlier. There are no stylistic risks taken and the omniscient narrator’s perspective is essentially the same as that taken by Tolstoy a hundred years earlier. And the book is weak from a structural standpoint, as Pearce constructs a promising opening around Medusa’s funeral and then dissipates its potential in following the various characters down a series of paths that lead nowhere in particular.

On the basis of reading pleasure, however, A Sunset Touch represents about four hours’ worth of intelligent, amusing observations of people and all their minor flaws and foibles. On the comic spectrum, it sits to the right of Wodehouse and to the left of Jane Austen–not quite ridiculous, not quite elegant. And perhaps its moderation is the reason A Sunset Touch has been forgotten.

After all, the economics of book-buying and book-reading hinge on perceptions of relative value. It’s rarely a question of, “To read or not to read?” Instead, it’s a question of “Do I read this or do I read that?” And mildly amusing and mildly thought-provoking books are just too easy to pass over. Moira Pearce had no prior work on which to base a reputation, as as the paperback cover above demonstrates, even her publishers didn’t know how to pitch this book. Had she written it thirty years before, she might have at least gained the critical support that the Saturday Review and other journals put behind the works of Humphrey Pakington (who?)–another writer of mildly comic novels I plan to feature sometime soon.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, then you’ve probably had enough of a taste of A Sunset Touch to make your own relative judgment. For my part, I can say that I enjoyed finding out just what kind of a book it was, and I will be happy to pick up a copy of Upstairs at the Bull Run if I ever stumble across one. On the other hand, I won’t just go right to Amazon and order it, as I have a great stack of other books that appear to have equal or higher relative value. But I’m sure that I’m not the only one who won’t regret setting aside a few hours to discover this fine but forgotten book.

A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960

Americans in Glasshouses, by Leslie James

“What’s so funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding?,” Nick Lowe once asked in a song. But there’s nothing funny about them, of course, which is why there are times in each of our lives when Hatred and Intolerance bust through our better selves like the Tasmanian Devil. Which is usually a mistake.

But there are rare times when giving in to our lower devils is as satisfying as picking at a scab and watching it come off clean. I suspect Leslie James felt that way throughout the entire process of writing this book.

Americans in Glasshouses is a straight-faced dissertation, written in the voice of a dispassionate scholar, on the subject of what is wrong with Americans and why. The situation, as James saw it back in 1950, when the book was first published, was, at the root, very simple:

    AMERICANS feel they are the most insecure people on earth. That is natural, because they have:

    1. A highly competitive culture in which no one can feel himself to be permanently successful.
    2. A compulsive need to consume.
    3. An unhealthy and woman-dominated family-structure.
    4. No culture.
    5. A political system which no mature people would tolerate.
    6. No souls.
    7. Much more than their just share of the world’s goods.

Ah, to have the confidence of such unadulterated prejudices.

Of course, sixty years later, this is still both stereotype and uncomfortably close to the truth.

James’ aim is “to standardize the diverse impressions about America in European minds.” There is such nonsense written and said about America in Europe, argues this serious-minded academic, and it leaves too many merely confused. If only Europeans could gain a real understanding of America, then they would be able to teach Americans to conduct themselves properly. And what is proper conduct? Why, “in the manner English gentlemen thought other Englishmen should conduct themselves, when England was the leading Power in the world,” of course.

James writes with the power of authority, authority gained from close study and painstaking analysis. He is familiar with all the latest research and an experienced traveler who has seen every corner of the country. This is why he can assure, as he does in one of the many scholarly asides footnoted on almost every page, that, “All people who do not read The New Yorker are forced to live in the suburban equivalent of city slums, referred to as ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ Those who do not read the Reader’s Digest either, are forced to live on the tracks. Neither group is permitted to own a station-wagon or join a country club.”

This is, of course, utter nonsense, and if you’ve made it to this point in the book, you’ve already figured out that this is a book-length counterfeit, as fake as a three dollar bill. And as deft and successful as a hat trick.

It’s clear within a few pages that this is all tongue-in-cheek and artfully pompous. And if that’s all it were, this would have been better done as a three-page piece in Punch. What makes Americans in Glasshouses worth reading after sixty years is that it’s still a good old-fashioned hoot. James’ stereotypes are occasionally a bit long in the tooth (though I guess that cocktail parties are sort of coming back), but always so overblown that it’s hard not to smile:

As is well-known outside America, Americans lack souls. This makes them even simpler to understand. It makes them both simple and simple-minded. (Souls are notoriously correlated with complexity, and therefore with higher mental development.) It is therefore unnecessary to go below the surface to learn about Americans, because most of them only live on the surface.

And it’s impossible for James’ windbag scholar not to let more than a few equally amusing stereotypes about the English slip in:

Everyone in Europe knows that American children are badly brought up. This is because their parents bring them up themselves instead of using nannies and boarding schools.

Thus, reading Americans in Glasshouses comes to seem like a guilt-free vacation from tolerance and understanding.

Copies of Americans in Glasshouses are available on Amazon for as little as $1.98, but you can get electronic versions free at the Internet Archive:

Americans in Glasshouses, by Leslie James
New York City: Henry Schuman, Inc., 1950

A Dream of Treason, by Maurice Edelman

Cover of UK paperback edition of 'A Dream of Treason'Elected at the age of 34 as the member for Coventry in the Labour wave that swept Churchill out of as Prime Minister after VE Day, Maurice Edelman served in Parliament until his death 30 years later. And while he may not have enjoyed the historical fame of Disraeli or the sales of Jeffery Archer, he may be the supreme representative of that exclusive class, the British MP-slash-novelist. Between 1951 and 1974, he published over a dozen novels, along with a handful of non-fiction works.

While I wouldn’t call him a great writer, Edelman was certainly adept at producing novels that managed to be both entertaining and intelligent. His paperback publishers tended to slap racy covers on his books in blatant attempts to convince unsuspecting browsers into thinking them essentially indistinguishable from other shelf fodder. One can picture copies of A Dream of Treason or Shark Island or Disraeli in Love next to the finest works of Erle Stanley Gardner, Mac Bolan or Barbara Cartland. Had he been more of a publicity hound, he might even have been able to boost his numbers into Jeffery Archer’s range.

If you were to judge by their covers–and if they weren’t pandering, they were just boring–you’d think Edelman’s books fully deserve their fate today: utterly forgotten and disregarded. But good things sometimes hide behind terrible packaging. Flip past the title page of any of his novels, and you will find material far more subtle, sophisticated and intelligent that you’d have reason to suspect.

A Dream of Treason, his third novel (1955), is a perfect example. Its protagonist, Martin Lambert, is a mid-level civil servant in the Foreign Office who appears to be doomed to spend the rest of his career in mediocrity. Lambert is married to an alcoholic who’s spent her recent years hopping into Lambert’s colleague’s beds, spending months in institutions, or making scenes at embassy affairs–in other words, a frightful liaibility for an aspiring diplomat. Too unstable a property to risk putting her husband in more prominent positions.

Until he’s approached by Brangwyn, the brash and ambitious new Foreign Secretary, with a proposal to pass some controversial state papers to a radical French journalist. It is a patently treasonous act, and Brangwyn has marked Lambert as someone just desperate enough to do it, in return for a posting that will give his career a second wind. The deal is made, and Lambert makes the drop in a quiet room of the National Gallery, looking forward to a move to Tokyo.

And then Brangwyn dies in a plane crash, leaving Lambert with no posting, no protector, and no alibi. The leaked material makes the expected splash in the French press, and the Foreign Office security officers begin hunting for its source. Lambert is quickly suspected but the investigation is pursued with typical bureaucratic deliberation–which means he is allowed to spend days wondering about his fate and his options. Edelman is quite effective in portraying the plight of a man who is about to be caught and has no good way out.

But he is at his best in capturing the intricate interplay between politics and bureaucracy that defines the workings of British government. The permanence of the Civil Service and the transcience of part-led governments creates an environment where the leaders can often find themselves subordinated to the people who are meant to follow them. Lambert’s biggest mistake, the Permanent Undersecretary–the senior civil servant in the Foreign Office–points out to him, was to put his faith in a politician rather than in his own kind:

“I’ll tell you this, Martin. The politician’s never been born who in the long run can stand up to a determined Civil Servant. Oh, I know that some tough Minister can come along and throw his weight about. He’ll stir up the Department study the functional diagram say he wants this and that. And then he’ll have to go off to a dinner or a conference or to a Cabinet meeting. And in the meantime, the Civil Servant will be co-operating with his great ally inertia. Inertia: it’s eminent among the graces.”

Edelman is at his worst, however, when he wanders from office and club into the realm of sex. There is a romance, between Lambert and a girl of nineteen. It is veddy British and veddy icky: “He put his arm around her waist and from there, under her left armpit, and they walked together slowly and with out speaking towards the light of the postern-gate, while beneath his fingers, he felt her breast, firm and pendant in the rhythm of their motion.” This is low, not love.

If you can overlook the ham-fisted attempts at romance, A Dream of Treason is remarkably successful as a thinking person’s entertainment, the sort of thing you read as a nice break between weightier books. I’ve ordered a couple more of Edelman’s novels for just such occasions.

You can find electronic copies of A Dream of Treason online at the Internet Archive:

A Dream of Treason, by Maurice Edelman
New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1955

My Life: or the Adventures of Geo. Thompson by George Thompson

If you’re in the mood for some cheap–heck, free–lowbrow reading, I can recommend George Thompson’s brief autobiography, My Life: or the Adventures of Geo. Thompson, which you can find at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. Thompson offers up a double murder plus suicide, blackmail, robbery, gambling, teenage drunkenness, prostitution, child abuse, and adultery–and that’s just in the first three chapters.

George Thompson’s name won’t be found in too many histories of American literature. That’s because his claim to fame was as perhaps our country’s first great writers of trash. Thompson wrote dozens, maybe hundreds of works with such titles as Venus in Boston, The Gay Girls of New-York, The Mysteries of Bond Street, Adventures of a Sofa, and The Amorous Adventures of Lola Montes, which were as popular and pandering in their day as, say, “Jersey Shore” or “Date My Ex” are today. As David S. Reynolds puts it in an entry on “Sensational Fiction”, “Among the kinds of sexual activity Thompson depicts are adultery, miscegenation, group sex, incest, child sex, and gay sex.” These books were sold by publishers advertising “Rich, Rare and Racy Reading,” and sold for 25 or 50 cents–equivalent to $50 to $100 today, if Internet inflation calculators are reliable.

No surprise, then, that he lays the melodrama on thick when it comes to telling his own life’s story. He runs away from home after knocking his uncle down a staircase and quickly meets up with one Jack Slack, a thief and swell barely older than him, who proceeds to introduce Thompson to beer and champagne. Before the night is over, they’ve met up with a prostitute and fallen into a card game. “What wonder is it that I became a reckless, dissipated individual, careless of myself, my interests, my fame and fortune?,” Thompson reflects.

Methinks he doth protest too much.

He gets a job working as a printer’s apprentice, but the work is, of course, merely the pretext for introducing us into the tangled affairs of the printer and his wife, both of whom are cheating on the other. This soon leads to one of the book’s many dramatic climaxes, as the enraged husband offers the wife one final choice:

With these words, Romaine cocked his pistol and approached his wife, saying, in a low, savage tone that evinced the desperate purpose of his heart—

“Take your choice, madam; do you prefer to die by lead or by steel?”

The miserable woman threw herself upon her knees, exclaiming—

“Mercy, husband—mercy! Do not kill me, for I am not prepared to die!”

“You call me husband now—you, who have so long refused to receive me as a husband. Come—I am impatient to shed your blood, and that of your paramour. Breathe a short prayer to Heaven, for mercy and forgiveness, and then resign your body to death and your soul to eternity!”

So saying the desperate and half-crazy man raised on high the glittering knife. Poor Mrs. Romaine uttered a shriek, and, before she could repeat it, the knife descended with the swiftness of lightning, and penetrated her heart. Her blood spouted all over her white dress, and she sank down at the murderer’s feet, a lifeless corpse!

Now that experience would have been enough for a lifetime for most folks, but it’s just the beginning in Thompson’s case.

Eventually, after a detour into acting, a jail break, a few dozen romantic entanglements and enough other scandals that one soon gives up keeping track, Thompson decides to head to the peace and civility of Brahmin Boston. Oddly, however, for a man who made his fortune on telling other people’s secrets, Thompson took great offense at the prying nature of Bostonians:

A stranger goes among them, and forthwith inquisitive whispers concerning him begin to float about like feathers in the air. “Who is he? What is he? Where did he come from? What’s his business? Has he got any money? (Great emphasis is laid on this question.) Is he married, or single? What are his habits? Is he a temperance man? Does he smoke—does he drink—does he chew? Does he go to meeting on Sundays? What religious denomination does he belong to? What are his politics? Does he use profane language? What time does he go to bed—and what time does he get up? Wonder what he had for dinner to-day?” &c., &c., &c.

Thompson spends just one year in Boston before heading back to the fleshpots of New York, which is where the book comes to an end. Not, however, before he has a chance to swear that “not one single word of fiction or exaggeration has been introduced into these pages.”

And I am Marie of Roumania.

My Life; or The Adventures of George Thompson, Being the Autobiography of an Author
Boston: Federhen, 1854

The Chosen Valley: the Story of a Pioneer Town, by Margaret Snyder

A few days ago, President Obama stopped in the town of Chatfield, Minnesota while on a bus tour of the Midwest. He visited a kids’ summer camp and posed for some photos with them.
President Obama joking with kids in Chatfield, Minnesota on August 15, 2011
By pure coincidence, I just finished reading a book about Chatfield and had started this post when the President’s stop brought this small town into the spotlight for an hour or so. Margaret Snyder’s 1948 book, The Chosen Valley describes how a quiet spot, a small valley where a creek joins the Root River, a tributary of the Missippi, was settled and grew for its first fifty or so years.

Most Americans have a general notion about how we got from the days of the American Revolution to today–about hunters and trappers exploring ever westward, followed by settlers who set up small farms, then small towns, the railroads, industrialization, wars big and small, and somehow, to now. How many, though, have any notion of the step-by-step changes that took us from wilderness to land claims to towns to sewer systems, electic lights, and school districts? The Chosen Valley does just that for Chatfield, population (2010) 2,779, and it’s a story that deserves to be far better known than either Chatfield or Snyder’s book are today.

Chatfield got its start in 1853, when one Thomas Twiford, who was essentially a would-be land developer, scouted out an area along the banks of the Root River, a small tributary of the Mississippi in the far southeast corner of Minnesota. He hurried back to the nearest town of any size and managed to get several other men interested enough to pack family and chattel into wagons and head to the place they decided to name Chatfield after a prominent judge of the new Minnesota Territory. As Snyder shows, through careful tracing of what at times were often intricate arrangements of ownership and financing–particularly during the rush of land speculation surrounding the mapping out of possible railroad routes–money, politics, and wheeling and dealing was far more often at the heart of development than anything we might nostalgically call the “pioneer spirit.”

Not that there weren’t plenty of hardships:

When January let loose its fury the hills were no shelter against the blizzards that blotted the world in a frenzy of snow, or the sly cold that crept into bed with the sleepers. John Luark’s wife died in the depths of that winter’s cold, despite the care of two doctors. Every man in town took his turn in the sad labor of chipping out a burial place in ground flint-hard with frost. They made her grave on the slope between the little house she lived in and the road that wound up the side of Winona Hill The townsfolk stood silent about the grave that January of 1855 as the first of their dead was buried.

The first few dozen settlers were followed by others the next spring. Within another year, the town had a flour mill, several general stores, regular church services if not a church building, a one-room school (private at first), and a land office. The last was set up by one Jason Easton, an ambitious young man from New York state who had arranged through a family friend in Washington, D. C., to win the job of opening a land office for the partitioning and sale of properties throughout the area of southeast Minnesota around Chatfield.

“The biggest thing going in Western business was undoubtedly land and the lending of money for the purchase of land,” Snyder observes. And here we begin to learn that, contrary to the myth of how the West was won, the transfer of land from its uncharted, undeveloped state to small farmers and businessmen–orchestrated through government land offices and countless political arrangements large and small–was the single most important factor in the transformation of the Midwest.

Jason Easton of Chatfield, Minnesota (circa 1876)Jason Easton embodied the zeal for deal-making that was an essential survival skill for an effective entrepreneur in the growing Midwest. He cajoled banks in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia to get loans or attractive rates on his deposits. He fired off volleys of letters asking for patience when money was tight and delighted in managing to foist off a lot of dried peaches that “were wholly worthless but brought 5 cents per pound.”

For Chatfield and its surrounding counties, Easton was at the center of what was perhaps, for the Midwest, its most controversial and significant development: the routing and building of its first railroads. Chatfield had significant competition with nearby towns in the decision of where lines linking St. Paul and other growing cities and towns to Chicago. It failed to win a spot along the main line, but Easton was able to convince the Southern Minnesota Railway Company to run a spur to Chatfield from Winnebago, and to get himself appointed as president of the Southern Minnesota Railway Extension Company. He founded the town’s bank, bought up large plots of property around the town that he hired out to tenant farmers, and organized and invested in dozens of enterprises, more of which succeeded than not.

Easton apparently found it difficult to shift his attention from his latest batch of deals. Snyder recounts that, “there was one direful passage when Easton, deep in a cut-throat fight for the wheat markets of the state, refused to go to his mother, who had begged him to come in her serious illness. His letter to his brother, who had written for the mother, said: ‘. . . the demands of my business are just now so great that it is impossible for me to leave. My comfort must be in knowing that you are giving our mother every care.’ He enclosed ten dollars and urged his brother to ‘call on me freely if anything more is required.'”

In terms of wealth, Easton was an exception in Chatfield. One man did make a small fortune with a dry goods store, but he then moved his family to Minneapolis. Most of the people in and around the town were poor. Some, like the man who set up the town’s first mill, fared better. Everyone had no choice but to work hard. As a result, Snyder notes, there is no evidence of any art or literature, beyond amateur poems for ceremonial occasions, being created in the town.

Most of the first decade’s settlers were Americans–some first generation, some with American roots going back over 200 years. All but three states were represented in the 1860. Nearly a third of these came from New York, where poor families had a harder time getting enough land for a working farm or were moving west as Irish, Poles, and other immigrants began taking jobs for lower pay.

In 1860, one in four Chatfield residents was foreign born. Snyder traces the paths some of these followed to come to the town. Norwegians were spurred by the revolution of 1830. Germans by the revolution of 1848. One man snuck across the border from Bohemia into German one night to escape an abusive miller he was indentured to. The miller, James Marsar Cussons, “son and grandson of millers and with uncles and cousins beyond number in the trade,” came from England to have an opportunity to run his own mill. Ireland accounted for the greatest number by far–in large part due to the great potato famine of 1845-1852. As the figures from the census show, none of them came from southern Europe.

Foreign-born inhabitants of Chatfield, Minnesota (from 1860 Census)

Perhaps as much as a third or more of the new settlers moved on after a year or more. There were enough failed farms and stores to keep anyone from getting too complacent. The soil in the valley was excellent. Wheat was probably the most common crop, but almost everything one could plant was tried by someone at least once. Apples, plums, hops, sugar beets, potatoes, pumpkins, cabbages, and most other plants familiar from northern Europe did well. Most farms had some cows and hogs, but only the latter were raised for meat. Milk was too valuable to let a cow get killed for.

Dairy farming grew to be one of the town’s biggest businesses. In 1889, a few of the dairy farmers formed the Cooperative Creamery, which became a model for much of the country and one of the few employers to meet its payroll throughout the Great Depression.

By the late 1880s, Chatfield was no longer a frontier town but a well-established, prosperous, and stable. Which meant that opportunities were no longer so easy to find. “When the Dakota country opened up,” Snyder writes, “considerable numbers of the younger Chatfield men, some of them with wives and children, turned to that West to seek their fortunes.” Others moved on thanks to the educations their parents’ hard work and success had allowed them. When the local paper surveyed a group of young men who had left the town’s school a decade earlier, it found that over half worked “in business” rather than on the farm and most of these no longer lived in the town.
A postcard view of the main street of Chatfield, Minnesota in the late 1800s.
The town’s social values began to set like concrete, too. “As the population became relatively stable, and the excitement of change and conquest was lost, new ways were found for satisfying the individual’s sense of his own worth,” Snyder writes. It’s hard to believe that sentence wasn’t written with tongue in cheek, though, because the “new ways” she then describes are the Masonic Lodge, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Columbus.

The town’s infrastructure also matured. The common well dug in 1854 led to a simple system of distribution through hollowed-out logs and continued to grow until a full system with a pumping station, sewers, and drains was built. The groves of trees that greeted the first settlers were wiped out within a decade to build houses and make fence posts. The telegraph arrived within a few years. Electricity, which made it possible to gather in the evenings for more than a sing-along or a dance, arrived in the 1880s and the telephone not long after.

What I most enjoyed about The Chosen Valley was that Snyder describes almost all these developments by telling us who took the first steps–which were usually to a neighbor’s door to try to stir up interest and support. Three men decide the town needs a cemetery, and arrange to have a plot of land on the ridge behind the town set aside for it. The town’s first Catholic residents bring a priest over from nearby Winona to say the first mass in 1854. By 1874, they had their own church, paid for entirely from their own contributions. An amateur bucket brigade becomes the Fire Company and eventually the town fire department. Through all these stories, The Chosen Valley makes it crystal clear that the pioneer spirit was as much about interdependence as it was about independence.

If the book has any significant weakness, it is Snyder’s limitations as a writer. There is little romance in the story of the settlement and development of Chatfield, but that didn’t prevent her from inserting lyrical little passages that read like bad high school literary club prose. And as she brings the town’s story up to her present day, she seems to have run out of ideas completely. Instead of any stock-taking or long view of the ninety years she has covered, the book ends with a description of the start of World War Two and its effect on the town that is one of the worst pieces of writing I’ve come across in quite a while: “For the future, in its turn, would become the present, and no present can wholly escape the effects of its past. Where should the people begin the task of understanding the things-that-are, if always they set it aside for the headier wine of things-to-come?” Just typing that out was painful.

The Chosen Valley appears to have been the only book Margaret Snyder ever published. Aside from the few and brief passages of purple prose, it is well worth reading if you have any interest in American history with a small h. Through the small example of Chatfield, Minnesota, you can learn a great deal about a patch of land with trees and a little river running through it became a microcosm of America (at least up to the middle of the 20th century).

The Chosen Valley: the Story of a Pioneer Town, by Margaret Snyder
New York City: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1948

The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, by Seumas O’Brien

Now I know where Samuel Beckett really got his inspiration.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Whale and the Grasshopper'Seumas O’Brien’s The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables is one of the most absurd books written before the rise of surrealism, full of tales tall as Paul Bunyan that serve as the backdrop for a series of philosophical debates that wrap nihilism in a cloak of old country weave.

At heart, it’s nothing more than a collection of Pat and Mike stories–except in this case, it’s Padna and Micus. “I want to tell you about the morning I walked along the beach at Ballysantamalo,” Padna says to Micus at the start of the title story.

So I ses to meself, Padna Dan, ses I, what kind of a fool of a man are you? Why don t you take a swim for yourself? So I did take a swim, and I swam to the rocks where the seals go to get their photographs taken, and while I was having a rest for myself I noticed a grasshopper sitting a short distance away and ‘pon my word, but he was the most sorrowful-looking grasshopper I ever saw before or since. Then all of a sudden a monster whale comes up from the sea and lies down beside him and ses: ‘Well, ses he, is that you? Who’d ever think of finding you here? Why there’s nothing strange under the sun but the ways of woman.”

“Tis me that’s here, then,” ses the grasshopper. “My grandmother died last night and she wasn’t insured either.”

“The practice of negligence is the curse of mankind and the root of sorrow.” ses the whale. “I suppose the poor old soul had her fill of days, and sure we all must die, and tis cheaper to be dead than alive at any time. A man never knows that he’s dead when he is dead, and he never knows he’s alive until he’s married.”

That’s a pretty good taste of the whole book. Each tale is nothing less than fantastic. The Czar of Russia comes to visit the Mayor of Cahermore. Johnny Moonlight meets up with the Devil and Oliver Cromwell on a lonely country road. The King of Montobewlo finally gives up cannabalism after an encounter with his first Irishman. Matty the Goat seeks the advice of the King of Spain on whether it would be better to commit suicide in New York or Boston. Shauno the Rover, feeling underappreciated by the world, dresses up as Henry the Eighth and cons a Royal Navy captain to take him on a royal cruise to Sperrispazuka, where he pays a visit on the Shah. (Shauno, by the way, is “a gentleman withal,” Padna assures Micus: “Never known to use his rare vocabulary in the presence of ladies, but would wait until their backs were turned, like a well-trained married man, and then curse and damn them one and all to perdition.”)

But the actual stories themselves, even at their most ridiculous, are just excuses for Padna and Micus to play games of platitudinous one-upmanship. In the first few pages of the book, it seems as if O’Brien is doing nothing more than using some wild tales as an odd way of celebrating naive folk philosophy. “Decency when you’re poor is extravagance, and bad example when you’re rich,” Micus counsels Padna at the start of “The Whale and the Grasshopper.”

OK. I’d accept that as a wee bit o’ wisdom from the Oud Sod. But take a close look at what follows:

“And why?” said Padna.

“Well,” said Micus, “because the poor imitate the rich and the rich give to the poor and when the poor give to each other they have nothing of their own.”

“That’s communism you’re talking,” said Padna, “and that always comes before education and enlightenment. Sure, if the poor weren’t decent they’d be rich, and if the rich were decent they’d be poor, and if every one had a conscience there’d be less millionaires.”

“But suppose a bird had a broken wing and couldn’t fly to where the pickings were?” said Micus.

“Well, then bring the pickings to him. That would be charity.”

“”But charity is decency,” Micus replies. At which point it becomes clear that Padna and Micus are less country sages than precursors of Vladimir and Estragon. Indeed, one could argue they have even less of an idea what’s going on than Beckett’s pair waiting for Godot.

I suspect that the whole book is nothing more than an attempt to pop the bubble of fuzzy nostalgia surrounding the softer-headed elements of the Irish Renaissance. In O’Brien’s view, Crazy Jane isn’t insightful–just crazy. Indeed, H. L. Mencken wrote in one review that the book, “saved the Irish Renaissance from its prevailing melancholy.”

Seamus O’Brien was born in Cork and trained as a sculptor and taught at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. He took up writing in his mid-twenties. His play, “Duty” (available with four other O’Brien comedies on Project Gutenberg) was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1913, and has been called the best Irish comedy every written. But soon after that he moved to America, where he remained for decades. The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables was published in 1916, after which he appears to have written nothing but an occasional article or short story. The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables is available in print from a number of direct-to-print republishers, but don’t pay their exorbitant prices: get it free and use your eReader or print out a copy. After all, as O’Brien writes, “Flies never frequent empty jam-pots, but money always brings friends.”

Whatever that means.

The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, by Seumas O’Brien
Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1916.

Life of Campestris ulm, the Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis

Title Page of 'Life of Campestris Ulm'I’ve read the biography of a dog, of a cow, of an elephant, of a lion, and of a seagull (yeah, that one). But this is my first biography of a tree. Life of Campestris Ulm: Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common is a quirky tribute written by Joseph Henry Curtis, a Boston native, around the time of the 130th anniversary of the oldest living tree on Boston Common.

Campestris Ulm, the oldest tree on Boston Common, around 1910Campestris ulm is the scientific name for the English elm. Although a different elm–the Old Great Elm, an American elm sometimes known as the Liberty Tree–was better known until it fell in an enormous galestorm that hit Boston in 1876, this elm was one of a number planted at the behest of John Hancock, prominent signer of the Declaration of Independence (literally) and first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachussetts, around the time he took office in 1780 and outlasted it.

At the time, cows grazed on Boston Common. The Common itself survived only because it served practical concerns, although Hancock–very much a lover of fine clothes, fine living, and beautiful public spaces–was beginning to change things. Still, Massachussetts at the time was a state strongly under the Puritan influence. Curtis recalls Sundays in the early years after the tree’s planting:

From midnight Saturday to sunset Sunday was weekly a day of rest for Campestris. He hardly dared to stir a leaf; even the cows abstained in large measure from chewing their cuds and the Common was deserted. One Sunday, however, he was astonished and shocked to observe the Governor taking a turn in the mall on his way home from church. He was glad to learn the next day that the Governor was fined, and, much as he respected his sponsor, felt that it served him right.

As Curtis tells us, Hancock fell afoul of a relatively recent statute, that ruled that “travelling or other secular employments, unless for some purpose of necessity or humanity, was prohibited on the Lord’s day; and wardens, tithingmen, and other functionaries, were clothed with unusual powers to enforce its observance.”

As time passed, certain of the old time prohibitions lapsed and the beauty and benefits of the Common came to be increasingly accepted and protected–particularly after the return of Oliver Wendell Holmes and others from Paris, where, as David McCullough describes it in his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, they marvelled at the Garden of the Tuileries and other public spaces. Yet not so fast that a few victims of pragmatism remained. In 1820, for example, a local bit of folklore was obliterated on the simple policy that a boulder takes up valuable productive soil:

One morning in 1820, in his fortieth year, Campestris observed a cluster of workmen around his old friend, the Wishing-Stone, one holding a drill, while another was swinging a heavy sledge-hammer. After a time this ceased, and another man seemed to be busy ramming and tamping something into a hole. Shortly after there was a great scampering of cows driven wildly at a distance and the cluster of men dispersed in various directions along the several paths, waving their hands as a warning. One man left behind lingered a short time, and then ran rapidly away. There was a flash, an explosion, the air was filled with smoke, and when it cleared, to the astonishment and grief of Campestris, his beloved boulder, the friend of his youth, was observed blown to fragments.

In the language of trees, Campestris exclaimed, as he shook his limbs, “What have you done, you stupid louts, you churls and sons of churls? Know ye not, that it was no common stone; that, hallowed as it was by the vows of countless swains and maids, it possessed a sentimental value which, translated into dollars and cents, the only measure of value your vulgar, commonplace lives can appreciate, would amount to a sum you could never replace by your labor, if your lives were prolonged beyond the age of Methuselah? Would that you were buried in the debris of your own blast. “Alas, alas!” he soliloquized, “a large part of the pleasure of my life has departed,” and sadly he watched the stupid, indifferent men load the fragments on a drag and carry them away.

In after years Campestris could never allude to the destruction of his old friend without manifesting his grief and sorrow.

The tree survived the great storm that felled the Liberty Tree, as well as some man-made cataclysms such as the construction of the MTA and of public restrooms in gloriously hideous late Victorian style within its eyeshot. Curtis writes of regular visits to converse with the elm and reports on some of its recent complaints. “He lately had been greatly disturbed by the borings for the new Cambridge Tunnel,” Curtis tells us.

I don’t know if this tree is still standing on the Common. Other than Curtis, no one seems to have taken particular notice of it within the last century. And though Life of Campestris Ulm: Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common is certainly no more than a pleasant bit of amusement, Curtis deserves some credit for having managed to organize an interesting social and historical panorama around the figure of a simple sturdy tree providing some shade to those walking along one of the paths through the Common.

Life of Campestris ulm, the oldest inhabitant of Boston Common is available free online through the Internet Archive in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, ASCII, and other formats.

Life of Campestris ulm, the oldest inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis
Boston: W. B Clarke, 1910

Overlooked, by Maurice Baring

I need to catch up with a post on some of my recent reads, most of which have turned out to be among their authors’ lesser efforts, unfortunately.

Cover of House of Stratus reissue of "Overlooked"Of the lot, by far the most interesting and, within its limited range, successful was Maurice Baring’s slim 1922 novel Overlooked. Had the term been in use back then, Overlooked would have been called an experimental novel. For what Baring undertook was truly an experiment in fiction.

The first half of the book is titled, “The Papers of Anthony Kay.” A blind man sent by his doctor for two month’s rest at a seaside resort called Hareville, a fictional stand-in for Deauville or a similar society retreat of the early 20th century. There he encounters a sampling of international society–a scandalous Italian/French widow; a French/Russian princess; an ambiguously Slavic intellectual; an upright but neer-do-well English lady, Mrs. Lennox, and her beautiful niece, Miss Jean Brandon; and an English novelist named James Rudd.

Kay contemplates writing a novel as a way of relaxing, and he and Rudd fall into discussing Miss Brandon. Kay quickly gives up on his idea, but she inspires Rudd to begin sketching out his own story based on his imaginative speculations about her life:

“She talks, but she cannot express herself. Or rather, she has nothing to express. At least, I think she has nothing to express : or what she has got to express is not what we think it is. I imagine a story like Pygmalion and Galatea. Somebody waking her to life and then finding her quite different from what the stone image seemed to promise, from what it did promise.”

While Rudd sequesters himself to work on his book, Kay befriends a cross-section of his hotel’s residents. With each of them, the conversation eventually gets around to the topic of Miss Brandon–her belligerent late father, her apparently broken engagement with an heir dispatched to India, her beauty and air of mystery. Each conversation is a mix of fact, gossip, and rumor, and each creates, in effect, a portrait of her from a different perspective.

Late in this first section, Miss Brandon’s erstwhile fiancé arrives in Hareville, but he seems to spurn her for the attentions of one of the scandalous widows du jour. Miss Brandon turns for solace to the mysterious Slav, and for a moment, they become secretly engaged. Kay departs before learning the outcome of the story.

Much of the second half of the book is devoted to the text of Rudd’s long short story, “Overlooked,” which he published in a private edition of 500, sending a copy to Kay. In “Overlooked,” Miss Brandon has become “Kathleen Farrel,” and Hareville “Saint-Yves-les-Bains.” All the main characters Kay encountered reappear with different names and slightly altered back stories.

As promised, Rudd provides a fairy tale to explain Brandon/Farrell’s sense of evanescence:

Once, when she was a little girl, she had gone to pick flowers in the great dark wood near her home, where the trees had huge fantastic trunks, and gnarled boles, and where in the spring-time the blue-bells stretched beneath them like an unbroken blue sea. After she had been picking blue-bells for nearly an hour, she had felt sleepy. She lay down under the trunk of a tree. A gipsy passed her and asked to tell her fortune. She had waved her away, as she had no sympathy with gipsies. The gipsy had said that she would give her a piece of good advice unasked, and that was, not to go to sleep in the forest on the Eve of St. John, for if she did she would never wake. She paid no attention to this, and she dozed off to sleep and slept for about half-an-hour. She was an obstinate child, and not at all superstitious. When she got home, she asked the housekeeper when was the Eve of St. John. It happened to fall on that very day. She said to herself that this proved what nonsense the gipsies talked, as she had slept, woken up, come back to the house, and had high tea in the schoolroom as usual. She never gave the incident another thought ; but the housekeeper, who was superstitious, told one of the maids that Miss Kathleen had been overlooked by the fairy-folk and would never be quite the same again. When she was asked for further explanations, she would not give any. But to all outward appearances Kathleen was the same, and nobody noticed any difference in her, nor did she feel that she had suffered any change.

Rudd plays out his version, including the return of the fiance and the secret engagement, which is broken off as the two lovers realize the arrangement could only work in a fantasy world free of the constraints of class, money and prejudices.

The book then returns to the “Papers of Anthony Kay.” Kay describes his reaction to “Overlooked” and discusses the book and the story of the real-life Miss Brandon with several people he knew from his time at Hareville. Kay and his friend Doctor Sabran conclude that Rudd got it wrong … but aren’t sure what “right” is:

“I am convinced of one thing only, and that is that the novelist drew false deductions from facts which were perhaps sometimes correctly observed.” [Sabran]

I said I agreed with him. Rudd’s deductions were wrong ; his facts were probably right in some cases; Sabran’s deductions were right, I thought, as far as they went; but we either had not enough facts or not enough intuition to arrive at a solution of the problem.

To another acquaintance, Kay argues that, “Rudd had started with a theory about Miss Brandon, that she was such and such person, and he distorted the facts till they fitted with his theory. At least, that was what I imagined to have been the case.”

In the end, Miss Brandon is reunited with her fiancé, who appears never to have any other objective in mind, and the pair enjoy the most conventional of marriages. Kay, Rudd, and almost everyone else in the book(s), it seems, were all guilty of reading far more into her situation than ever existed.

Characterization is not Baring’s forté in Overlooked. Kay, Rudd, and the rest are sketched just as superficially as Miss Brandon. But for Baring’s purposes, little more than stick figures are needed. Years before it got its name, Baring was experimenting with the Rashomon effect. Rudd applies a fantastic interpretation on Miss Brandon’s story, but his is just the most overt form of fiction in the book. Every one puts his or her spin on her story, influenced by all sorts of factors–from the English sense of propriety to the Italian love of the game of romance. Baring puts the final seal on the artificiality and impermanence of the social affairs of Hareville by noting the date of his departure from the town: June 27, 1914.

Overlooked was Baring’s second novel, published soon after Passing By, which is also something of a play on the nature of a work of fiction. Although the books received warm if not enthusiastic reviews, neither sold well. His next novel, C, was far more conventional in approach–a Bildungsroman set in Edwardian England–and weighed in at a whopping 700-plus pages. C is in print from Faber Finds.

Overlooked was reissued about ten years ago by the House of Stratus, which appears to be a hybrid between a legitimate reissue house and one of the many print-on-demand open source publishers. Stratus reissued a good chunk of Baring’s better work, each with a relatively attractive cover, between 2001 and 2003, but none of these appears to be in print now and Stratus no longer lists Baring among their authors. And the quality of their cover art–and editing–seems to have dropped dramatically, if the Caustic Cover Critic’s example of their version of Brain Aldis(s)’ Dracula Unbound is any indication. But save your money and download a free copy from the Internet Archive: Overlooked, by Maurice Baring.

Overlooked, by Maurice Baring
London: William Heinemann

Twin Beds, by Edward Salisbury Field

Twin Beds was a book ahead of its time. Its time being somewhere between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s, the golden era of screwball comedies. For Twin Beds is just the sort of comedy of errors you’d expect to see in a Preston Sturges movies or an episode of “I Love Lucy.”

Blanche and her husband Henry live in a New York apartment. Looking to buy a new bed, she lets the salesman convince her to purchase that novelty, a set of twin beds, instead–they’re “stylish and everybody was using them.” Blanche and Henry are happy trend-followers, but Blanche’s ma, visiting from Centerville, finds the situation a little scandalous.

This would be the end of the matter but for the ensuing set of accidents. Henry heads out for a night of bowling and beer with the fellas–which puts Ma, already at odds with the new fangled ways of life in the big city:

Pa had never had a night out, so why should Henry! It wasn’t safe for married men to go gallivanting around alone nights; it gave them wrong ideas. What if Henry did work hard all week! Hadn’t Pa worked hard, too! Hard work was good for men; it kept them from getting too skittish. Besides, New York wasn’t like Centerville. New York was a wicked city, full of temptations. “And you needn’t tell me times has changed,” said Ma; “men are just the same as they always was.”

“Yes, Ma,” I said, “but women ain’t.”

“What did you say!”

“I said Henry has a perfect right to go out Saturday nights if I let him.”

“Well, it ain’t right,” declared Ma. “If Henry loved you the way he ought to, he wouldn’t want to leave you.”

Blanche and Ma retire for the night. Somewhere around midnight, a man staggers into the apartment, fumbles to get his clothes off, and climbs into Henry’s bed. Listening in the dark, Blanche thinks it’s Henry.

It’s not, of course. It’s one of their neighbors, who’s mistaken their place for his as he teeters home from his own night out. What are Blanche and Henry to do, particularly if they don’t want to upset Ma? Well, the whole affair ultimately involves a fire escape, an enormous clothes hamper, a policeman, an angry wife, slamming doors, thrown shoes and most of the other comic cliches short of a rolling pin.

In fact, Twin Beds was such prime material that Field made it into a play, co-written with Margaret Mayo, and Hollywood filmed it not once, not twice, but three times–in 1920 starring Carter and Flora Parker DeHaven (Pa and Ma of Gloria); in 1929 starring Jack Mulhall; and in 1942 with George Brent and Joan Bennett.

An interesting footnote to: Some years after Robert Lewis Stevenson’s death in 1894, Field went to work for his widow, Fanny. At the time, Field was 23 and Fanny was in her sixties. They grew very close, and when she died, he reported said she was “the only woman in the world worth dying for.” Which didn’t stop him from promptly marrying Stevenson’s daughter, Belle, who just 22 years older than him.

You can find digital versions of the book online at the Internet Archive:

The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub, by Ada Blum

About a dozen years before James Joyce invented Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, Ada Blom wrote her own soliloquy and published it herself under the odd title, The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub. She offered her 100-some page booklet for sale: “This book will be sent by mail, postpaid, to any address upon receipt of 25 cents in silver.” And she put her proud and somewhat defiant portrait on the front page.

“I was born in Sweden, of Swedish parents,” she begins. It is about the last straight-forward sentence in the book. Ada was quite obviously a self-taught writer as well as publisher, but her voice and outlook have a brilliant daftness and honesty:

When I start in to criticise a person I always begin at the lower, and, firstly, he wore commonplace, soft-leather shoes. I find these new styles abominable. It is something radically wrong about the man who wore them. I’ll climb a little. Then there comes an evening shirt, stiff and stately. Then there is the head to describe, and I commence with the ears. The ears were deceiving, though. I’ll tell you that some other time. Blonde, curly hair, having the latest style of tint. The forehead was innocent and humorous — eyes with a sad longing in them like some little children have when they are out for mischief. A beauty mole on the right cheek, a good nose, a teasing-looking mustache of the right kind and a chin which said: “I am going to have it, but if 1 don’t get it I don’t care.” That was the look of the Echo from the Swedish mountains.

She is born and raised in a small town and taught strict Lutheran morality. When she asks her father, innocently, why God must be so angry and vengeful, he beats her with a rod, and by the time she is fifteen or so, she runs away from home to escape his abuse and harsh Christianity.

A string of jobs gets her first to Denmark, then Germany, where she gets a job singing in a music hall. A series of men try to woo her and she eventually falls for a diamond merchant from Amsterdam. After many rounds of promises and disappointments, she tracks him down in Wiesbaden and discovers that he is both married and confidence man. So she buys a cheap passage to America, landing in New York.

Ada was nothing if not industrious. Though her fortunes rise and fall more than a few times in the course of the story, she always manages to pick herself up, dust herself off, and start all over again. She manages to save enough money to buy own townhouse and set herself up as a landlord. Then she loses it, winds up back on the street, gets a job as a hotel scrub–a situation that lasts all of about two pages, despite the title–and then as a waitress, then as a singer again, and then returns into real estate. There are several rounds of this before the book’s abrupt end.

Her problem, in a nutshell, is a weakness for the wrong type of man. The confidence man is Wiesbaden proves the rule, not the exception. Her first husband, one John Shea, turns out to be a drunk, a thief, and an adulterer who tries to rob and then murder her. She falls for the concertmaster in one of the New York music halls, an affair she recalls in a rambling revery that can’t help but bring Molly Bloom’s to mind:

J–Jealousy. Yes, that is the course of my lady. I was jealous, and maybe I had no reason to be jealous; but K–kalsomine. Not at all. I don’t paint and powder any more. For whom should I bother? L–lament. Yes, but not here in the in park. M–money; money. Yes, the little I have left. What can I do with it alone and in a sore dilemma, sick and sorrowful? N–name and nobody he called me. No one and nobody. That was our last word of parting. Am I nothing at all? No, I suppose not. Well, O—-ordained. Am I ordained to this continued suffering? Yes, I suppose I am. P–Paradise. Yes there is a Paradise at least; that is if one can eat substantial food and drink plenty of water only; then you can work with brain or body and you’ll get tired and youll sleep—-sleep. If I only could sleep. No, I only slumber now and then, and then I am plagued with the nightmare and see hideous sights before my face. Q–yes, that is the question. Where will I go to? R-R-R–R–reminds me of something. R–what was it? I hear a violin around me and I see a sweet severe face, the chin resting on a white silk handkerchief, and both caress the violin through his glasses. I can see two noble, brown eyes watching me on the stage. With his right arm he holds the violin bow and caressingly and very carefully he strokes the violin until he has let me find my B, moll, tune and then we both join in together and tell each other through wonderful music how good, how true, what a happy life we could live together. But no; we both drank beer–could not afford to buy good beer, but had the tin can filled with cheap stuff, and then didn’t we both smoke cigarettes? Yes, we had enjoyed a cigarette before our acquaintance, which is no harm whatsoever, but we overdid it. Between every kiss we had to take a puff–a kiss and a puff, and a kiss and a puff. Then the kiss was too long and the cigarette went out, and striking a match we took no time to let the sulphur burn off and sucked the poison from the burning match into our system. Heavens!

When I spotted The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub on the Internet Archive, I assumed it was the sort of cheap, salacious literature sold in ads in the back of blood-and-guts rags around the turn of the century. And if anyone did send 25 cents in silver to Ada, it was probably in hope of just such lurid accounts of lust and lechery in the bedrooms of New York hotels.

They would have been pretty disappointed. Although there’s plenty of situations that would have caused Ada’s father to reach for his rod, the closest things get to the risque is when Ada finds a welching tenant drunk on his soft with a half-dressed woman asleep next to him.

But for a reader a hundred years later, the attraction of The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub is not the story but the storyteller. Could anyone but Joyce or Beckett have come up with such raw, unfiltered native craziness:

What was in that beer I drank? One good swallow–: only I took to quench my thirst, but anyhow I was paralyzed. I could not move. I produced money and sent for clam juice. The clam juice didn’t come. I produced money and sent for Dr. O’Brian. Dr. O’Brian didn’t come. I sent for the ambulance. The ambulance came and I was haled to the Harlem Dispensary, and there I was received as a helpless drunkard and imbecile and cigarette fiend. What happened to me there I shall cut out, but not long after that I was haled to Bellevue on Twenty-second Street, or Twenty-sixth, and there I was laid on the floor among a heap of misfortunates with empty stomachs, and I suffered the tortures of hell until the following day at about two o’clock in the afternoon, when the doctor came to look after our welfare.

To quote the one and only Ada Blom, Swedish runaway, tenament landlady and precursor to the fictional Molly: “Howl L. Lulua!”

You can purchase print copies of The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub from several different instaprint public domain publishers, or you can just get for free from the Internet Archive: I would advise, though, to go with the PDF version, as the rest are based on an OCR version of a poor quality copy and essentially unreadable.

The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub, by Ada Blom
New York: Ada Blom, 1909

The Easter Egg Hunt, by Speed Lamkin

The Wikipedia entry for Speed Lamkin quotes composer Ned Rorem’s characterization of him as “the poor man’s Truman Capote”–which is probably not how Lamkin would choose to be remembered. The comparison was unavoidable, however, at least for the first thirty-some years of his life.

Portrait of Speed Lamkin by Jean de Gaigneron (circa 1948)Born in Monroe, Louisiana, son of a wealthy businessman, Lamkin like Capote went North young–to Harvard in 1948 at the age of 16. He quickly found his way into the circles of Eastern avant-garde and gay society. As early as 1949, Tennessee Williams mentioned “Speed Lamkin, whom you may know or know of, sometimes referred to as the new Truman Capote” in a letter to a friend. He published his first novel, Tiger in the Garden, while still an undergraduate. Drawing heavily on Lamkin’s perceptions of Monroe society, the novel was, in the words of Time’s reviewer, “made up of old ingredients: miscegenation, aristocratic drunks and flowerlike ladies, languid Southern talk and fiery Southern tempers.” While there was no doubt that Lamkin’s book was informed by personal knowledge of at least a few skeletons in Louisiana closets, most reviews found the book a bit artificial: the New York Times’ reviewer said it gave the “sense of a low-powered, highly polished Hollywood product.”

This was a prescient comment. In the same letter, Williams wrote that Lamkin “wants to get a Hollywood job,” and less than a year later, Christopher Isherwood, living in Los Angeles, mentioned Lamkin for the first time in his diaries. Lamkin was the first to try to adapt Isherwood’s Berlin stories for the screen, and while he didn’t succeed in this effort, he did work as a screen writer, mostly in television for most of the 1950s.

In 1954, he published his second novel, The Easter Egg Hunt (later retitled Fast and Loose in paperback). Although labeled a Hollywood novel, the book is, to be more precise, a novel of Beverly Hills. The distinction is subtle but important. A Hollywood novel is, in some way or another, about the business of movie-making and the people involved in it.

Beverly Hills, on the other hand, while populated by many in the entertainment business, is first and foremost a town of the rich–or, as Lamkin describes it, small “wealthy city, two thirds suburb, one third resort.” The Easter Egg Hunt is more about lives lived around expensive homes, poolsides, and nightclubs than about directors, actors, and producers.

During the photographing, new people arrived. Cobina Wright’s secretary; and the Abe Abramses, who had money in Van-color; and an Egyptian princess, who had drifted to Beverly Hills in the entourage of the Queen Mother Nazli; and a blank-faced Dutchman, who owned a pepper business; and a man in pink shorts, who sold Fords; and the man who had once played Dagwood Bumstead

While many of the extravagances described in the book relates to the efforts of Clarence Culvers, a Louisiana tycoon, to make a star of his young second wife Carol, show business is never more than a presence on the periphery of the story.

The story itself is pretty thin. Lamkins’ narrator, Charley Thayer, a young writer for Time magazine from Miro (read Monroe), Louisiana, encounters Angelica O’Brien, a a childhood playmate and bright young thing, now married to Laddie Wells, a pompous would-be intellectual and assistant to a producer of “A-movie” westerns. At first the narrative seems to be leading into a triangle between Charley, Angelica, and Laddie, but then Charley, whose bumper sticker must have read, “I Brake for Bright, Shiny Objects,” becomes the confidant of Carol Culvers and the course takes a sharp turn. From there on, we follow the rocky course of Carol, who idles at unstable and regularly revs up to self-destructive, her affair with Laddie, and the ambitions and jealousies of Clarence. Although Charley hints at one point about halfway in the story that this all will climax in some violent, headlines-grabbing event, what we get at the end is more whimper than bang. Overall, I thought The Easter Egg Hunt an utter failure as a novel.

At the same time, however, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Lamkin might not have been an effective novelist, but he is a terrific observer. If he kept a diary during his time in Los Angeles, somebody needs to convince him to publish it. The Easter Egg Hunt is a treasure trove of descriptions of the people, places, and trappings of Beverly Hills in the early 1950s. If you read L.A. Confidential and other James Ellroy novels for the scenery, you’ll love The Easter Egg Hunt. Take, for instance, just a portion of the account of one of the Culvers’ frequent parties:

They sat drinking in sixes and eights around the tables under the marquee; and they would dance for half an hour to the bouncy music of an orchestra playing the songs of South Pacific. Then the orchestra would alternate with a rumba-mambo-tango band. People spread their fur wraps and lay down on the grass, and people had their fortunes told by a swank Beverly Hills numerologist. Two snobbish English actors arrived with Vera Velma the strip-tease queen, who wore pink dyed fur and was introduced as Mrs. T. Markoe Deering of Southampton and New York.

At two-thirty sharp the man who had played Washington in Valley Forge vomited over the buffet, and a sturgeon and three red herrings had to be taken away. Down the hill in the Japanese tea house two ensigns were having a crap game with Len Evansman, the columnist. Len Evansman wanted to know if I could change a thousand-dollar bill. At a quarter of three a dozen Hawaiian girls did the hula-hula and a dignified producer, who had an obsession for pinching young women’s behinds, got his face slapped by the ukelele player. A thin man who did rope tricks followed the hula girls. It was during the rope tricks that somebody started throwing the plates out over the hill. “Look,” cried a starlet, “flying saucers! ” Forty-five people rose from their chairs to look. Three men started throwing plates, then a woman started.

The book is rich of succinct character sketches full of efficient defamation: “George Martin was not handsome, he was not well-mannered, he was not entertaining in the least; in fact, every remark he made, every opinion uttered, was something stupid and inane; yet when George Martin entered a room, the eyes of every woman in it went to him.” Or the studio founder who “lived on in a Norman castle on Doheny with trained nurses to tend his artificial bowels.”

Although Lamkin’s alter ego Charley has a one-night stand with Angelica, his role and perspective seems more gay than straight. He becomes the confidant of both Angelica and Carol without stirring up much in the way of a jealous reaction from either husband. He spends much of his time in the company of an English novelist named Sebastian Saunders, who is clearly a fictionalized Christopher Isherwood (to whom the novel is dedicated): “His court consisted of two sailors in uniform, a trim little middle-aged Englishman, to whom he addressed most of his remarks, and a boy who could not have been over fifteen years old.” I don’t know if Lamkin was trying to camouflage his homosexuality or just using the language of his time, but there are regular references to gays that are likely to offend today: “Gladys Hendrix typified the sort of well-off older woman who goes around with swish young men; and the Titson twins with their talk of ‘stunning’ this and ‘smart’ that were horribly, horribly swish.” Charley and Angelica go to a “pansy bar”; the Culvers’ personal secretary, “a tall, stout, broad-shouldered woman with the complexion of a steaming red crab” is known as “Butch” Murphy.

The Easter Egg Hunt did well enough to be reissued as a lurid-covered paperback, but got reviews that consistently riffed on the theme of “imitation F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Lamkin abandoned the novel after this, but he did get one play, “Comes a Day,” produced on Broadway starring George C. Scott, in 1958. He returned to Monroe in the early 1960s and appears to have devoted his energies towards collecting. The New Orleans Museum of Art featured a number of items from his collection of furniture, paintings, vases, and other items in the exhibition, “A Taste for Excellence,” several years ago.

Although hardback and paperback editions of The Easter Egg Hunt are available, you can find copies of the book in various electronic formats for free: The Easter Egg at the Internet Archive.

The Easter Egg Hunt, by Speed Lamkin
New York City: Houghton Mifflin, 1954

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, by John Poole

I’ll start 2011 with a post on the funniest book I’ve read in at least the last ten years.

I don’t recall how I first came across Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians while browsing through the Internet Archive. I downloaded the text at least two years ago and kept meaning to read it, but it was only when I bought a Nook that I finally did. I have to say that the experience did strain my marriage for a few weeks as my wife had to put up with me bursting out laughing each night as I clicked through the book in bed beside her.

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is an account of two visits by one Paul Pry, a gentleman resident of London, to the town of Little Pedlington, population 2,972, somewhere around 1835. Pry, who has “been everywhere, seen everything, heard everything, and tasted of everything,” has been wondering where to escape from London’s “unendurable” summer when a parcel of books arrives from his bookseller. Sorting through it, he lays aside “Denham’s Travels in Africa,” Humboldt’s in South America, and ” Parry’s Voyages” to peruse a slender just-published volume, “The Stranger’s Guide through Little Pedlington,” by Felix Hoppy, Esq., M.C..

Although he acknowledges that such guides can be found be every provincial crossroads in England, the hyperbole of Hoppy’s book (“Hail, Pedlingtonia! Hail, thou favoured spot!/What’s good is found in thee; what’s not, is not.”) overwhelms Pry and convinces him that the town must be a “very Paradise.” So off he sets for Little Pedlington.

Or at least he tries to. It turns out there is no direct coach from London, and only a chance of finding a connection by way of Squashmire Gate. But even Squashmire Gate proves inaccessible, as the coachman drops him at an isolated hamlet called Poppleton End. “Poppleton End?” he exclaims. “Yes, sir, and has been since time out of mind,” replies the coachman with a snicker. Stuck there in a poor excuse for an inn, Pry attempts to make the best of things, but he soon finds nothing even remotely passable in the place. The locals argue over how far it is to Squashmire Gate–“thirteen good mile” … but that way is blocked, so it’s seventeen-and-a-half if you go by way of Lob’s Farm. And the only transport available is a one-horse cart–“but our horse died Friday-week, and my good man hasn’t yet been able to suit himself with another.”

Finally, he resigns himself to wait until something better comes along and asks the maid for dinner. What follows is arguably the lost template for Monty Python’s famous spam skit:

“What would you like, sir ?”

“A boiled chicken”

“We have never a chicken, sir, but would you like some eggs and bacon?”

“No. Can I have a lamb-chop?”

“No, sir, but our eggs and bacon is very nice.”

“Or a cutlet — or a steak?”

“No, sir; but we are remarkable here for our eggs and bacon.”

“Have you anything cold in your larder?”

“Not exactly, sir, but I’m sure you will admire our eggs and bacon.”

“Then what have you got?”

“Why, sir, we have got nothing but eggs and bacon.”

“Then have the goodness to give me some eggs and bacon.”

“I was sure you’d choose eggs and bacon, sir. We are so famous for it.”

Despite these obstacles, though, Pry is set on his mission of visiting Little Pedlington, particularly after hearing the maid’s endorsement: “Sir,” she said, ” all the world can’t be Lippleton; if it was, it would be much too fine a place, and too good for us poor sinners to live in.” Eventually, after hours of riding on a rickety coach through drizzle, mud, and detours, he arrives late in the evening at “Scorewell’s hotel, the Green Dragon, in High Street. Forgetting all my bygone troubles, I exultingly exclaimed, ‘And here I am in Little Pedlington!'”

Though he resolves to keep a faithful journal of his visit, within the first minutes of his first morning in town, it becomes apparent that Pry’s expectations are not going to bend to the mediocre reality that is life in Little Pedlington–at least not until he has the chance to look back with some perspective upon his return to London. He has a fine breakfast at Scorewell’s. Excepting the over-cooked egg, which is replaced with an under-cooked one; the “Nanking-coloured” coffee (“One quarter ounce per quart,” the waiter proudly informs him); and the fact that the only London paper–three weeks old–is in the hands of preferred customers (“the family with the fly”). Just before setting out for his first stroll around the town, he arranges for his dinner–which becomes the forerunner of another, lesser-known Python sketch, “The Cheese Shop.”:

“Well, Mr. Scorewell, that will do for the present. I will now, guide-book in hand, pay a visit to the town; at five o’clock I will return; and since (as I perceive by the book) you have a well-supplied market …”

“The best in the whole universe, sir.”

“Well, then, you will let me have a nice little dinner; some flsh and …”

“Fish! To-day is Monday, you know, sir, and Wednesdays and Saturdays are our fish-days. Couldn’t get fish to-day in Lippleton for love or money. But I’ll tell you what, sir ; if Joe Higgins should bring any gudgeons in to-morrow, I’ll take care of ’em for you—unless, indeed, the family with the fly should want ’em.”

“A veal cutlet then, and …”

“Veal! We only kill veal in Lippleton, sir, once a week, and that’s o’ Tuesdays, But if you’d please to leave it to my cook, sir, she’ll send you up as nice a little dinner as you’d wish to sit down to.”

In the course of the next week or so, Pry meets all the illuminati of Little Pedlington. His self-appointed guide is one Jack Hobbleday, a gossiping cheapskate busybody windbag bore–although Poore manages to make this clear without ever putting it into such direct terms:

Obligingly communicated to me the fact, that he took three thick slices of bread-and-butter, one egg, and two cups of tea; adding to the interest of the information, by a minute detail of the price he paid for the several commodities, the quantities of tea and sugar he used, the time he allowed his egg to boil, and his tea to draw; and also, bv a particular description of the form and size of his teapot. Though early in the day, I experienced sensation of drowsiness, for which (having slept well at night) I could not account.

It turns out that most of the inhabitants of Little Pedlington share the same affliction. There is Major Boreall, “who, for instance, is a longer time in telling you of his ordering a dinner than it would take you to eat it.” Or Rummins, the town antiquarian, whose “pro-nun-ci-a-ti-on precise accurate even to inaccuracy, and so distinct as to be almost unintelligible — at least, to one accustomed, as I had hitherto been, to the conversation of ordinary people, who utter their words in an everyday sort of manner.” Or Colonel Dominant (an escapee from Bob and Ray’s “Webley Webster Playhouse”), who screams, “D__n your arrogance!” at virtually every syllable his meek companion Mr. Truckle utters.

Little Pedlingtonians find virtue in the utter lack of privacy in their town. When Pry informs Yawkins, the town bookseller, that London is such a big and anonymous place that half the city’s residents wouldn’t even take notice if the other half decided to shave the hair off all the dogs in town, Yawkins replies, “Then blessed be Little Pedlington!–where everybody is acquainted with everybody else’s affairs, at least as well as with his own!”

The highlight of Pry’s first visit is a soiree hosted by Rummins, during which each of the town’s intellectual elite shows off his or her best talents. The evening culminates in a song recital by Miss Cripps, Little Pedlington’s resident coloratura, Pry records in careful detail one of her songs:

Thanks to the lady’s method of singing-— a method which, I am informed, is commonly taught in Little Pedlington — I can answer for it that the following copy of her “exact and exquisite little effusion” is literally correct:

“Se turn sn en sm se,
Me o sn tarn se oo.
To nm te a te me
Pe tam ta o te poo.”

And these words, running through five verses, she articulated with as much distinctness as if she had been regularly educated as a singer for the English Opera.

If this review is beginning to seem like a bit too much of a good thing, you’ll have caught on to what is the one big drawback to Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians. The book was first published in 1836 as Paul Pry’s Journal of a Residence at Little Pedlington. Poole then reissued the book in 1839 as Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, expanding its length from just over 200 pages to over 500. The second half describes a second and last visit and includes a scene-by-scene account of the theatrical spectacle, “The Hatchet of Horror, or The Massacred Milkmaid,” as well as lengthy excerpts from the “Life and Letters of Captain Nix,” a recently-deceased resident. These include such fascinating items from Nix’s diary as:

Sept. 26.— Rose at 8— shaved— 9, brekd.” [For breakfasted.] 3, Biled beaf for dinr. and carets hot. [It adds considerably to the interest of the work that, in all cases where Nix’s MS. are consulted, his own system of orthography is adhered to. The same may be said of his peculiar mode of pronunciation whenever he is made to appear as the narrator or interlocutor. Of these the dramatic effect is thereby considerably heightened.] 6, Walkd. to Vale of Health — 10, Supper. Welsh rabbet, gin and water, then to bed.

Sept. 27.— Rose 8— -shaved— 9, brekd.— 3, biled beaf for dinr., cold — 6, walkd. to V. of H. — 10, supp., Welsh r., gin and water — 11, bed.

In many ways, Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is in a class with Mark Twain’s travel books, particularly The Innocents Abroad, which are studded with wonderful comic set-pieces and pastiches but begin to bog down from sheer length after page 400. Still, the quality and wealth of the set-pieces and pastiches in Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is astonishing and kept me richly amused for over two weeks.

During his life, John Poole was best known as a comic dramatist–experience that certainly informs his account of “The Hatchet of Horror.” Although Little Pedlington was well known enough in its time to earn an entry (“The village of quackery and cant, humbug, and egotism, wherever that locality is.”) in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Poole himself fell on hard times in his later years, and was supported financially by Charles Dickens, who considered him an inspiration.

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is in print from a number of publishers specializing in reprinting open source texts, skip the middlemen and get the text yourself, either from the Internet Archive (Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians) or Google Books (Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians). Just make sure to give fair warning to whoever you’ll be reading in bed with.

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, by John Pool
London: Henry Colburn, 1839

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching, by Henry C. Barkley

Covers of "Rat-Catching" by Crispin Glover (1999) and "Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching" by Henry C. Barkley (1896)If anyone has heard of Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching in the last ten years, it’s undoubtedly due to Crispin Glover’s 1999 reconstruction of the book, Rat Catching. Most mentions of Glover’s book identify Barkley’s work as “a 19th-century non-fiction book” or a handbook on how to catch rats.

Which it is. On one level, at least. Studies purports to be the recollections of one Bill Joy, master rat-catcher, who was enticed into putting them down in print after regaling a country house full of young people with them one weekend. Much of the first two-thirds of the book takes the reader step-by-step through the process of ridding farms and houses of rats for profit, starting with picking the right ferrets, dogs, and shovels and continuing into stories of memorable hunts. There is also a chapter on rabbit-catching, reminding us that, in the days before Beatrix Potter, farmers like Mr. McGregor looked on them as pests, not pets.

But how then to take Barkley/Joy’s introduction to the book?

Ever since I was a boy, and ah! long, long before that, I fancy, the one great anxiety of parents of the upper and middle classes blessed with large families has been, ” What are we to do with our boys ? ” and the cry goes on increasing, being intensified by the depreciation in the value of land, and by our distant colonies getting a little overstocked with young gentlemen, who have been banished to them by thousands, to struggle and strive, sink or swim, as fate wills it. At home, all professions are full and everything has been tried ; and, go where you will, even the children of the noble may be found wrestling with those of the middle and working classes for every piece of bread that falls in the gutter. Nothing is infra dig that brings in a shilling, and all has been and is being tried.

Rat-catching, it appears, is Barkley/Joy’s solution to the problem of upper class unemployment:

I believe kind Dame Nature during the last summer has stepped in and opened out an honourable path for many gentlemen’s sons, that I think will be their salvation, and at all events, if it does not make them all rich, will, if they only follow it, make them most useful members of society and keep them out of mischief and out of their mammas’ snug drawing-rooms.

Thus, he dedicates the book to “the Head Masters of Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Rugby, and all other schools,” Old Joy is no rube, but the son of a country parson, and not completely out of touch with the mores and manners of the upper classes. He is careful to advise his young readers, for example, to “show your respect by not taking ferrets or dead rats in your pockets into her drawing-room, and by washing your hands a little between fondling them and cuddling her.” And he takes pride in his humble but honest and worthy profession. He expresses his hope that his book will serve as a more practical alternative to learning Greek and Latin, which only equips boys to become “such scourges of society as M.P.s who make speeches when Parliament is not sitting.”

So there is clearly more going on here than a simple handbook on rat-catching. Barkley is taking a sly shot at public school education. Most chapters end with Joy instructing his young Etonian readers: “There, young gentlemen, if you have well digested that chapter and forgotten the story at the end, you can put up your books and form up for your usual walk to the second milestone and back again”–or admonishing Croker minor, the trouble-maker of the class: “The top part of Jones’ leg was not made to stick pins into!”

But then, in Chapter VIII, “A Trip to the Seaside,” Joy meanders his way from telling about his annual excursions to a seaside town for hunting rats on “the Denes” to a long-winded story about the rescue of a child from the wreck of a ship smuggling arms to Irish separatists–a story that has nothing to do with rats or educating public school boys. “Oh, dear! oh, dear! What a muddle, what a hodge-podge I have made of this pen work! I sat down thinking it would be quite easy to write a book on ‘Rat-catching for the Use of Schools,’ and I have drifted off the line here,” he laments. “I had hoped to have opened up a great career to many young gentlemen, but have failed,” he concludes, abruptly ending the book.

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching is, then, a practical guide to rat-catching, as its title claims; and an attempt to mock the education and employment prospects of the upper class; and a collection of quaint tales of life and adventures in rural England. It’s certainly not wholly successful in being any one of these, but I’d argue that Barkley managed to create something of an 19th century cut-up–which itself makes the book quite a bit more than just some dull old book Crispin Glover reworked a hundred years later.

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching, by Henry C. Barkley
London: John Murray, 1896

Our Own Set, by Ossip Schubin

As I poke around the less-frequented aisles of the Internet Archive, I continue to stumble across long-forgotten gems. Certainly the loveliest so far came as just the kind of happy accident that encourages me to keep on digging. I had been impressed by the quality of Clara Bell’s translations from the Spanish of several works by Benito Perez-Galdos–himself a neglected giant of the 19th century novel–and decided to see if the archive held any other examples of her work.

One of the dozen or so titles I found was the opaquely titled Our Own Set by one Ossip Schubin. I did a quick Google search on the title and author and found very little listed, so I downloaded it to my Nook and started the book a few days later.

Our Own Set takes place in Rome in 1870. The set of the title is a group of Austrian nobles living in the city on long-term holidays, escaping the provincialism of Viennese society–only to create their own form of it. The harmony of the scene is disrupted when the secretary of the Austrian embassy–not much of a diplomat, but a fine waltzer–is sent off to London and replaced by Cecil Sterzl.

The set instantly takes a dislike to Sterzl, who fails to play its game:

He could never be brought to understand that the flattery and subterfuge usual in company were merely a degenerate form of love for your neighbor; that the uncompromising truthfulness that he required must result in universal warfare; that the limit-line between sincerity and rudeness, between deference and hypocrisy, have never been rigidly defined; that the naked truth is as much out of place in a drawing-room as a man in his shirt-sleeves; and that, considering the defects and deformities of our souls, we cannot be too thankful that custom prohibits their being displayed without a decent amount of clothing.

His situation is not aided by his seating on a relatively low rung on the ladder of Austrian nobility, earned only by virtue of his mother’s slim claim to title:

Baroness Sterzl was a typical specimen of a class of nobility peculiar to Austria, and called there, Heaven knows why, “the onion nobility” (zweibelnoblesse). It is a circle that may be described as a branch concern of the best society; a half-blood relation; a mixture of the elements that have been sifted out of the upper aristocracy and of the parvenus from below, who find that they can be reciprocally useful; a circle in which almost every man is a baron, and every woman, without exception, is a baroness. Its members are for the most part poor, but refined beyond expression. The mothers scold their children in bad French and talk to their friends in fashionable slang; they give parties, at which there is nothing to eat–but the family plate is displayed, and where the company always consists of the same old bachelors who dye their hair and know the Almanack de Gotha by heart.

And, to top it off, he comes to Rome not only in the company of his “onion” baroness mother, but also that of his sister Zenaide–Zinka for short–a stunningly beautiful but naive girl. Soon after their arrival, the charming Count Sempaly, Sterzl’s bureaucratic subordinate but social superior, dashes off a mocking sketch of Sterzl as an auctioneer, holding up a beautiful doll–Zinka–before a crowd of crowned heads: “Mademoiselle Sterzl, going–going–gone–!” Sempaly’s caricature delights his salon, but when he meets Zinka in person, he quickly discovers she is no social climber but a genuine innocent, tender and lovely.

Sempaly becomes entranced by Zinka and soon he is paying call upon her and accompanying her on carriage rides. She, in turn, falls completely for his charms.

There is, of course, a big problem with all this. For Sempaly to marry Zinka would be to stoop far below his standing. Nor is her innocence sufficient to overcome the resistance of the rest of the Austrian set–particularly after the arrival of his well-placed cousins, the Jatinsky sisters, who consider Zinka little more than a rube. And there is the matter of Sempaly’s massive gambling debts, which only his very conservative brother can pay.

Still, he continues to pay court. The truth is that he is genuinely attracted to Zinka–but he is also utterly captive to the perceptions of his social peers and betters. Schubin takes critical weight of his character:

His behavior to her was that of a man who is perfectly clear as to his own intentions but who for some reason is not immediately free to sue for the hand of a girl whom in his heart of hearts he already regards as his own. What did he mean by all this? What was he thinking? I believe absolutely nothing. He went with the tide. There are many men like him, selfish, luxurious natures who swim with the stream of life and never attempt to steer; they have for the most part happy tempers, they are content with any harbor so long as they reach it without effort or damage, and if in their passive course they run down any one else they exclaim with their usual amiable politeness: “Oh, I beg your pardon!” and are quite satisfied that the mishap was due to fate and not to any fault of theirs.

Finally, one warm evening at a cotillion, he takes Zinka for a walk in the garden and tries to have his cake and eat it, too. He proposes to her–but demands her promise to keep it a secret until his debts are repaid and his older brother departed. Unfortunately, someone else sees them depart the ballroom and places a suggestive item in a local society column: Will Mademoiselle S___l “earn her reward in the form of a coronet?” The column, Schubin observes was “abused and condemned by everybody, covertly maintained by several, and read by most.”

Sterzl is infuriated, especially when Sempaly fails to register any outrage or acknowledge any responsibility for his actions–indeed, fails even to see Zinka for several days afterward. Sempaly uses his brother’s visit as an excuse: “He was utterly miserable, but this did not prevent him from allowing his good-natured senior to pay his enormous debts, nor–in order to propitiate him–from paying specious attention to his cousins.”

In defense of his sister’s honor, Sterzl challenges Sempaly to a duel. He only learns afterward of the engagement, but in keeping with his character, cannot reverse course and call things off. In swords as in society, sophistication tops earnestness every time, and Sterzl is carried off with a fatal wound.

Aloisia Kirschner, AKA Ossip Schubin, at the time of the publication of "Own Our Set"True love does win out in the end–but in Zinka’s case the winner is Count Truyn, the quiet, distinguished widower who has remained loyal to Sterzl and Zinka throughout. And Sempaly drifts ever higher in the estimation of Austrian society, wistfully recalling his courtship.

I am no expert on Jane Austen, but Our Own Set struck me as a work very much in the spirit of her work: wise, comic, hyper-attuned to the subtleties of social hierarchies, and full of the business of love and courtship. Particularly given that Ossip Schubin was the pen-name of one Aloisia Kirschner, a woman of Austrian-Slovak origins. Her father was an Austrian noble and she was raised in Prague and in a castle in the Bohemian countryside. The marriage ended, however, in circumstances that are not clear, and Kirschner, her mother, and sister began a nomadic life among the expatriate Austrian societies in Rome, Paris, Geneva, and Brussels.

Early on in their exile, Kirschner began writing fiction, and her mother sent off a piece of hers to an Austrian publisher, who responded enthusiastically, demanding more. She quickly pulled some material into a novel, Ehre, which was published in 1882, when Kirschner was 28. She took Ossip Schubin as a pen-name–Ossip being the Slovak form of Joseph and Schubin from Helena, a lesser-known novel by Turgenev, whom she had met in Paris. A reviewer wrote authoritatively, “Whoever Ossip Schubin may be–we are sure that he can no longer be a young man!” The book sold well and her mother pressed her to write more.

Our Own Set, published in 1884, was her third novel. It was the first to be translated into English and gain attention with English readers. One reviewer offered a somewhat left-handed compliment in assessing the book as “rather more dainty in touch than is usual in German fiction,” while another rated Clara Bell’s translation as “one of the best” of contemporary European writing of the time. An anonymous reviewer in The Critic wrote,

Its interest lies hardly in the story, though the story contains a little plot not unsuccessfully put together and told, but in the character-drawing, and in the author’s terse, bright epigrams, which have the pleasant keenness of one whose gentle and transparent cynicism is not his least attractive quality…. There is not a page that does not hold one with a keen sense of enjoyment, and a certain delicacy running through all the brilliancy justifies one in a pleasure not exhausted by a single reading.

Kirschner went on to publish at least seventeen more novels as Ossip Schubin between 1884 and 1910, but her production appears to have fallen off after that, and her popular and critical recognition–in Germany and Austria as well as abroad–soon followed. Her entry in the German-language version of Wikipedia suggests this had to do with her being Jewish and the influence of National Socialism on literary historians of the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly her English-language readership suffered somewhat as a consequence of the First World War. In the academic world, Schubin’s work has been forgotten for the most part. She has a short entry in the Oxford Companion to German Literature, but nothing in Women Writers of Germany, Austria and Switzerland (Frederiksen), Women Writers of German-Speaking Countries (Frederiksen and Amestsbichler), or The Encyclopedia of German literature (Konzett), and only a passing mention in The Feminist Encyclopedia of German Literature (Eigler and Kord).

Aloisia Kirschner, AKA Ossip Schubin, in middle ageOne of the few texts I’ve been able to locate with any substantive material on Kirschner/Schubin, Wilma Iggers’ Women of Prague, includes a recollection by the poet Hedda Sauer that suggests another reason:

Ossip, led by an intelligent, but presumably autocratic mother, remained … somewhat of an enfant terrible all her life … Her human greatness lay in the fact that she easily made her peace with the vicissitudes of her material life. When the prosperity of her parental home broke down, Ossip and her sister Marie–in a life of hard work–again created an existence for themselves which seemed pleasant to them … in hotels and in rented little castles, with coachmen and servants.

Over-production may have much to do with it. As early as 1893, one English reviewer commented on “the inferiority of Ossip Schubin’s later tales, written as it would seem too hastily, under the pressure of a sudden popularity…. It is unfortunate that a novelist of such marked ability should yield to the temptation to strain and hackney emotional effects.”

Kirschner survived for over twenty years after the last of her books was published, dying in 1934 at the age of eighty. Iggers quotes a sad letter from late in her life that gives a sense of how dependent she had become on the wealth and fame she had gained from her writing:

Having outlived one’s time is a miserable state … Where is the Ossip Schubin whom everybody wanted to know, beginning with Austrian archduchesses and Russian Grand Princesses? … like many has-beens I have been sent from the ‘belle étage’ to the attic … sometimes when I lie down for my afternoon nap, I think it would be nice not to wake up. At other times I would like to throw myself at the inkwell and put down the many things which still bubble inside of me. Then I laugh at myself. In the present jazzy belles lettres there is no room for me any more.”

Around a dozen of Ossip Schubin’s novels are available free online through Google or the Internet Archive. Perhaps not all are truly worthy of rediscovery, but I can highly recommend Our Own Set and intended to check out Gloria Victis, which is something of a sequel, taking up with Count Truyn and Zinka in Paris after their marriage. Asbeïn, from the life of a virtuoso and its sequel, Boris Lensky, which deal with the career of a composer and musical virtuoso, were also considered–at the time, at least–as two of her better works.

Our Own Set, by Ossip Schubin (pen name of Aloisia Kirschner), translated by Clara Bell
New York City: W. S. Gottsberger, 1884

I Travel by Train, by Rollo Walter Brown

Heading for a Train, from "I Travel by Train"In 1939, Rollo Walter Brown was 59, a former Harvard professor of literature, a popular lecturer, and a dangerous man. In I Travel by Train, he recalls some of his many trips across the United States through the depths of the Depression. His work as a lecturer on literature, politics, and history took him to all corners of the country, from San Francisco to New Orleans and Atlanta, from the industrial towns of Michigan and Ohio to the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and north Texas. Wherever he went, he made a point of venturing out and trying to understand what was going on and why.

On more than a few of these trips, he seems to have found himself in conversation with some businessman, industrialist, clergyman, or other establishment figure. As Brown recounts it, at some point in each of these exchanges, he found himself accused of being a trouble-maker:

The other four smoked and looked toward the floor out in the center of the room, but their spokesman squinted at me, turned his cigar over in his mouth a time or two, and then demanded: “Say, are you a socialist?”

“Why? Does a man who believes that people ought not to starve have to be a socialist?”

“Well,” and he squinted his eyes and the whole of his big face into deeper lines as if he were trying to think and to be amiable at the same time, “it always looks a little suspicious, doesn’t it?”

Three capitalists in the smoking car, from "I Travel by Train"

Brown was born in Crooksville, a small town in the coal country of Southwestern Ohio, and though he went on to teach at Harvard and serve on the board of the MacDowell Colony, his allegiance remained with the working poor, who were hit hardest by the Depression. In many ways, I Travel by Train is a travelogue of the Depression. Brown visited coal miners in Kentucky and Ohio, striking auto workers in Flint, and share-croppers in Georgia; tight-lipped Lutheran farmers in Iowa, and boisterous oil speculators in Norman, Oklahoma. And he ventured deep into the heart of Dust Bowl country several times, offering descriptions of the relentless dust storms that bring this hard time back to life:

When I reached over to turn on the light I had a sudden taste of earth that was not unlike the taste of clay I had known since youth. I sneezed. Then I noticed a strange furry feeling in my ears.

It was eight-thirty.

I walked in bare feet to the southeast window and looked out. In the east there was not so much as a place for the sun. The reddish-gray wall was everywhere, though apparently thinner, more nearly translucent, when one looked straight up toward a sky that might be clear. Off to the south there seemed to be a stream of water in a mist, with reddish flat-land just beyond. In the stiff wind, the clouds of thick dust and thinner dust followed one another slowly. At a moment when visibility was fairly high I saw that my stream was a low, white stucco building, and that the flatland was the long red roof of another just beyond.

I happened to put my hand to my head. My hair was as gritty as if I had been turning somersaults in a sandpile. I lifted a bare foot. The bottom of it was covered with clean-looking dust. I touched a protected window-sill. It was so thick with dust that I could have made a topographical map on it. I walked over to the dresser where a bell-boy had put a pitcher of ice-water when I arrived. Red dust had been sliding down the inner sides of the pitcher until there was a stretch of land entirely around the body of water.

Unemployment Line, from "I Travel by Train"
Even though I Travel by Train depicts a rough time and more than a few scenes of grim conditions, Brown’s outlook is fundamentally optimistic. He’s always pointing out someone refusing to give up, whether it’s a woman who works nine months a year on cotton farms to pay for one quarter’s study at a small Oklahoma college or Ben Cable, an Illinois farmer and sculptor, or a young Texas coed he catches a ride with:

The driver confessed that she herself had been awake all night, but for a different reason. Her fiance had been rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation. She had been unable to sleep at all. And now that she knew he was going to live, she did not want to sleep. It was so good to be alive that she had to stay awake and enjoy the experience. She had invented the necessity of this trip just to participate in the great brightness of the day and the easy rhythm of gliding over low rolling hills that afforded long vistas. In a world where so many people give the wrong reasons for everything they do, her profound joy and unaffected frankness were so startling and so beautiful that I sat in a kind of enraptured amazement and listened all the way.

I Travel by Train is also worth reading if you have any sense of nostalgia for the era of train travel, for every chapter offers a slice of the experience of Pullman coaches, smoking lounges, dining cars, and people jumbled together for long hours:

A man can put in a lot of time in a dining-car if he is experienced. He can order item by item as he eats, and then eat very slowly, with full pauses now and then to read two or three consecutive pages in some interesting book, and with other pauses for the passing landscape. So for an hour and a half I sat and ate lettuce salad, and belated blueberry pie, and ice-cream, and read a little, and reordered coffee that was hot, and looked out at the sea, and heard, without trying, the conversation of the two youths at the other side of the table who professed ardently to believe that their prep school had more class than either Groton or St. Mark’s.

One of them had just bought a yacht for which he had paid more than I in an entire lifetime had ever earned or at least had ever received. He felt sure that his father would be able to stampede somebody into buying several blocks of stock at a good fat advance and by so doing pay for the boat without any drain whatever upon the established treasury.

Back in the sleeping-car I grew weary of the rhythmic jungle cries, and decided to seek out a place in the observation-car. I have made the test through a dozen years, but I made it yet again with the same result: on these Boston-New York trains, as one walks through, there are more people reading books than on any other trains in the United States. It must be said also that there are more feet stuck out in the aisle, more people who glance up in disgust at you when you wish to put the aisle to other use.

Driving across Texas in the night, from "I Travel by Train"
I Travel by Train is available from the Internet Archive, but make sure to read it in a version that allows you to enjoy Grant Reynard’s illustrations as well.

Don’t bother to read the last chapter, “Panorama,” though. Brown launches into a poeto-philosophical fugue about America, progress, goodwill among good people, and other nonsense. I was reminded of the infamous last chapter of War and Peace, which has the same effect of having to sit through a lecture at the end of a memorable and delicious meal.

Wait for Mrs. Willard, by Dorothy Langley

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Wait for Mrs. Willard'After enjoying Dorothy Langley’s third novel, Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, I was pleased to find that her first, Wait for Mrs. Willard is available as a free text on the Internet Archive. I quickly downloaded a copy and read it a few days ago on my Nook.

In many ways the two novels form a matched set. In Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, a weak man with a rich imagination finds refuge from an unhappy marriage in fantasies that include conversations with God. In Wait for Mrs. Willard, a gentle woman searches for ways to escape her husband’s stifling controls upon her life. Henry Bremble finds himself constantly on trial for his failings with his wife, Amelia, and her mother as judge and jury. Edith Willard’s husband, Charles, thinks so little of her judgment that Charles refuses to allow her to keep her own library card for fear of the fines she might incur from overdue books. But Bremble does at least acknowledge that while Amelia’s efforts towards her various charitable causes lacked empathy, they were usually successful. Charles Willard is nothing but a pusillanimous petty tyrant.

When he loses his job as a professor of archaeology at the start of the Depression, Charles’ response is to retire to his bedroom. His self-absorbed despair gradually drains Edith’s will to fight for the family:

Mrs. Willard had formed a bleak habit of making a daily definite report of the state of the larder to Charles, who groaned. It had become a dreary routine; at five o’clock in the afternoon Mrs. Willard would appear at his bedroom door and announce that there was only enough food left for six days, or five days, or four days; Charles would groan, and Mrs. Willard would go down to the kitchen to cook dinner. She did not know what her purpose was in pursuing this course; she no longer really hoped to rouse him. Her mind was like a sailing vessel becalmed for years in some impossible sea and beginning to decay.

Finally, there comes a day when there is nothing left for supper and the children will go to bed hungry. While Charles hibernates in self-pity, Edith rouses herself and manages to sell an encyclopedia to an equally destitute family. It’s a hauntingly memorable scene, as Edith struggles between her awareness that the family cannot afford the book and her will to see her children fed.

Charles and Edith eventually manage to find jobs and maintain a household, but Charles concedes nothing to Edith’s ability to keep the family afloat. Indeed, he deeply resents the short time he has to look after their two children before she returns from work. One evening, she finds him raging at them for bouncing on a bed and she resolves to take them and leave Charles for good the next day. As she walks with the children to the elevated station the next day, however, she is surprised to find them disraught: “Poor Daddy!,” they wail, and her plan is soon aborted.

As difficult as Charles alone is, when he combines forces with his Aunt Gertrude, who comes to live with them, the atmosphere becomes almost unbearable:

She was a firmly corseted fat woman with a paradoxically hatchetlike face surmounting a medley of graduated chins. She greeted Charles with warmth, Mrs. Willard with resignation, and the children with open dislike. Her eyes, bright, black, and penetrating, darted like roaches toward the corners of the baseboard in whatever room she entered. Mrs. Willard, a casual housekeeper, told herself with dismal conviction that within three days Aunt Gertrude would be down on her knees digging at these comers with a hairpin and displaying the results to Charles.

This was a too-conservative estimate. Within twenty-four hours Mrs. Schnabel had virtually taken over the house-keeping. She lived from morning to night with a dusting cloth in her hand, and Mrs. Willard and the children were literally hounded from room to room as she urged them out of the way of her passionate cleansings.

Edith suppresses her revulsion for the sake of the children, but after years of bearing with Charles’ and Gertrude’s judgment and belittling (compounded when her supervisor, Miss Motherhead, turns out to be a good friend of Gertrude’s), her patience snaps one day and she decides to run away, taking the first bus out of Chicago.

The bus is involved in a serious accident before it even reaches the city limits, though, and Charles appears at her bedside full of tender concern:

“Not only have you forced me into the dishonor of misrepresenting the facts to your employers and to my own children,” continued Charles, “not only have you flouted my authority as head of the family by proposing to go on a trip without consulting me; not only have you insulted me as your husband, forgotten your duty to your home and your children, humiliated me before Aunt Gertrude, and made yourself ridiculous by flying off the handle like a half-baked schoolgirl, but you have actually been guilty of a criminal act. You took money that did not belong to you, money from our common fund, which should have been sacred to you. Do you know what that is called, my dear?” He smiled, showing his teeth. “That is called theft. Theft.”

Fortunately, Edith is rescued by doctor’s orders that she spent two months recuperating at a small resort in the Indiana dunes. Charles confines himself to an occasion nasty letter, and she soon responds to the fresh air, hearty food, and freedom. And, most conveniently, to the care of Dr. Alec Maclane, who shows an unusual level of interest in her case.

At this point, Wait for Mrs. Willard falls into a fairly familiar formula of two wounded souls finding solace in the sanctuary of a place apart from their everyday lives (viz. the 1975 film “A Brief Vacation”, among others). Edith wins the love and acceptance she has long deserved and Charles, we are left to assume, carries on with Aunt Gertrude in smug superiority until they both crawl up their rears and die.

Despite its final surrender to a predictable happy ending, Wait for Mrs. Willard is, overall, a far better-crafted and successful work than Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. While it’s pleasant to watch as Edith and Dr. Maclane fall in love, the story is much more interesting and entertaining in the trials and miseries of the first two-thirds of the book. Langley pulls out her best adjectives to deal with Charles, Gertrude, and other monsters such as Miss Motherhead (who, “… like some slit-lidded saurian of the wild, oozed up over the edges of her littered desk and across to some other desk, bearing disaster and swollen with punctual venom”).

A masterpiece Wait for Mrs. Willard is not. A well-written, quick-reading, and enjoyable piece blending drama and comedy without overdoing either, it certainly is, and considering its going price if you download it from the Internet Archive–free–an excellent bargain.

Find a Copy

Wait for Mrs. Willard, by Dorothy Langley
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1944

Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, by Dorothy Langley

Henry Bremble has “been helplessly gardening ever since the day when, early in their marriage, he had learned to his astonishment from her lips that he adored it.” “Henry simply adores gardening,” his wife had declared to a neighbor, and that was that.

Mr. Bremble’s Buttons starts out as a fairly predictable portrait of a hen-pecked husband, complete with controlling wife and dismissive live-in mother-in-law (Mrs. Corey) and her nasty little dog (Queenie). He keeps the peace by keeping his thoughts to himself, doing crossword puzzles and word games, and occasionally admiring the collection of unusual buttons he hides in the bedroom. He lives much of his life “below the surface, whatever the surface was.” On the rare occasions when he does speak up, he usually regrets it:

Mr. Bremble, who talked as little as possible when they were present, was nevertheless impelled occasionally, sometimes by desperation, sometimes by mere civility, to say a few words on whatever subject occupied the group at the moment; and on each and every occasion, after he had done so, there was a silence during which the eyes of Queenie and Mrs. Corey dwelt upon his face, then sought each other with a dry surmise, then returned as if by clockwork to Mr. Bremble; and at the conclusion of another prolonged stare they sniffed.

But he has an even bigger secret than the button collection: God comes and talks with him, almost every night:

It was the one real mitigation of his lot that almost every night, after he had gone to bed, God came and sat with him. They did not usually talk much, but nearly every time, though the only sound in the room was Amelia’s gently whistling snore, Mr. Bremble went to sleep cradled in God’s love like a child held close in its mother’s arms.

Together, they attempt to understand the world’s problems. When Bremble reads about a child found in a closet, abused and abandoned, he asks why God allows it. “You don’t think I like this sort of thing, do you?,” God replies. God blames himself for letting Satan talk him into giving men and women free will then he created mankind: “Of course, I know now that it was just some more of his finagling. He knew that if I gave the idiots free will he’d be able to make plenty of use of it. But he sold Me on it; he sold Me. A bargain’s a bargain.” God offers no easy consolation for his companion, though. “It will be all right some day, for this child–and others?” Bremble asks. God gives him a stern look, then departs.

This story might have gone somewhere on its own, but Langley introduces several twists in an attempt to force Bremble to surface from his private fantasies. A young woman at his office, pregnant by a married man, asks for his help. A woman who matches his boyhood ideal–“a bright and different being, willowy yet heroic, flowerlike, mysterious, and indomitable”–moves into his neighborhood, and ends up providing a refuge for the wayward. He befriends a young girl who shows an appetite for reading and is enlisted into a good cause by an energetic pastor. His wife begins to wonder about his sanity and arranges for him to consult a psychiatrist.

It all becomes a bit too much like a game of last straw. When the inevitable collapse comes, Langley has only two choices: let Bremble escape all the constraints that have bound up his life, or destroy him. Having such a convenient device at hand throughout the book, should it be any surprise that she reaches for a Deus ex machina–literally?

Despite this weakness, Mr. Bremble’s Buttons is, overall, a light and entertaining read. Langley frequently highlights the limitations of the so-called ideals of his wife and her friends in the “League for Democracy” and other ladies’ clubs, as in this exchange about the purchase of score cards for an upcoming bridge game:

“And try to pick out nice ones, even if they do cost a little more. Something suggestive of democracy. Mrs. Cable had such pretty ones when the ladies met with her: children dancing around a Maypole, really charming.”

Mr. Bremble admitted that this was a charming idea. “How many of them were Negro children?” he inquired curiously after a moment.

Amelia stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

“You said something suggestive of ….”

Amelia compressed her lips. “Really, Henry, there are times when it seems to me you’re not quite bright.”

Dorothy Langley published three novels between 1944 and 1947: Wait for Mrs. Willard (1944), about a woman trying to escape from an oppressive marriage; Dark Medallion (1945), about a poor family in southern Missouri, which won a Friends of American Writers award as the best novel by a Midwestern writer; and Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. According to her biography in American Novelists of Today (1951), she was a mother of two who grew up in the Ozarks, lived in Chicago and worked on the editorial staff of several professional journals. She died in 1969 at the age of 65.

In 1982, Academy Chicago published Swamp Angel. According to the publisher’s press release, Swamp Angel was “originally accepted for publication by Simon & Schuster on condition it be heavily revised… It was so largely revised it became another book, Mr. Bramble’s Buttons [sic], with the original manuscript’s tone entirely changed and former central characters relegated to minor roles… This book is original manuscript rescued from oblivion and published for the first time … presents a fascinating picture of primitive rural Missouri society of 60 years ago in which everything (including) transcribed dialogue rings true.” I don’t have access to a copy of Swamp Angel to check its introduction by Helen Bugbee, but I suspect that the transformed book was Dark Medallion, not Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. “Swamp angels,” by the way, is Missouri slang for what most of the rest of the country calls “hillbillies.”

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Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, by Dorothy Langley
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1947

Cynthia, by Leonard Merrick

Leonard MerrickContinuing my journey through the works of Leonard Merrick, the “Forgotten Novelist’s Novelist,” I read Cynthia (1896), recommended by Eric Stott–and an excellent recommendation it was!

This is, quite simply, a terrific piece of work. Cynthia tells the story of the courtship, marriage, separation, and eventual reconciliation of Cynthia Walford, the daughter of a prosperous goods broker of, and Humphrey Kent, a struggling writer. But much of the book focuses instead on Humphrey’s situation as a working writer and his difficulties in achieving financial stability, artistic aspirations, and personal integrity at the same time. And it is a mark of Merrick’s skill at what William Dean Howells called “shapeliness”–the effective use of form–how subtly and indirectly it becomes apparent to the reader that the book is really about two people coming into a mature relationship with each other.

When the two meet at a resort in Dieppe, Kent has just published his first novel to fine critical acclaim. His legacy and the hundred pounds from the sale have taken him the first step into the upper middle class. Cynthia is something of a bourgeois princess and the Walfords quite smug about already occupying a solid place, with a house called “The Hawthorns” in Streatham, servants, and the luxury of taking resort vacations in France. Humphrey is smitten with Cynthia’s beauty and grace, and Cynthia responds to his undivided attention. But engagement is impossible without her parents’ approval. After Cynthia’s father grills him about his prospects and Mrs. Walford begins to fantasize about having a “renowned” author in their family, though, the match is soon made, and the couple move into a house near The Hawthorns, complete with servant, and Humphrey starts in on his second novel.

The bloom quickly comes off the rose. “Companionship, and not worship, was required now, and neither found the other quite so companionable as had been expected,” Merrick writes. Humphrey finds Cynthia’s interests materialistic, superficial, and mundane: “… her manner was as dull as her topics.” He longs to share his daily labors with her, to discuss narrative development and emerging characters, but spends his evenings talking about furniture or enduring visits to the Walfords. And she is more than a little disappointed to have become so marginal in his time and thoughts.

The momentum of the narrative picks up rapidly as their first year together ends. A son–named Humphrey at Cynthia’s insistence–is born. Humphrey manages to finish the novel–a few months behind his self-imposed schedule but much to his artistic satisfaction, and posts it off to his publisher. Two hundred pounds, he thinks, should be a fair price. After all, the household expenses are growing and have consumed much of his inheritance.

Unfortunately, the novel comes back from the publishers a few weeks later with a short note: “The faults seem inherent to the story, and irremediable, and we are therefore returning the MS. to you to-day, with
our compliments and thanks.” He tries a second. Then a third. Then others, as time and what little money he has left slip away. He begins applying for positions, but London has nothing to offer. As a last resort, he accepts an editorial post with an English magazine from expatriates based in Paris.

Humphrey and Cynthia hastily pack up baby, nurse, and a few trunks and head off to Paris. The magazine proves a second-rate affair, mostly full of loosely plagiarized material. Its owner, an English baron with gambling debts and an expensive French mistress, has founded it as a lark and neglects tedious details such as paying his staff. Humphrey and Cynthia are forced to move to cheaper, dingier digs. Soon, they are avoiding the landlady, taking small loans from a sympathetic maid, and pawning bits of jewelry. Humphrey spends more and more time trying to chase down his employer for the week’s pay. As soon as the baron’s own funds start drying up, he pulls the plug, leaving them stranded. At the very last minute, just hours ahead of being tossed on the street with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they manage to arrange for the money to get themselves back to London.

I found the whole Paris sequence as gripping as a thriller. You know their situation is doomed from the start but you can’t look away for fear of missing a single development.

At this point, Humphrey is outright in panic. He faces the reality of losing everything: his family, his right to a place in a respectable class, his right to consider himself a serious artist. He agrees to ghost-write a novel for a highly successful and prolific woman writer. He takes it as a one-time job, but the woman adroitly manipulates his emotions and his financial straints and the arrangement turns into a full-time production line. Humphrey endures the insult of seeing the hack work raised high and his own refused: “There were not in London five papers making a feature of fiction, which did not repeatedly reject the man’s best work, signed by himself, and accept his worst, signed by somebody else.”

Meanwhile, Cynthia has taken the boy and moved to a small cottage in the country to improve her health. Humphrey resolves to visit, but feels he has betrayed her and well as himself and keeps putting it off.

Just as everything about the couple is about to dissolve, the fifteenth or twentieth publisher to review Humphrey’s novel offers him a contract, and the book comes out to glittering reviews. He walks away from his ghost-writing work and heads to the country to celebrate with Cynthia. But now, he finds, the dynamic of their marriage has profoundly changed. Cynthia, he comes to recognize, has grown in perspective and character–has surpassed him, in fact:

The alteration in her impressed him still more strongly now that he had opportunities for studying it ; and the gradual result of three years, presenting itself to him as the fruit of ten months, was startling. His wife had become a woman—in her tone, in her bearing, in her comments, which often had a pungency, though they might not be brilliant. She was a woman in the composure with which she ignored their anomalous
relations—a very fascinating woman withal, whose composure, while it won his admiration, disturbed him too, as the weeks went by. It was in moments difficult to identify her new personality with the girl’s whose love for him had been so constantly evident.

The two have reached a point where they are, effectively, friends living under the same roof, and Humphrey holds himself most to blame. His obsession with his career and work has blinded him to the strength of his feelings for Cynthia, feelings developed as they have weathered the hardships and disappointments. But as Merrick has been showing us–just in touches here and there throughout the second half of the book–there is more going on with Cynthia than she shows, and in the very last few lines, we learn that hope for their love remains.

There is so much going on in Cynthia beside the story of Humphrey and Cynthia. There are some wonderful characterisations, deft observations on the business of writing and the conventions of middle-class life in late Victorian England, and bits of fine comedy, such as this description of a recital by Caesar, Cynthia’s brother, a fat, pompous pretender who’s been led to believe himself a talented basso:

It was a prodigious roar. No one could dispute that he possessed a voice of phenomenal power, if it were once conceded to be a voice, in the musical sense, at all. It seemed as if he must burst his corsets, and shift the furniture — that the ceiling itself must split with the noise that he hurled up. Perspiration broke out on him, and rolled down his face, as he writhed at the gas-globes. His large body was contorted with exertion. But he never faltered. Bellow upon bellow he produced, to the welcome end — till Cynthia struck the final chord and he bowed.

“A performance?” asked Walford, swollen with pride.

Kent said indeed it was.

My admiration for Leonard Merrick’s talents continues to grow and I will head further into his oeuvre in search of more such delights.

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Cynthia, by Leonard Merrick
London: Chatto & Windus, 1896

A Honeymoon Experiment, by Margaret and Stuart Chase

Cover of first edition of "A Honeymoon Experiment," by Margaret and Stuart Chase

“Any man that wants a job can get it!”

I believe that this statement, despite the deep groove that it has worn in the average unthinking mind, is utterly without foundation in fact. I want to tell you why I believe that it is not true. I want to tell you how I tramped for nine weeks through the streets of a great American city, and how I was unable upon application to secure work at a wage that would keep me alive.

Thus opens A Honeymoon Experiment, a remarkable little book published in 1916 by a remarkable couple, Margaret and Stuart Chase.

When considering how to spend their honeymoon after marrying in the summer of 1914, the Chases decided to take it as an opportunity to engage in an unusual life experiment. From the start, they had been attracted to each other by a passion for independent thinking. At the age of 23, Stuart Chase had composed as his personal credo, “I must choose my own path… from among the many and follow it in all faith and trust until experience bids me seek another,” and he stuck to it with exceptional success throughout the rest of his life. His wife, Margaret Hatfield Chase, a teacher at a number of alternative schools, shared his willingness to venture outside conventional patterns.

And so, Chase wrote,

We decided to devote our honeymoon to the task of finding out more concerning the matters that so profoundly perplexed us. Ever since our first talks together we had wanted to know how it felt to live beyond the pale of family and class influence. Here was our chance. We could utilize these honeymoon weeks to start clean and clear at the bottom.

What they decided to do–after a few weeks canoeing in the Ontario woods–was to go to Rochester, New York “… as a homeless, jobless, friendless couple, and see what it meant to face existence without an engraved passport.” It was, for 1914, a unique choice, and even in the century since, only a rare few newlyweds have taken such a leap into the unknown.

A Honeymoon Experiment is told in two part: “The Groom’s Story” and “The Bride’s Story.” They picked Rochester based on its size, its industrial base (Eastman Kodak, a shirt collar factory, other light manufacturing), and the fact that they knew no one there. They donned their oldest clothes, boarded a train, and got off in Rochester as “Mr. and Mrs. Chase,” a bookkeeper and his wife trying to make a go after losing jobs in Boston.

Their hypothesis was simple: with perserverance, they would be able to land jobs earning a decent wage and survive on solely on what they made. They gave themselves nine weeks.

They failed.

Each morning they made plans of businesses to inquire at, employment ads to answer, agencies to visit, fending as best they could in an age when there were no state services to help out the jobless. They walked miles around the city as tram fare became a luxury. Food and shelter became their “supreme masters.” As days went on without success, they grew more exhausted and depressed. They conceded their battle against the dust, dirt, and grime pervasive in their quarters: “One’s standards collapse.” And they understood just how precarious life was on 1914’s poverty line.

Stuart applied for 92 jobs in nine weeks, not to count the number of “opportunities”–i.e., scams, such as selling useless cures and shoddy gadgets door-to-door–he investigated. In the end, he landed one–a part-time job as a bookkeeper, and that only through another tenant.

Margaret fared only slightly better. She also applied for 92 positions. She did get hired at several businesses, only to discover just how dangerous and intolerable working conditions, particularly for women, were in the days before occupational safety standards. And she also learned that male employers had no compunctions about intimidating and harassing their female employees. She usually had to leave within two to three days.

The problem of survival was multiplied by the fact that most of what few jobs were available were at wages below the level at which they could cover their rent and food. Stuart and Margaret calculated that, at twenty five dollars a week, a couple could manage to maintain a tolerable quality of life, though one without any type of savings, insurance, or other security. In their best week, they together made fifteen.

“So long as there is steadiness of employment, there is at least some continuity and some hope in existence,” Stuart wrote. They learned for themselves, as well as from other tenants, how quickly the fall into hunger, degradation, sickness, homelessness, and the break-up of families could happen when a living income is lost.

At one point, Stuart–hungry, tired, and frustrated after “when an army of cockroaches invaded” their room–tells Margaret to get her hat so they can head off to a respectable hotel for the night. “You quitter!” Margaret chides him.

When they finally end the experiment and get ready to return to their normal lives, Margaret has a moment’s second thought:

“Let’s stay here and be free and unconventional and and human for ever and ever!”

“In this room,” I asked, “for ever and ever? Could you stick it out?”

“No,” said Margaret soberly; “I don’t suppose I could stick it out in this room for ever and ever.”

Our eyes wandered over the battered furniture, the peeling plaster, the stained ceiling, the unwashed tin dishes.

“How long could we stick it out?” I mused.

They agreed that they would write this book to try to demonstrate to other Americans the consequence of having no legal guarantees of employment and a living wage.

As I read A Honeymoon Experiment, I kept thinking that it would be an excellent text for high schoolers to read. Largely contemporaneous with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which is commonly assigned in English and American history classes, it may lack the same level of melodrama and “gross out” factors, but it’s also very straightforward, told mostly from a very accessible personal standpoint–and not weighted down with Sinclair’s club-footed prose. It’s an effective way to convey what the economic, social, and political conditions were in the U. S. a hundred years ago–or, to steal the title from a book edited by Otto Bettmann: The Good Old Days–They Were Terrible!.

Stuart Chase, around 1960Margaret and Stuart Chase divorced in 1922. Stuart had become by then a crusading staffer on the Federal Trade Commission, attacking industry corruption and practices. When the meatpacking industry strong-armed President Harding into getting rid of Stuart (he was called a “Red accountant” in Congress), Stuart fell back on his personal credo and seized it as an opportunity and chose his own path.

He collaborated with the economist Thorstein Veblen to attack corporate inefficiencies and unfair trade practices. He became a prolific writer on a wide variety of topics and vocal advocate for reforms. His 1934 book with F. J. Schlink, Your Money’s Worth, was one of the first to address the cause of consumer rights. The Tyranny of Words, one of the earliest popular works on semantics, is still in print today. In Roads to Agreement he dealt with negotiation techniques, psychology, and human relations, and in Guides to Straight Thinking he showed how logic can be used to deal with everyday problems.

In the 1950s he wrote and spoke in favor of disarmament; in 1968, at the age of eighty, he was calling for measures to reduce pollution in Rich Land, Poor Land. He died at the age of 97 in 1985 with 35 books to his name.

A Honeymoon Experiment is available from several direct-to-print publishers via, but you can get it for free in ASCII, EPUB, PDF, Kindle, and other digital formats from the Internet Archive.

A Honeymoon Experiment, by Margaret and Stuart Chase
Boston and New York : Houghton Mifflin Company

One Man’s View, by Leonard Merrick

In last month’s post on Graham Greene’s “The Century Library” series, I noted that George Orwell was unsuccessful in his attempt to have Leonard Merrick’s novel, The Position of Peggy Harper, included in the series. Patrick Murtha commented that, “The collected ‘Works of Leonard Merrick’ were issued in a 15 volume set with introductions by some very big names (such as J.M. Barrie).” Now, however, “Merrick doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry; someone ought to remedy that [Someone has! A short entry was tossed one up right after this post appeared.–Ed.]. He is the very model of The Neglected Novelist.”

William Baker and Jeannettes Robert Shumaker, authors of the 2009 biography, Leonard Merrick: A Forgotten Novelist’s Novelist, would certainly agree. As would William Dean Howells, who as early as 1907 wrote enthusiastically, in The North American Review, “I can think of no recent fictionist of his nation who can quite match with Mr. Merrick in that excellence [of “shapeliness” or form in the novel]. This will seem great praise, possibly too great, to the few who have a sense of such excellence; but it will probably be without real meaning to most, though our public might well enjoy form if it could once be made to imagine it.”

Several leading English and American publishers shared this high regard, which led to the release of a 15-volume series, “The Works of Leonard Merrick,” in both the U. S. and the U. K. between 1918 and 1922. Each title in the series was selected by one of a number of well-known writers, including H. G. Wells, James M. Barrie, G. K. Chesterton, and Howells, as well as now less-recognized names such as Maurice Hewlett and Sir Arthur Pinero, and featured a preface written by them.

Writing in Publisher’s Weekly in 1920, as “The Works of Leonard Merrick” series was in the midst of being released, Frederick Taber Copper noted the double-edged effect of Merrick’s typical choice of subject. When J. M. Barrie “assures us, as quite rightly, that ‘Mr. Merrick’s fellow writers are agreed that he is one of the flowers of their calling,’ and has long been ‘the novelist’s novelist,’ he has inadvertently drawn attention to the fact that the distinctive atmosphere of Mr. Merrick’s books is that of the literary, artistic and dramatic circles of London–and, other things being equal, the literary and journalistic setting is a recognized handicap.” Still, he acknowledged that, “one of the most delicate artists of his age, one of the most finished and resourceful craftsmen of his art, a past master of the elusive and the unexpected is at last coming tardily into what is so justly his own.” Yet even this series did not succeed in fixing Merrick’s place in the canon of the English novel. Less than ten years after the first volumes of “The Works of Leonard Merrick” appeared, another writer noted that though Merrick’s work “… [P]ossesses artistry, charm, gaiety, humor, power, narrative inventiveness and fluency…”, “still his position is not what its merits deserve to make it.”

I decided to give one of Merrick’s novels a try. Having experimented with a number of eReaders in the last few months, I also wanted to try out my current choice, the Barnes & Noble Nook wifi. I’m not much interested in B&N’s eBook offerings but wanted to start tapping into the ever-growing library of free books available online, particularly through the Internet Archive. All volumes of “The Works of Leonard Merrick” are available in a variety of formats, including PDF, HTML, ASCII text, Kindle, and EPUB, although, as seems to characterize Google’s haphazard book-scanning, the titles and other metadata are entered inconsistently and defy easy searching. This search link–“The Works of Leonard Merrick” in the Internet Archive–brings up about three different entries for each volume, but it’s a starting point.

I chose, for no particular reason, One Man’s View, first published in 1897, and this edition from the New York Public Library because their standard of scanning and entry seems a little higher and more consistent than others. The EPUB version of the file was relatively free of OCR errors and read easily on the Nook.

The story of One Man’s View would have been controversial at the time Merrick was writing. George Heriot, a rising solicitor, younger brother to Sir Francis Heriot, fantasizes about a pretty young woman he sees on the promenade in Eastbourne. By coincidence, she turns out to be the daughter of a long-lost friend, Dick Cheriton. Cheriton had been a promising artist, but he burned his canvases and took off to America to seek his fortune. His fortune proved to be running a hotel in Duluth, Minnesota, and he has returned to England to foster his daughter Mamie’s aspirations for a career on the stage.

Heriot agrees to help Mamie as much as he can, lacking any acquaintances in the theatre world. For the next year, Mamie makes the rounds of agencies and stage doors, hoping first for a speaking role, then anything–even an extra’s part–that would get her on stage. Merrick–writing from personal experience–is coldly realistic about the possibility of breaking into the theatre at the time:

The Stage is generally supposed to be the easiest of all callings to enter. The girl who is unhappy at home, the boy who has been plucked for the army, the woman whose husband has failed on the Stock Exchange, all speak of ” going on the stage ” as calmly as if it were only necessary to take a stroll to get there. As a matter of fact, unless an extra-ordinary piece of fortune befall her, it is almost as difficult for a girl without influence, or a good deal of money, to become an actress as it is for her to marry a duke. She may be in earnest, but there are thousands who are in earnest ; she may be pretty, but there are hundreds of pretty actresses struggling and unrecognised ; she may be a genius, but she has no opportunity to display her gift until the engagement is obtained…. To succeed on the stage requires indomitable energy, callousness to rebuffs, tact, luck, talent, and facilities for living six or nine months out of the year without earning a shilling. To get on to the stage requires valuable introductions or considerable means. If a woman has neither, the chances are in favour of her seeking a commencement vainly all her life. And as to a young man so situated who seeks it, he is endeavouring to pass through a brick wall.

When Mamie’s stamina finally wears down and she decides to return to Duluth, Heriot confesses his love and begs her to marry him. Mamie agrees–not out of love but merely in hope of finding a more palatable future than life in Duluth or with her aunt in equally dreary Wandsworth. The first few years pass amicably, but eventually Mamie meets and falls madly in love with a rising young playwright, Lucas Field. She leaves Heriot and the two take off for Paris, where passions quickly cool. This is no Anna Karenina, though. Merrick is unashamedly terse about the affair: “If a woman sins, and the chronicler of her sin desires to excuse the woman, her throes and her struggles, her pangs and her prayers always occupy at least three chapters. If one does not
seek to excuse her, the fact of her fall may as well be stated in the fewest possible words.” He’s also coldly realistic about their long-term prospects. “Romance,” he writes, “does not wear any better because the Marriage Service is omitted. A lover is no less liable to be common-place than a husband when the laundress knocks the buttons off his shirts.”

Fields sneaks back to London, where he contracts a fever and dies before having to admit that he has abandoned Mamie. Heriot obtains a divorce and seeks to put it into the past. Mamie seeks refuge with her aunt, insisting only that they move to Balham to avoid confronting any acquaintances, and she resigns herself to a life of quiet desparation: “She lived in Balham; she saw the curate, and she heard about the range in the neighbour’s kitchen. One year merged into another; and if she lived for forty more, the neighbour and the curate would be her All.”

Some years later, having risen to the post of Solicitor General, Heriot decides it would be fit to take a wife again. He convinces himself that his best prospect is the step-daughter of an American billionaire, and he follows her to New York City, trying to decide to propose. In the end, he lacks the motivation and sails back to England. By coincidence–once again–he encounters Mamie, returning from her father’s funeral, and the two end up remarrying.

Overall, the mood of One Man’s View is that of one utterly familiar with the ways of the world high and low, skeptical of miracles, wise to shams, yet still capable of a certain amount of empathy, compassion, and hope. The world, in Merrick’s view, will not give you a break, but a helping hand can be found on occasion.

I think C. Lewis Hinds provides an accurate assessment of Merrick’s work in his 1921 book, Authors and I: “I have read all the prefaces, such capering, delightful Merrick idolatry, and I have read six of the volumes. It was no hard task; each story was a grave pleasure. Leonard Merrick is an artist, not a great artist like Turgenev, not a master of insight like Meredith. He works in the temperate zone; he is never wrong but he never soars. His subtlety is equable; his finesse is exquisite, but I find it difficult to remember the plots and characters of the six Merricks I have just read.”

Subtlety and finesse may be the qualities Howells was trying to capture in writing of Merrick’s excellence in “shapeliness.” He is, without a doubt, a grown-up writer. He holds himself no better or worse than his characters or his readers, and in that regard, he continues to be a rare creature among novelists. There is little of the mustiness of much of the prose found in novels of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and I found his writing splendidly accessible. I plan on reading and posting on other of his works.

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One Man’s View, by Leonard Merrick
London: Grant Richards, 1897