Private Opinion: A Commonplace-Book, by Alan Pryce-Jones (1936)

There isn’t necessarily a template for a commonplace book, which Webster’s defines as “a book of memorabilia” and Wikipedia as “essentially a scrapbook.” But even if there were one, Alan Pryce-Jones’ Private Opinion wouldn’t follow it. Pryce-Jones, who is probably best known for editing the Time Literary Supplement from 1948 to 1959, was a precocious 28 when he published what he called a commonplace book but what today would more likely be labelled a biblio-memoir.

Although Pryce-Jones follows a roughly chronological path through his reading, he is not averse to occasional detours into fugues and fantasies, and ends the book with a what seems to be a fictional sketch about the visit of a merchant freighter and its small contingent of cruise passengers to a port along the Caribbean coast of South America. And there are more pages devoted to Pryce-Jones’ experiences of childhood, school, and visits to France, the Caribbean and Africa as a young man than there are to books. But he still manages to whet the reader’s appetite with his descriptions of a number of remarkable books:

A Narrative ofProceedings in Venezuela in South America in the years 1819 and 1820, by George Laval Chesterton

“… not only extremely readable, but gratifying in the highest degree to two snobberies : that of little-known events, and that of little-known places, Chesterton had lively reactions to circumstances and does not boggle at what he found: which was that the thousand men under Colonel English’s command—“From his extraordinary torpidity and supineness, I have often wondered how he could have summoned up sufficient resolution”–would have been better employed fighting for the Spaniards than against them. Their adventures were vivid, and their privations useless; except to give the Judge-Advocate that occasion to write a salt and fascinating book.

“Scraps of knowledge emerge–the kind of scraps that makes Southey’s Commonplace Book such excellent reading: such as that the people of Angostura fought all diseases alike by means of hot lemonade. Obscure names are used with familiarity: The Patriot General, Urdaneta ; the island of Margarita, celebrated for its cotton hammocks. The reader is warmed by a pleasant feeling of petty triumph over the next man. 1820 Venezuela is in a sense pocketed.”

Burton-Agnes Hall, from A series of picturesque views of seats of the noblemen and gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1
A series of picturesque views of seats of the noblemen and gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, by Reverend Francis Orpen Morris (1840)

“I bought the Reverend F. O. Morris’s Seats of the Noblemen and Gentry, in six volumes, on the Dublin quays. It was exactly the place for buying such a book, for Ireland is, in spite of itself, an island of country houses; and about them, more than elsewhere, clings the forlorn, yet still challenging, air in which the Reverend F. O. Morris’s pages are suffused. The day before, I had been to Rusborough, a very beautiful house, at that time uninhabited, in the Wicklow Hills. Lord Milltown’s trunks, and his hatboxes, stood in a dressing-room. His music was yellowing on the piano, and his writing-paper in the library. For Lord Milltown had been long dead and his peerage extinct; without the house admitting it. The ornamental plaster-work was crumbling ; and the garden terraces were indistinguishable; but we could still detect the authentic note: the Jennings sanitary fittings, encased in mahogany, with the essential pull-up handle instead of a chain; the assortment of expensive boot-jacks; the one bath, with brown tear-stains under the taps; and the heavily furnished writing-tables, with letterweights, little sponges, silver-handled brushes for wetting the envelopes, and boxes in dark-green leather for india-rubber bands. The fascination of views of country-houses lies not in their beauty but in the surprises they contain. In finding an enormous excruciating Italianate palace of which nobody has ever heard. In discovering that the families who now prefer living in a mews flat and spending their money at le Touquet, possessed a William Kent house until the other day. In picturing, says Caen Wood Tower, “a beautiful edifice … erected by its late proprietor … On either side of the dining-room chimney-piece are windows looking into a fernery, with fountains. The upper portion of the windows above the transom is fitted with stained glass of a geometrical pattern. In the windows of the billiard room are representations of various out-door sports and pastimes, as hunting, cricket, archery, etc., also in stained glass.”

London Promenade, by William Gaunt (1930)

“When I was up at Oxford, J. took me from de Beauvoir Town to the Elephant and Castle, from Hounslow to Greenwich, looking at churches, and obscure squares, and fragments of Regency town planning. But I was never again able to make any coherent picture of London by day; and probably the reason why I like London Promenade is that it moves in the London of bars and theatres and narrow streets which, even by day, lurk in a kind of private evening. That London has kept for me a little flutter of excitement. For years my home was in London, but my home life had no particular urban associations. I walked into London when I slammed the door in the evening, and I left London, exultantly late at night, when I went home; from the Lyons in New Oxford Street where the cashier sat in an octagonal aluminium font, or from Claridges, or from a basement far darker than D.’s and from people of more doubtful artistry. It is provoking to reflect that anything so commonplace can have been, and for so long, so exceedingly amusing.”

The Cuckoo Clock, by Mrs. Molesworth (1895)

“I hope Mrs. Molesworth is still read. A few years ago Herr Baby was out of print; but a good many nurseries seem still to be faithful to The Cuckoo Clock. Like all good children’s books, hers give an intense pleasure to grown-ups ; but they offer children what I take to be the harvest of surrealisme: the distillation of an object into an atmosphere. For queer events in themselves leave a child perfectly cold; exciting events also. Without what can be called a high dream-power, they only amuse grown-ups. The Cuckoo Clock has that power. It creates a secret untransmittable picture: the turn of an ancient staircase in the evening, a dark labyrinth of wainscoted corridors. I cannot remember any of the events in the book, but I can move in its atmosphere at will. Even when it first was read to me, the events were less important than their overtones; and I believe all imaginative children only use books as a lever to set their private world at work.”

The Season: A Satire, by Alfred Austin (1861)

“Short of very good books, I know nothing which gives as much pleasure as very bad books. Everyone has his pet bad book, therefore; and I have mine. But although it might be fairly easy game I never find anybody else to have read it except a few friends to whom, with all the emotion of entrusting a thousand pounds to a financier, I have entrusted it. Nor would my really bad book be much easier to replace than a thousand pounds. There is a disconcerting power of volatility about (say) the Book of the Month to be reckoned with. If you do not catch it during the Month it disappears. For example, I am in constant pursuit of a new work by Dr. Cronin. And always it was the book last month. Short of hiring a man to wait in Henrietta Street for the next moment of apparition I shall forever be deprived of a very real pleasure.

It was, however, upon The Season: A Satire by Alfred Austin, that I proposed to write. On considering it again, there can be no doubt that it is a very unusually bad book. It is supremely, mystically, bad. Most of it is not bad in the way of being funny. It
is just bad. Like this:

O blessed moment! … Duns! Detractors! Fate I
Hit me your hardest—but I dine at eight.
My thoughts are stolen? half my verses halt?
Well, very likely: please to pass the salt.
Jones won’t accept your bills: he funks the risk.
Does he? What matter? Potage a la bisque!

“There are, however, a few notably ridiculous passages. There are two passages I am particularly fond of:

Romantic boys! be still. Will angry names
Like “battered beast” annul an Earldom’s claims?
Life is not wholly sentiment and stars:
Venus wed Mercury as well as Mars.
Hush your lewd tattle ! seek your slighted beds!
A cornet waltzes, but a colonel weds.

“And another, which goes further to prove that Alfred Austin, like others of our Laureates, had some trouble in compelling the English language into verse:

What! … So they say … Bah! Nonsense … But it’s true:
True, sure enough–will lay you ten to two.
Jack saw the brief, Respondent’s name endorsed …
Great God in heaven ! Our Blanche to be divorced!

“But this badness is perhaps a little too showy. It is a greater feat to have kept up the solider badness of the remaining seventy pages. Or to have invented the bold retort, the English equivalent of Excelsior!, the exclamation at once practical and vigorous, Potage a la bisque!”

Pryce-Jones peppers his compilation with liberal doses of observation and opinion:

… in no country but England are children so strangely brought up. For the commonsense of their upbringing goes in inverse ratio to the means of their parents. Think of it. They are sent away from home as early as possible, yet buttoned back into home life as tightly as possible for observation during their weeks of freedom. They are segregated into sexes, and treated by paid supervisors as little beasts to be kept quiet, to be mechanized for the general convenience; in any case, to be ordered about, at the pain (even if it is only a constant threat) of birch and cane and strap and cuff. The aim of all this is clearly stated to be a prosperous position exactly on the inconspicuous average line of attainment. The typical parent hopes that his child will be as rich and as dull and as anonymous as may be. If you suggest that the child should learn foreign languages, discover its own tastes, knock about a bit, he will stretch out his hands to the gas-fire as though a fatal draught were in the room. If you regret that the eminently sensible Lycee-Gymnasium systems do not exist for the unfortunate Anglo-Saxon, he will not know what those systems imply. An English well-to-do child is first something pretty, handed over, almost absolutely, to a nurse; then something problematical, handed over to a group for solution; then promoted from group to group, until, at the age of eighteen, it is thought sufficiently house-trained to fall under the direct influence of its parents. And yet: there must be a great deal to be said for a system which induces such excellent results. The fittest survive; and their path is made considerably easier by the number who succumb to entire mediocrity.


Private Opinion: A Commonplace-Book, by Alan Pryce-Jones
London: Cobden and Sanderson, 1936

Rope Dancer, by M. J. Fitzgerald (1986)

Many of the stories in M. J. Fitzgerald’s collection, Rope Dancer, read like unsettling dreams: vivid enough to provoke deep feelings but too full of bizarre, illogical transitions and events to be part of waking life.

In “Mystery Story,” a woman finds herself returned, again and again, to the compartment of a passenger train, where strange, dreamlike things happen. She finds a book in the luggage rack, a purple volume with the title, “Mystery Story,” on the spine. She begins to read it: “Pero cant credan freshli speciel omana duet whore ass.” And thought passes through her mind and she senses something pass by in the corridor:

Ghennema dashed to the door and pulled it back: the passage was deserted, except for a black hat. It sat across the centre of the corridor, looking as if its owner had simply melted underneath it, and it was feeling guilty.–Napoleon’s hat–she thought stepping close to it, and picked it up. She wanted to throw it out, it did not belong in the train, but her struggle to open the ventilation panels above the windows was unsuccessful. With a shrug to dismiss her unease, she carried the hat back into the carriage, laid it on her lap and stretched her legs on to the opposite seat: the hat was a cat to the touch, and she continued to stroke it mechanically for a while.

In other cases, however, the experience described is more like a nightmare than a dream. “A man and a woman met and became lovers,” Fitzgerald’s first story, “Creases,” begins. The woman thrills to the man’s touch, and soon, “they found their love was magic.” But it’s also clearly an unequal relationship. She learns to transform herself to his changing wants: “When weary of her smallness, she grew large breasts into which he buried himself, and when that ceased to satisfy him she became a child and even a man.”

Inevitably, the man becomes tired of the woman. He dislikes “most the tacit assumption that because she loved him he must somehow love her too.” And so, when he has to go away on a long journey, he decides to put her away–literally, into a cardboard box. After some trying, he manages to fit her in. “Quickly and deftly, as if fixing a set of batteries to a transistor, he fitted the top and took a large elastic band from his desk to secure it shut.” He then goes out to celebrate, bringing back another woman to help him carry the box into the attic.

Years later, he returns, wealthy and successful. He decides to look for the box and the woman again, and eventually locates them in a warehouse, his house having been sold years before. He takes the box back to his big new house, takes the woman out, and wraps her in a blanket. Eventually, she is able to move, but her body is “bruised and permanently puckered and pleated.” Though he is able to walk with her in the park, “She did not open her eyes again.”

In the midst of the torrent of news about women coming forward about their abuse and harassment by men, “Crease,” seems more like a powerful metaphor for the tendency of many men to objectify women, even to the point of wanting to pack them away in boxes for years or even forever. Inside the box, the woman tries to accept her position and find comfort, but soon finds it impossible to find relief. As much as she wants to accommodate herself to the man’s wishes, she cannot avoid becoming permanently damaged. And, having forgotten her and his abuse for years, the man tries to take her out of storage and carry on as if nothing has happened.

The danger underlying the treatment of too many women by too many men runs like an invisible thread through many of Fitzgerald’s stories. In “A Landscape with Walls,” a woman finds herself irresistibly drawn to a man’s touch, and it leads her to sleep with hundreds of men. After a while, though, as she makes love with a man, she also finds that she is walking around, picking up bricks and laying them out, first into a line and then stacked up to form a wall.

This experience recurs, growing more intense and exaggerated. She finds herself running around in a landscape reminiscent of black-and-white horror films, wearing a mason’s apron of stiff dark leather, collecting and piling up the bricks. Soon, she seems to be surrounded by endless brick walls each time she goes to bed with a man: “But there were so many: thousands more than she had made, they extended and went on and seemed to multiply so that when Briony thought she has nearing the end, the next time the horizon seemed to have been pushed further back and countless more stood silent and black against the white set.”

Rope Dancer was the first work published by Fitzgerald, daughter of Robert Fitzgerald, whose translations of Homer were the most successful of their generation. She published one novel, Concertina, a year later, but has concentrated on poetry and translations since then. It’s our loss, as she has a remarkable talent for creating unforgettable and disturbing images, as well as a confidence in manipulating the interface between reader and writer in a way that reminds me at times of Italo Calvino.

This is most noticeable in the story, “The Fire Eater,” in which she begins by telling us that a friend’s description of “an American woman with two girl children and a man friend who is a fire-eater” leads her mind to think, “story possibility, story possibility.” She then proceeds to tell the story, while also telling us that she is writing the story: “At this moment, the pen is winning, but the war is not won.”

She weaves a tale about an American spinster, visiting Rome, who finds herself fascinated with the street performer doing fire-eating tricks for crowds in the Piazza Navona and accidentally befriends a young girl who seems to be wandering, perhaps homeless, around the square. But Fitzgerald also admits, “I am not interested in Barbara Grimes or the fire-eater: were I to meet the actual acquaintances of my friend who correspond to these labels, I would be, at best, indifferent.” What interests her is simply the experiment of putting them into a fiction: “There is some kind of mystery in that name and that action, and I want them together to see how they react to each other.”

And when the American woman meets and falls in love with the fire-eater and with the girl, Fitzgerald tells us that “the mystery lies in what you do, the mystery is reading, not writing: it is while you read that possibility is limitless and Barbara is real, though she may exist without you, like a collapsed puppet.” For then the woman finds that her imagined romance is, indeed, a fiction: the man and the girl turn out to live with a lively, blonde American woman–the real Barbara Grimes of her friend’s description?

All I know is that I wish M. J. Fitzgerald would continue performing such feats of fictional legerdemain.

Because I found “Creases” such a memorable piece, I took the liberty to scan it and have saved it here (Link). Its five short pages offer a profound perspective on the stories finally gaining the attention they deserve.


Rope Dancer, by M. J. Fitzgerald
London: Picador/Pan Books, 1986

The Smoking Mountain, by Kay Boyle (1951; 1963)

Cover of 1963 edition of The Smoking Mountain
In 1948, the American writer Kay Boyle left France, where she had spent most of the previous 25 years to live in Germany. Germany was then an occupied country, split between the Soviets, French, British, and Americans into four zones of military administration. Whether she was making amends for sitting out France’s own time of occupation in the safety of America, or spurred by the call of The New Yorker editor Harold Ross for “fiction from Germany,” or just interested in a unique place in time, Boyle was to find in the experience the inspiration to write the dozen stories and articles collected in The Smoking Mountain.

Boyle took her title from a passage by the German novelist and anti-Nazi journalist, Theodor Plievier: “…the people ceased to exist as a people and became nothing but fuel for the monstrous, smoking mountain, the individual became nothing but wood, peat,
fuel oil, and finally a black flake spewed up out of the flames.” The Germany she witnessed was barely beginning to recover. Most city centers were still fields of rubble. Gaunt men, women, and children still tramped along the roads, either fleeing from the Soviet zone or trying to return to homes and families they left during the war. As William Shirer wrote in his foreword to the 1963 edition of The Smoking Mountain, the Germany of 1948 “is not a pretty place for human beings, either the conquered or the conquerors. The cities are largely a mass of ruins, the rubble piled high wherever you look. The Germans, who have lost another great war they expected to win, are understandably still in a daze.”

Frankfurt, 1947
Frankfurt, 1947

Many of the men, former soldiers often returning from POW camps outside Germany seemed more like ghosts than living beings. One of Boyle’s Americans describes an itinerant ex-POW digging up potatoes for a few pfennig as “a figure so eloquent in its suffering, so dramatically conceived, that it might have been a portrait done in sombre oils, the dark, despairing eyes, not of a living man but of an El Greco head, following him now from where the canvas was placed upon a museum’s shadowy wall.” Another finds it difficult to enjoy the folk dances being performed for a party of American occupation VIPs when he notices how close they are to starvation:

It seemed to him that the threads of their necks must snap in two, unable to bear the weight of the fleshless skulls they carried, and that their bones would pierce the carnival lace and tinsel of their disguise, and expose them for the skeletons they were. He could hear the girl’s hand striking the tambourine with which she danced, and he could not bring himself to turn his head and see again the bony stalks of her white arms lifted, like the arms of those who have already perished reaching from the grave. And the young man, in his matador’s suit and his cracked, black, patent-leather pumps, danced his desperate, intricate steps before her, his legs as brittle and thin as sticks of kindling in his cotton stockings, the brass coins jingling with avarice on his tricorner hat. And no one else looked at them, it seemed to Rod Murray; no one else dared watch them as they danced away across the parquet floor.

Frankfurt American Post Exchange, mid-1950s

In glaring contrast is the wealth and health of the Americans and their Post Exchanges, clubs, cocktail parties, and commissaries:

But once you stepped from the German city street, and into the Commissary, here, for better or worse, was the look of home. Metal push-wagons waited in a double row in the overheated entranceway, as they waited in the chain stores of any Stateside city you might name. Mrs. Furley showed her identification to the German girl seated at the desk, and picked up a meat number, and then she moved on with the others, as she had day after day of the year that had just elapsed—moved on with the young women in their saddleback shoes and bobby socks, pushing her wagon as they pushed theirs before them, moved into the thick of it with the matrons, the teen-age girls, the displaced grandmothers, some of them newly come from the States, who clung to the handles of their vehicles as if to the last remaining vestiges of a civilization they had always known….

On the shelves which lined and bisected the vast low hall were stacked the familiar cans and bottles—the names of Campbell, and Heinz, and Van Camp, and Fould, and Kellogg, to reassure the exiled, and beans and pancakes illustrated in color so that the fears of the lost and the bewildered might be allayed.

For some Americans, however, life on post in Germany was better than life back home. In “Home,” a black G.I. befriends a skinny Germany boy he spots shivering in the rain, takes him into the Post Exchange, and buys him a new set of clothes, including a warm coat and sturdy shoes. When the German clerk checking him out chastises the G.I. for spoiling the boy, he replies, “Well, at home … at home, ma’am, I never had much occasion to do for other people, so I was glad to have had this opportunity offered me,”

The best piece, however, is the introduction—at over seventy pages by far the longest in the book. In large part, it reprints Boyle’s account for The New Yorker of the trial of Heinrich Baab, a thuggish low-ranking member of the S.S. known as “The Terror of the Frankfurt Jews.” Unlike the Nuremberg Trials and other tribunals conducted by the Occupation forces, Baab’s trial took place in a German court, with German judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense attorney. And unlike most of the victims of the high-ranking Nazis tried in Nuremberg, many of Baab’s victims sat in court and watched their former persecutor as he sat in the dock. “If they were not actually the murdered,” Boyle writes, “they were those whose annihilation had been attempted, or they were of the flesh and blood of those who had died.”

As Boyle describes him, Baab seems more intent on snacking than on the proceedings:

He had a pallid, bloated face, this forty-one year-old Frankfurt citizen, and he wore a khaki shirt, the collar of which seemed tight around his fleshy neck. His broad rayon tie, which had apparently been striped in yellow and brown in its time, was now faded, and his heavy head, with the front half of the skull naked of hair, hung sideways. For, despite the fact that he was on trial for the murder of fifty-six other Frankfurt citizens, he was concerned with some kind of tidbit, some kind of nut, which his fingers kept shelling out of sight below the panels of the dock. With his head inclined at this angle, the polished area of his broad, flat skull was mercilessly exposed, and his blunt-fingered heavy hand could be seen only at those moments when he contrived to slip a nut into his mouth. As he prepared the next morsel of food for consumption, his sagging jowls went surreptitiously into motion, and his glance moved carefully around the courtroom as he chewed.

In Baab’s trial, Boyle saw “the pattern for a revolution which has not taken place, the outline for action which might spring not from an outraged national honor, but from the outrage of a deeper, wider honor.” At the time when The Smoking Mountain was first published by McGraw-Hill in 1951, her assessment was that Germany was still holding back from this revolution, not yet ready to “be brought to accept a national responsibility?” By the time the book was republished by Alfred A. Knopf in 1963, Shirer considered that Boyle’s Germany “is a Germany which no longer exists. The rubble has long since been cleared, the cities and factories rebuilt, the Germans become prosperous and independent and confident…” In reality, though, the wounds of war do not heal just from having the rubble cleared and shiny new buildings erected in its place. One thing I’ve come to appreciate from living in Europe for many years is that the experience of war, defeat, and occupation makes it much harder to look at the world in black and white terms like “good” and “bad”: survival usually involves more subtle nuances of grey. For anyone who’s forgotten that, Kay Boyle’s The Smoking Mountain offers an effective reminder.


The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Germany During the Occupation, by Kay Boyle
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963

Discovery, a Paperback Magazine (1953-1955)

Covers of Discovery numbers 1, 2, and 3
During my annual pilgrimage to the Montana Valley Book Store, I decided to dig around in the anthologies section, a section I’ve always avoided before. I’ll admit to a bias for original sources over compilations, and I’ve rarely found a good reason to overcome it. But it was hot outside and cool in the basement where the paperbacks are shelved, and so I dawdled a little longer.

There were the predictable copies of classic story collections aimed at high school and other such forgettable fare. But there were also dozens of copies of Ted Solotaroff’s landmark paperback magazine series, New American Review, and a few of New World Writing, and a handful of copies of Discovery, all in attractive Mondrian-esque covers. I’m sure I’ve ignored plenty of copies of Discovery over the years, but since I am focusing on short fiction this year, I was curious to see if there was anything interesting to be found.

The cover of Discovery no. 1 proclaimed, “This is the first issue of a challenging new periodical devoted to outstanding short stories, poems and essays by some of today’s most talented writers. All the selections are published here for the first time.” Of the various names displayed on the front, most were familiar: Norman Mailer, William Styron, Hortense Calisher, Chandler Brossard. But of the dozen on the back, most were unknown to me: Julia Savarese; Arnold Grisman; P. Alelyunas; U. S. D. Quincey. Every issue I thumbed through had a fair number of unrecognized names, so I added a few of the less beat-up copies to my stack.

When I got them home and investigated further, I learned that I’d pretty much bought all the issues of Discovery that had ever been published: six. Perhaps inspired by New World Writing, which had begun the year before, Pocket Books had hired novelist Vance Bourjaily and critic John W. Aldridge as editors for what they confidently predicted would “at last fulfill the terms of the American writer’s perennial vision of a magazine: large audience, fair pay, and the freedom to write as he pleases.”

You know this was doomed.

Discovery would be a fist in the face of the Establishment. Its editors rejected “the cynical portrait of the American reader as a juvenile oaf;” rejected “the timorous assumptions that pressure groups can put an honest magazine out of business;” rejected “the kind of practicality which dictates that the contents of a large-circulation magazine must be inoffensively general….” In short, they rejected “the accumulated experience of a magazine-publishing trade….”

And in keeping with that spirit, Discovery no. 1 opens with a quintessential tale of rejecting the norms of society. In “Rockabye Baby,” by the unknown Arnold Grisman, the narrator goes to bed for a couple of days to get over a cold and then decides to stay there for good. His parents plea with him to get up, but he refuses. They try bribery, then badgering with a full case of relatives, and finally try simply ignoring him. But this beatnik Oblomov comes to realize that bed is the only place he can be himself:

I just lie here and it’s quiet and peaceful, only sometimes I wonder why I decided to stay in bed. I didn’t have any ideas like that when I got out of the Army, I thought I’d go out and get a job like anybody else. It wasn’t until I’d been in bed a couple of days that I realized how much trouble it is earning a living, all the running and pushing and shoving. And for what? To get old and tired and worried like my old man?

Ironically, the author of this dropout manifesto went on to become a senior executive in the J. Walter Thompson Agency, one of the biggest advertising firms on Madison Avenue.

Fortunately, things soon pick up from this forgettable start. Mailer contributes “The Dead Gook,” a grim and violent account of combat in the Philippines much in the flavor of The Naked and the Dead, and the first issue ends with William Styron’s short novel of military brutality, The Long March. A long selection (could it be otherwise?) from Marguerite Young’s massive novel, Miss Macintosh, My Darling also appears, along with “Happy Ending”, a rare short story by poet and novelist Kenneth Fearing. Later issues featured similar rare excursions into short fiction by poets Mary Swenson and Muriel Rukeyser as well as by critics Anatole Broyard and Roger Shattuck.

Covers of Discovery numbers 4,5, and 6

Although Discovery was never quite so revolutionary as Bourjaily claimed in his prefaces (Aldridge left after the first issue), there are some noteworthy contrarian pieces to be found. Discovery no. 2 includes the first story by outsider poet and novelist Gil Orlovitz, and other issues debuted the work of Gilbert Rogin, James Leo Herlihy, and Harold Brodkey. Discovery no. 3 includes the first excerpt from Alan Harrington’s satire of conformity, The Revelations of Doctor Modesto. Well back in Discovery no. 6, you find “The Perfectionist,” a terrific story by Joseph Slotkin that proves that any attempt to ignore the old truth that a new car begins to depreciate the moment it’s driven off the lot can only lead to madness:

There ought to be something in the world that could be kept safe and inviolate….

… And maybe if he and this machine kept moving, nothing could harm them–they could move like planets in their orbits, like meteors—

… Even dust could not settle o them, if they moved fast enough, away, and if anyone or even anything got in the way, they would go faster….

… Faster, and if this machine, that was a part of him now, got hungry, it could feed from his own blood, he felt it—

Slotkin published about a dozen stories, some in SF magazines, a few in literary magazines, then died in the 1960s, his work essentially forgotten. I am very tempted to attempt to search for the rest of his ouevre.

My favorite piece comes from Discovery no. 3. “Elegy on the Passing of Shepheard’s Hotel,” an uncategorizable piece by architecture critic Allan Temko, pictures the last moments of the famed Cairo hotel, which burned down in 1952:

Hello, there, this is the first speaking rather casually among the pillars of the lobby. Hello, Hello, I’m sitting on a sofa admiring these potted plants rather posh what, these potted plants. If anyone asks my name, tell them I’m the fire, I’m the fire. If anyone asks my name, I’m the fire. Hello hello. Hello what smashing carpets. If anyone asks my name, I’m the fire. Hello stucco, hello walls, hello plaster, hello floors. If anyone asks my name, tell them I’m the fire, the fire, the rather goodlooking chap on the sofa, old soul. Hello hello old soul hello old soul hello. Hello old soul here’s my card. I’m the fire and I’m in town my clothes are linen and my hat’s bamboo hello old soul here’s a drink for you. I’m the fire crepe-de-Chine hello old soul have a drink again.

I’d carry the quote on longer, but I suspect this is the sort of thing one either loves at first sight or hates outright. It’s unlike anything else I’m aware that Temko wrote and the closest thing to experimental fiction in the whole series.

By Discovery no. 6, Pocket Books tossed in the towel. Bourjaily’s preface claimed that it was only “the closing of our first series,” but if there’s a second series, it’s coming on the same train as Godot. The goal of publishing a ground-breaking literary magazine seems to have been doomed from the start. Bourjaily blamed the failure on three fundamental shortcomings: infrequency—it only came out twice a year; irregularity (an oxymoron for a periodical?)—twice a year didn’t mean every six months, apparently; and production—it was tough to be timely when it took six months after the manuscripts were ready to get the new issue to the shelves. Though Bourjaily was willing to admit, “We have failed; there is a phrase that no man likes to write,” he noted the successes, too: 70 stories, 89 poems, and a dozen pieces of non-fiction; seventeen writers published for the first time; sales as high as 150,000 copies for an issue.

I’d suggest that someone try collecting the best of Discovery into an anthology … but I’m afraid it would only end up on the same kind of shelf where I found my copies in the first place.


Discovery: An American Review, edited by Vance Bourjaily
New York: Cardinal Editions by Pocket Books, 1953-1955

Selected Stories, by Martin Armstrong (1951)

Cover of first UK edition of 'Selected Stories' by Martin Armstrong

In his dictionary, Samuel Johnson defined craftsman as “”An artificer; a manufacturer; a mechanick.” When the first OED was published 150 years later, craftsman was still associated with assembly rather than creation: “A man who practices a handicraft; an artificer, artisan.” And even today, to refer to a writer as a craftsman is to assign him or her to the second class: better than a hack but not so fine as an artist.

One could argue, however, that would-be creators are better off studying the craftsmen than the artist. After all, if artists are few and craftsmen are many, then chances are better that new writers will end up as the latter. And some mastery of craft is required for most lasting works of art. But it only takes a look at a sample of academic syllabi to conclude that “craftsman” is not the label a writer would want if he wants to be remembered and studied in posterity.

Take the example of Martin Armstrong, for example. Armstrong published seven collections of short stories over the course of twenty years, and continued publishing stories, if less frequently, into the 1960s. If he gets much mention today, it’s due more to the fact that he married Conrad Aiken’s ex-wife Jessie and thereby became stepfather to noted children’s author Joan Aiken. None of his novels, poems, or short story collections are in print today and he only earns a mention in the most comprehensive encyclopedias of English literature.

Reviewing one of his collections, critic Norah Meade wrote that, “Mr. Armstrong is a good craftsman. There is a clear, unembellished directness about both his plots and their presentation which makes his characters, his scenes and his intentions readily recognizable at a glance. They are interesting to contemplate, too, and even pleasantly subtle.” You know, of course, there is a “But” coming: “… but he fails to make them significant, either emotionally or intellectually. If the emotional reaction that one gets from a work of art in, any medium is the real test of its value, then Mr. Armstrong is not an artist in the most exalted sense.”

As evidenced by his Selected Stories (1951), however, Armstrong was every bit as successful a craftsman of the short story as, say, Algernon Blackwood or W. W. Jacobs. I use these two comparisons deliberately, as neither ranks on the level of Chekhov, Hemingway, Cheever, or other artists of the short story, but are acknowledged as masters in its genre forms–ghost stories, horror stories, humorous stories, stories of the sea and sailors. Much of Armstrong’s work falls into these categories.

Although a number of Armstrong’s stories have appeared in anthologies of ghost stories, it would probably be more accurate to describe them as spectral stories. In them, his aim is not to spook the reader as much as to remind one how fine is the line between life and death. In the opening story of this collection, “The Inner Room”, for example, an old gentleman knocks upon the door of his neighbor’s cottage. Getting no answer, he cautiously steps in. He calls, but no one answers. He roams the house, looking for his neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Riddle. In their bedroom, he sees something startling:

An old sheet was spread over the bed, completely covering it except for the discoloured pillow at the head, and under the sheet lay a dead body. He realized it in a flash. The dead face, sunk in the pillow, was the only uncovered part of it, but the long concave sweep from the bulge of the chest to the jutting feet was unmistakable.

A moment later, however, the sight is transformed:

Daylight is not a stable thing. Imperceptibly, second by second, it changes, and during the moments he had stood looking into the little room the light had altered, however slightly, and he saw quite clearly now that the bed was empty. The dead face was nothing more than stains in the ticking of the uncased pillow; the bulk of the thorax was a heap of folded bedding under the sheet.

Returning downstairs, he encounters Mrs. Riddle, and they sit in the kitchen for a brief conversation. As they talk, he has an unsettling feeling: “… whenever her eyes met his he was aware of a strangeness in her gaze and felt that they were talking across a gulf of unasked and unanswered questions.”

So was there a body? Was it Mr. Riddle’s? Or Mrs. Riddle’s? Or is the old gentleman himself the deceased? Armstrong leaves the reader to wonder.

Armstrong was also adept at the humorous story, which he could turn to both bitter and fantastic purposes. In “The Camberwell Beauty”, a passing comparison, made in conversation, between a young woman and a butterfly, turns out to have fatal results when a less than fully-witted butterfly collector overhears it. This and several other stories could easily have been raw material for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In the longest story of the collection, “Presence of Mind”, however, the fantastic side of Armstrong’s humor is best displayed. What starts off as nothing more than a solicitor’s impulsive decision to take a short cut through his neighbor’s private park spirals, through a series of absurd twists, into a nightmare as bizarre, yet comic, as Kafka’s traveling salesman turning into a giant cockroach. But it’s a very English nightmare, for the twists depend upon such names and places as Muggleton Spoffin, ]oshua
Palimpsest, Calceolaria Grove, and Hobbleton-on-Sloke. And, unlike Gregor Samsa’s, the fate of Armstrong’s solicitor is, in the end, no worse that to move “the offices of Pellett, Pellett & Pellett to what he considered a more salubrious quarter of the town.”

If not, perhaps, a masterpiece, Martin Armstrong’s Selected Stories remain, many decades after their publication, durable and entertaining examples of solid mid-20th century short story craftsmanship. Which is no second class distinction.


Selected Stories, by Martin Armstrong
London: Jonathan Cape, 1951

Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand (1954)

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Thirty Years'The dust jacket of Marquand’s Thirty Years provides this unimpressive description of the book’s contents: “A collection of stories, articles and essays which have not previously appeared in book form.” Plenty of such collections have been published, but perhaps none other has been so honest in acknowledging the flimsy rationale for its existence. Little, Brown, Marquand’s publisher, needed some content to put out “in book form.” So Marquand gathered up an assortment of material that hadn’t previous appeared in book form, and hey presto: a book. He was also honest enough to admit in his foreword that the book makes “no pretense at being a prize collection.”

In his introduction to the book, Clifton Fadiman calls Marquand “the best novelist of social comedy now [1954] at work in our country” and predicts that he will be considered the American Thackeray of the 20th century. Fadiman attributes Marquand’s success to his being “at once outsider and insider.” From the distance of over a half century later, I think it’s become clear that Marquand was far more insider than outsider. And despite recent attempts to prop up the place of rich East Cost white men as its pinnacle, it’s probably also safe to conclude that the role of Boston and New York clubmen in the American Establishment mostly of historical and anthropological interest today.

So why bother with Thirty Years? Well, unless you do find historical and anthropological interest in the heyday of the American Establishment, there isn’t any reason to. A fair amount of the book’s content is just as slapdash as the dust jacket’s disclaimer suggests. Is anyone still interested in Marquand’s stories from the Mulligatawny Club, a mocking version of the various yacht clubs–or societies for the preservation of the prejudices of rich retired white men–he encountered along the shores Long Island Sound? Or his stories of the “strenuous life” of rich young white men in East Coast private schools and Hahvuhd?

Marquand includes a long story, “The End Game,” which Herbert Mayes, editor at Good Housekeeping in the 1940s and 1950s, “once thought highly of.” In it, Marquand attempts to weave a narrative out of various threads he was familiar with: China in the years before the Communist revolution; the culture of American Army life; New York City in the 1940s; and chess. He notes that the story is roughly equal in length to Henry James’ Daisy Miller and that he found it a “dangerous” form to work with: “Such a fictional form can fall over itself more readily than any other I have ever known.” And so “The End Game” does.

The story is told by Henry Ide, an American businessman taking one of his periodic breaks in New York City from time working in trade in China. There is something I always find interesting about stories that grow out of characters who find themselves in such “in between times.” Wandering around midtown Manhattan one evening, he enters a penny arcade and finds in its basement a room where you can play chess or checkers against the house masters. Ide sits down to play chess with a scruffy-looking man who introduces himself as Joe, and over the course of the next few evenings, he draws out pieces of Joe’s story. Marquand proves an effective Scheherezade for most of the tale, drawing the reader along through its pages. And then he blows it. In his foreword, Marquand notes that many of his magazine stories “lack depth and significance, qualities popular periodicals customarily avoid, and almost inevitably they reach a happy ending.” Let’s just say that “The End Game” features one of the most abrupt and unbelievable happy endings ever written. And reason enough not to read it: I wish I hadn’t.

Most of Marquand’s serious novels are well over 400 pages long, and he was often accused of putting far more material into them than was necessary. And he committed the same sin with Thirty Years. Of its 466 pages, only the 120-some pages in the section “The Wars: Men and Places” are of more than passing interest, and fifty of those are taken up by the unsatisfying “The End Game.” What’s left are a handful of pieces–a mix of fiction and reporting–that stem from Marquand’s stints working for the War Department during World War Two.

The best of these, “Ascension Island,” is taken from a trip Marquand took in mid-1943 in the company of Brigadier General James S. Simmons, a former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health assigned to survey the potential for disease outbreaks at U. S. Army bases everywhere from the Caribbean and Brazil to North Africa, Sicily, the Middle East, India, and China. Simmons was given priority over air transport “that could bump off anyone except the President, the Secretaries of War and the Navy, and General Marshall and Admiral King.”

On the returning leg of the trip, Simmons and Marquand stopped at Ascension Island, a British protectorate in the middle of the South Atlantic that had been transformed into a refueling and patrol base for the U. S. military. There, he finds a resounding demonstration of the power of production and logistics that underlay the American effort in World War Two (and went on to constitute of core of what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”, which is still on display at places like Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan):

Whenever I hear someone say that there is no unified national spirit and no culture in the United States, I think of our airports in Africa, India and the Pacific. It may be true that the Englishman far from home dresses for dinner and has his Number One Boy bring in his gin and tonic, but in all his centuries of colonizing he has never brought his civilization with him wholesale, as our armed forces have brought theirs in this war. Machine shops, plumbing, air conditioning, outdoor movies, ping-pong tables, boxing rings, Time, Newsweek, the weekly comics, Pocket Books, Gillette razors, Williams’ Aqua Velva, Rheingold beer, Johnson’s baby powder, Spam and Planters’ peanuts, all followed our army to the war for the edification of dark-skinned men in G-strings and for the shocked amazement of the French and British.

In this piece and in “Iwo Jima before H-Hour”, Marquand provides–perhaps unconsciously–some of the rare reporting from World War Two that stresses the extent to which the American effort depended on materiel and masses of personnel. It was an approach that would soon take over many other aspects of American life and push into obsolescence Marquand’s “timeless” world, where “The Boston pigeons are exactly the same as they were fifty years ago, and so are the old ladies and gentlemen who feed them, and so are the newspaper readers on the Common benches and the amorous couples who walk the shady paths.” Which is one reason why Thirty Years is now more of an anthropological artifact than a relevant work of literature.


Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand
Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1954

The Strangers Were There: Selected Stories by John Bell Clayton (1957)


With Charlottesville, Virginia and its statue of General Robert E. Lee in the news, it’s worth taking a moment to note a long-forgotten collection of short stories set in and around the town. John Bell Clayton’s The Strangers Were There (1957), published posthumously, earned mildly reviews and quickly disappeared, but it remains perhaps the most accurate portrait of the town and its people–at least as it stood in the late 1940s and early 1950s, on the brink of desegregation and the Civil Rights movement:

He got off the bus at Third Street, flipped up the collar of his topcoat and waited at the curb until the buss pulled away, expelling a bluish gush of exhaust fumes. Third Street ran diagonally to Main exactly four blocks from the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Station to the Robert E. Lee Hotel. There, amid the leafless elm and buckeye trees, the commanding bronze figure of General Lee astride Traveller, his hat in his right hand, assailed by the flakes now, faced with that imperturbable gentle resignation not just south but the whole enigmatic contradiction that was and remained and would always be the South.

In Clayton’s Charlottesville, lightly disguised as “Colonial Springs,” the members of the Colonial Club–lawyers, businessmen, and officeholders–“ran everything, everywhere.” On Wednesdays, the young cadets of the Military Institute strolled downtown on their two hours of furlough. On Thursdays, the girls from the local Seminary walked the same sidewalks during their own short release. On Saturday afternoons, “crowds of fur-coated college girls and their escorts came back from football games” and took over the restaurants and drugstores. And on Saturday nights, the sidewalks were packed with country folk “come to swarm into the ten-cent stores, the hardware stores and notion stores, the Strand and the Colonial movie houses, to parade along the streets, to look and see, to get a little excited and possibly a little drunk, to give expression to something elemental.”

Born in Craigsville on the western slope of the Shenandoah Valley, Clayton attended university in Charlottesville and wrote for the town’s paper, The Daily Progress. From there he went on to work with Ernie Pyle in the Office of War Information’s San Francisco bureau during World War Two, then stayed on as an editor for the Chronicle.

John Bell Clayton
H. L. Mencken is said to have encouraged Clayton to try writing fiction, and his instinct proved right. The second story Clayton ever sold, “The White Circle” (included in The Strangers Were There), was selected as winner of the O. Henry Award first prize for 1947. By 1951, he was making a full-time living selling stories to Colliers, Mencken’s The American Mercury, and other leading magazines. He then published three novels in the next three years: Six Angels at My Back (1952) and Wait, Son, October is Near (1953), both set in rural Virginia; and Walk Toward the Rainbow (1954), set in San Francisco. California historian Kevin Starr wrote that Rainbow“abounds in ample and precise detail regarding the city.”

A similar eye for details shines throughout The Strangers Were There, which collects most of Clayton’s published stories, along with a number of unpublished pieces. Edited by Clayton’s widow, Martha Carmichael Clayton (sister of famed songwriter Hoagy Carmichael), the collection is organized into three sections: “The Town Clock,” whose stories are set in Charlottesville/Colonial Springs; “The Village Bells,” set in a hamlet perhaps not unlike Clayton’s hometown Craigsville; and “The Valley and the Mountains Beyond,” set in the Appalachian farm and hill country. Through these stories weave all the different peoples of the region:

There were the rich and the poor and the good and the indifferent. There was a man worth thirty million dollars, and another, a gaunt moonshiner from Jerkumtight Hollow, come on a Saturday night to look at the neon signs, who did not possess thirty. There were the housewives, the merchants, the lawyers, the schoolteachers, the filling-station attendants, the college girls, the golf players on one scale and the pool players on another. There were the churchgoers and the radio listeners and the ne’er-do-wells and the drinkers of cheap wine. On a Sunday night there were a dinner party at the country club and a tryst at a roadside tourist cabin and a prayer meeting at the Lutheran Church and three drunks telling lies in the men’s room of the bus depot and a Negro child dying f leukemia on Jitney Street and a young couple getting married and a thousand women preparing supper and an esthetic girl at the Seminary writing what she believed to be a sonnet or a song.

Clayton has a good feel for the fine and ignoble aspirations and deeds of the poor country people living in the hills around the town. They are not all two-dimensional stereotypes of simple but honest folk. Some are lazy, some are cowardly, some too much in love with their liquor, and some too obstinate to get out of their own way. But when they come down to hang around Main Street on a Saturday night, he can see that,

There was something raw and beautiful about it. Mountain country has a great somber loneliness. The winters are especially lonely. You live there in country like that. Your neighbors are few. Once in a while, in that great dead winter stillness, you hear a solitary crow cawing and you go to the window and watch its fugitive flight across a dull sky. The snow drifts high in the hollows there. And when the warmth of the summer finally does come, you feel the need to go out and be among people.

Some of Clayton’s best feel for details comes in the small, telling descriptions of his characters. There is a remarkable range to be found here: blowhards, saints, bigots, cowards, winners, and losers. “Little Woodrow” features a small-time crook who read too many old copies of The Police Gazette while in prison and comes home dressed up like a cartoon gangster–“like a figure in a wax museum suddenly become animate and determined to revive the role of an undersized villain in a threadbare melodrama everybody else had long since forgotten.” A large, lazy man lays on his bunk “in the state of dull, hippopotamus somnolence that passed for consciousness with him.” And he offers a priceless description of a nervous paregoric addict desperately seeking his next fix: “a series of expressions like tiny clowns chased one another across his eyes: jocularity, solemnity, mirth, concern, and finally something stricken, haunted, pursued.”

If the passages I’ve quoted make The Strangers Were There a bit honey-hued with nostalgia, I should caution that Clayton was too much of a newspaperman to see the world with anything but a sharp and skeptical eye. For all the love he may have felt for the Shenandoah country and its people, he did choose to leave it behind in his late twenties and never returned. And perhaps some of his reasoning is revealed in the story, “Incident at Chapman’s Switch,” about the shooting of a black man and his wife by a belligerent cop. The town sheriff and local judge quietly agreed to look the other way, and the story revolves around a discussion between a journalist and the editor of the town paper about how to write up the account. “Son,” the editor admonishes the journalist, “We are movin’ slowly and gradually to improve things and no matter how much you would like to you just can’t do it all at once.” This causes the writer to muse:

I am a part of it…. I was born into it and raised by it…. It is my native land and I love it, but there are times when I hate it. They’ve made me talk like them and look like them and even act like them…. But they can no longer make me think like them….

One can only hope that similar thoughts come to those people around Charlottesville and elsewhere who’ve been coming up with reasons to hold back the hands of time.


The Strangers Were There: Selected Stories by John Bell Clayton
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957

Selected Stories, by Frances Bellerby (1986)

The fact that Frances Bellerby’s Selected Stories has been out of print for over thirty years now is literally a case of insult being added to injury. Having damaged her spine while walking along the Lulworth Cliffs on the Dorset coast in 1930, Bellerby spent the remaining forty-five years of her life in pain and illness, yet managed to write short stories that are discussed alongside those of Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jean Rhys, and Elizabeth Bowen. Of the 40-plus writers profiled in David Malcolm’s recent survey, The British and Irish Short Story Handbook, only one–Bellerby–has none of her story collections currently in print.

Although no less a worthy than Robert Gittings contributed an illuminating biographical sketch for Bellerby’s Selected Poems (which is still in print, probably simply due to the fact that Amazon hasn’t sold out the 1994 printing), her life deserves a treatment similar to Jean Strouse’s classic biography of Alice James. For, like Alice James, Bellerby’s was an intense and creative spirit that burned within a body often inadequate to the task of sheltering it.

Born in Bristol, Bellerby was taught at home until the age of nine by her mother, a trained nurse who worked alongside her husband, an Anglo-Catholic cleric, in a mission among the working poor in the quarries, collieries, and factories outside the city. The family was, in Gittings’ words “exceptionally tight-knit and isolated socially.” Frances idolized her older brother, Jack, and his death in World War One was the first of a series of tragedies that left permanent imprints that can be seen clearly in her work.

Eager to join the fight after the outbreak of the war, Jack volunteered for the Coldstream Guards and was among the first of the so-called Kitchener’s Army to be sent to France. Visiting his family shortly before embarkation, Jack told his father that he expected to be killed in action, saying that he considered it a fate preferable to being wounded and sent home a permanent invalid. His prophecy proved true, as he was killed by an artillery shell on 8 August 1915 at “Windy Corner” near Givenchy. Decades later, in her story “The Carol”, his sister imagined her brother’s return to their home:

Observing a photograph which he did not remember, he went close to see what it was. It hung over the bed, and beneath it hung the old snapshot of James. To his amused surprise the photograph was of himself in uniform. Vaguely, he remembered having it taken. Funny old Mater to put that in my room! he thought, much entertained. Then, noticing written words at the foot of the photograph, he read: “Killed in Action at Givenchy, Aged i8, August 8th, 1915.” This gave him a tremendous shock.

So when his mother, hearing, as she often did, the softly whistled carol, ran upstairs and opened the door to look in, the room was, as usual, empty.

“Time is, perhaps, little more than a flimsy curtain, which under the least pressure of intensity gives way.” As Jeremy Hooker writes in his introduction to Selected Stories, this opening sentence from her story, “Soft and Fair”, “serves well to indicate the nature of Frances Bellerby’s short stories.”

She did try, at first, to break free from her family and painful memories. After attending a Catholic girls’ boarding school with the financial assistance of a family friend and a short stint writing for several newspapers in Bristol, she was hired by The Bristol Times and Mirror and sent to work in London as their drama critic. There she met and married John Rotherford Bellerby, a Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge studying conditions among workers in the East End. She supported her husband as she had seen her mother do, and her first books were, in Gittings’ estimation, little more than Sunday school tracts.

Then came her accident. Walking along the cliffside with her husband and another couple, Frances ran ahead in a burst of enthusiasm, slipped, and landed very awkwardly. She assured John that it was nothing and he and the other man walked on. When the other woman approached, however, she saw Frances dragging herself forward with only her hands, her face twisted in agony. Even after being helped back to their lodgings, she insisted it was only a passing injury. She wasn’t helped by her own tendency to dismiss the seriousness of what had happened, but, as Gittings puts it, “the 1930s were not a good time for the treatment of spinal injury.” And she did, somehow, realize that this was more than just a passing matter. As she later wrote in a notebook, when she found herself on the ground after the fall, “I saw … tall golden letters: THIS IS FOR EVER.”

From that point forward, she found much of the life she had become accustomed to impossible. Walking was difficult and soon required the help of a cane or crutches. She tried a variety of braces to support her back, none of them very effective. When she did consult a physician, she was likely to return home in worse pain from their manipulations. She railed against her plight: “I HATE my spine,” she wrote in her diary. “I am going to write this here because I want it out of me. I HATE my spine…. I am NEVER used to it. I NEVER shall be … I NEVER shall be reconciled to this.”

Adding to her difficulties was the news of her mother’s suicide in 1932. Having suffered from depression almost continuously since her son’s death, she waited one day for her husband to leave their house, then went up to her bedroom, shut the window and plugged up the door and opened up the gas cock. “I suffered and broke and died with her,” Frances later wrote of the impact of her mother’s death.

Her situation also strained her relationship with John Bellerby. She found living in a busy place like London or Cambridge, where he needed to work, increasingly difficult, and she began spending more and more of her time in isolated cottages in the countryside. They separated permanently in 1942. Although this added to her practical challenges, she also found that being away from him freed creative energies she had not experienced since the early days of their marriage. While she had managed to write and publish enough stories for her first collection, Come to an End (1939), before the separation, she now became to write poetry and fiction in earnest.

Writing provided a way for her to channel some of her frustrations. As Sabine Coelsch-Foisner writes in her article, “Finding a Voice: Women Writing the Short Story (to 1945),” included in A Companion to the British and Irish Short Story, “Springing from her own tragic life, Bellerby’s stories focus on exceptional experiences and events too large or formidable to understand: the traumas of war, pain, and bereavement.” Understanding something of her life’s story undoubtedly helps a reader see that Bellerby often transfers painful episodes from it into the experiences of her characters–as in the example from “The Carol” above.

She mustered the energy to write an extended work of fiction, the novel Hath the Rain a Father (1946), but her talent was shown to best advantage at a smaller scale. Some of Bellerby’s best stories deal with situations seen through a child’s eyes and with a child’s sensibility. She had a remarkable understanding of the fragility of a child’s world. As she writes in “The Little Lamps”,

A child is so strong. A child is the strongest creature on earth. A child is integrated, is its own. A child needs no loved one to share the experiencing of beauty, yet has always the underlying certainty that sharing would be easily achieved if need arose: that there is, in fact, no involuntary aloneness.

For some people, growing-up is largely a matter of the death of this certainty. A sudden death, perhaps, or perhaps a very lingering affair.

For Bellerby herself, her brother Jack’s death was undoubtedly such a death of certainty. For her characters, however, it may be merely the suspicion that some stable element in their world is about to break up. In “Pre-War”, a brother and sister are at loose ends, left to play by themselves in their house: “Life had suddenly become a stranger. For three days their mother had been shut away from them in her bedroom.” In “The Cut Finger”, a family suddenly goes to the seaside for what the children are told is a holiday, so that their father can rest. Coming back to their rooms after playing on the beach, the little girl sees her mother crying, and somehow realizes the tragic weight that lies behind this moment:

How could such a thing be? What frightful hurt had brought it about? Her mother! The one person to whom Judith had always gone, by right, without shame or doubt, whenever she herself had been broken to tears. This cherishing omnipotence writhing face-downwards on a bed, sobbing into the pillow–so that the whole world, yes, the whole established world, had been blown sky-high and come hurtling down in fragments anyhow, anywhere.

Frances Bellerby, 1950
Most of her work during the 1940s was devoted to short stories. Bellerby published two further collections of stories, The Acorn and The Cup (1948) and A Breathless Child (1952). Perhaps because of her diminishing strength from dealing with her spinal injury, however, she turned increasingly to the more concentrated form of poetry. Her first collection, Plash Mill and Other Poems, named after the Devon cottage where she spend much of the decade, was published in 1946, and The Brightening Cloud in 1949. By the end of the 1940s her poems began to be read on a regular basis on BBC radio, selected by presenter Charles Causley.

With the start of the new decade, however, the fragility of her own situation only increased. In 1950, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. She was given “perhaps a year, perhaps about five months” to live. A double mastectomy, followed by radiation treatment, suspended this sentence for some years, but she continued to suffer from respiratory problems and other frequent illnesses. Their impacts can be seen in the titles of poems from her next collection, The Stone Angel and the Stone Man, published in 1957: “Convalescence,” “Hospital Car,” “Chronic Ward,” “Dying in June”. She was increasingly confined to the little cottage in Cornwall she had bought, and eventually lost the ability to use a typewriter. She tried to direct her waning energies toward an autobiography, but gave up the effort after working on it for over fifteen years. She confided to her diary: “Desolate. Desolate. Desolate. Frightened, broken, alone.”

Yet the memory of her family traumas was never far away. When, in 1970, with the help of a friend, the publisher Alan Clodd, the first edition of her Selected Poems was released by Enitharmon Press, she dedicated the book “To the brief and everlasting life of my brother”. Clodd and others also helped her gain a Civil List pension in 1973, but it did little to relieve her situation. After years of remission, her cancer returned and she died just short of the age of 75 in July 1975. The following poem serves as a fitting epitaph for this woman whose life and work were filled with such pain and struggle:

Before the Light Fades

Before the light fades
Someone should be found to explain
With sufficient wisdom and patience
Everything I have seen.

And before owl and moth
Shock by remembered flight
The deep, tombed, silence
Of the world of night,

There should appear some linguist
Hot-blooded as a bird,
To translate with a single sentence
Everything I have heard.

Then darkness
Might prove home,
And eternal silence
The kingdom come.

Bellerby’s Selected Stories and Selected Poems are both available in electronic form in the Open Library.


Selected Short Stories, by Frances Bellerby, with an introduction by Jeremy Hooker
London: Enitharmon Press, 1986

No More Mimosa, by Ethel Mannin (1943)

Title page from "No More Mimosa"After writing a fairly disparaging piece about Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs two years ago, I wouldn’t have counted on finding her work on my reading list again. But then I read a thoughtful piece on her 1943 collection, No More Mimosa, originally printed in the December 2013 edition of the Bulletin of the Labour History Project of New Zealand, which was particularly enthusiastic about one of its stories, “Refugees,” which describes the lot of a group of Spanish republicans living in exile in London: “In a few descriptive pages Mannin crystallized the universal experience of political exile and loneliness.” Finding a copy of No More Mimosa for under $25 (the starting price is higher now, I’m afraid), I put it on my list for this year of short stories.

In her preface to the collection, Mannin writes that she “sought to give the book as definite a ‘shape’ as a novel.” To that end, she collects stories set in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two in the first section, “Before the Deluge”; in the second section, “Thunder in Spain”, she includes four stories centered upon the defeat, flight, and exile to England of an actual group of Spanish pro-Republican radicals, including Joaquin Delso de Miguel, to whom she dedicated the book; and in the final section, “The Deluge”, she depicts a Europe in the midst of a war which, at the time she was writing, there was no apparent end.

While a few of the stories in No More Mimosa are run-of-the-mill magazine fodder–more O. Henry than Chekhov, and forgotten minutes after finishing them–the collection could, with a bit of editing, serve as a striking record of its time. Mannin is an interesting case. Hugely prolific, she managed to sell well throughout her long career. The stories in this collection first appeared in such mainstream publications as Good Housekeeping, Nursery World, and The Evening Standard. At the same time, she was fierce and unapologetic in her politics and causes, supporting the Anarchists in Spain and refusing to register for national service in World War Two. In this book, these contrasts improve its interest and variety, as Mannin portrays a wider range of classes and circumstances than one is likely to find in any collection from one of her contemporaries.

With the opening story, “Mimosas for Remembrance,” she signals a clear awareness–even writing some years before the start of the war–that storm clouds were gathering:

The light was fading and the room was filled with a soft greyness, upon which the scent of mimosa floated like a dream in a sleep. A dream of spring; of other springs, in other worlds, long ago. There had been mimosa lighting the greyness of the olive-groves above Lake Como. And mimosa woods on the hillsides of Cavalière….

“Europe is doomed and damned,” one character predicts. “We’ll to the woods no more–the mimosas are all gone! It’s probably the last European spring in which they’ll not spread their branches above machine-gun nests, or be mown down before tanks.” He sums up the world they see nearing its end:

… the lives we lived sitting on cafe-terraces, drinking green wine under the chestnut trees in little Tyrolean towns, running in and out of art galleries in Paris, Rome, Florence, Vienna, all the lying in the sun we did on little plages in the South of France, the Balearic Islands–the painting, the writing, the love-affairs, the wild parties, the scandals–all lived out to a background of bars and cafes, olive-groves, mimosa woods, and rapides with romantic names–the Rome Express, the Flèche D’Or, the Blue Train, and trains that pulled into Paris from Istanbul, Belgrade, Wien, Napoli….

And the tales Mannin tells in this first section are utterly cosmopolitan in character. Mostly under five pages long, the sixteen stories comprising “Before the Deluge” are scattered all over the map: Buenos Aires, Algiers, Marseille, Sarajevo, Ragusa, Jerusalem, Montparnasse, and Moscow. And her people come from all over the social spectrum: English spinsters, French nobility, a Palestinian nationalist, an ambitious Algerian wharf-rat, a down-on-his-heels Eton graduate making his way around the Balkans as a member of a sad nightclub dance act. Some of them are still coping with the aftermath of the last war. Of a Russian family in Paris, Mannin writes, “They fled across Europe and into France, which is something which is said in a few words, but which in living meant months and years of semi-starvation in all the capitals of Eastern Europe.”

Ironically, while Mannin’s characters are almost all great travelers, one can’t help but notice after a few stories that few of them are actually heading somewhere in their lives. The English dancer changes partners in the course of his story, but this make no real difference: “Between the time of their arrival and opening they had to find rooms, find the bar, rehearse. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Nor the last.” Even in the rare case, as in “Algiers”, where the wharf-rat manages to polish up his act, make enough money to pass himself off as wealthy (for a few days, at least), and insinuate himself into the fringe of Paris society, the final destination of his climb up the ladder proves a dead end and, soon enough, he finds himself back on the waterfront. For all its travel opportunities, Mannin’s world of the thirties seems rather claustrophobic.

In the middle section, “Thunder in Spain,” her characters don’t lack for a cause or direction to their lives, but this proves to matter little when you find yourself on the losing side. She follows a group of five pro-Republican organizers fleeing first from Madrid to the temporary capitol, Valencia, and then to the small port of Gancia. In “The Last Night in Gancia”, which Mannin describes as “historic fact”, they spend their last hours on Spanish soil in a tense limbo, wondering whether they would be caught and executed by the Nationalists or rescued by the French or British warships circling offshore. When at last the business of embarkation begins,

[A] great motley crowd of men, and a few women, with pale strained faces, some of them with their eyes dark with misery or wet with tears because they were leaving behind everything they held dear, those they loved and might never see again, and with them the grey ashes of their dreams, some with their eyes alight with hope; for some the embarkation was tragedy, for others, in spite of everything, adventure; for some it was the end of everything, for others merely the end of a chapter.

For the revolutionaries, however, as Mannin shows in “Refugees”, their next chapter is another, duller form of limbo:

After all, when you have nothing whatsoever to do, from the time you get up, late, in the morning, till the time you go to bed in the small hours of the following morning, it does not matter how you get through the time. Time flowed over us in a grey stream, empty, endless, unmeasured–we who had lived such intense, crowded lives. Now we were lost in a vacuum of futility. We had endless political discussions that developed into impassioned arguments, voices raised, fists banged on the table, and usually someone sweeping out; we held endless futile political post-mortems. We played chess; we wrote letters, and were eaten out and in with longing for letters, for news, that never came; we made fitful attempts at learning English; we struggled with the grey labyrinth of London; we made a good deal of coffee, and we spent a good deal of our time lying on our beds and looking at the high dirty ceiling, our thoughts flowing endlessly backward.

When the war does come, however, it doesn’t prove to offer anything better in the way of a direction for most of the characters Mannin portrays. The Army comes to the rescue of a couple whose dream of running a quaint little hotel in the country by buying them out–but financial relief is a poor second best to actually seeing their dream succeed. An actress and an escaped prisoner spend a night together discovering just how well human nature can let down our hopes. A chorus girl struggling to find work gets played by a con artist, only to be dragged out of the rubble after a German bomb hits their bar. And two sets of evacuees find themselves and their hosts disappointed, then unhappy, then disgruntled and resentful. Patriotism turns out to be a pretty weak force in the face of people who simply dislike each other intensely. Mannin could not have foreseen it, but she was doing a good job of preparing her characters for the Cold War to come.

If this makes No More Mimosa sound like grim fare, I must point out that Mannin is a solid and professional story teller. She has a remarkably talent for sketching in enough details for the reader to accept the story’s setting and principals in a matter of a page or two. I often thought of Maugham while reading the book–that same sense of a writer saying to the reader, “Now, I’m going to tell you a story, and I know what I’m doing, so your job is just to read along. Shall we?” However, Mannin’s characters are, in general, a bit rougher around the edges–you wouldn’t be surprised to see some dirt under their fingernails or a bit of food in their teeth. Come to think of it, they’re a lot more like the inhabitants of Orwell’s fiction. I don’t want to oversell the book, however–it’s not “Rain” meets Keep the Aspidistra Flying. But for anyone looking for an antidote to nostalgia for the thirties and war years, No More Mimosa offers a convincing demonstration that the West had its share of grim, grey lives well before anyone came up with the phrase “Iron Curtain.”


No More Mimosa, by Ethel Mannin
London: Jarrolds Publishers, Ltd., 1943

Among the Dangs, by George P. Elliott (1961)

Cover of first US edition of 'Among the Dangs'I’ve never found anything written by George P. Elliott entirely satisfying–yet I keep coming back to his work.

Considered a rising talent in the 1950s, when his short stories such as “The NRACP” and “Among the Dangs” began appearing in anthologies and to be mentioned as some of the more significant works in then-contemporary American writing, Elliott was solidly placed in the literary mainstream by the 1960s, when his name often appeared alongside those of Bellow, Heller, and Roth; beginning to be seen as marginal by the start of the 1970s; and largely forgotten by the time he died at age 62 in 1980. His books are all out of print today, and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry (yet).

What happened? I think a look at his best-received book, the short story collection Among the Dangs (1961), can explain a lot.

Among the Dangs includes several stories that stand out quite starkly from most of what was being published at the time. In the title story, a black American academic and anthropologist studies and then becomes a member of a violent Amazonian tribe, the Dangs, only to flee from them in the end, in fear that he was on the brink of reverting to their more instinctual and primitive level. I remember thinking it a remarkable and memorable story when I first came across it in some anthology of contemporary short stories back in college, and that memory was the main reason I but the book on my “to read” list for this year.

Nearly forty years later, the impression left by “Among the Dangs” is not nearly so powerful. Aside from the novelty factor of a white writer adopting the voice and perspective of a black man, there is nothing revealed about the narrator that gives any sense that this was anything but an arbitrary choice by the writer. The color of his skin could just as easily have been purple for all it adds to the story. Elliott later wrote that, “My work in composing ‘Among the Dangs’ was made the easier because I was so little interested in all those aspects of the world which are recognizably arranged in a realistic story,” and this gets to one of the first problems with his fiction.

When I dug back through contemporary reviews of Among the Dangs, one theme jumped out as a constant. The Kirkus Reviews reviewer described Elliott’s outlook as “disinterested and detached. Critic Benjamin DeMott said that Elliott wrote with a “mild irony and a certain detachment from his characters.” Another wrote that Elliott “… entertains and interests us and at the same time puzzles us–puzzles me, perhaps not you–for he conveys a sense of great moral and emotional earnestness without making clear what more or what emotion he wants us to feel.” And another simply confessed defeat in the face of Elliott’s detachment: “I don’t know what George P. Elliott thinks of the people in his stories.”

Elliott’s most reprinted story also appears in Among the Dangs. Originally published in the Hudson Review in 1949, “The NRACP” is such a dryily-written satire that more than a few readers miss the joke entirely. NRACP standa for “National Relocation Authority: Colored Persons,” and the story postulates an America in which a government-run program is quietly carrying out the genocide of its black citizens. In some ways, it’s a fictional demonstration of the old saying about how to boil a frog (i.e., very slowly). Much of the story deals more with the personal dilemma of the protagonist, a relatively hapless guy torn between staying with his wife or having a fling with his younger and more attractive secretary. Only vaguely does the reader come to understand that all around, the blacks are being taken away to camps and disappearing from the streets. And Elliott’s protagonist is even slower to catch on.

A fair number of readers were shocked by the story when it first came out, and as the civil rights movement gained momentum, the violence of the story’s premise came to seem even more dramatic. Elliott was considered coarse and insensitive by liberals and viewed as mocking the beliefs of conservatives. Elliott himself said that it was the first story he ever sold that made him enough money to go out to dinner on: “So I invited Josephine Miles and some other friends out, but Josephine wouldn’t go. She would not dine on that story because she thought it was so bad, so wrong.” The America of “The NRACP” is one increasingly split between the winners and the losers–or, as Elliott puts it, “Those who get it and those who dish it out.” Of all the stories in this collection, it’s certainly the most relevant for readers in today’s America, where this sort of divide is becoming more and more apparent.

A third story, “Faq'” (a title likely to be misunderstood by most readers today), evokes the work of Borges, Kafka, and other metaphysical writers. In it, an American geographer sees a remote settlement in the Atlas mountains of Morocco while flying on an Army Air Corps mission and vows to visit and study it after the war. What he finds is a long-isolated civilization where the men spend all day worshipping numbers while the women–kept at a rough ratio of three to every male to ensure a ready workforce. The people of Faq’ have come to believe that their existence depends upon continuing the communal task of counting: “By hypothesis the highest nameable number is as far from the end as one is, and there is no end to counting. It is the function of Faq’ to test this hypothesis in the only statistically verifiable fashion, actually by counting forever.”

As with the anthropologist of “Among the Dangs,” however, the American ultimately flees and returns to the world he is more familiar with. He is determined “never to go there again, for he is sure that though he does not know what is right for men ordered perfection is wrong, and that though suffering is bad the lack of suffering is much worse.”

This last statement could easily serve as Elliott’s motto. The anthropologist gains a place among the Dangs in part through his prowess as a storyteller, and the primary story he tells them is that of the life of Christ. While not an overtly religious writer, Christian themes–particularly those of human fallibility, of sin, of the need for repentance, and of the possibility of forgiveness–are easily found throughout Elliott’s work. And he always had a moralist’s disdain for the notion that seeking freedom or pleasure would ultimately change man’s situation. He would have agreed with wittgenstein: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.” As Elliott wrote in a piece in The Nation titled, “The Happiness Rat Race”, “To be sure, having the kind of fun you have to have doesn’t hurt as much as finding out what’s really wrong and doing something about it. But finally, rather than that grinning stupefaction, I’d prefer to hurt.”

Human failure is in many ways Elliott’s favorite subject. Although one critic wrote that the story, “A Family Matter”, “sounds as if it had been written as a contribution to a seminar on the novels of Miss Compton-Burnett”–and Elliott himself later admitted that he had written it as an experiment after reading several of Compton-Burnett’s novels. “That is, I felt like writing a story in which the plot problem is announced at the outset, developed in clearly marked stages, and resolved near the end, and in which all the characters are connected with the same family and speak concisely and hyperconsciously.”

In the story, an elderly millionaire returns to the place where his ex-wives and children live, in part to try to understand what led to his becoming so distant and detached from them. In the end, neither he, the ex-wives, the children, nor the reader is any more the wiser–and yet, it’s clear that the effort was both necessary and useful. Elliott was a firm believer in the necessity of trying to come to grips with the world we live in–even if that effort is likely to prove unsuccessful: “A good deal of fiction derives from the writer’s impulse to understand or cause the reader to understand the true nature of part of the world. Whether he does it for himself primarily or for the readers he wants to affect does not matter as much as that he is pressed by the need to understand the world, to order experience.”

I think this is what continues to interest me in his work: even when it’s not entirely satisfying, it always reveals an individual making a deep and serious effort to understand. As someone has probably already said, it’s probably more important to have the right questions than to have the right answers.

Though Elliott published four novels during his life, all were consistently judged interesting but ultimately unsuccessful. Many reviewers remarked that his short fiction was better than his novels. And reviewing his second story collection, An Hour of Last Things, William Peden judged that Elliott was “As much a thoughtful essayist as story-teller.” But even in his essays, Elliott could, at times, become somewhat strident and brittle. However, as Phillip Stambovsky writes in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, a few of these essays, mostly autobiographical, “are among the most original and impressive of his literary productions”: “A Brown Fountain Pen” and “A Piece of Lettuce” from A Piece of Lettuce; “Never Nothing” from Conversions; “Snarls of Beauty” from The George P. Elliott Reader. “Whatever other qualities this unnamed, unshaped age we are entering may have,” Elliott once wrote, “I hope that it will realize it needs art in order to live.” I will have to return to these essays next year, when I plan to focus on autobiographical works, to give Elliott’s art the appreciation it deserves, in its own earnest if never fully successful way.


Among the Dangs and Other Stories, by George P. Elliott
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961

The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

I recently had the chance to travel to Estonia for the first time, to attend a conference in Tallinn. In the spirit of this trip, then, I took along a copy of The Conspiracy, a collection of stories by one of the leading Estonian writers of the last 50 years, Jaan Kross. I was thoroughly impressed by the people, sights, food, and energy of life in Estonia, and once you’ve read a little of the country’s history, you realize how long and hard they have had to struggle to establish–and reestablish–their independence and to maintain their culture and way of life in the 50+ years they spent under Nazi and Soviet control.

The Conspiracy offers a particularly good fictional introduction to what the Estonians endured during that time. Kross, who was born in 1920, not long after Estonia declared its independence, reached adulthood at about the time when that independence was crushed–first by Soviets (1940-1941, starting with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and ending soon after the German invasion of Russia), then by the Germans (1941-1944), and then again by the Soviets, who settled in for over forty years. The stories in The Conspiracy trace this history through episodes in the life of Kross’ fictional counterpart, Peeter Mirk.

The first story, “The Wound”, is set in the time around the start of the German invasion of Poland, when Germany offered ethnic Germans in the Baltic republics the opportunity to move into settlements in recently-conquered Poland and begin the process of establishing Hitler’s precious lebensraum. Peeter Mirk’s first love, a neighbor and fellow student in Tartu University, belongs to a family with German connections who decides to accept the offer. At a farewell party, feelings of nostalgia overtake the two young people and they decide in a moment of haste to run away and get married. As they run from the restaurant through rainy streets, however, she slips and falls, getting a severe cut on her leg, forcing them to stop and go back. Their impulsive act leads, in the end, to just the first of many casualties suffered by people in Peeter’s life over the next twenty years.

Kross was able to complete law school and stay on as a member of faculty for the first years of German occupation, in part through a series of medical dodges, avoiding the “lead piping” into which many Estonian men were channeled:

And the lead pipes, as already mentioned above, were, according to these notices, two in number. One of them spewed forth its load on to the front via the notorious Bad-Tölz training camp, that is to say, via southern Bavaria after a period of three to four months. The other pipe did the same, after a couple of weeks of basic drill at the Kohila or Elva training camps. Those spewed out of the first pipe wore SS uniforms and were told that they constituted the elite of Neues Europa and of the Estonian people. The second pipe spat forth so-called “Volunteer Assistants”, who were in fact required to stay in the frontier zone in the same section as the prisoners of war stationed there.

But some of Kross’s friends were not so lucky. Even those who tried to escape to Sweden or Finland took extraordinary risks, as is illustrated in the stories “Lead Piping” and “The Stahl Grammar.” And Kross himself ended up being arrested by the Germans in 1944, only to be set free from a Tallinn prison by the first wave of Soviet troops to retake the city. Two years later, however, he was again arrested, this time on the charge of being a “bourgeois recidivist”, and was sent to the Vorkutlag complex of camps. He spent the next eight years in the Gulag, finally returning to Estonia in 1954.

Jaan Kross in a light-hearted mood, 1973
Fortunately for Kross and his readers, he was possessed of a spirit of extraordinary resilience and good humor. He was lucky, he once remarked in an interview for the Guardian, that he was imprisoned by the Soviets and not the Germans: “Such was their Ordnungsliebe –passion for order–and their savage discipline. The Soviets at least had their saving virtues of inefficiency and incompetence.” He had an intense interest in other people–indeed, at a few points in his stories he pulls himself up with a remark such as, “But why have I begun to describe him in such detail?”

And Kross works details into his writing with all his senses. The reader gets the sense not just of how things looked, but also weather, textures, sounds, and, most of all, smells:

I had keys to Uncle’s apartment. We climbed the stairs with their faint smell of polish and stepped into the hall of the apartment. For some reason (or perhaps because we entered without switching on the light) it was the smells of the apartment which impinged on my consciousness on that occasion: the faint smell of ether emanating from Uncle’s surgery into the hall and its extension which served as a waiting room; the faint smell of naphthalene which arose from the Biedermeier furniture in the living room, the faint smell of cooking oil from the dining room through which we groped our way and where rye flour pancakes fried in a drop of sunflower oil, obtained goodness knows where, had been eaten; the fragrance of Soir de Paris which seeped through his wife’s door which stood ajar; the smell of the liquor store from the chink in the bathroom door, though this could have been mere imagination, since Uncle stored his several-liter stock of spirits in large flagons which stood in the bath which was half-filled with water as a precaution against fire and air raids; and then the comically coarse yet subtle whiff of tobacco from Uncle’s own room (for he had, for donkeys’ years, been smoking a weed grown by some patient or other and prepared with rose oil in his straight-stemmed pipe).

After Kross returned to Estonia, he realized that the only way he could survive was to write things that would not be closely examined for possible counter-revolutionary themes. So he became a historical novelist, carefully disguising his criticism of Soviet rule and calls for Estonian independence through characters and situations from hundreds of years earlier. Through this work and teaching, he was able to survive to see Estonia’s return to independence in 1991, and even to sit in its first Parliament and participate in writing the country’s new constitution. He died in 2007.

Four of Kross’ books, including his best-regarded novel, The Czar’s Madman, were translated into English, by Anselm Hollo and Eric Dickens, and published by Harvill in the mid-1990s, and a further novel featuring Peeter Mirk, Treading Air, was issued in 2003. Most of these are now out of print, but recently, Quercus Publishing began releasing an English translation of his most popular work in Estonia, a historical trilogy, Between Three Plagues, starting with the first volume, The Ropemaker.

In a piece for the Estonian Literary Magazine, Kross once wrote of the disadvantages and benefits of being a writer from a small, much-invaded country. Starting out as a writer at perhaps the worst time in his country’s history, he became “not only a writer of a small nation, but a writer who had lost his country.” When, after fifty years’ wait, he had the chance to reclaim his country, he was burdened

… with only the normal troubles of the literature of a small nation: linguistic isolation, the indifference with which the world mostly treats us and our helpless resignation in the face of it -instead of trying to fight it with every possible means within the limits of good taste. Most important of all is the sense of proportion: the amount of time for all sorts of meetings where these means are being discussed, should be reasonable. The rest of the time a writer should stay at home–the smaller the nation of the writer, the more he ought to stay at home, at his desk, writing truly remarkable books.

When Kross died in 2007, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves saluted him in a funeral service that was broadcast live on Estonian State Television: “He was one of those who kept fresh the spirits of the people and made us ready to take the opportunity of restoring Estonia’s independence.”

The Conspiracy can also be borrowed in electronic format from the Open Library: (Link).


The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross
London: Harvill Press, 1995

The Conspiracy

Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera (1988)

In “The Fall”, the first story in Virgilio Piñera’s collection, Cold Tales (Cuentos Frios), the leader of two mountaineers climbing a peak slips and falls. The fall pulls his partner down after him, and the two plummet, topsy-turvy, down the mountainside, colliding into rocky outcrops and losing limbs along the way. By the end, all that is left is the leader’s beard and his partner’s eyes: “But I couldn’t complain; my eyes landed safe and sound on the grassy plain and could see, a little ways off, the beautiful gray beard of my companion, shining in all its glory.”

Cold Tales is a collection of stories where things take place in this world we all know but happen in ways that defy all our common senses. This may be a reflection of Piñera’s own perspective, as his life was lived both in the midst of his world and always standing somewhat outside it. In his introduction to the collection, Guillermo Cabrera Infante writes that “Virgilio Piñera’s short stories are far from any received notion in literature, for they come from absolute alienation, where the shortest distance to hell is not through paradise but purgatory.”

In his native Cuba, Piñera is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century, but few of his works are currently in print in English translation. Born in Cárdenas in 1912, he began writing plays and poems in the 1930s and participating in Cuban politics and literary affairs. He was also homosexual, and the treatment of the Cuban government of people with his sexual and political inclinations led him to move to Buenos Aires as a voluntary exile. There he met the Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz, and helped him translate his novel, Ferdydurke. Piñera also became acquainted with other writers and Cuban exiles and began writing absurdist short stories, likely influenced by Gombrowicz and Borges and anticipating. Many of the stories in Cold Tales were written during this period.

In 1958, anticipating the success of Fidel Castro’s revolution, Piñera returned to Cuba, and was, at first, involved in the circle of political and literary personalities forming around the core of the new regime. His pieces appeared in some of the most widely-read periodicals. But while acceptance of his political views had changed, attitudes toward his sexuality had not. Castro’s government wanted to eliminate what they called “the three Ps”: “prostitutes”, “pimps” and “pájaro” (homosexuals in Cuban slang). Che Guevara himself once hurled one of Piñera’s books off a shelf in the Cuban embassy in Algiers, shouting, “How dare you have a book by this foul faggot!”

In October 1961, he was arrested and jailed for pederasty, after which it became a struggle to live and love freely. He got work as a journalist and translator, and a few of his plays were performed, but it was well known that he was in Castro’s disfavor. Ostracized by many who had known him, he became known as something of a literary ghost. Though it was difficult to get his work published, he continued writing, and when he died of a heart attack in 1979, eighteen boxes of unpublished material were recovered from his apartment.

His work did gain some attention outside Cuba, however, being published in France, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe. And in 1988, Eridanos Press, a small (and much-missed) U. S. publishing house backed by Bompiani, the literary arm of Italy’s leading publishing corporation, Fabbri, released Cold Tales, taken from Piñera’s Cuentos Frios, published in Buenos Aires in 1956, along with over twenty more written afterwards, in excellent translations by Mark Schafer. Two years later, Eridanos also published one of Piñera’s three novels, Rene’s Flesh. And, in 2012, he finally received some posthumous recognition from the Cuban government, which organized a conference and several events to recognize el Año Virgiliano in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Cold Tales has been, for me, the discovery of 2017 (so far). Unlike Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories, which suffer too much from taking place in the head and not the flesh, Piñera’s stories are both fantastic and palpably real. “These tales are cold because they limit themselves to the hard facts,” Piñera asserts in his Foreword.

You can see this in “Meat,” for example, in which people respond to a growing famine by cutting away and eating parts of their own bodies. “One distinguished physician predicted that a person weighing one hundred pounds (discounting viscera and the rest of the inedible organs) could eat meat for one hundred and forty days at the rate of half a pound a day.” One of the most obese men in town cannot control his hunger, however, and disappears in fifteen days: “After a while, no one could ever find him. Evidently, he was hiding….”

In “Swimming”, the narrator learns to swim on dry land–which, he admits, “has an agonized quality about it.” “… [A]t the same time one is dying, one is quite alive, quite alert, listening to the music that comes through the window and watching the worm crawl across the floor.” And there are benefits: “Once in a while I sink my hands into the marble tiles and offer them a tiny fish that I catch in the submarine depths.” In “The Mountain”, a man resolves to eat an entire mountain. He realizes that people will think him crazy, but takes comfort that, very gradually, “the mountain is losing mass and height.”

Some of Piñera’s stories are a mere paragraph long. Here, for example, is “Insomnia” in its entirety:

The man goes to bed early. He can’t fall asleep. He tosses and turns in bed, as might be expected. He gets tangled in the sheets. He lights a cigarette. He reads a little. He turns out the light again. But he can’t sleep. At three o’clock, he gets out of bed. He wakes his friend next door and confides that he can’t sleep. He asks the friend for advice. The friend advises him to take a short walk to tire himself out. And then, right away, to drink a cup of linden blossom tea and turn out the light. He does all that, but is unable to fall asleep. He gets up again. This time he goes to see a doctor. As usual, the doctor talks a lot but the man still doesn’t fall asleep. At six in the morning, he loads a revolver and blows his brains out. The man is dead, but hasn’t been able to get to sleep. Insomnia is a very persistent thing.

Cold Tales ends with perhaps Piñera’s last story, written in 1978, within a year of his death. In “The Death of the Birds”–just two pages long–the narrator reviews the different theories offered to explain why all the birds have died–epidemic, mass suicide, sudden thinning of the atmosphere, etc.. Many millions of birds lie strewn all over the earth and humanity is “filled with fright by the impossibility of discovering an explanation for such a monstrous fact.” But then, suddenly, they all come back to life and take flight.

Why? One can imagine a wise smile coming across Piñera’s as he wrote these closing lines:

The fiction of the writer, erasing the deed, returns them to life. And only with the death of literature will they fall again wretched onto the earth.

Cold Tales is now, sadly, out of print and used copies fetch over $30. But perhaps someone from David R. Godine, which bought Eridanos Press some years ago, will notice this piece and realize the simple step that can be taken to forestall the death of literature and keep the birds flying.


Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera, translated by Mark Schafer
Hygiene, Colorado: Eridanos Press, 1988

The Sex Without the Sentiment, by Thyra Samter Winslow (1957)

Cover of 'The Sex Without the Sentiment'When I reviewed Thyra Samter Wilson’s first short story collection, Picture Frames, I wrote that there was “No room for nostalgia in this tough cookie’s heart.” In the thirty-plus years that separated Picture Frames from her last collection, The Sex Without Sentiment, Winslow seems to have squeezed a little in. But as her title proclaims, it’s not much–a broom closet, maybe, as the subtitle, “Short Stories Written With Understanding But Without Sentiment” emphasizes.

If Balzac had been a woman living in Manhattan in the 1950s, he might have written The Sex Without Sentiment. Like Balzac, Winslow’s human comedy is closer to Greek tragedy than to anything with the remote chance of evoking a laugh. And to Balzac’s grim fascination with human failings Winslow adds a feminine perspective. Woman, as they appear in The Sex Without Sentiment, are abused, cheated on, gossiped about, kept down, and, most often, ignored.

Winslow’s stories reveal a female version of the same rat race run by the businessmen scurrying over the island of Manhattan each work day. In a few cases, they are fighting their way up the same corporate ladder, but in most, the competition is for the simple matter of being noticed. In “Fur Flies,” a beautician in an expensive Midtown salon offers a quick overview of the race’s most popular heats:

When a woman like that hits a spot like Emily Deane’s there are only a few reasons. A younger man has fallen for her, which is unlikely, unless she’s a rich widow. Or somebody’s left her a fortune, and that’s unlikely, too, unless she tells about it; folks always want to tell about a fortune. Or her husband has fallen in love with another woman and she wants to get him back—the routine reason. Or her children think she’s dowdy and put the pressure on her.

Even for someone as the low end of the social scale, such as “Sophie Jackson”, a maid looking for a job, the feminine rat race has its trickle down effects:

Looking back, there wasn’t so much difference between the best and the worst places. Lazy mistresses or worried mistresses. Generous ones or those who, through nature or necessity, kept her from getting enough to eat. You got up early and set the table and cooked breakfast. Breakfast got lighter every year, but there was always toast and coffee and fruit–and eggs most of the time. Even this meant dozens of steps and dishes.

And, after breakfast, the work started. Beds to be made. “Don’t forget to turn the mattress. You didn’t turn it yesterday.” Rooms to be cleaned. Silver to be polished. And one eye on the clock, so lunch wouldn’t be late. And maybe a couple of visits to the store, during the morning. “Why didn’t you tell me you needed eggs? I believe you like to run to the store!”

After lunch, more dishes and more cleaning. And children coming home from school. Vegetables to prepare. Dinner—and more dishes. And washing on Monday and ironing on Tuesday. “Don’t get Mr. Watkins’ collars so stiff. These are soft shirts, Sophie!” And one room cleaned thoroughly each week. And staying in nights, so the children wouldn’t be alone.

Nights off—every Thursday, if you were lucky, and every second Sunday. Going to the movies alone, unless you made friends with one of the girls working in the neighborhood. The mistresses didn’t want to be mean. Sophie knew that. But they were harassed too. Or were worried about money. Or had difficult husbands. Or wanted to be out of the house, away from the work, as much as they could be.

In the race for romance, the odds are against Winslow’s women. Marriages, when they do happen, are usually unhappy. Or the price of love means being the other woman. In “More Like Sisters,” Lela Robbins, having been bound to her widow mother as a companion for the whole of her prime, has learned to take quick stock of her occasional dates: “She’d never hear from him again, or from the other men who would appear briefly and seem to like her a little.”

So some woman look for proxies. Rita, one of the four career women in “Girls in Black”–“and all four of them liked to think of themselves as career women, instead of professional women or girls who ‘go to business’”–finds one by inviting her older sister to move to Manhattan from Ohio: “Why, with Millie here, she belonged to someone. They were a family, the two of them. A woman alone at night is a pitiful sight. A woman alone in a restaurant always looks out of place, forlorn. But two women–that’s different.”

In “A Lamb Chop for the Little Dog,” an elderly widow discovers that something as small as having a dog makes the difference between being treated as part of a community and being ignored: “Before she had Frisky it never occurred to Mrs. Taylor that she was practically invisible. She had worn dark, decent clothes and thought that people treated her very well. Now she saw, curiously enough, that no one noticed her. She went out on the street–and it was just as if she were not there!”

Ironically, Winslow sold her work primarily to women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Harpers Bazaar, Journal of Living, Todays Woman and Womans Day. Now, these are certainly stories of their time and not, for the most part, timeless classics. Perhaps The Sex Without Sentiment is more artifact than art, so it could be argued that, sixty years later, many women have found ways to avoid Winslow’s version of the rat race. Yet I could also point to Vivian Gornick’s recent Odd Woman in the City, which was discussed here at the end of last year, and suggest that there are still many effective ways to render older women living alone invisible.

The Sex Without Sentiment can be found for free in electronic formats on the Internet Archive: Link.


The Sex Without the Sentiment, by Thyra Samter Winslow
London and New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1957

Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding (1935; 1971; 1982)

Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories is something of a litmus test for readers. For some, it is a neglected masterpiece, a revolutionary work in the development of fiction, a book like no other. For others, it a book like no other … in its pretentiousness, its relentless interruptions to remind the reader that he/she is reading a piece of fiction, and its refusal, in many stories, to follow any conventional narrative pattern.

Riding first published Progress of Stories in 1935, when she was living with the poet Robert Graves on Majorca and running the Seizin Press. She had already made a name as a modernist poet in the U.S., divorced her first husband, had an affair with the poet Allen Tate, attempted suicide and broken up Graves’ first marriage–although she cut off sexual relations with Graves early in their time as a couple. If Riding comes across as a woman inclined to take things to extremes, that comes across in her fiction.

In the words of Graves’ nephew and biographer Richard Perceval Graves, “Her plenipotent intellect and personality swept away all resistance, reducing to discipleship, abject servility, or virtual madness anyone who could not manage to shake him/herself free from her mesmerizing, tyrannical influence. Her most subjective responses to experience were translated (by her as well as her followers) into world-historical imperatives and aesthetic universals, while her insight into the multiple layers of human personality enabled her to manipulate everyone around her intellectually, emotionally, and sexually.” (There is a striking resemblance between accounts of Riding by people who knew her–and her responses to them–and those of another litmus-like figure, Ayn Rand.)

I must confess defeat through exhaustion in dealing with Riding’s life and a good deal of her opinions. This is a woman who, in her eighties, could chastise Harry Mathews over four lengthy paragraphs for referring to her in a New York Review of Books article of the 1982 of Progress of Stories as “Laura” rather than “Laura (Riding) Jackson” (her preferred name after her 1941 marriage to critic Schuyler Jackson). She also made sure to note that “my work and myself” were subjects “which no professional literary man or woman can afford to disregard in his or her position-taking.” And I nearly surrendered before even reaching the stories in Progress of Stories thanks to 33 pages of prefaces (the one to the 1935 edition, followed by a second for the 1982 edition).

From the start, Riding draws a stark line between her work and those of virtually all her predecessors: “There is a quaint cult of story-writing which practises what is called ‘the short story’; pompous little fragments in whose very triviality, obscurity and shabbiness some significant principle of being is meant to be read.” Instead, it is time, she declares, that “we should be telling one another stories of ideas.” This is no earth-shaking assertion, but soon after it, Riding challenges the reader to digest the following sentence: “Thus the story-telling model of human speaking, or, as speaking recorded for silent apprehending is literarily named, ‘writing’, persists, in its natural casting of speaking or writing as reduplicating the live processes of happening, into the open areas of knowledge and understanding that all minds share as the world of intelligent being—partaking, in their unitary reality as minds, of the identity of mind.”

I balked for a moment, but plowed on (write me if you can explain what she meant). Or rather, detoured past the rest of the preface material and headed into the stories themselves. The book is organized in three major sections: the stories from the 1935 edition, followed by a selection of stories from Riding’s first two fiction collections, Anarchism is Not Enough (1928) and Experts Are Puzzled (1930). It concludes with “Christmastime,” a story she wrote in 1966 and her own reflections on some of the preceding stories.

The Progress of Stories section represents something of a journey out of conventional story-telling into the new territory Riding proposes to discover. The seven stories in Part One, “Stories of Lives”, a written in a very spare style but still somewhat represent other short stories one might be familiar with, although rather as if being viewed under a microscope like a specimen.

In Part Two, “Stories of Ideas,” however, Riding sets the reader down in wholly unfamiliar material. “Reality as Port Huntlady” opens with a simple, traditional narrative sentence: “Dan the Dog came to the town of Port Huntlady with two friends, Baby and Slick.” OK, no problem there. But then Riding tells us that, “Port Huntlady was not a town as other towns are towns. It was rather like a place where one felt a town might one day be, or where one felt that perhaps there had once been a town.” Port Huntlady, in other words, is not your usual seaside resort town. No, it is a town that–like the story itself–hovers between life in the real world and life in a world of ideas: “Port Huntlady was a place where things might happen; not the things that happened in the world proper, which were personal experiences, but universal experiences, such as the end of the world, or great turning-points in the course of human events.”

At the center of Port Huntlady affairs is Lady Port-Huntlady–herself an orphic figure who might well be a fictional counterpart for Riding herself: “Never seeming to say anything—and yet, after one had left her presence, it seemed that she had said a great deal, at least that one had understood a great many things that one did not really understand.” Indeed, a cynic might say the same thing after finishing Progress of Stories

But it doesn’t really matter what Lady Port-Huntlady might or might not say during her soirees, since, as Riding soon tells us, “We are all aware that there is no such place as Port Huntlady. It may well be that there is a place to which Port Huntlady stands as a lie stands to the truth. In fact, this is not far from being the case.” The inclusion of details is, for Riding, part of the attempt the story-teller to be believable, but this is ultimately equivalent to hypnotism: “this true-seeming is the power of the story to keep your interest until you have abandoned, quite frankly, those rational standards of interest with which we all prop up our chins when our thoughts scurry between brain and heart and we can do no better than be proud. It is the moral pretence of the story created by our joint vanity in being conscientious, orderly and truthful creatures—before we give ourselves up to its gentle idiocy….”

“But, indeed,” she asks further on, “is our story very important? Is any story very important? I assure you that no story is of much importance; and I think you will agree with me. Are we not all agreed that only a few things are really important?” Though she introduces other characters and engages them in various actions, she notes that these matters are both pointless and, therefore, infinite in their possibilities: “… how Lady Port-Huntlady would have consoled the cats by bringing down the remains of their lunch from the lounge; and how Miss Bookworth would have left Port Huntlady soon after to take up a post as secretary to a wealthy invalid whose hobby was corresponding with patients in tuberculosis sanatoria, in which he had spent much of his own life; and how a story may go on indefinitely unless there is perfect understanding at the start of the limitations that keep a story from being anything but a story….” In the end, she writes, driving a last stake through any pretense of honoring the “laws” of fiction, “no amount of ingenuity can save a story from seeming, in the end, just a story–just a piece of verbal luggage, belonging to anybody who cares to be bothered with it.”

In an interview, the poet Lisa Samuels, who edited the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Riding’s 1928 collection, Anarchism Is Not Enough, argued that Riding was challenging the very conceptual basis of fiction itself, rather like Brecht breaking the fourth wall between the play and its audience: “Her tone can be crisp in those stories, as you say; but her combinations of the fantastic, fairy tales, interrogating language as power, investigating what it means to draw and disassemble characters, challenging the reader to be aware of their desire for narrative and syntactic seduction, and so on, make for a situation, in my reading, of multiple possibilities (rather than precision) and messy genres (excess – I mean that in a good way).”

If you wanted to know whether or not you would get anything out of Progress of Stories, you could actually just go straight to “Reality as Port Huntlady” and draw your conclusions from that. For me, reading it was rather like the experience of looking at a Magic Eye picture, where you can feel your visual perception of the image switching back and forth between what seems like noise and then, a moment later, becomes coherent. It was both disorienting and, in a way, almost thrilling.

Continuing on in this manner for another two hundred-plus pages, however, was a like being trapped in a gallery with nothing on the walls except Magic Eye pictures. A little bit is an exciting novelty; dozens of these pictures, one following the other relentlessly, was mind-numbing. Reviewing the 1982 edition in New York magazine, Edith Milton concluded, “All this self-consciousness makes for quite difficult reading, and, despite their formal brilliance, the stories pall.”

On the other hand, Harry Mathews–himself a veteran challenger of the conventions of fiction–considered Riding’s venture among the most ambitious in 20th century literature: “Riding’s aim in writing this carefully structured series of stories was to make articulate in the experience of her readers a knowledge of life that is both true and nonconceptual. It was as if she wanted to make the mechanisms of language, usually so approximate and reductive, accurate enough in the effect of their working to initiate the reader willy-nilly into an awareness of what she felt to be the pure, unmediated truth.”

Unfortunately, Mathews managed to express himself better than Riding herself. For her entry in the 1955 edition of Twentieth Century Authors, she wrote: “We did not fully understand the character of the mental operation required for definitions of the kind we wished to make until we perceived that we must liberate our minds entirely from the confused associations of usage in which the meanings of words are entangled–and that, for us, the act of definition must involve a total reconstituting of words’ meanings. Much of our work has been done upon our minds, rather upon words directly: and we have proceeded very slowly, in consequence.” Indeed, “a total reconstituting of words’ meanings” could present a fairly insurmountable obstacle if one is trying to pursue writing as a career.

After seeing Progress of Stories mentioned as an undeservedly neglected book for decades, I was glad to finally have the chance to read it, but in the end, I was reminded of something a friend of mine once said when returning a book he’d borrowed: “It was good, but not that good.”


Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding
New York: Persea Books, 1982

The Backbone of the Herring, by Curtis Bok (1941)

Cover of first US edition of 'The backbone of the Herring'“It has been said that a judge is a member of the Bar who once knew a Governor,” Curtis Bok quips in the first story in his collection of judicial stories, The Backbone of the Herring. With this opening line, the reader immediately gets a sense of Bok’s easy-going humor and self-deprecation. Although John Lukacs once described Bok’s personality as “glacial”–which it may well have been in public–as a writer, channeled through his fictional identity as “Judge Ulen” in these stories, Bok comes across as the kind of judge you’d want to have hearing your case–whether as plaintiff or defendant: conscientious, empathetic, impartial, and capable taking or making a joke once in a while.

Lukacs’ assessment might stem from Bok’s position on the highest tier of Philadelphia society. His father, Edward Bok was editor of The Saturday Evening Post and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and his mother, Mary Louise Curtis, brought a fortune and her husband’s access to his editorship courtesy of her father, Cyrus Curtis, who founded the Post along with a half-dozen of the other leading American magazines of the time. She herself founded the Curtis Institute of Music, considered the toughest American conservatory to get into, and somewhat shocked Philadelphia when, a widow of 67, she married the violinist and bon vivant Efrem Zimbalist (Senior). And, not to stunt the family tree, Curtis’ son, Derek grew up to become president of Harvard.

On the other hand, for a son of the Main Line, Curtis showed a remarkable capacity for choosing his own path. After a tour in the Navy during World War One, he studied law at the University of Virginia and became a member of a prestigious Philadelphia firm. He won a place on the cover of Time magazine in 1933 when he turned down the chance to run the family publishing company and, instead, kept his low-paying job as an assistant district attorney. Despite his time in the military, he was a practicing Quaker and a lifelong opponent of the death penalty.

Time magazine cover from July 1933 featuring Curtis Bok
In 1937, he became President Judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the city’s primary civil and criminal court. Early on, he began keeping a notebook of his observations from the courtroom–not so much to aid in writing his opinions as to help shape his understanding of the nature of justice, and these developed into fictional sketches that he began publishing in The Shingle, the magazine of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1939. These stories are collected in The Backbone of the Herring

“These are not entirely autobiographical or fictitious, nor is Ulen,” Bok writes in his foreword. His point in recounting these stories was “that our system of justice, apart from Justice, which will remain undefined so far as I am concerned, can be made to work when applied with art and sympathy and a sly sense of humor.” Describing himself as a “mediocre lawyer with good connections,” Ulen took some time to overcome his timidity and found, somewhat to his surprise, that “when at last he had drifted to a point of rest he came rather abruptly into his full powers and began to use them with a delight.”

Although Ulen’s reflections on justice (“Justice has to do with the play of an enlightened personality within the boundaries of a system”) are a constant motif, the real interest of these stories is in Bok/Ulen’s observations of people. One defendant, a hulking laborer, is “the kind of man who puts his hands on his hips to think.” A large woman at the end of a difficult day collapses into a chair “like an exhausted avalanche.” A wife leaves her husband not because he beat her, cheated, or “was actively unkind: he simply lived as though he had been cored out and had nothing with which to respond.” Of another left man, Bok writes that, “No one thought to educate him in the art of getting on with his fellow man: this knowledge is supposed to grow on trees.”

His survey of human relations includes his own. When his friend, Henry Fielder, newly elected as Governor, offers him a post on the bench, the little dance Bok describes is something you often witness in male interactions:

Gosh, said Ulen to himself, this is serious. He was an introvert and Henry was an extrovert, and they were very shy of sentiment. The one feared a rebuff and the other was afraid of falling in a swamp. It was an impasse of language, for each of them was continually delighted by what the other did and bothered by what he said. Fielder called the thing he saw a spade. Ulen preferred to call it nothing, on the chance it might turn into something else of make a reasonable answer. The result was that when they were together they spent a great deal of time looking at their own feet and thinking what a wonderful fellow the other was in his own way.

On the other hand, Bok/Ulen is clearly operating in unfamiliar territory in those sketches where he ventures out of the courtroom, and positively lost when he tries to imagine what people do and say when he is not there. In “Artema’s Story,” about a failed romance that ultimately winds up on his docket, he expects the reader to believe that any woman would say the following to her lover: “We must lie greatly or not at all. To me this evening was a natural as walking in the city and suddenly seeing the hills. Maybe we stop being prisoners only when we don’t care whether the gates are open or shut. I may never know that with lucidity, but you will when the time comes.” Perhaps she was talking to Master Thespian. Fortunately, these potholes are few and easy to veer around.

Bok spent over twenty years in charge of the Court of Common Pleas, and wrote several well-regarded law texts, along with a few influential opinions. In his most famous, throwing out obscenity charges against a Philadelphia bookseller who was offering works by such smut-mongers as William Faulkner and James T. Farrell, he wrote that “It will be asked whether one would care to have one’s young daughter read these books.” The worst that might happen, in Bok’s view, was that “they will learn what is in the world and in its people, and no parents who have been discerning with their children need fear the outcome. Nor can they hold it back, for life is a series of little battles and minor issues, and the burden of choice is on us all, every day, young and old.”

He also wrote a sequel to The Backbone of the Herring, I, Too, Nicodemus (1946), which collected further “judicial adventures” of Judge Ulen. He also wrote two novels: Star Wormwood (1959), written as an illustration of the moral harm of the death penalty, and Maria (1962), a romance set on his beloved coast of Maine and published posthumously. Bok was appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1958 and served there until his death in 1962.

The title of The Backbone of the Herring, by the way, comes from a judicial oath used on the Isle of Man centuries ago: “You swear to do justice between cause and cause as equally as the backbone of the herring doth lie midmost of the fish.” The dust jacket design is by renowned graphic designer W. A. Dwiggins, who provided Knopf with some of its best covers of the 1930s and 1940s.


The Backbone of the Herring, by Curtis Bok,br>
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941

Many Are Called: Forty-Two Short Stories, by Edward Newhouse (1951)

Cover of 'Many Are Called'For a dozen years or so, starting in the late 1930s, Edward Newhouse was one of The New Yorker’s most prolific fiction writers, working with editor Gus Lobrano in an impressive stable that included John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, and Jerome Weidman. Granville Hicks rated Newhouse “high in the ranks of contemporary short-story writers,” and a Publisher’s Weekly once wrote that, “If I were to receive in the same mail new books by the dozen best writers of fiction in America, Edward Newhouse’s would be the first I’d read.” But hardly anyone has heard of Newhouse for the simple reason that he stopped writing.

Between 1934 and 1954, Newhouse published seven books–four novels and three short story collections. Then nothing, then a few stories in The New Yorker’s in 1957, then nothing more aside from a short autobiographical piece, “Hungarians,” published in The New Yorker’s in 1965. Unlike the magazine’s legendary Joseph Mitchell, who came to work for decades without producing a single article, however, the issue in Newhouse’s case wasn’t writer’s block. He simply didn’t need the work.

Born Ede Ujhazi in Budapest in 1911, Newhouse emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1923. His father, an unemployed actor (who named his son after a famous 19th century Hungarian actor), was simply desperate to find work. Thrown into the New York City public school system without a word of English, Newhouse weathered a fair number of schoolyard fights until he established his street smarts. After a short attempt at City College, he spent the better part of a year riding the rails around the country and looking for work. In the end, he came back to New York and got a job covering sports for the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, and wrote a novel, You Can’t Sleep Here (1934), based on his time as a hobo. He went on to join the staff of The New Masses, an experience he later satirized in his third novel, The Hollow of the Wave (1949).

Edward Newhouse
Edward Newhouse
He had already published a second novel,
This is Your Day (1937), before placing his first story with The New Yorker in 1939, and his first collection of stories,
Anything Can Happen, appeared soon afterward in 1941. Around this time, he met and married Dorothy DeLay, a classical violinist, and became friends with another rising star at The New Yorker, John Cheever. Cheever later said that he and Newhouse shared “an inability to draw the parts of [their] lives together.”

Joining the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor, Newhouse was selected to attend Officer Candidate School and quickly found his niche as a public relations man for the service. He finished up as a lieutenant colonel, writing speeches and reports for General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, the Army Air Corps commander and working in the same Pentagon office as James Gould Cozzens, whose diary of the experience was later published as A Time of War. Newhouse went straight back to work for The New Yorker right after separating from the Army. He published a third collection, of short stories dealing with childhood, The Iron Chain, in 1946.

Many are Called (1951) was his last collection. Thirty-nine of the stories in the book were from The New Yorker. The stories are arranged thematically. The three shortest and least interesting sections gather stories based on characters gathered around a bar (“At Jake’s”), a candy-and-cigar store (“A George’s”), and from Newhouse’s time as a hobo (“En Route”). These are more sketches than complete stories, and none rises above the level of an imitation Ring Lardner.

The book opens with “In Edgerton,” six stories set in a fictional town north of New York City, and with one of the best stories in the whole book, “My Brother’s Second Funeral.” In it, the narrator reflects on the attitudes of his home town to the burial of his brother, a war hero killed in Italy now with the local chapter of the American Legion named after him. Barely ten pages long, it somehow manages to capture so much about the ways in which American men attempt–sincerely, pretentiously, ineffectually–with life. “He was my friend, and I’ll never have another one like him,” the narrator observes. “Grown men can’t make friends, not really, not like boys. That piece of steel at Salerno killed the only man that ever knew what I was all about.”

The stories in “Waiting” could easily remind readers of Newhouse’s friend Cheever. Set in and around New York City, they are all about people poised on the edge of a transition. A man takes a bus tour of Manhattan on his last day before entering the Army. A man tries to contain his thoughts and emotions after quitting his job. A woman whose husband is serving in the Pacific decides to move back into the city after an awkward time living in suburban Westchester. In each, Newhouse displays what short story expert William Peden called “his own special kind of genius for the usual.”

The best pieces in the book, however, can be found in “The Captains Depart,” which collects stories clearly drawn from Newhouse’s own experiences on active duty. Though he spent most of his time in the Army Air Corps in the relatively comfortable position of a speechwriter and press liaison, Newhouse did accompany senior officers on numerous trips overseas, saw many different aspects of life in the Air Corps, and seems to have flown as an observer on a least a couple of combat missions.

This variety of contacts is reflected in the ten stories in “The Captains Depart.” Some are set stateside, where the safety and petty concerns of base life can still be unexpectedly disrupted by a telegram from North Africa or an accident that scatters parts of an aircraft and its crew over half of a farm. Others are scattered all over the map, from a fighter base in England to a transport field in Nigeria. “The Four Freedoms” takes place one evening in Cairo, with part of the entourage of generals and staff returning with Roosevelt from the Teheran Conference. At one point, Newhouse’s fictional counterpart, Captain Wyatt, considers the situation of the Air Corps general he works for:

The General will be descending the great staircase soon, Wyatt thought, in full consciousness of his role as the most important man in a room filled with rank. He will slap his current favorite, the new young General Jack Crane, on the shoulder, and he will play wicked uncle to April Starr and Gail Fiske. If he likes the comedian and the juggler, he will ask them if they have any relatives in the Air Forces or what they thought of the food at some A.T.C. base. With the juggler and the comedian, he’ll be Harun-al-Rashid, incognito on the streets of Baghdad, sounding out public opinion. He might confound them by asking how long they thought the war would last and why.

Like most, though by no means all, other soldiers, the General was obsessed by that question.He’ll never again attain a fraction of the power he wields. A coal miner’s son and still drawing only moderate pay, the chief was living as only the wealthiest men in the history of the world had lived. In England he had stopped at the greatest of feudal castles, elsewhere in a series of royal suites, and here among such Byzantine splendors as gold cups on the table and zippers on the mosquito net. He had at his disposal any means of transport or communication known to man. Presents and honors came to him from everywhere. And large formations of bombers went on critical missions, at tree-top
level, against targets selected by him.

Newhouse may be the only American writer of fiction to take in the global scope of the war, as well as its industrial capacity and efficiency for destruction. At the same time, however, he never loses sight of the fact that this destruction also operates as a very human scale. In “Irving,” Wyatt recalls an earnest young Jewish kid from New York who worked as a speechwriter in the Pentagon. Irving had worked himself up from being a towel boy in a Turkish bath to second lieutenant’s bars by virtue of a series of cheap mysteries featuring a Boston Brahmin detective named Sedgwick Cabot “equally at home in an opium den off the Embarcadero, at a coming-out party in the Pierre, down in a bathysphere, or aloft at the controls of a PBY.” Eager to experience combat, Irving wheedles his way into being sent to the Philippines to accompany a minor party of reporters. He talks his way onto a B-25 on a bombing mission over Formosa and is promptly killed, along with the aircraft’s whole crew. Wyatt and another speechwriter retire to a bar when the news arrives. “We covered the whole subject of Irving in some detail. All we left out was that he had been the only child of two very old people who lived behind a tailor shop.” As Granville Hicks wrote in his review of Many are Called, “These stories, with their wonderful combination of sensibility and intelligence, belong with the best writing the war has produced.”

Newhouse published less than a dozen stories after Many are Called. His last novel, The Temptation of Roger Heriott (1954), was well-received, but marked his last serious attempt at fiction. In the view of Cheever and others, Newhouse’s primary reason was simply money. He’d sold several stories to Hollywood studios and made good investments with the proceeds. By the late 1940s, Dorothy DeLay had moved from performing to working as a member of the faculty at Julliard and earned a respectable income. He took on the role of supporting spouse, and helped many of his wife’s students–who included such luminaries as Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg–with grant applications and business decisions. Few of them were aware that their teacher’s husband had had a successful career as a writer, and some even assumed he was somehow attached to the faculty. Newhouse stayed friends with Cheever, lunching with him regularly (although Blake Bailey reports in Cheever: A Life that he came to think of Newhouse as a bore). Dorothy kept on teaching at Juilliard up to her death in March 2002; Newhouse followed his wife just eight months later.

Many are Called is also available on the Internet Archive: link.


Many Are Called, by Edward Newhouse
New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951

Powers of the Weak, by Elizabeth Janeway (1980)

Cover of Powers of the WeakI’ve written about many good books on this site over the years, but this may be the most important one, particularly now.

Even when it was first published in 1980, Elizabeth Janeways’s Powers of the Weak was labelled as a feminist tract and fairly quickly dismissed and forgotten. Which was an apt demonstration of the very phenomenon noted in the quote from Victor Turner’s Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture from which Janeway took her title and which she prefaces her book:

INFERIORITY: A value-bearing category that refers to the powers of the weak, countervailing against structural power, fostering continuity, creating the sentiment of the wholeness of the total community, positing the model of an undifferentiated whole whose units are whole human beings. The powers of the weak are often assigned in hierarchic and stratified societies to females, the poor, autochthons [indigenous peoples], and outcasts.

Ironically, Powers of the Weak is actually an intensely empowering book that should inspire hope in anyone who is feeling desparate, hopeless, and voiceless.

“My aim is to understand power,” Janeway writes in her opening chapter, “that ambiguous, menacing, much-desired quality whose accepted definition seems to me unsatisfactory.” Indeed, she immediately rejects the premise that power is a quality or a property and instead defines it as “a process of human interaction”–a dynamic process that only exists in the context of a relationship. In this way, it’s analogous to potential in electricity, mechanics, or gravity–the tension created between two opposing charges, forces, or masses.

And because of this view, Janeway holds the weak accountable for their part in relationships with the power. “[W]hen the weak habitually turn their backs on power because they accept the stereotypes that undervalue them, they permit their rulers to define proper processes of governing according to the experience of the rulers alone, so that it comes to seem that only one ‘right way’ to handle power exists.”

Even in the extreme conditions of a totalitarian state. As natural “as fear must be when the weak face unbridled oppression from the state, this fear is intended. It has a political purpose–to interfere with the normal functioning of the human beings who make up the mass of the governed”–to “separate them, and sick each one in isolation and paralysis.” She cites as evidence Charlotte Beradt’s remarkable survey of the dreams recounted by ordinary Germans living under the Nazi regime, The Third Reich of Dreams: “What she found was a kind of mental lockjaw. Anxiety dreams were everywhere. In them the dreamer was invited again and again to take some action in the face of danger and could not manage to do so; did not dare to move a finger.”

Elizabeth Janeway, 1980
In response, Janeway rallies the weak to hold onto what she calls “the first and last power of the weak”: skepticism, mistrust, and dissent. “If, in the face of repression, the governed can still hold to mistrust, they will not, of course be safe; but they will preserve the inner citadel of the self and with it the capacity of judging the exterior world in terms of their own interests.” Dissent, she writes, “is the intellectual steel which strengthens the self in the face of the tyrant’s weapon of induced panic.”

This suspicion should even extend to whatever bright alternate futures might be held up to excite the action and loyalty of the weak. “I have never, myself, read a Utopia that seemed to approach even distantly the size and the vitality of the human world. The past was full of surprises; the present is astonishing (as well as frightening): who knows what the future may be?”

In fact, though Janeway holds those who consider themselves weak, oppressed, or alienated accountable for taking charge of their own lives, she would reserve some skepticism for any political construct that might be devised. In a line that ought to be engraved and put up on the wall above any thinking person’s desk, she cautions that “There is always more more reality around than we allow for; and there are always more ways to structure it than we use.”

If you’re one of those who’ve felt depressed, disenchanted, or disgusted since November 8, I highly recommend getting a copy of Powers of the Weak and let her reinvigorate your power to dissent: “The basic trust of reality that we learned in our first creative conquest of the world is our defense against the magic image of a new system presented by the tyrants.”


Powers of the Weak, by Elizabeth Janeway
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980

G. B. Stern’s Infinite Autobiographies

G. B. Stern, from the dust jacket of 'Benefits Forgot'“Gladys Bronwyn Stern, or G. B. Stern (17 June 1890 – 20 September 1973), born Gladys Bertha Stern in London, England, wrote many novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, biographies and literary criticism,” states the opening sentence of G. B. Stern’s Wikipedia entry. Many as in over fifty, or roughly one a year starting in 1914.

She was never, apparently, at a loss for words.

One way she managed such an impressive rate of production was that she dictated most of her books while laying on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling. “If I wrote them myself, I know I should always be stopping to draw patterns,” she told an interviewer once. Another was that she was perhaps more open to the potential of detours than any other writer. Wherever her thoughts might wander in the course of her dictation, she was more than willing to follow:

A straight line, so I have been taught, is the shortest way between two given points. This book [Monogram, her first volume of autobiography] will probably prove to be the longest possible way between three given points: objects picked up at random from my own sitting-room; from the rubbish heap of a garden in the South of France; from anywhere. A straight line cannot enclose anything; but if you join three points, you have a triangle, and something exciting may or may not be discovered, afterwards, enclosed inside a triangle, wherever and however you happen to draw it.

So Stern was a born non-linear thinker, and her reader should not be surprised when her thoughts not only lead off the beaten path but often cross the lines between one genre and another. Her temperament was well-matched with the imaginative absurdity of the snippet of Marx Brothers dialogue that serves as the epigraph to Monogram:

Groucho: “It’s my opinion that the missing picture is hidden in the house next door.”

Chico: “But there isn’t a house next door.”

Groucho: “Then we’ll build one!”

When her publishers, Chapman and Hall, approached Stern with the idea of writing an autobiography, she chose to interpret the label liberally: “So let us try, for a change, to put our words into thoughts. Surely this should be what they call autobiography?,” she asked.

Inspired by the example of Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, she determined to follow his example, in which “everything is linked to everything else.” This worked for Stern, for as she saw it,

There is hardly an object, however recently acquired, however sharply free from cobwebs and memories, that would not start an association with some incident, some person, that would lead on to another and another; honestly allowing the line of the pattern to take whatever twists and curves and backward looks, angles and zigzags and convolutions it wills; honestly; not forcing it in this direction nor in that, simply because this or that direction might make the prettier or the more rhythmical pattern.

So Stern seizes upon a little blue and white glass dragon figurine on her mantelpiece, and off she goes. In the space of the next ten pages, she leads us to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, to the fact that she had named characters Maitland in four different books but had never known anyone with that name, to a memory of associating the word “Hydrant” with magical powers until her Nannie explained what one was, to a recollection of a chalet in the Tyrols, to an account of attending the first performance of R. C. Sherriff’s war play, Journey’s End, in Berlin in the early 1920s.

And on the book rolls, taking countless twists and turns and diversions, until ending 300 pages later with a joke about Einstein’s wife. And on Stern would roll, through a further eight volumes over the course of the next twenty-four years. Although several conformed a little more closely to a pre-set structure (And Did He Stop and Speak to You? (1957) was a collection of sketches of famous people she had known, such as Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm, All in Good Time (1954) and The Way It Worked Out (1956) were about her conversion to Catholicism), none fully restrained her from wandering off-topic when her curiosity took over.

It’s no surprise, then, that some critics couldn’t stand this approach. Reviewing Trumpet Voluntary (1944), Albert Jay Nock wrote that Stern “… presents uninteresting personages doing most uninteresting things in extremely uninteresting circumstances. Its narrative is desultory, garrulous, inconsequential.” (Another critic wrote that Stern was “occasionally inconsequential but never trivial”).

Most reviewers struggled to capture the unique nature of these books. One called Another Part of the Forest (1941) “a desultory, enticing, and ingenious volume of recollection, comment, reverie, and imagination.” Another labeled Trumpet Voluntary “a Commonplace Book, into which the author throws quotations, favorite and otherwise, opinions on books, on authors, everyday happenings–in short, everything that comes into her head at the moment.” A third wrote that “for those who love them,” each of Stern’s autobiographies was “a river of a book, now in flood, very rarely reduced to a trickle, but with occasional excursions into idle, tree-protected pools.” In its starred review of Monogram, Kirkus Reviews provided a good description that could any of the nine books:

There is no beginning, no end; no background of birth and parentage; no chronology of events; no category of friends and acquaintances. Instead, at the end, you have a rich tapestry of a full life, a life savored, shared, enjoyed to the utmost. You pick up facts, and weave them into the pattern, with no illusion of importance as to where and when they belong. You meet as intimates — or as passing acquaintances–the people that enliven today’s literary world, artistic world, theatrical world. There is humor–and poetry–and appreciation–and keen commentary on the passing scene–and it’s grand reading from first page to last.

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Looking across the full set, from Monogram (1936) to One is Only Human (1960), a gradual trend toward more serious, deep-rooted thoughts can be seen. Monogram is almost effervescent, still retaining the high spirits and optimism of Stern’s first great successes as a novelist, playwright, and celebrity in the 1920s. Another Part of the Forest (1941) is full of enthusiasm for Merry Olde England (and crazy new America) but mentions of mobilization, bomb shelters, and the fact that her beloved France was cut off and under occupation remind the reader that Stern was writing in wartime. the war becomes even more prominent in Trumpet Voluntary (1944), which opens with a reflection on the destruction of her flat in London:

I used to wish that something would happen, something quite harmless, naturally, to remove the Military Tailors [a shop across the road from her flat] and leave me with a wider view. How I used to wish it! … I need not even have seen it happen; one morning, pulling aside the curtains, the building opposite would not be there, and I should have my unremorseful view.

… And then one morning, the morning of October 15, 1940, to be exact, the Military Tailors drew aside their curtains, and my rooms were not there, and instead, they had a heavenly outlook; at least, they would have when the rubbish and ash and bits of gutted wall had been cleared away. It was almost the same thing, you see; the Green Djinn had got it as nearly right as could be expected from Djinns, only it had not struck me, and I am afraid did not strike me till two years later and on this afternoon of November, 1942, that the Military Tailors might also have been doing a bit of intensive wishing, and that they were better at it than myself.

In Benefits Forgot (1949), the memories of war are still fresh. Stern comes across letters written her by American and British soldiers and learns that the R.A.F. pilot who wrote her in praise of Trumpet Voluntary died while on a raid the day after he posted his letter.
All in Good Time (1954), The Way It Worked Out (1956), and, to a large extent, One is Only Human (1960), all deal with spiritual matters, tracing Stern’s long journey from being raised as a secular Jew to embracing Catholicism in her late fifties.

Throughout all the books and all their many changes of subject, one thing remains constant: Stern’s unwavering good humor. Even Albert Nock admitted that, “Chatterbox as Mrs. Stern is, commonplace as her people and their doings are, she brings them before you pervaded with the warmth and glow of an inexhaustible affection.” If her spirit of whimsy and stream-of-consciousness narrative logic can, at times, become a wee bit tiresome, Stern’s fundamental generosity and gently self-mocking tone almost always provides a restorative effect.

I have to confess that while I’ve never managed to read any of them from beginning to end, I have kept one or more of Stern’s books in my nightstand for most of the last two years and probably always will. Dip into any page of any of these books, and I guarantee that within a page or two you will have read something interesting, something amusing … and probably switched subjects at least twice along the way. Someone could probably assemble a terrific book of about 400-500 pages with the best excerpts from the lot, but I suspect it might come off a bit like a fruitcake without the cake. Till then, I highly recommend picking up any one of them (many copies are going for as little as $1.00 plus shipping) and diving in.

G. B. Stern’s “Autobiographies”


Monogram (1936)

Another Part of the Forest (1941)

Trumpet Voluntary (1944)

Benefits Forgot (1949)

A Name to Conjure With (1953)

All in Good Time (1954)

The Way It Worked Out (1956)

And Did He Stop and Speak to You? (1957)

One is Only Human (1960)

Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan – A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer (1980)

journey_around_my_room_boganLouise Bogan didn’t write her autobiography. Or rather, she didn’t write this book. Always an intensely private person, she rarely risked putting details about her life in print, preferring to confide in her own diaries and journals and, occasionally, in letters to a few friends. “The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself,” she once wrote. “Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.”

Journey Around My Room was assembled some years after Bogan’s death in 1970 by her literary executor, Ruth Limmer, a professor of English at Goucher College, after the idea was suggested by Amanda Vaill, then an editor at Viking. Limmer framed the work in rough chronological order, using text from a story Bogan published in The New Yorker in 1933 titled “Journey Around My Room” as introduction, close, and chapter prefaces. She also used the lines from one of Bogan’s poems, “Train Tune” (“Back through clouds/Back through clearing/Back through distance/Back through silence…”) as chapter titles. Finally, she pulled from the mass of papers Bogan left extracts from journals, notebooks, poems, letters, short stories, scraps of paper, essays, even recorded conversations hundreds of fragments, the tesserae from which she assembled this mosaic.

The rough and vulgar facts are not there. Without the outline of Bogan’s life that Limmer provides in her autobiography, the reader would not know when she was born, that she was briefly married, to a soldier with whom she had almost nothing in common, that she had a daughter and then left him, that she had a second marriage, to writer Raymond Holden, that also ended, that she had an affair with Theodore Roethke and an infatuation with Edmund Wilson, that she served as Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, that she was hospitalized several times for depression, that she spent much of her later life living alone in what she called the faubourg of Washington Heights. Bogan explained her reticence as an attempt to make sure that future researchers into her life would have to work for their pay, but the truth was simpler: her solitude was essential to both her work and her survival.

William Jay Smith, one of her few close friends, with whom she collaborated on a collection of poems for children, wrote after her death that when he used to call her up to meet for lunch, Bogan would always decline, saying she had a dentist appointment. He eventually figured out that no one could need so much dental work. As Limmer puts it, “She came first.” She once wrote, in response to a questionnaire she set for herself, that her wish was “To live without apology.” She had no desire to confess her sins and no interest in trumpeting her virtues. “The fact of the matter,” Limmer writes, “is that Bogan was far more absorbed by the texture and meaning of experience than with the events giving rise to them.”

Bogan’s childhood experiences clearly did much to shape her sensibility and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Her father was a reticent man who held a series of jobs in small mill towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, moving the family every few years. Her mother was the catalyst of the explosions and scandals that led the family to pull up stakes. “The secret family angers and secret disruptions passed over my head,” Bogan writes, but she does remember one scene: “The curved lid of the trunk is thrown back, and my mother is bending over the trunk, and packing things into it. She is crying and she screams. My father, somewhere in the shadows, groans as though he has been hurt. It is a scene of the utmost terror.”

From Elizabeth Frank’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Louise Bogan: A Portrait (1986), one can learn that Bogan’s mother saw herself as a great beauty and pursued men she met in the hotels and boardinghouses in which the family often stayed. She was victim to “her own vanity’s desire for praise and love.” She left her husband on at least one occasion and always considered him unworthy of her. As she grew older, her pursuits more and more ended in frustration. A certain level of resentment and impending chaos simmered throughout Bogan’s childhood. “I had no idea of ordered living.” No wonder she remembers such affection for the home in which her friend Ethel Gardner lived. “I can only express my delight and happiness with the Gardners’ way of living by saying that they had one of everything.”

Eventually Bogan’s mother surrendered her hopes of romantic escape and the family settled in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Boston. Revisiting the area as an adult, Bogan found the sense of failure overwhelming: “I felt the consuming, destroying, deforming passage of time; and the spectacle of my family’s complete helplessness, in the face of their difficulties, swept over me.” Yet she also recognizes that “The thing to remember, and ‘dwell on,’ is the extraordinary courage manifested by those two disparate, unawakened (if not actually lost) souls: my mother and father.” What little money they had paid for music lessons for Louise and her brother, for occasional theater tickets, for tram fares to the Girl’s Latin School, from which Louise graduated in 1915. And they survived “in this purgatory — with an open hell in close relation.”

Again, for what happened next we have to turn to Limmer’s introduction or Frank’s biography. Bogan attended Boston University for year and was offered a scholarship to Radcliffe. She had begun to attract some attention for her writing, getting a number of poems published as a freshman. She chose instead to marry an Army corporal named Curtis Alexander and followed him when he was assigned to a post in the Panama Canal Zone. She found the life unendurable. “All we had in common was sex. Nothing to talk about. We played cards.” She took her baby, Maidie, back to Boston in May 1918. A few months later, the family was notified that Bogan’s brother Charles had been killed in a battle in the Haumont Woods in France. The news devastated Bogan’s mother, leaving her emotionally shattered for the rest of her life. About a year later, Alexander died.

Bogan took the meager widow’s pension from the Army and used the money to pay for a trip to Europe. She spent a year in Vienna studying piano, reading Tolstoy, Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, and writing. Then she returned to the U. S., settling in New York City, where her first collection of poems, Body of This Death (1923), was published. Her portrait appeared, along with those of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, and Genevieve Taggard in a Vanity Fair article, “Distinguished American Women Poets Who Have Made the Lyric Verse Written by Women in America More Interesting Than That of the Men.”

She began a relationship with Raymond Holden and they married in 1925. She was invited for a stay at the Yaddo Colony and published her second collection, Dark Summer (1929). On Boxing Day 1929, the house she and Holden were living in burned down, taking with it almost all of her first ten years’ work. Her relationship with Holden was troubled by her jealousy and their mutual heavy drinking, and she entered a sanitarium, complaining of depression and exhaustion. There would be more such stays in the next thirty years. She took advantage of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1933 to return to Europe, this time spending the spring and summer in Italy and France.

She separated from Holden in 1934, began her affair with Roethke in 1935, and lived by writing reviews and stories for The New Yorker and other magazines. These stories, which can be found in Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (2005), edited by Mary Kinzie, were impressionistic but clearly autobiographical, and Bogan discussed the possibility of building a novel, to be titled Laura Daly’s Story, with an editor at Scribner’s. Limmer incorporates passages from several of the stories into Journey Around My Room.

Louise Bogan in the 1950sBy the end of the 1930s, Bogan had divorced Holden, taken up residence in the apartment in Morningside Heights that she maintained to the end of her life, and become the regular poetry editor for The New Yorker. Over the next three decades, she continued to write, if more slowly as time wore on, and kept up a steady round of engagements as a lecturer and visiting professor at colleges around the U. S.. She published three more collections, one per decade: Poems and New Poems (1941), Collected Poems, 1923-1953 (1954) and The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (1968).

Unlike many of her peers, she avoided involvement with social causes, and one would have little idea what was going on in the outside world, as well as her own life, from reading Journey Around My Room. “What is staler than old politics?” she once wrote. “It is like walking over old furnace cinders to read what once was news of political chicanery or change.” Her foremost concern was her own work. “Saw my real, half-withered, silly face in a shop mirror on the street, under the bald light of an evening shower, and shuddered. The woman who died without producing an oeuvre. The woman who ran away.”

Bogan felt her talent doomed her to insignificance.”‘My time will come,’ you say to yourself, but how can you know whether or not your time has not already come and gone?”:

Perhaps it has been spent, all spent, squandered out, in taking streetcars, drinking gin, smoking cigarettes — in connubial love, in thousands of books devoured by the eye, in eating sewing, in suspicions, tears, jealousy, hatred, and fear. Perhaps it is now, on a dark day in October, in the bedroom where you sit with emptiness in your body and heart; beside the small fire, drying your hair — older, more tired, desperately silent, unhappily alone, with faith and daydreams (perhaps luckily) broken and disappearing, with the dreadful pain in your shoulder which presages dissolution, infection, and age.

This is not to suggest that she faded away in lonely isolation. While Journey Around My Room shows us a woman who spent a great deal of time exploring the deeper currents of her spirit, an hour reading her letters, particularly those from the Forties on, in What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters makes it clear that she never lost touch with what was going on around her. She read copiously and was quick to recommend books to her friends. She went to plays and kept up with the movies, taking delight in Jules and Jim and other films that hit the New York art houses in the Fifties and Sixties. She loved an occasional indulgent dip into gossip and could toss out razor-sharp barbs when in the mood.

But she also struggled increasingly with depression and was frustrated by the necessity for — and the effects — of the the drugs she took to cope with it. “This morning I thought that the 1st pill was going to see me through; a clear, untroubled interval would show up (take over) every so often…. But soon that secondary sort of yearning hunger (which is not real hunger, but is in some way attached to the drug) began again.” She found less and less energy to write. “Any true writing … will have to be done in the afternoon.” The unpublished poems Limmer includes in the last chapter, “Back through the midnight,” however, reveal that Bogan maintained some amount of hope that this, too, would pass:

The Castle of My Heart

Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I lived for long with little joy.
For Falsest Danger, with its counterpart
Sorrow, has made this siege its long employ.

Now lift the siege, for in your bravest part
Full power exists, most eager for employ;
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I have lived for long with little joy.

Do not let Peril play its lordly part;
Show up the bad game’s bait, and its employ.
Nor, for a moment, strut as future’s toy.
Advanced, and guard your honor and my art.

Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart.

Six months before her death, she wrote her long-time New Yorker editor, William Maxwell:

The struggle with silence still goes on. —But I plan some secretarial help, after the holiday. If this doesn’t help, I’ll have another conference with you; and plan some strategy. Surely I can outwit this thing! I don’t want to give up just yet.

Louise Bogan died in her apartment, in the early hours of February 1970, of a heart attack.

“Whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remark (journalism), must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry of the cahier,” she once complained. Yet the scraps she left and the mosaic that Limmer assembled from them are breathtaking in its power, truth, and beauty. Journey Around My Room has not left my nightstand since I first read it over 18 months ago. I have discovered and written about many good books over the course of the past ten years, but I am conservative in the use of words like “great” and “masterpiece.” Journey Around My Room is a masterpiece, one of the truly great American autobiographies. Every time I open it I find something stunning in its honesty and insight.


Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan – A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer
New York: The Viking Press, 1980

The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, by Helene Mullins (1970)

nb_0623On the few times I get to spend in a used bookstore, I find myself increasingly depressed at how often I can tell in a glance that there’ll be little chance of finding something I haven’t seen before. Which is, obviously, something of a natural consequence of running this site for over ten years. When this happens, I give it one last shot by heading for the poetry section.

If they have one. If they don’t, it’s time to abandon all hope.

If they do, there is a better chance of finding something hitherto unknown because by God there are a lot of skinny books of poetry that have been published over the last hundred-some years. A lot of it is pretty forgettable, as a growing stack of skinny books of poetry in my “To Donate” box attests. But there’s a good share that was doomed to neglect simply because it’s from too small a press, doesn’t include anything that got pulled into an anthology, or has some hideous design or amateur artwork that screams “Stay Away!” to all but worshippers of one of the poetic muses.

Or, as in the case of Helene Mullins’ collection, The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969 (1970), so boring that it could easily be mistaken for a review draft. Except the one I found earlier this year was in immaculate shape, protected in Brodart, included an inscription by the author (“To Bob Adams with good wishes”), and sold for just $4. The Mirrored Walls came from a moderately well recognized publisher (Twayne) and included blurbs from John Hall Wheelock, Louis Untermeyer, and A. M. Sullivan, so it indicated that Mullins had made it under the mid-20th-century American poetry Big Top, if not quite into the center ring.

So who was Helene Mullins? Of the few online sources, the short bio sketch on the Yale Library page devoted to her papers (and those of her sister Marie McCall, who published a few novels) offers the most information. Born in New York City in 1899, she spent most of her life in the city. Married twice, began publishing poems in the early 1920s, including regular appearances in FPA’s (Franklin Pierce Adams) “Conning Tower” column in The New York World newspaper. Along with poetry, she wrote two novels early in her career — Paulus Fry: The History of an Esthete (1924), a quirky, elegant little jeux d’esprit in the vein of Carl Van Vechten and James Branch Cabell (“a flutterby-butterfly book,” one review called it), co-authored with her sister; and Convent Girl (1929). Convent Girl was an apparently autobiographical account of a girl’s life in a city convent boarding school for three years that was praised for its “clearness of vision” and “calm, well balanced prose, free of all flamboyant sentimentality and flashy brittleness, written frankly, and undoubtedly without prejudice.” She published four collections of poetry: Earthbound and Other Poems (1929); Balm in Gilead (1930); Streams from the Source (1938); and The Mirrored Walls. Married twice, she was seriously injured in an automobile accident in 1935. She spent several weeks in a coma and it took her several years to recover. She lent her support to a number of liberal, human rights, and peace causes over the years, and died in 1991.

Mullins was one of the younger women poets to come to notice in the 1920s, when Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie reigned, but she quickly gained a solid foothold, publishing in Scribners, Commonweal, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular magazines. She was among the more frequent contributors of poetry to The New Yorker in its first ten years.

Irony to the Ironical

Accept from me, at least, an admiration
Not cultivated too laboriously.
Most delicate shall be the situation,
A matter of wit and wine and poetry.

You need not give me caution in exchange,
For I am self-sufficient and content.
I think that you are beautiful and strange,
And willingly I yield to sentiment.

Passionate Beyond Belief

Passionate beyond belief
Is the crisp and dying leaf.
Watch it whirl through clouds of dust,
Determined not (until it must)
To yield and be forever still.
What a brave display of will!
What a glorious, futile fight!
O gathering dark, O waiting night,
Few such do you absorb when all
The casualties of autumn fall.

I like the fact that this last little ode to death appeared alongside ads for Peek Frean biscuits, the National Horse Show, Kauffman for Riding Togs (since 1876), and Alix’ Famous Collarless Wrap from Bloomingdale’s. You can see why at least one acquaintance called her “a mix of Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay.” On the other hand, Mullins managed to rub Southern poet Allan Tate wrong in a big way: “I’m in favor of rejecting all verse henceforth by this piece of baggage! She’s the vulgarest, rudest wench I’ve yet graced with my presence. She also has a voice like the taste of a persimmon.”

Mullins’ basic style changed little over the years. Of her first collection, Earthbound and Other Poems, one reviewer wrote, “She is content to let the theme develop with practically no ornament; she delights in harmony but rarely employs counterpoint.” Of Balm in Gilead, another wrote that her verse “is honest, admirable, and wise”: “Constant war is being waged between her high heart and the lesson of bitter resignation she thinks we all must learn.”

A significant shift in perspective, however, can be detected in the poems found in Streams from the Source, the first collection to appear after her accident and convalescence:

She Marvels Over What They Say

It cannot last,” they said to me,
When I with Love went dancing.
“The end is always ruthlessly
And quietly advancing.”
But I knew better, being young.
And I would not endeavor
To understand a dismal tongue;
My dance would last forever.
Now that with Pain I’m lying prone,
“It cannot last,” they tell me,
And in a calm and soothing tone
Endeavor to compel me
To be assured the end will come.
But though it chafe or grieve them,
I find their comfort wearisome;
I still do not believe them.

“Her lines are no longer founded on self-pity or self-preoccupation,” wrote Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review. “It is not an austerity so much as a gathering of intellectual forces, a translation of the fanciful in terms of the philosophic.”

Her subjects also shifted to social issues: unemployment, justice, and, with the start of World War Two, the fight against totalitarianism. “Interview with a Dictator,” for example, asks “What is it to be in power, a ruler of men/To advance beyond the humble of the earth/Who strive and suffer, and fall to rise again/Begging their fellows to recognize their worth?” These would remain a major focus of her work, at least as reflected in her last collection, The Mirrored Walls. In “How Forgive the Power of Rulers,” twenty years after “Interview,” her question remains essentially the same: “How forgive the power of rulers/waging wars with borrowed breath/of entertainers who copyright/our dramas of life and death.” (You can hear Mullins reading this and other poems, along with fellow poet Henrietta Weigel on a KPFA show from 1964 on the Internet Archive (Link).

These are not, however, the poems to remember her by. They remind me a little of the Red flag-waving poems that Genevieve Taggard wrote during her New Masses phase. You do have to give credit for hanging in with her causes, though. Rounding the corner on seventy, she still managed to feel the fire of comradeship with the Flower Power generation: “We march and sing and demonstrate./We are the rebels who extol/the equal rights that cry for peace,/the liberty which keeps man whole” (from “Hippy Song”).

Instead, if there is anything to be remembered from The Mirrored Walls, it is Mullins’ poems that deal with the personal, not the social, the intimate and not the public:

My Mother’s Final Gesture

Before she left, my mother,
trying to make it easier for us,
by slow degrees erased her identity.
Shedding the meretricious ornamentations,
the perpetual hopes, the outworn new beginnings,
she covered with the tenuity of old age
her beauty, grace, the poor remains of a gaiety
hoarded against a need that might arise.
So intent was she
on divesting herself of all familiar lineaments,
she did no heed a word of what we were saying:
that we were glad she soon would be released
from the tremors of our menaced civilization,
the fears and horrors seeping through our walls.
Barely recognizable at the end,
except to us who knew her as she was,
she slipped away
with a reassuring flutter of her hands.
We watched her go toward her unknown destination,
then turned to face our own.

Dynamic of Life

Everything changes, everything passes away,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.
The joys impatient to leave me I try to delay,
None of them pause, outlast my clumsy embrace.

New flowers bloom and new songs come into fashion,
The hair of my love is black and then it is gold.
I shrink from the touch of an unfamiliar passion,
I reject the strange and new, I cling to the old.

Everything changes, everything passes away,
Nothing will heed me, nothing remain in its place.
The warmth I will need tomorrow goes from me today,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.

I wouldn’t say that any of what I read in this neglected collection were great poems. But as someone about a block away from rounding the corner on sixty, whose mother is going gently into that good night, I will say that these two were tough to read without feeling a chill down my spine.


The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969, by Helene Mullins
New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970