The Russian-Estonians, from The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

In a year such as 1947, a Russian-born Estonian was only a zemlyak, a compatriot of mine, to a most problematical degree. Such trusties with their partly, or wholly, unidiomatic phrases, their doubting and distrustful eyes who had, since the war, seeped into the university, from the dean of faculty right down to posts among the teaching staff and special departments, and in everyday life from executive committee and militia down to the local apartment block administration, had instilled in me a feeling which was as mixed as what must have been going on inside them themselves: pity and watchfulness.

At any rate, we home-grown Estonians and Russian-born Estonians had lived such different lives on our respective sides of the border that our mutual alienation had become inevitable. On both sides of the border irrational things had been said and printed about the other side. In Estonia, hungry children were supposed to go about scavenging for food in dustbins. While in Russia, claimed the Estonian daily Paevaleht in, for instance, 1937, the year of the great show trials, it had emerged that men who had been the vanguard of revolution only fifteen years before were now infiltrators, traitors and foreign agents who had with their bare hands mixed broken glass into the butter sold to the proletariat…

Ten years earlier, nothing but such news items were to be found about Russia in our papers. And never a whisper of protest or denial from their side of the border, something which would have been quite natural in the circumstances, had these proved to be lies. So you were bound to conclude: there must be some truth in the matter. And this then led one to ask: which side had gone mad over there, the courts or those who appeared before them? And to answer without hesitation: the courts. For if the courts had been normal and the accused, therefore, mad, then the mass-executions of those accused would not have been able to take place. And Russia’s Estonians lived right in the thick of this madness, in this oppressive atmosphere of mistrust which resulted from this madness, which Russia allowed especially to afflict the minorities on her western borders.

So that people who were used to all this seemed, according to my first impression, and soon a priori, more problematical, evasive, shifty-eyed and ill-defined than others. Especially if they tried (and as far as I could observe, they always tried) to justify that what had been, and was still occurring in their country was right and proper in itself; unequivocally right and proper that is, according to the conversations of uneducated people, but to a more problematic degree according to those arrested – well, anyway, right and proper, not always in that cosy petit-bourgeois sense of the expression, but in a nobler and more general sense.

from “The Ashtray”, in The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

An Anonymous Book, from Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding

An anonymous book for children only was published by an anonymous publisher and anonymously praised in an anonymous journal. Moreover, it imitated variously the style of each of the known writers of the time, and this made the responsibility for its authorship all the more impossible to place. For none of the known writers could in the circumstances look guilty. But everyone else did, so this made the responsibility for its authorship all the more difficult to place. The police had instructions to arrest all suspicious-looking persons. But as everyone except the known writers was under suspicion, the department of censorship gave orders that the known authors should be put in prison to separate them from the rest of the population and that everyone else should be regarded as legally committed to freedom. ‘Did you write it?’ everyone was questioned at every street corner. And as the answer was always ‘No’, the questioned person was always remanded as a suspect.

The reasons why this book aroused the department of censorship were these. One–it imitated (or seemed to imitate) the style of all the known authors of the time and was therefore understood by the authorities to be a political (or moral) satire. Two–it had no title and was therefore feared by the authorities to be dealing under the cover of obscurity with dangerous subjects. Three–its publisher could not be traced and it was therefore believed by the authorities to have been printed uncommercially. Four–it had no author and was therefore suspected by the authorities of having been written by a dangerous person. Five (and last)–it advertised itself as a book for children, and was therefore concluded by the authorities to have been written with the concealed design of corrupting adults. As the mystery grew, the vigilance of the police grew, and the circulation of the book grew: for the only way that its authorship could be discovered was by increasing the number of people suspected, and this could only be done by increasing the number of readers. The authorities secretly hoped to arrive at the author by separating those who had read the book from those who had not read it, and singling out from among the latter him or her who pretended to know least about it.


Therefore the time has come to close. I am discovered, or rather I have discovered myself, for the authorities lost interest in me when they saw that I would discover myself before I could be officially discovered, that I would in fact break through the pages and destroy the strongest evidence that might be held against me, that is, that “An anonymous book”, etc. I understand now that what they desired to prevent was just what has happened. You must forgive me and believe that I was not trying to deceive, but that I became confused. I over-distinguished and so fell into satire and so discovered myself and so could not go on, to maintain a satiric distinction between authorship and scholarship.

from Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding

The Locomotive, from Cold Tales, by Virgilio Pinera

A locomotive–the biggest in the world–advances on a very narrow embankment. It’s the biggest locomotive in the world because it has surpassed the previous model, which–until the appearance of this one that runs on a narrow embankment–used to be the biggest in the world. It’s so big that you wouldn’t even see the other one next to it because it is the biggest in the world. But it’s all rather difficult to understand. For example, in relation to the place it hasn’t yet occupied in its travels, it isn’t the biggest in the world. I mean if it’s as long as from here to here, and the volume it displaces is from there to there, as long as it hasn’t yet occupied that space, one can’t say that it’s the biggest in the world.

If it’s moving at the incredible speed with which it eats up the track, you must know that it’s the biggest in the world, because if you don’t you will be threatened by knowing that it exists, yet not knowing that it’s the biggest in the world. The same holds true when you set your eyes on it: be careful how you look at it. Perhaps you will look at it and not see it as the biggest in the world, and will become greatly disappointed and even sad. I warn you, if you remain long in your contemplation with the complete understanding that it’s the biggest in the world, be very careful, for it will grow so big that it will occupy the whole earth and beyond.

After all, what does it mean to say that it’s the biggest in the world? The world is very big, but it too is the biggest in the world. But you will tell me that before it was built the other one was the biggest in the world and that it’s in relation to this one and not to the world itself that it’s the biggest in the world. I’m not telling you that, but rather, that the one that used to be the biggest in the world was, in its turn, the biggest in a world that was also very big. All right then, you will say, are there two locomotives that are the biggest in the world and two worlds that are the biggest in the world? And what about the locomotives built before the the biggest in the world and before the biggest of the biggest in the world? And the worlds that have corresponded to those locomotives from long before the biggest in the world?

Yes, where is the world prior to the biggest locomotive in the world, and the locomotive itself that used to be the biggest before the one that is now the biggest in the world? And so too, all those that were the biggest in the world before the one that now runs on the embankment and is the biggest in the world–were they thought the biggest in the world before the biggest in the world? Do you realize that there are many factors, that the whole question is surrounded by danger, that you could sink into an eternal night, that it’s possible to repeat the words and concepts without arriving at their meaning? Do you clearly understand the perils of the adventure that lies in knowing that the locomotive advancing along the narrow embankment is the biggest in the world?

from Cold Tales, by Virgilio Pinera, translated by Mark Schafer
Hygiene, Colorado: The Eridanos Press, 1988

A New Paragraph, from The Birth of a Story, by William Sansom (1972)

A manuscript page from William Sansom’s story “No Smoking on the Apron”

A new paragraph, a white breath for the eyes, is becoming more and more a necessity nowadays, with the accelerated pace of things in general and I would say certainly with readers reluctant to face too large a block of words with no relieving white space. Look at a page of Simenon, an economical writer with a fast narrative pace, and see how extremely short his paragraphs are, how seductive the whitened pages.

from The Birth of a Story, by William Sansom
London: Chatto & Windus/The Hogarth Press, 1972

The Bank Robbery, from Tri-Quarterly Magazine 35, Winter 1976 – Minute Stories

The Bank Robbery, by Steve Schutzman

The bank robber told his story in little notes to the bank teller. He held the pistol in one hand and gave her the notes with the other. The first note said:

This is a bank holdup because money is just like time and I need more to keep on going, so keep your hands where I can see them and don’t go pressing any alarm buttons or I’ll blow your head off.

The teller, a young woman of about twenty-five, felt the lights which lined her streets go on for the first time in years. She kept her hands where he could see them and didn’t press any alarm buttons.

Ah danger, she said to herself, you are just like love.

After she read the note, she gave it back to the gunman and said:“This note is far too abstract. I really can’t respond to it.”

The robber, a young man of about twenty-five, felt the electricity of his thoughts in his hand as he wrote the next note.

Ah money, he said to himself, you are just like love.

His next note said:

This is a bank hold up because there is only one clear rule around here and that is WHEN YOU RUN OUT OF MONEY YOU SUFFER, so keep your hands where I can see them and don’t go pressing any alarm buttons or I’ll blow your head off.

The young woman took the note, touching lightly the gunless hand that had written it. The touch of the gunman’s hand went immediately to her memory, growing its own life there. It became a constant light toward which she could move when she was lost. She felt that she could see everything clearly as if an unknown veil have just been lifted.

“I think I understand better now,” she said to the thief, looking first in his eyes and then at the gun. “But all this money will not get you what you really want.”

She looked at him deeply, hoping that she was becoming rich before his eyes.

Ah danger, she said to herself, you are the gold that wants to spend my life.

The robber was becoming sleepy. In the gun was the weight of his dreams about this moment when it was yet to come. The gun was like the heavy eyelids of someone who wants to sleep but is not allowed.

Ah money, he said to himself, I find little bits of you leading to more of you in greater little bits. You are promising endless amounts of yourself but others are coming. They are threatening our treasure together. I cannot pick you up fast enough as you lead into the great, huge quiet that you are. Oh money, please save me, for you are desire, pure desire, that wants only itself.

The gunman could feel his intervals, the spaces in himself, piling up so he could not be sure of what he would do next. He began to write. His next note said:

Now is the film of my life, the film of my insomnia; an eerie bus ride, a trance in the night, from which I want to step down, whose light keeps me from sleeping. In the streets I will chase the windblown letter of love that will save my life. Give me the money, My Sister, so that I can run my hands through its hair. This is the unfired gun of time, so keep your hands where I can see them and don’t go pressing any alarm buttons or I’ll blow your head off with it.

Reading, the young woman felt her inner hands grabbing and holding onto this moment of her life.

Ah danger, she said to herself, you are yourself with perfect clarity. Under your lens I know what I want.

The young man and woman stared into each other’s eyes forming two paths between them. On one path his life, like little people, walked into her, and on the other hers walked into him.

“This money is love,” she said to him. “I’ll do what you want.”

She began to put money into the huge satchel he had provided.

As she emptied it of money, the bank filled with sleep. Everyone else in the bank slept the untroubled sleep of trees that would never be money. Finally she placed all the money into the bag.

The bank robber and the bank teller left together like hostages of each other. Though it was no longer necessary, he kept the gun on her, for it was becoming like a child between them.

When I was an undergrad, I loved Tri-Quarterly magazine. I probably came across it while browsing through the stacks on the Periodicals floor, and saw in a glance that it was chock full of innovative writing. You have to understand that this was at the height of the Vonnegut craze. My brother and I read all of Vonnegut’s books. He gave me Breakfast of Champions for Christmas 1973, and we even bought the supposed Kilgore Trout novel, Venus on the Half-Shell when it came out in 1975. I suspect that for a lot of young men at the time, Vonnegut was the gateway drug to experimental fiction–Ishmael Reed, Donald Barthelme, and the just-formed Fiction Collective led by Ronald Sukenick, Jonathan Baumbach, and Steve Katz.

Still under the influence of its original editor, Charles Newman, Tri-Quarterly was always worth reading. Everybody who seemed to be pushing the envelope of fiction was in it. When it came time for me to write a senior thesis for English, I took as my subject the experimental American short story, and almost all my material came from Tri-Quarterly.

So when I decided to devote 2017 to covering neglected short stories, I tried to remember some of the writers I covered. Many of them have come up from the fringe to the mainstream, or at least to the mainstream as it’s reflected in academic coverage. Even what I had considered a pretty unknown experimental story, A. B. Paulsen’s “The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality: A Diagnostic Test in Two Parts” turns out to be included in the anthology Extreme Fictions and on some college course reading lists. But I remembered in particular a Tri-Quarterly issue devoted to short short stories that seemed to have something from just about everyone active on the American experimental fiction scene–Katz, Sukenick, Baumbach, Eugene Wildman, Russell Edson, Frederic Tuten, Max Apple, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Ursule Molinaro. When I got hold of a copy, however, I was surprised at the stellar level of the participation: Borges, Cortazar, Robbe-Grillet, John Hawkes, W. S. Merwin, Robert Coover, Annie Dillard, Angela Carter, and someone I’d love to see more of in English, the German fabulist H. C. Artmann.

Now, as often proves the case when one revisits enthusiasms of youth after a few decades, not everything in this collection was quite as fresh as I recalled. An unfortunate number of stories were experimental only in the sense that punctuation or spacing was played with–otherwise, they could have appeared in The Transatlantic Review, The Little Review, or transition fifty years before. An equal number were now insufferably sexist.

But a few have held up well, including this daffy romance from Steve Schutzman, which won a Pushcart Prize. Schutzman has his own website, and turns out to have published his one collection of short fiction, The History of Sleep way back in 1976. I will have to track it down.

Official Statement by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, from One Minute Stories, by István Örkény

Thanks to a long and heated debate championed by the members of our Society, the Rabbit Stew and Fish Soup Plant has just inaugurated a new workshop dedicated to opening the newly sealed tins.

At the new workshop which is called The Can Opener, the newly canned tins of rabbit stew and fish soup are reopened, drained of liquid, and the chunks of meat and fish are reconstituted and taken back to their original habitat, where they are released.

We herewith wish to express our sincere gratitude to the management of the Rabbit Stew and Fish Soup Plant, who have at last come to understand the true meaning of humanitarianism.

Nearly sixty short short stories are told in the space of the 120-some pages of István Örkény’s One Minute Stories (and as many more in its sequel, More One Minute Stories). Some are as much as three pages long; others fewer than three sentences long.

Most of Örkény’s pieces are closer to jokes or pared-down fables than short stories. “Life Should Be So Simple,” for example, is just a six-item list:

  1. Remove fire extinguisher from bracket
  2. Open valve
  3. Approach source of fire
  4. Extinguish fire
  5. Close valve
  6. Replace extinguisher on bracket

“Official government report published in the wake of the triumph of the principles of communism” is merely the statement, “According to a recent statement by government spokesman Károly K. Károly, István Balogh, Sr., stable boy at the Bábolna State Farmers Co-operative, has just started his regular yearly vacation.” Fortunately, the publishers let us in on the joke with a footnote explaining that, “The Hungarian Communist party’s daily newspaper, Népszabadság, every year announced, Kádár János, the First Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party started his regular yearly vacation.”

A fair number of the items in One Minute Stories have a similar flavor of being the sort of joke that takes having lived in Hungary under Communist rule for a decade or two to fully appreciate. I was reminded several times of the little stories that Austrian writer Karl Kraus wrote to mock the Nazis and other forms of authoritarianism. Still, anyone with a taste for sly satirical or absurdist humor can enjoy these amuse-bouches. And, as Örkény points out in his “Handling Instructions,” “They also have the added advantage of saving us time. While the soft-boiled egg is boiling or the number you are dialing answers (provided it is not engaged, of course) you have ample time to read one of these short stories….”

You can find more selections of Örkény’s one-minute stories here, here, and on the English portion of his commemorative website here.

One Minute Stories and More One Minute Stories, by István Örkény, both translated by Judith Sollosy
Budapest, Hungary: Corvina Books, Ltd., 2001 and 2006

“News from the Slide Area,” from The Slide Area, by Gavin Lambert (1959)

Summer is always reluctant to go. Sometimes it makes a false departure and comes back for Christmas. For a few weeks now, signs have presaged the end. One night it rains gently. A wind from the ocean swiftly wraps a sparkling afternoon in fog. Electric storms break out over the desert at night, salvos of thunder are heard and prongs of lightning flash like exclamations in the sky. By the end of summer they are deeply tanned, yet somehow autumn creeps into their eyes. Each time they scan the ocean with is swimmers waiting for surf to ride, it seems like a last glance before saying good-bye.

While summer fades, the city still spreads and grows. Much of the growing you wouldn’t notice. You pass a truck in the night, drawing a new frame-house; there are always plenty of these, set down and lost in the general sprawling pattern. But sometimes a landmark disappears, like the old pier between Santa Monica and Venice. Replacing the shabby arcades of obsolete peep-shows and makeshift booths is a bright new pleasure-cape, clean and synthetic. Neptune’s sculpture presides over an artificial lake with colored fountains and large aerated bubbles. Walk past it while the music plays, taking the moving stairway that lifts you above tree-like chandeliers with outstretched branches of light, and step into an elevator. It doesn’t move, but in the center of it a transparent column fills up with water, to make you think you’re going beneath the sea. You find yourself in a vast dim cavity called Neptune’s Kingdom. You walk round a tank with glass walls. It represents the ocean bed, but there is no water, only an illusion created by the play of light. Stuffed barracudas and other outsize creatures spin slowly round on wires. Neptune watches from his throne. Coral, marine growths and shells, all too brightly tinted, litter the depths. Less than half a mile away from this dry electrical kingdom is the Pacific itself, pale and streaked with patches of seaweed. At this moment it is secretly swallowing up ton after ton of disinfected garbage.

For other kingdoms have been created. Beyond Venice, there used to be a desolate stretch of sand dunes and waste ground, planted here and there with oil derricks. Then came a regiment of black squat cylindrical tanks. The face of the landscape changed; factory chimneys, scaffolding, machinery, wire fences, converged upon the empty beaches. Everything feels silent, looks unattended, but inside the tanks the city’s garbage is being chemically purified, then rushed along an underground channel and poured into the ocean.

To the north, cupped in the mountains, are missile bases. KEEP OUT. Constructions point skywards from a bulldozed desert. Old newspapers and empty cans of beer lie on the ground. Higher up, new houses are being built. The view should be good.

So the refuse is purified and pumped; the missiles are loaded; the lifeguard watches from his sunny tower; stuffed fish ponderously circle a waterless cage; and, in his frame house, a man wakes up to find he has a neighbor.

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

“The Copley-Plaza,” from The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale (1955)

The next set of memories I bear of the Copley-Plaza are very different from these in mood. I must have been fourteen. I had been going to Miss Winsor’s School, out in Longwood, and I found it hard to make friends; as far as I could figure at that age, my total inability to play basketball or field hockey was the cause of my unpopularity. Some sort of instinct, right or wrong, caused me to begin stopping in at the Copley-Plaza on my way home from school, in search of a kind of comfort, in search of a kind of distraction.

For here I would sit, in the main lobby, opposite to the huge marble desk, dressed in my thick, untidy school clothes, my galoshes, with my plaid schoolbag huddled into the thronelike chair with me, and watch what seemed to me the worldly and wealthy conducting their fascinating lives at the Copley-Plaza. In from the Dartmouth Street entrance would hurry a bellboy, or two bellboys, laden down with expensive luggage, followed by a blond woman in a fur coat, or a close-shaven man in a check waistcoat, or a dark, romantic-looking lady all in black and attended by what seemed to be a governess with two or three rich, well-dressed children–important children, children with lives.

Occasionally I would get up and go down the corridor to the ladies’ room, not so much because I needed to as that there I found myself not two feet away from beautiful, expensively dressed women who talked to each other busily about their approaching engagements. I would wash my hands, taking a long time about it, and listen to some lovely girl saying, “We’re going to Paris Friday, on the Ile….” Then I would go back to my throne in the lobby to watch some more people make their entrances. All the time, the stringed orchestra would be playing waltzes, behind in the palm court–fast and sweet and queerly nostalgic. It was almost as if this were the only life I had.

From The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955

Christmas Trees New and Old, from The Christmas Tree, by Isabel Bolton (1949)

Cover of first US edition of 'The Christmas Tree'

The New

Though there was all manner of evidence of the season – New York producing it, as it produced everything else, on its own colossal, mass-production scale, all outdoors and public and promiscuous, with a tree in almost every park and square, all the churches turning them out properly lighted and arrayed, the great central civic spectacle there in Rockefeller Center, the tallest Christmas tree erected on this earth, standing up in all the majesty of its broad green boughs, with those beautiful balloons floating like celestial bodies of blue and gold and silver all around it, while from below, in the skating rink, with crowds and crowds of people listening, one heard, right through the night, those deep strong voices singing the familiar hymns.

The Old

There stood the tree – the great, the green, the fabulous hemlock – with all its layered boughs reaching out into the room, filling it with greenness, tapering upward, till its tip almost, but not quite, touched the ceiling, and distributing a Christmas incense which the warmth of the room, the heat of burning candles drew out to such a fine intensity of Christmas sentiment. There it stood before her, garlanded, looped round with ropes of snow-white popcorn, with rainbow-colored chains of paper bracelets, with silver tinsel and with gold, hung with blue and red and gold and with silver balls and bells and silver stars so cunningly faceted as to receive and flash back, from bell and ball, from star and candle flame, from the upper and the nether ornaments and trinkets so many tiny sparks and scintillations, so many beams and filaments of light, as to create in all the boughs and branches a mesh and maze of brightness, the candles with the blue candle-centers all together flickering, traveling upward to a point of highest ecstasy.

There it stood, fixing her in a trance, rendering her incapable of detaching this little picture from that, or one moment from the next – kneeling or sitting down, smiling, getting up, walking round, around, the blessed instants blending, melting one into another, becoming, and even as she gazed, memory, message, meaning.

For here, under the white sheet spread out to save the carpet from candle grease and hemlock needles, were all the Christmas gifts, of every shape and size, wrapped with white or silver paper, tied with white or red or silver ribbons, embellished with holly and mistletoe and inscribed with loving dedications – ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Hilly, Merry Christmas from Uncle Theodore’; ‘John from Aunt Sally’; ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Adelaide from her father’ – and all and everybody searching to find their own particular presents – package heaped on package, and each one for somebody, with love from someone else, and all presumably from Santa Claus.

Though proclaimed by Edmund Wilson as “a poet of the noblest kind who uses the compression and the polish of her fiction to focus human insight and to concentrate moral passion” and by Diana Trilling as “the best woman writer of fiction in this country today” when The Christmas Tree was first published and by Gore Vidal as “a magically alive writer” and by Doris Grumbach as “a writer of originality and great power” when it was reissued in 1997 as one of the three novels in New York Mosaic, Isabel Bolton remains a neglected writer, none of whose books have seen print this century. I featured her striking memoir of her childhood as an identical twin, Under Gemini (1966) here back in 2011, and Vivian Gornick recently recalled her as one of her prototypical New York City “odd women” in her memoir, The Odd Woman and the City.

Few facts have emerged about Mary Britton Miller, the woman who transformed herself into Isabel Bolton the novelist in her early sixties. Her parents both died within hours of each other when Mary and her sister Grace were both four, leaving them and three other siblings orphans. They were all raised by a spinster hired by their aunt, the wife of a railroad executive who prided herself on knowing best how to run other people’s lives. Ten years later, when Mary and Grace were rowing near the shore in Long Island Sound, their boat overturned and, in panic, Grace became exhausted and drowned as Mary watched, unable to help.

Mary attended the Cambridge School for Girls and then lived in Italy for a few years, probably in the company of her cousin, Marguerite Chapin, who later married Prince Roffredo Caetani and founded the influential literary magazine, Botteghe Oscure. In a letter to Diana Athill, Edward Field suggested she had a child out of wedlock in Italy, but, lacking any other evidence, we can only take this as hearsay.

Then she settled in New York City, eventually buying a pre-Civil War era brownstone at 81 Barrow Street in the West Village (a property that fetched a cool $15 million when sold in 2011). As Mary Britton Miller, she published a number of books of poems for children, starting with Songs of Infancy and Menagerie (1928), and continuing on with Intrepid Bird (1934). In 1943, she told the story of her life between the death of her parents and the loss of Grace in fictional form in In the Days of Thy Youth. It was not a timely subject, however, and the book went virtually unreviewed.

By then, she had turned sixty and begun to suffer from a loss of vision that led her to dictate all her writing and to hire readers (Grumbach recalls a story that Miller fired one for hesitating when encountering the word “fuck”). For reasons that no one has yet managed to unearth, she decided to use a pseudonym for her next novel, Do I Wake or Sleep? (1946), even though the book was published by Scribners, which had published In the Days of Thy Youth. All she offered in the way of a biographical sketch for the dust jacket was, “Here it is, the book over which I have thought deeply and worked hard. What more is there to say, except perhaps to add that I have lived some time in Europe, that I was brought up in America, and that New York has been my home for many years?”

What a difference three years made. Diana Trilling opened her review in The Nation with the announcement that, “Isabel Bolton’s Do I Wake or Sleep? (Scribner’s, $2.50) is quite the best novel that has come my way in the four years I have been reviewing new fiction for this magazine.” In a feature review in The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson compared Bolton to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Elizabeth Bowen. They and other reviewers were equally effusive when The Christmas Tree was published three years later. But by the time her third book, Many Mansions, was published in 1952, the glow had faded. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a rather mannered, meditative backward look” and wrote that “Miss Bolton, whom one often feels is under the influence of Edith Wharton, never gets beyond a certain drawing room elegance and withered gentility.”

And so Miller returned to children’s poetry, with burst of publications in the late 1950s: Give a Guess (1957); All Aboard (1958); Jungle Journey (1959), written with her friend, Tobias Schneebaum (to whom she later dedicated Under Gemini); A Handful of Flowers (1959); and Listen–the Birds (1961). Though simple and straightforward, these poems reveal the same intimate awareness of childhood that seems never to have left Miller, even if she could write fiction that was compared with that of Henry James:

Where Are You Now?

Someone has just
Put out the light;
Someone has just
Told you good night

People are talking
Not far away;
You wish you could hear
Just what they say.

The window is open—
People are walking,
Voices are calling
Out in the street.

Now you are falling
And falling and falling
Into a silence
Soft as your pillow,
White as your sheet.

Yet she was fully aware that she was no longer living in the same world. In the The Christmas Tree, the lead character’s grandson is obsessed with warplanes and informs her that it was the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And so she felt there was good reason to ask, in a poem titled, “This Wonderful World,” “It’s a world full of growing/And changing and flowing./Who’d want to blow it/To smithereens?”

In 1966, Miller once again took up the pseudonym for a nonfictional account of her life with her sister Grace, Under Gemini–this time roughly one-fourth the length of In the Days of Thy Youth. The book received respectful reviews but was not reprinted again until 1999. And when she published her last book, The Whirligig of Time, in 1971, Kirkus Reviews felt free to remark deridingly, “… one questions whether any contemporary will wish to join Blanche Willoughby in her return through the years ‘to the heartland of her soul” and called the book’s “perfumed sensibility … just about unbearable.”

In its obituary when Miller died at the age of 91 in 1975, The New York Times recalled Miller’s statement that after Grace’s death, her own life had been “blotted out——everything became dim, unreal, artificial.” And noted that “Miss Miller never married.”

Not My Mother’s Daughter, by Genevieve Taggard, fromThose Modern Women

Genevieve Taggard, 1926
Genevieve Taggard, 1926
Am I the Christian gentlewoman my mother slaved to make me? No indeed. I am a poet, a wine-bibber, and radical: a non-church-goer who will no longer sing in the choir or lead prayer-meeting with a testimonial. (Although I will write anonymous confessions for The Nation.) That is her story–and her second defeat. She thinks I owed her a Christian gentlewoman, for all she did for me. We quarrel. After I escaped, she snapped shut the iron trap around my brother and sister. That is their story. I do not know if they will ever be free of her. She keeps Eddie Guest on the parlor table beside the books I have written–a silent protest against me. She is not pleased.

I cannot pretend to be entirely frank in telling the story that results from this story; or to apply to it any such perspective. Let my daughter tell it later on. She will see outlines I cannot.

I think I have not been as wasted as my mother was–or as wasteful. I have made worse mistakes, which might have been more fatal than hers and yet have not been, at least for me. My chief improvement on her past was the man I chose to marry. I did not want a one-way street of a marriage, like hers. I married a poet and novelist, gifted and difficult, who refused defeat as often as I did. Hard as it is to live with an equal, it is at least not degrading. We have starved, too; struggled as hard as ever my folks did. But the struggle has not been empty: I have no grudges. Intellectually as well as emotionally my husband had as much to give that was new and strange as I had. In marriage I learned, rather tardily, the profound truth that contradicts Jesus when he said, “Bear ye one another’s burdens.” I am a better person when I bear my own burdens. I am happiest with people who can bear their own, too. I remember my mother’s weariness and contempt for a man who could never take up her challenges. Seven years with a real person is better than her thirty with a helpless, newspaper-reading gentleman.

The pioneer woman was a dynamo–and her man nearly always ran out on her. From the bitterness in such women many of us were born. Where was her mate? Did she destroy him? Did he hate her for her strength? Was he weaker because she was strong? Where is the equilibrium, anyway? I do not know, for sure, although I spend much time wondering.

Marriage is the only profound human experience; all other human angles are its mere rehearsal. Like every one else I have wanted it. And yet having it, it is not all I want. It is more often, I think, a final experience than a way of life. But I am a poet–love and mutual living are not enough. It is better to work hard than to be married hard. If, at the beginning of middle age, we have not learned some of the perils of the soul, in this double-selved life, we are pure fools. Self-sufficiency is a myth, of course, but after thirty, if one is a serious-minded egoist (i.e., artist), it becomes more and more necessary. And I think it can be approximated.

Lucinda Matlock, in the “Spoon River Anthology,” says:

We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
Rambling over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed,
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived long enough, that is all.
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent, and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you–
It takes life to love Life.

My mother was not this woman, nor am I, but we are both some way kin to her.

From These Modern Women: Autobiographical Essays from the Twenties, edited and with a revised introduction by Elaine Showalter
New York City: The Feminist Press, 1989

In 1926 and 1927, the progressive magazine The Nations published a series of autobiographical essays by seventeen women, including a poet (Taggard), a journalist (Sue Shelton White), a novelist (Mary Hunter Austin), an artist and children’s book author (Wanda Gag), and a psychologist (Phyllis Blanchard). Over fifty years later, Elaine Showalter collected them in These Modern Women. She also includes the analyses The Nations commissioned from three psychologists, two of them men. As one might expected, the men come off as superior and officious, while the woman (Beatrice M. Hinkle) is supportive and optimistic. If there was one thing I would have liked Showalter to correct one mistake in the book, which was leaving the last word to the second male psychologist, Joseph Collins (“On rereading these articles I fell into meditation. Which of these women should I have liked to companion?”). What a terrible way to end what is an otherwise fascinating and empowering book.

My Father Around the House, from Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell (1965)

Sir George Sitwell
Sir George Sitwell
My father was extremely active physically, and he had adopted, in later life, the custom of pacing the long passages at Renishaw because, he said, by cultivating such a habit one ceased to trouble if the days were wet and cold, or torrid and weighted by the heat, were drawing out or drawing in. If you paid no attention to a fact, it ceased to exist. He remembered, however, that the weather was useful as a basis for conversation (he would speak with approbation of noisy female nonentities who “kept the ball rolling,” by which he meant rattling out unceasing nonsense obliterating the passage of time, at every meal). Apart from these interludes, only the sound of his footsteps and the care for his health remained to bind him to reality. He did not believe in taking risks, however, and, though an agnostic by profession, said his prayers every night, on the chance of this being a good investment.

When pacing the passages he walked very slowly, occupying as much time as possible, in order that the house should seem even larger than it is—for he liked to think of it as very large. Occasionally (about once or twice a day) he would pause outside a door, if he could hear voices in the room beyond—not because he wanted to eavesdrop or to spy, since there was nothing he could hear that would interest him, but because he was enabled in this way to touch, for a moment, the world in which others moved, thought, acted, without being obliged to become part of it; and this made him real to himself, real in his isolation, in the separation of his identity from the world that he could yet touch at will. For this reason he would pretend to secret information from an unknown source: “We happen to know,” he would say; and when a letter arrived for my mother in a handwriting he did not know, he would enquire “How are they?” He would spread various objects belonging to himself all over the house, in the many rooms—his hat in one room, his stick in another, his spectacle case in a third—because when he came face to face once more, in the course of his wanderings, with these records of his personality, he was reminded of himself, which was pleasant, and because it enabled him to stake his claim on every room in the house as sole inhabitant. Should any other person enter one of the rooms in question, my father would follow him there, and, conveying suddenly the impression of very great age, would make it clear by his manner that he had intended to rest there and had hoped that he would not be disturbed. Then, having by this means routed the intruder and put him to flight, he would continue his walk.

When he was not pacing up and down the passages, my father spent much of his time in walking up and down outside the house, and when he did this, he would succeed in appearing like a procession of one person—he being the head, the beginning and the end.

taken_care_ofI was over halfway through Edith Sitwell’s autobiography, Taken Care Of (1965), before I realized that it was back in print, thanks to the Bloomsbory Press’ Bloomsbury Reader series, and hence, technically disqualified to be featured here. However, I couldn’t resist posting this excerpt, which follows a portrait of Sitwell’s mother etched with the same comic acid. Sitwell obviously had no sympathy with Louise Bogan’s view of looking back at one’s parents (“There is a final antidote we must learn: to love and forgive them”. She seems never to have gotten over the fact that her very handsome and self-centered parents saw their first child ‐ angular, unconforming, and decidedly eccentric in orientation — more as an odd creature than the fruit of their flesh, and in her old age gave them the same treatment, placing them under her magnifying glass like a couple of entomological specimens.

Taken Care Of is also available online through the Open Library (link).

Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell
London: Hutchinson, 1965

The best time to write about one’s childhood, from Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan (1980)

nb_0625The best time to write about one’s childhood is in the early thirties, when the contrast between early forced passivity and later freedom is marked; and when one’s energy is in full flood. Later, not only have the juices dried up, and the energy ceased to be abundant, but the retracing of the scene of earliest youth has become a task filled with boredom and dismay. The figures that surrounded one have now turned their full face toward us; we understand them perhaps still partially, but we know them only too well. They have ceased to be background to our own terribly important selves; they have irremediably taken on the look of figures in a tragicomedy; we now look on them ironically, for we know their end, although they themselves do not yet know it. And now — in the middle fifties — we have traced and retraced their tragedy so often that, in spite of the understanding we have, it bores and offends us. There is a final antidote we must learn: to love and forgive them. This attitude comes hard and must be reached with anguish. For it one is to deal with the people in the past — of one’s past — at all, one must feel neither anger nor bitterness. We are not here to expose each other, like journalists writing gossip, or children blaming others for their own bad behavior. And open confession, for certain temperaments (certainly for my own), is not good for the soul, in any direct way. To confess is to ask for pardon; and the whole confusing process brings out too much self-pity and too many small emotions in general. For people like myself to look back is a task. It is like re-entering a trap, or a labyrinth, from which one has only too lately, and too narrowly, escaped.

from New York: The Viking Press, 1980

My Mother’s Mirror, fromPersonal Geography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth


The walls of my room would be covered with portraits if only I know the spell to call them forth from my mother’s mirror with its round silver frame. The first portrait would perhaps be of Mother in her wedding veil, tucking orange blossoms between the veil and soft fair hair. There would be many quick sketches of Mother later, in the first frilled shirtwaist, wearing for the first time her gold pince-nez, and then as an older woman, holding the same sweet look she had had as a girl. Father was not one to look much in mirrors, but he may have looked in this once or twice to see if the part in his hair was straight. There would be hidden here no portraits or sketches of Grandmother Coatsworth. She would, I think, never have entered her daughter-in-law’s room. A young woman has a right to some privacy, and if Mother’s was minimal, at least I am sure it was absolute.

Of course there would have been many sketches of Margaret and of me, so unlike in everything but our youth. The only carefully studied mirror-portrait of me was taken when I was ten or twelve years old.

Mother came into the room and said mildly, “You’ve looked long enough at yourself, Betty.” Or was I still “Bess” then? Anyway she was completely mistaken. I was not admiring myself. I was searching to find out who and what I was. There was no humor in the eyes that looked back at me under the arching brows, but I am sure there was humor in the thoughts back of the eyes. Like Father, I could make a joke without smiling. Like him, I could not laugh, just as I could not whistle or sing. As yet no one even guessed when I thought something was funny.

So if I knew the magic formula, all about this room there would be sketches and sometimes portraits of us all, of blue-eyed, smiling Margaret, and of sober, solemn Betty dark as a shadow. Our spirits did not know then how akin they were, how in later years the fair and the dark would merge into one complete whole, which even death would not completely destroy.

from Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene Press, 1976

Some Sketches from The Woman’s Record, or Sketches of All Distinguished Women, by Sarah Joseph Hale (1853)

Sarah Josepha Hale, from the frontispiece to The Woman's Record



A Lady who lived in the latter part of the seventeenth century, in Spain, during the reign of Charles 11., killed with her own hands a beautiful woman, the mistress of her husband, and having prepared the heart of her victim, placed it at dinner before her husband. When he had eaten it, she rolled the head of the woman to him on the table. She then took refuge in a convent, where she became insane through rage and jealousy.


Was a French artiste or painter, who gained considerable reputation at Paris. Her paintings, historical pieces as well as portraits, were exhibited in the Louvre. Madame de Genlis speaks of the talents of Madame 1e Brun with much warmth of praise, and complains that the men sought to depreciate her paintings because she was a woman.


Tns Monja Alferez, or Nun-Lieutenant. More famous women have lived than this, but a more extraordinary one has never been recorded. Her career was one of singular adventure, of wild passions, of unsparing cruelty, of heroic bravery; the few virtues which palliate her vices and savage conduct are such as are found to vindicate the dormant element in the breasts of brigands and pirates. And it is not the least singular circumstance connected with such a history, that it has been written down, detailed, and powerfully described by the heroine herself, in a style wonderfully vigorous, clear, and in pure and classic Spanish.

… It would be impossible, in this sketch, to detail her numerous homicides and fierce anger; but one may be alluded to from its consequences. Becoming enraged, at a gambling house, with a man of consequence, of Chile, she attacked him, and savagely killed him. She was obliged to take the refuge of a sanctuary; but as the friends of the murdered person were of rank and power, her retreat was carefully guarded, and after remaining there eight months, she felt the necessity of escaping into another government. The only way to effect this was by traversing the icy deserts of the Andes. “In this attempt I may find death,” said she; “by remaining here I shall certainly find it.“ At the outset she met three outlaws, who, like herself, were fugitives from justice. These banded themselves by necessity: fatigue and hunger were their first difficulties. Successively they killed their horses, when all other food was spent; but soon advancing into higher regions of the mountain, the cold became intense and biting. Still Catalina cheered on her companions, infused her own courage, and sustained their efforts to drag on, when one of them uttered a cheerful cry — help, aid dawned! Two men were standing at a little distance; the wretched creature tried to spring forward; he fell on a heap of snow. Catalina followed his indication; alas! horror and misery—the two men were unfortunate beings, dead, frozen stiff, with a ghastly look of anguish stamped on their frightful faces! Even Catalina was for an instant daunted. She turned to the man who had first seen them -— he was dead! She felt it was no time to pause, but urging on her remaining companions, sought a new impetus for exertion in her very despair. The cold became more and more bitter; still she stopped not. She saw her companions sink, one by one; she had no time to mourn them — recommending herself to the Virgin, she went on. The temperature became milder; at last she reached Tucuman, where she met with the utmost kindness and hospitality. She soon resumed her wild military life, always involving herself in quarrels.


Successor to Montespan in the affections of Louis XlV. “She was beautiful as an angel, but silly as a goose,” as Abbé Choisi said. She nevertheless captivated the affections of Louis XIV, who was tired of the pride and the caprice of Madame de Montespan. As soon as she discovered the passion which she had inspired, and had secured her royal conquest, she became haughty and extravagant, spending a hundred thousand crowns a month, and retorting a hundred-fold the disdain she had experienced from Madame de Montespan. She became the general dispenser of the king’s favours, and the model of fashion. One day, when she was on a hunting-party, the wind having put her head-dress in disorder, she fastened it with a riband, the knot of which falling over her forehead, this fashion spread all over Europe under her name. The king made her a duchess; but she did not long enjoy the rank, as she died when scarcely twenty years old, in the abbey of Port Royal, Paris, shortly after an accouchement.


Was the wife of Alboin of Albovinus, king of Lombardy, in the sixth century. Alboin slew her father, Gunimond, king of a neighbouring horde, in battle, and married his daughter by force. And, in order to retain a monument of his victory, he converted the skull of Gunimond into a drinking-cup, which he sent full of wine to Rosamond. In revenge, she had him assassinated.

from The Woman’s Record, available on the Internet Archive: Link.

Railings, from Another Part of the Forest, by G. B. Stern (1941)

London park railings being dismantled for scrap metal, around 1941
London park railings being dismantled for scrap metal, around 1941

A paragraph in a local paper told me a few weeks ago that orders had been given to “prune the railings” at Brighton, and use them for battleships.

A short time ago I had to drive up from Berkshire through Western London. Wherever I looked I became aware of railings, still in their rusty iron slumber, but dangerously potential; a delirium of railings planted in a frenzy most often where they could not possibly have been needed; as stoutly reinforcing a stout wall; as guarding sturdy little posts that would obviously rather have remained self-reliant; as shielding triangles of trodden grass that once were plague-pits (but this is no time to be out of date); as lining up in front of well-shuttered shops and barricading blind alleys; railings defensive and offensive; and railings content to stand in pure decoration (sic); an abundance, an orgy, an ecstasy of superfluous railings, which at a certain period in our history of architecture must have rushed down upon the city and conquered it with the same enthusiasm that great Birnam Wood once came to Dunsinane.

I have little doubt but that driving north, south or east, now that my attention was awake to railings, I should have seen them four times multiplied, striping our parks and our streets and our squares with bad-tempered vigilance. For the soul of railings is essentially rigid and narrow-minded, not to compare with benevolent cheerful wooden fencing which swirls into friendly knots and peepholes; but with the vicious snarl of barbed wire, the cruel jagged repartee of broken glass stuck upright on top of a wall.

Had we ever paused, down the peaceful years, to reflect upon the solemnity of a life guarded by railings, it might have seemed a little bit foolish. What did they fear, these nineteenth century folk, that they retired behind such preposterous regiments of iron? For though it is difficult to trace the very first man who cried “Eureka!” and leapt to his feet, inspired to design the very first railing, and triumphantly planted it, and having accomplished his life’s work, went satisfied to bed, yet most volumes of authority agree in yielding up the date 1812 for the beginning of railings in their multitudes; why this should coincide with the burning of Moscow is a matter that gives play to the most charming conjecture (or perhaps it was merely accident). What did they fear? They could not, even they, have thought that now and for ever they were adequately protected from the foe (their songs and ballads show us that enemies were always “foemen” in a Victorian world).

A proper valediction to railings could be illustrated with the picture of a disconsolate ghost in flowing whiskers and Albert watch-chain, weeping over a symbolical railing offered up to serve its country in time of war. For now, in time of war, the whole matter quite simply reverts to sanity: Is this not the very thing we are fighting for, that bars should be translated into battleships, and battleships into freedom? A London child of the past, probably also a Brighton child or a Birmingham child, always accepted railings as a matter of course, created as part of a seven-day universe; plenty of juvenile uses for railings; but chiefly for that urchin impulse to run along drawing a hoopstick across them, making sweet music. Friendly errand-boys leant their bicycles against the area railings outside your house, and then clattered with their baskets down the deep Victorian steps to deep basements copied from the Italians.

Just beyond the railings at the entrance of Kensington Gardens stood the woman with the balloons and the man with the toy windmills. Once inside, the railings did not bother you at all: you soon discovered, though they stood upright in sentinel rows along two sides of a grass enclosure, along the third they irrationally dipped to a low rail running horizontally only a foot high from the path, so that all you had to do, you and your dog, was to skip across the low boundary and go capering back to forbidden territory with perfect ease and a clear conscience. Yes, nice familiar things, railings, that made your gloves dirty, and who cared except Nannie?

Usually, in spring, when the awnings went up and the window-boxes blossomed, the railings became a freshly painted menace, vivid and sticky and very, very beautiful. “Don’t touch, child, they’re wet!” You smiled seraphically; you had already touched, and proved it for yourself.

I keep meaning to put together a post about G. B. Stern’s … well, autobiographies, to use the label that was put on them, although “commonplace book-channeled through stream-of-consciousness” is probably a more accurate one. They are both irresistible and unreadable. Irresistible because you can open them up at just about any page and alight upon a wonderful little improvisation on a topic like railings or walking sticks or taxi-cabs. Unreadable because there is really no shape or structure to these books, and at a certain point, that becomes unbearable. I’ve never managed to get through one from start to finish: I inevitably toss it aside in frustration.

At such moments, wandering along with G. B. Stern on a random walk through her memories reminds me of something John Waters once wrote of Edith Massey, one of his early amateur Baltimorean stars:

Edie and I used to do this kind of date together, but we’d drive by car, and she would drive me crazy because she would say out loud every single thing she saw. We’d be driving along and she’d say, “Car, house, lawn, pretty lady, red car, telephone pole, lawn, lawn, lawn…” I said, “Edith!!” It was just… internalization was a concept she was very unfamiliar with.

But then, a month or two later, having finished some other book, I reach for Monogram (1936), Trumpet Voluntary (1944), or Benefits Forgot and begin to think, “Maybe I should go on a drive with Edie again.” Fortunately, if you have a mind to do the same, you can start for free with Another Part of the Forest (1941), which is available on the Internet Archive.

Dorothy Richardson Answers 10 Questions from The Little Review

Cover of last issue of The Little ReviewIn The Little Review Anthology, the editor, Margaret Anderson, wrote:

In 1929, in Paris, I decided that the time had come to end The Little Review. Our mission was accomplished; contemporary art had “arrived”; for a hundred years, perhaps, the literary world would product only: repetition.

I didn’t want the Little Review to die a conventional death, so I discarded all the material that had been amassed for a Last Number and decided, instead, to ask the artists of the world what they were thinking and feeling about their lives and work. We drew up a questionnaire — ten simple but essential questions — and sent it out to all our contributors.

Those who responded included Richard Aldington, Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, Jean Cocteau, Janet Flanner, and Joseph Stella. Others took the attitude of Djuna Barnes, who wrote, “I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public.”

Dorothy Richardson, however, provided a set of answers that, as might be expected, reflected her doggedly insistent individuality:

1. What should you most like to do, to know, to be? (In case you are not satisfied).

To build a cottage on a cliff.
How to be perfectly in two places at once.
Member of a world-association for broadcasting the goings-on of metaphors.

2. What wouldn’t you change places with any other human being?

Because I can’t separate future from present.

3. What do you look forward to?

Can’t separate future from present.

4. What do you fear most from the future?

Can’t separate future from present.

5. What has been the happiest moment of your life? The unhappiest? (If you care to tell).

A recurring moment. Another recurring moment.

6. What do you consider your weakest characteristic? Your strongest? What do you like most about yourself? Dislike most?

Lack of concentration. Ability to concentrate. A certain changelessness. Superficiality.

7. What things do you really like? Dislike? (Nature, people, ideas, objects, etc. Answer in a phrase or a page, as you will).

Dancing, an English valley in mid-May an hour before sunset, sun behind seer. Seagulls high in sunlight. Shafts of light. Most people under the age of three. Beautiful women. Ugly ones. Such hippo-hided men as guess they are half-truths. Most Irishmen. Synthesis.

Line engravings. Gothic. Daumier. Sisley. Blake. Brzeska. Alan Odle. Rossetti. Dumas pere. Balzac. Jane Austen. Hugo. Andre Gide. Wilde. The books Osbert Sitwell will write, and After [Before] the Bombardment. The plays Noel Coward will write between forty-five and sixty.

Poetry of Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Francis, Quaker Fathers, Hebrews. Keats. Alfred Lawn Tennyson. T. W. H. Crosland. Jean [Gene] Stratton Porter. Wassermann. Proust. Smuts of South Africa. H. D., Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Madox Roberts.

The cinema. Cafes. Any street. Any garden. Mornings. Sundays. Brown bread and Cornish butter. Soap. The cinema. Onions. Split greengages. Cigars. Berkshire bacon. The cinema. Munich Lager. Conversation. Dry champagne. Planter’s punch. Gilbert and Sullivan. Bach. Antheil. Bach. Wagner. Beethoven. Beethoven. Beethoven. Bach. Bach. The cinema. Quaker meetings.

Villas. Flats. Bungalows. Lapdogs. Diamonds. The sight of a moist-ended cigarette, of anyone lighting a cigarette in instead of above a flame, of anyone tapping off ash before it is ready to fall. Archness. White china and glass-ware. Satin. Plus-fours. Marcel waves. Trousers. Sinuosity. Aquilinity. Dogmatic eccentricity. North London. Burne Jones. Sound and Colour in cinema. The idea that everything has an evolutionary history.

8. What is your attitude toward art today?

Regret on behalf of literature in so far as it allows the conjectures of science to stand for thought and of “art” in so far as it is slick, clever, facile and self-conscious.

9. What is your world view? (Are you a reasonable being in a reasonable scheme?)

That humanity is the irreducible minimum of life, and affirms it by denying the existence anywhere in “life” of anything corresponding to what it finds in itself.

10. Why do you go on living?

Because I only just begin to see how to begin to be fit to live.

Blindness, from The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska (1994)

John Hull
John Hull

John Hull, an Australian theologian living in England, went blind in his forties. Black, black blind from detached retinas. His book describing the profound disorientation of self in blindness was the first I took up on my return to reading. It took some time to finish so closely did it echo my fears: the fear of the loss of self, of being cast from God’s light. The journey he recounts is as much of the passage of the soul through darkness as of the daily reality which came with a blindness so complete that he knew that he faced the sun only by the sensation of heat on his face. Even food, unseen, lost its appeal. He was no longer hungry. Life as well as sight dimmed within him.

While he struggled with the real limitations of a life without sight, treading his way with cautious steps to avoid the sudden slide when the ground slopes, or the path diverges, or obstacles block the way, he struggled also with the archetype of blindness within which he felt himself enclosed. At first the meanings he could give to the dark were as closed and as isolated as the world he inhabited even in the midst of a loving family. And indeed it is true that in many cultures, and certainly in ours, blindness has been crudely associated with a condition of unrelatedness: of being cast out, along, ignorant and confused. Because blindness disrupts the distinction between the known and the not-known that is regulated for the rest of us by sight, it represents, he says, dissolution, the borderline between being and not being. An alternative to death; as good as death.

Immersed in this archetype, unable to deny, or refuse it, yet not accepting it either, a glimmer of light flickered, a small beacon which took the form of a paradox, which as a theologian John Hull was quick to grasp, thought as a blind man slow to understand. For of course there is a paradox. For God, that transcendent being, as the blind psalmist sings, darkness and light are both alike to thee. It is for us with our dualistic either/or thinking that one is cast from the other, that one is held in opposition to the other. But a greater reality, and one we resist in our fearfulness and limitation, is that of light in darkness, and, more to the point, that of darkness in light. None of those who dwell so noisily in the realm of light wish to consider that light might contain its own darkness. And there is little in our culture to help those who inhabit the darkness grope their way to light.

Cover of first edition of "The Orchard"In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Drusilla Modjeska notes that, in her struggle to write the story of Australian painter Stella Bowen, she gave up at one point and, instead, wrote the “novel” The Orchard. I put novel in quotes because there are many essay-like passages, including a number related to Stella Bowen, that appear to be much more the thoughts of the author than of the nameless narrator in whose voice the story is told.

Modjeska attempted to weave her story around the old folk tale of “The Handless Maiden” (or “The Girl without Hands” or “The Girl with Silver Hands”). In the tale, a father cuts off his daughter’s hands in a bargain with the devil, and, many years later, her hands are restored through the love of the king who marries her. I say attempted because it’s only told at the end and, as far as I could tell, offered little to illuminate the story. The fictional element of the book is about several Australian women, united through their acquaintance with Effie, a woman in her eighties who has always pursued a very self-directed life, mostly tending to a garden seen by her friends as a haven.

Though I wasn’t persuaded by the fiction in the book, I found the narrator/Modjeska’s asides consistently interesting, and I read the book in one sitting, on a flight from Brussels to Dulles last month. Even if the novel per se wasn’t successful as such, it seems to have allowed her to work through thoughts that came together in the subsequent Stravinsky’s Lunch. Such as:

We live in a culture that daily encourages us to find our identity in that reflection of another, to experience ourselves as most real when we are in love. We live in a culture that encourages us to see ourselves as others see us. To become an object in the regard of others means that other become objects to us; and so too do we to ourselves. No wonder we are all in pursuit of control: to make sure that object is ours.

Considering that this was written before the Web exploded and social media and selfies became labels, there is a certain amount of prescience in this. Although I might argue that today, we are encouraged to think we are most real when we get a requisite number of “Likes” (in whatever form they might actually take).

[By the way, the Macmillan Australia hardcover edition I read has to have one of the most pleasant formats I’ve read in years. 7.5″ high by 4.5″ wide, it’s larger than a traditional paperback and smaller than a typical trade paperback or hardback, typeset in 11/13 Bembo. I would be happy to have a few hundred others like it — a perfect size for a myopic guy like me to travel with.]

The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska
Sydney: Macmillan Australia, 1994

Teetgen’s Teas, from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage


Three times in the course of Dorothy Richardson’s “novel in chapters,” Pilgrimage, a tea shop in a small and unnamed London street spurs an intense connection in the subconsciousness of her protagonist and fictional counterpart, Miriam Henderson. The first occurs in The Tunnel, the fourth book of the series and the first in which Miriam comes to live and work in central London. Richardson gives the moment extra dramatic effect by setting it as a chapter onto itself:

Chapter VII

Why must I always think of her in this place…. It is always worst just along here…. Why do I always forget there’s this piece … always be hurrying along seeing nothing and then suddenly Teetgen’s Teas and this row of shops. I can’t bear it. I don’t know what it is. It’s always the same. I always feel the same. It is sending me mad. One day it will be worse. If it gets any worse I shall be mad. Just here. Certainly. Something is wearing out in me. I am meant to go mad. If not I should not always be coming along this piece without knowing it, whichever street I take. Other people would know the streets apart. I don’t know where this bit is or how I get to it. I come every day because I am meant to go mad here. Something that knows brings me here and is making me go mad because I am myself and nothing changes me.

When the shop appears again, in Chapter III of Deadlock, the 6th book in the series, its emotional impact has diminished. Now four years after first walking past, it has been integrated with her thousands of experiences of London streets:

Two scenes flashed forth from the panorama beyond the darkness and while she glanced at the vagrants stretched asleep on the grass in the Hyde Park summer, carefully to be skirted and yet most dreadfully claiming her companionship, she saw, narrow and gaslit, the little unlocated street that had haunted her first London years, herself flitting into it, always unknowingly, from a maze of surrounding streets, feeling uneasy, recognising it, hurrying to pass its awful centre where she must read the name of a shop, and, dropped helplessly into the deepest pit of her memory, struggle on through thronging images threatening, each time more powerfully, to draw her willingly back and back through the intervening spaces of her life to some deserved destruction of mind and body, until presently she emerged faint and quivering, in a wide careless thoroughfare. She had forgotten it; perhaps somehow learned to avoid it. Her imagined figure passed from the haunted scene, and from the vast spread of London the tide flowed through it, leaving it a daylit part of the whole, its spell broken and gone.

In its last mention, in Chapter III of Dawn’s Left Hand, Miriam recognizes that not only the memory of the shop, but also her reaction to it, has become integrated with her larger emotional experience:

And as she surveyed the little back street, where now she found herself, in search of food to be consumed in the ten minutes left of her lunch-hour, she felt, with a comfortingly small pang of wistfulness, the decisive hour that had just gone by slide into its place in the past and leave her happily glancing along the shopfronts of this mean little back street.

Teetgen’s Teas, she noted, in grimed, gilt lettering above a dark and dingy little shop….

Teetgen’s Teas. And behind, two turnings back, was a main thoroughfare. And just ahead was another. And the streets of this particular district arranged themselves in her mind, each stating its name, making a neat map.

And this street, still foul and dust-filled, but full now also of the light flooding down upon and the air flowing through the larger streets with which in her mind it was clearly linked, was the place where in the early years she would suddently find herself lost and helplessly aware of what was waiting for her eyes the moment before it appeared: the grimed gilt lettering that forced me to gaze into the darkest moment of my life and to remember that I had forfeited my share in humanity for ever and must go quietly and alone until the end.

And now their power has gone. They can bring back only the memory of a darkness and horror, to which, then, something has happened, begun to happen?

She glanced back over her shoulder at the letters now away behind her and rejoiced in freedom that allowed her to note their peculiarities of size and shape.

teetgensmatchboxIn his invaluable Notes on Pilgrimage George Thomson reveals that Richardson took artistic license in her use of the name Teetgen’s Teas: “Kelly’s Directory records seven outlets and a factory in London for Teetgen’s Tea, Tea and Coffee Dealers and Chocolate and Cocoa Manufacturers, but none was in central London where Miriam would be likely to encounter it. As the matchbox cover shown to the right states, Teetgen’s did have a shop in Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Station, but that would have been a fair hike to the east of Miriam’s dental office on Harley Street. So we will likely never know just whose gilt lettering inspired such strong feelings in Richardson/Miriam.

Richardson’s sister-in-law, Rose Odle, did shed some light on the possible emotional connection between the shop and Richardson’s own life in an article, “Dorothy and Alan,” that appeared in Miron Grindea’s ADAM International Review in 1966. “Until Dorothy was eighteen, except for worry over Mrs. Richardson’s fluctuating health, life was good,” she wrote. Then, when Dorothy was 17, her father lost most of the family’s money in business speculations and she was led to seek employment as a means to take some of the financial burden off his shoulders. This led to her taking a post as an English teacher in a private girls’ school in Hanover, Germany – the experience recounted in the first book in Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs. “On her return home,” Rose Odle wrote,

… the little mother, who, despite her semi-invalid existence, was “the centre of jollity,” became seriously ill. For six months, Dorothy devoted herself to her — it was humanly impossible for a young girl to do more than she had done — yet, when Mrs. Richardson died, Dorothy felt not only the loss, but failure. There is a very short chapter — just a paragraph — showing it impossible for Miriam to walk in a street in London where she had been for the last time with her mother. Her dear friends of long standing have shared with me the impression that Dorothy was always somewhat withdrawn, afraid for long years — perhaps until her marriage — to give herself completely. There was always a noli me tangere about her: too great a friendship might mean a parallel loss. It may be her mother’s death that left a permanent mark on Dorothy’s mentality.

Her mother’s death is treated so indirectly at the end of Honeycomb, the third book in the series, that readers working through the text without a guide like Thomson’s are likely to miss it entirely. As Horace Gregory recounts in his short book, Dorothy Richardson: An Adventure in Self-Discovery, “On November 30, 1895, at Hastings, Dorothy Richardson took a short morning walk away from her lodgings. On her return she learned from her landlady that her mother had committed suicide by cutting her throat with a kitchen knife.” Gloria Fromm has even less to say of the event in her biography of Richardson.

But a last clue may be found in an article, “What’s in a Name?,” which appeared in Adelphi in 1924. In it, Richardson recounts her strong reaction to the name of St. Botolph’s, which was the name of the church “that saw my first spiritual desertion” at the age of six. For Richardson, “St. Botolph’s is the void, flatulent of horror.” In his name “neither shelter nor fragrance.” And she recalls when she experience her final decision to side with the agnostics against St. Botolph’s and any other church:

There was, leading to the church, a straight road, treeless. Long it probably was not. But I remember it as interminable. At intervals there were houses, large brick houses soured by being heralds of the final bitterness of St. Botolph’s, and surrounded by high walls that allowed no glimpse of gardens. My spirits, flagging always on leaving the winding ways of the old town for this bleak stretch of road, one day failed utterly, and I wept my despair aloud. That my spirits would be high and my pace eager if at the end of my walk there waited something that I loved, was the burden of the rebukes administered by outraged elders. That was true. Too true. But my logic had no words. And for words if I had them, my bitterness was too deep.

What actually did wait at the end of the dreary road, what was the quality of the good offered to youth and age in the hated edifice, I shall never know. But I know that always, treading that via dolorosa, I heard that sound: Botolph.

Whether there was any real connection in Richardson’s mind between her St. Botolph’s and Miriam’s Teetgen’s Teas, I can’t say. At the time Richardson was writing Pilgrimage, there was great interest in Freud’s writings on repressed memories and motivated forgetting, as well as the possibility of seemingly random sensations to provoke memories of suppressed traumas. Perhaps Teetgen’s Teas was Richardson’s attempt to provide an illustration of such an experience from her own life. If nothing else, the prominent treatment of the first response to the shop’s gilt lettering in The Tunnel and the subsequent mentions in Deadlock and Dawn’s Left Hand demonstrate one way in which the process of writing Pilgrimage was, as Horace Gregory puts it, a journey of self-discovery for its author.

Fun Facts from A World of Wonders, edited by Albany Poyntz (Catherine Gore) (1845)

Sketch in the Gelderland ship's journal, 1601

Credulity is unfortunately a weakness common to the human race; and a tendency to exaggeration is scarcely less universal. Between the two failings, monstrous stories obtain circulation; and as it is easier to assent than examine, the world becomes overrun with en’ors and prejudices. A curious anecdote related from mouth to mouth, becomes exaggerated into a miracle. Thus, as regards the longevity of parrots, a bird of this species which happens to survive three generations of the same family, though the period may not exceed thirty years, is talked of in the circle of their acquaintance as a Nestor or Methuselah; till, at last, from exaggeration to exaggeration, its age becomes converted into a miracle. No one, however, can personally attest the age of a parrot beyond fifty or sixty years. All the rest must be hearsay.

False pretensions and vulgar errors of this kind abound in the world: — as for instance, the belief that the pelican pierces her bosom to feed her little ones with her blood — that the scent of bean-flowers produces delirium — that the mole is blind — that the dove is a model of gentleness and conjugal fidelity; and how often are the questions still mooted whether Hannibal really worked a passage through the Alps with vinegar — whether the coffin of Mahomet be really suspended at Mecca between two loadstones — whether shooting stars be fragments of shattered planets, or souls progressing from purgatory — whether beasts of prey are afraid of fire; and whether human nature have ever exhibited affinities with the brute creation in the form of fauns, dryads, satyrs, or centaurs.

The proverbial fidelity of the dove to her mate has been equally disproved by naturalists; no person having ever kept a pair of doves without noticing that they are birds of a peculiarly irascible and quarrelsome nature.

Thiers informs us that an illustrious astrologer invented a talisman for intercepting the approach of flies to a house; when to his horror, no sooner was it suspended, than a fly, more daring than the rest, deposed a contemptuous mark of disregard upon the charm.

Albany Poyntz was at least one of the pseudonyms that Catherine Gore used for quick side projects that brought in cash to supplement the income from her novels and stories. These compendia of miscellaneous facts were very popular in the 19th Century. One industrious compiler, John Timbs, published several dozen of them on topics ranging from food and religion to medicine and literature, many of which can now be found on the Internet Archive (Link).

A world of wonders, with anecdotes and opinions concerning popular superstitions is available on the Internet Archive (Link).

from A world of wonders, with anecdotes and opinions concerning popular superstitions, by Albany Poyntz (Catherine Gore)
London: Richard Bentley, 1845

A Room of Your Own, from The World of Charmian Clift


At that moment a sports car roared up outside the block of flats, and another herd of young swept in as boisterously as an equinoctial gale to sweep my daughter off to some jollity or other, and suddenly the living-room (which is the only place I can put my desk) was seething with ebullience, and the girls were clattering backwards and forwards down the hall to put on different clothes, or to exchange the ones they were wearing (I don’t know why; I thought they looked very nice in their own), and so the boys had to wait while the girls shrieked and giggled in the bedroom, and because they had to wait they obviously thought it polite to make conversation with me, and while this was going on the landlord called to see me about a cleaning lady he had heard of (and whose ministrations I await with the ardour of a girl longing for love), a blast of rain spattered against the windows and I remembered that there was washing on the line and had to tear downstairs to retrieve it because there wouldn’t have been any towels for anybody otherwise, or clean shirts, or pyjamas for my hospital-incarcerated husband, and while I was pelting upstairs again (they were yelling down at me that I was wanted on the telephone) I thought wildly of Virginia Woolf, and also of something somebody said to me only the week before:

“You must live such an interesting life,” she said, “and meet so many interesting people.”

from The World of Charmian Clift by Charmian Clift
Sydney, Australia: Ure Smith, 1973

Gomer Pyle, from Talking into the Typewriter: Selected Letters (1973-1983), by Christina Stead










To Ettore Rolla
18th April 1975

… I have been viewing an old American serial (on TV) called Gomer Pyle. He’s a marine, kind-hearted goof, neat and able but always causes trouble, has the best heart, loveliest southem accent in the States; is a tall, lank anti-Yank, slightly bendy because he’s tall, and has an overwhelming grin. So what? Last night, I looked at him again (I’ve always liked him) because l saw it said ‘Talent Contest’ and someone told me he could really sing, not just ‘O, my Papa‘, and in fact, he can; he let out some impressive howls and (of course) won the contest. But in the course of bringing him out, the handlers (directors to you) have been really producing him and last night he stood up and sang and was really lovely and I thought, ‘But of course, that’s why I like him, he’s really a bit like Ettore‘ and though he’s called Nabors (his real name) he looked Italian (or Albanian?). Do you know? I can assure you this quite good actor is no discredit to you. Soft girlish stuff, eh? Forgive the girl….

From Talking into the Typewriter: Selected Letters (1973-1983), by Christina Stead
Fymble, NSW, Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1992

Village Life Through a Villager’s Eyes, from March Moonlight, by Dorothy Richardson


… I asked her, myself considering it for the first time, to imagine herself spending her life in a village, amongst people all known to her and many of them her relatives; to picture the experience accumulated in the consciousness of a village child, even before school pumps in its supply of easily forgotten knowledge of the business of birth and death, sudden sickness, insanity, the relentless slow progress of every kind of incurable disease, of infirmity and senility, with the exhaustive knowledge of all these things acquired in a village lifetime; to remember that in ‘a sleepy village where nothing happens,’ crime and cruelty, kindness and joy and sorrow go their way under the highest white light of publicity known to mankind. And then to imagine falling into a richly experienced, preoccupied village consciousness whose every day brings a fresh event somewhere in the huge family, even the simplest of questions, even a demand for the way to the next village, to the inquirer only an imaginary destination, the momentary halting-place of his will-o’-the-wisp, but for the local man a storehouse of memories and the scene of current events through whose crowding presences, while with vacuous, expert eye he sums the stranger up, he must thrust his way to the desired information….

From March Moonlight, by Dorothy Richardson
Published in the 1967 collected edition of Pilgrimage

Miss Cooper’s Fall from Grace, from Louise Bogan: A Portrait, by Elizabeth Frank (1985)


In a short prose piece, “Letdown,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1934 and excerpted in Elizabeth Frank’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Louise Bogan recalled how the art lessons she took from a spinster named Miss Cooper opened up a world of culture and civilization to her, until one day when her rapture was broken by the revelation that her teacher was also an ordinary human being:

One afternoon she came out of the kitchen and stood behind me. She had something in her hand that crackled like paper, and when she spoke she mumbled as though her mouth were full. I turned and looked at her; she was standing with a greasy paper bag in one hand and a half-eaten doughnut in the other. Her hair was still beautifully arranged; she still wore the silver and fire-opal ring on the little finger of the right hand. But in that moment she died for me. She died and the room died and the still life died a second death. She had betrayed me. She had betrayed the Hotel Oxford and the replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the whole world of romantic notions built around her. She had let me down; she had appeared as she was: a tired old woman who fed herself for comfort. With perfect ruthlessness I rejected her utterly. And for weeks, at night, in the bedroom of the frame house in Harold Street, I she tears that rose from anger as much as disappointment, from disillusion and from dismay. I can’t remember that for one moment I entertained pity for her. It was for myself that I kept that tender and cleansing emotion. Yes, it was for myself and for dignity and gentility soiled and broken that I shed those tears. At fifteen and for a long time thereafter, it is a monstrous thing, the heart.

In her remarks on this passage, Frank writes,

In the story of Miss Cooper’s fall from grace, Bogan tells us everything essential about the person she had become by the age of fifteen. That person was a full-blown romantic, with the romantic’s despotic requirement that reality conform to her wish, and the romantic’s susceptibility to desolating disappointment. She does not say that Miss Cooper was the first in a line of other infatuations and disillusionments, but she does not need to. It is the idea of “civilization,” and not her personal history, that she seeks to define in her memoir, and what she implies is that without a foundation in sympathy and understanding, the joys of style and taste must forever remain hollow.

I find both Bogan’s memoir and Frank’s remarks examples of stunningly good writing. Indeed, it’s a pity that Bogan never finished the autobiographical work she referred to as her “great long prose piece,” which she turned to over and again through much of her life, although we have, thanks to Ruth Limmer, a close approximation to it in Journey Around My Room (1980). But who wouldn’t want more amazing lines like “At fifteen and for a long time thereafter, it is a monstrous thing, the heart”? Or Frank’s wise conclusion that “without a foundation in sympathy and understanding, the joys of style and taste must forever remain hollow,” which I am almost tempted to adopt as a motto?

fromLouise Bogan: A Portrait, by Elizabeth Frank
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985

An Indian Train Station, from Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden


When a poor Indian family intended to travel, it seemed to take its entire belongings and move with them and all its family members — as Fa’s babus called them — into the station and camp until the right day and time arrived to take the train. They spread their mats on the platform, slept there, cooked their food over small braziers, washed under the station tap, while the coolies and other passengers and railway officials stepped round or over them; nobody seemed to mind but the platforms were crowded in a babel of noise. Not only humans used the stations: there was always a sacred bull, wandering from camp to camp and calmly helping itself to the food; there were goats, chickens, pigeons, and pye-dogs which were well fed compared to street ones — people threw scraps from trains. The beggar children knew this; people even threw money, perhaps because travelling was so spendthrift anyway that a pice or two more or less did not matter. Beggars were not allowed on the platform — the railways had some rules — but the children bobbed up on the other side of the train and stood between the tracks rubbing their stomachs and wailing, “No mummy. No daddy. No foo-oo-d,” but as they wailed they laughed and pulled faces at us. All along the platform were booths, kiosks, and barrow stalls that sold inviting things, especially hot good-smelling Indian food, but, “Not safe,” said Mam and Aunt Mary. In those days there were no ice-cream barrows but sherbert was sold, and brass trays held sticky Indian sweets. Mam bought oranges and bananas, but not the open figs or dates. There were sellers of green coconuts who would obligingly hack off the top of the nut so that the customer could drink the cool juice, and sellers of soda water, lemonade, and the virulently red raspberryade we always longed to try. There were water-sellers too. Magazines and cheap books printed in English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, were carried round on trays but best of all were the toy barrows that had chip baskets of miniature brass cooking pots and ladles, or bigger baskets of wooden toys painted with bright flowers, and wooden animals and birds, all sizes, painted with flowers too: crimson daisies, green leaves, yellow roses. There were feather dusters and fans, strings of beads of the sort worn by tikka-gharri ponies, and there was always bustle and drama and noise.

from Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden
New York: Alfred A. Knopf and The Viking Press, 1966

The Rise and Fall of Names, from A Name to Conjure With, by G. B. Stern (1953)


Almost as mysterious as our sharp individual preferences in names, are their rise and fall from fashion. When I went to school, more than fifty years ago, Dorothy was the name prevailing, with Gladys, Marjorie and Hilda as runners-up; there were, I believe, six Dorothys in my class. Joan, Vera and Winifred were also quite well represented; and Christine, Ruth, Phyllis, Norah and Olive. Ruth, like David, seems to have surmounted its Old Testament association, to survive as a popular name, whereas Esther, Naomi, Rebecca and Rachel still seem to be bestowed chiefly for Biblical reasons. My greatest friend, when I was about eight years old, was called Naomi, and because I had never encountered the name in any story book, it added to her originality in my eyes (she was the first little girl I had ever seen with a straight bob). Unluckily for me, by her precocious talent for acting she was chosen to play “Alice” in the school theatricals; her Alice was so delicious that the older girls took her up and let her walk round them at rec. (the old phrases insist on being used); they would hail her affectionately as “our little Alice,” and it looked as though my friend Naomi were never coming back to me — until she swallowed a penny and was seriously ill and away from school for several months. When she returned, glamour and dignity alike had fled; she was greeted callously and a little cruelly by Upper and Lower School, with “Hallo, Moneybox!”; while reeling from our own wit, we would beg her to cough up a penny to buy a bun, and keep the halfpenny change.

This paragraph illustrates the primary characteristic of G. B. Stern’s … well, Wikipedia calls them autobiography, but Stern herself once described them as “the ragbag chronicles that apparently I am under some compulsion to write every three or four years.” In the end, she wrote nine of them. Each had some slender connecting thread. Monogram started with objects of memorabilia sitting around her living room; Trumpet Voluntary celebrated “small good things, those that were left to us, that still went on and could not be destroyed” by the war; and this excerpt comes from A Name to Conjure With, which discursed upon the subject of, well, names.

But no matter what Stern chose as a unifying theme, she rarely managed to stay on topic for a whole paragraph, let alone a whole book. It would be close to madness to try to read them through from start to finish. Better to dip into them from time to time — long enough to savor Stern’s irrepressible good humor and endless curiosity, not so long as to want to send her off to the Laurence Sterne School for Getting to the Point.

From A Name to Conjure With, by G. B Stern
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1953

“My mother has pneumonia,” from What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-1970 (1973)


To Rolfe Humphries
December 23, 1936

Dear Rolfe:

My mother has pneumonia, and is, I think, dying. After a long struggle with her pride, I managed, this morning, to get her into St. Luke’s. — How I feel, with my pride, I don’t think you can imagine.

What we suffer, what we endure, what we muff, what we kill, what we miss, what we are guilty of, is done by us, as individuals, in private. — I wanted to kill a few interns this morning, and I shall want to kill some nurses tonight, and I know that it is a lousy system that keeps the poor, indigent old from dying as they should. But I still hate your way of doing things. To hell with the crowd. To hell with the meetings, and the public speeches. Life and death occur, as they must, but they are all bound up with love and hatred, in the individual bosom, and it is a sin and a shame to try to organize or dictate them.

Thank you for the poem. I shan’t ever see you again, I suppose,


To Morton Dauwen Zabel
December 23, 1936

Dear Morton:

The [picture of]Fury came intact, and it is so beautiful that I cried. — I would have written you before this, but my mother took sick the night before last, and today I managed to persuade her to go to the hospital, and it is pneumonia.

If you could have seen the fight she put up, right to the last. But now she is a poor dying woman. I wish I could stop remembering her in her pride and beauty — in her arrogance, that I had to fight so — and now I feel it would have been better if I hadn’t fought at all. Because under it all was so much love, and I had to fight that too.

I’ll write soon, after this is over — after I stop feeling that Lucifer should have won. The damned, niggardly, carroty, begrudging world!


To Morton Dauwen Zabel
December 27, 1936

Dear Morton:

My mother died yesterday afternoon. — In death she looks terribly scornful and proud, but I think she loved up to the end.

All I could do, last night, was read Yeats’ later poems, on what old age is, and what it does.

Somewhere beyond the curtain
Of distorting days
Lives that lonely thing
That shone before these eyes
Targeted, trod like Spring.

Say a prayer for her. Her name is Mary.


What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-1970, edited by Ruth Limmer
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973

“Would you like a cup of coffee?,” from A Mother in History, by Jean Stafford (1966)

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'A Mother in History'

“I want the truth known,” she said, sitting upright on a sofa, her hands crossed at the wrists, palm upward. “I believe the American people are entitled to the truth and I believe they want to know. Now I will agree that immediately after the assassination, and while President Johnson was taking the place of President Kennedy, let me say in all respect that this was not the time to bring these truths before the public. But after his time in office most people think — I don’t agree, but that’s beside the point — that he is a very powerful President, and the assassination itself has subsided. I think the truth should be leaked now, and if in the leaking they can prove to me that my son was the assassin of President Kennedy, I won’t commit suicide or drop dead. I will accept the facts as a good straight human being. But up until this day they have not shown me any proof and I have things in my possession to disprove many things they say. I understand all the testimony off the cuff is in Washington and will be locked up for seventy-five years. Well, I’ve got news for you. It will not be for seventy-five years, because if today or tomorrow I am dead or killed, what I have in my possession will be known. And I in my lifetime have got to continue what I have been doing, using my emotional stability and speaking out whenever I can. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

Because there was no hiatus between the proclamation of unwavering purpose and the hospitable, colloquial question, and because both were delivered in the same tone and at the same pace, I did not immediately take it in, but in a moment, I did and said I would. (The drinking of coffee in Texas is almost as involuntary as respiration.)

A Mother in History centers on three visits made by Jean Stafford to Marguerite Oswald, mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, in her little Fort Worth duplex in 1965. Stafford, who was better known as a fiction writer, may have taken the assignment for a piece originally published in McCall’s magazine out of a morbid fascination. Marguerite Oswald was quickly typecast as an eccentric in the media frenzy that followed her son’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the job was very much out of Stafford’s line. She had little prior experience as a journalist: it was only after the first day with Marguerite that she thought to rent a tape recorder and even then it took the combined efforts of both women to get it working.

In many ways, A Mother in History is an early and overlooked example of New Journalism. Stafford writes in first person, puts herself into the middle of the story, and makes no effort to hide her opinions:

“And as we all know, President Kennedy was a dying man. So I say it is possible that my son was chosen to shoot him in a mercy killing for the security of the country. And if this is true, it was a fine thing to do and my son is a hero.”

“I had not heard that President Kennedy was dying,” I said, staggered by this cluster of fictions stated as irrefutable fact. Some mercy killing! The methods used in this instance must surely be unique in the annals of euthanasia.

Neither does she disguise the sense of awe and absurdity with which she views Marguerite Oswald. Although Marguerite pronounces her family as “basic and normal” to Stafford, the course of her adult life had been pretty erratic. She had three sons by two different husbands, changed jobs and moved frequently, and dragged Lee Harvey through a dozen schools and over twenty residences before he enlisted in the Marines at 17. As folks in the South might put it, she was about a half bubble off plumb.

And she was a talker. Stafford resorted to the tape recorder after being overwhelmed by Marguerite’s non-stop recitation on the first day, which swerved in and out of past and present, fact and fiction, down-home truths and wildest fantasy. Marguerite keeps a simple but immaculate house, plays the gracious hostess with great Southern charm:

Terms of endearment came naturally to her lips, as they do to those of many Southern women; she could have been the stand-in and the off-stage voice for the woman from who I had bought a rain cape in Neiman-Marcus that morning, who rejected the first one I tried on, saying, “No, honey, that just won’t do. You little dress shows.” A Northerner is at first taken aback, then is seduced, then realizes — sometimes too late — that these blandishments are unconscious and wholly noncommittal and one need not feel obliged to reciprocate by buying the next rain cape. (In this case I did, and it comes nicely below the hems of all my little dresses.)

Despite Lee Harvey’s crimes — which Marguerite variously denies or acknowledges but never recognizes as deliberate — she is proud of Lee and his brothers. “None of them ever entered my home stinko,” she boasts to Stafford. The product of a dysfunctional family herself, Stafford treats Marguerite’s cluelessness with a certain (if there is such a thing) kind sarcasm: “Relatives are often (perhaps more often than not) the last people on earth to know anything about each other.”

Had the term been around in her day, Marguerite would have proclaimed herself an advocate of “truthiness.” Facts were less important than gut feelings. Of Lee Harvey’s Russian wife, Marina, she declares, “Marina seems French to me.” In calling Kennedy a dying man, she declares that he was suffering from Atkinson’s disease, “a disease of the kidneys,” for which there was no cure. (In fact, it was Addison’s disease, which affects the adrenal glands and is — and was in 1963 — treatable.

Marguerite delights in an audience, and considers herself the star of her show, “A Mother in History,” her self-description that gives Stafford the title for the book. Lee Harvey’s act was merely the accident that shoved her into the spotlight. And as Stafford notes, in Marguerite’s “recitative,” “President Kennedy was little more than a deus ex machina, essential but never on stage.”

Stafford quickly realizes that Marguerite needs little prodding to get started, after which she can keep going like an Energizer bunny. After she makes a remark about the difficulty of finding housing in New York City, Stafford quips to her reader, “I agreed, even though by now I knew that she was not interested in any response of any sort to anything.” Still, Marguerite does have a few secrets she prefers to keep to herself:

“My theory is a little different, because I know who framed my son and he knows I know who framed my son”

“Is ‘he’ in Texas now?”

“I can divulge nothing on that score,” she said brusquely, but screwed up her eyes in a cordial grimace to show that she forgave my intrusion into something that was none of my beeswax.

A Mother in History is not a good — in the sense of virtuous — book. Stafford does not go out of her way to protect Marguerite Oswald from herself and clearly build this book around the spectacle of a woman blithely unaware of the possibility that others might consider her ridiculous. A harsh critic could easily dismiss it as both shameless and shameful, an upscale version of Florence Aadland’s The Big Love.

But it is a good — in the sense of absorbing — read. Foreshadowing Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the combination of Marguerite’s mania and Stafford’s sarcasm result in a book that is both fascinating and funny, in a manner worthy of the best black humor of the Sixties.

A Mother in History, by Jean Stafford
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966

The purpose of planning, from To Writers, with Love, by Lesley Conger (1971)


If I am at all an expert on planning, painful experience rather than astounding success has brought it about. I am learning, however, and I think I can share with you what I have learned, which is basically this: Begin by understanding the purpose of planning.

The purpose of planning is not to hem you in, not to make you toe the line and meet schedules, not to inhibit all those impulses to follow sudden inspirations. The purpose of planning is to eliminate dithering, to free you of small daily decisions and to disengage your mind from concerns other than the one immediately at hand. The purpose of planning is also to assure you, before you begin, that you actually have something substantial worth writing. If you are an impulsive writer constantly beginning with great ideas that somehow dwindle away into nothingness and have to be abandoned, you may need to plan your work, simply to find out whether you have anything there to write. If you can’t put the gist of it into some kind of outline or statement, maybe you don’t have any gist: and it’s better to find this out before you start page one rather than after you finish page twenty.

But all plans should be flexible and roomy. Work should be planned flexibly enough to allow the mind to play and move freely. Time should be planned flexibly enough to allow for diversions and delays. Rigidity and creativity are incompatible. Cast-iron chapter plans and cast-iron schedules for writing them are fine — if you have to be a talented computer. If you are human, something closer to Play-Doh or Silly Putty would be more suitable.

The virtue of planning is that once you have an outline or a schedule made, you can give full attention to the page in front of you, knowing that you have allocated and organized properly for the pages still to come. In other words, plan ahead — and then stop looking ahead.

To Writers, with Love, by Lesley Conger
Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1971

The library at Oakland, from Seven Houses, by Josephine W. Johnson (1973)


Walk on over the leaf-patterned carpet, under the gas lamps, and there is Pickwick and Sam Weller in a huge gilt frame. It hangs above the piano. This is a busy room. There is a “dado” of landscapes near the ceiling. And pictures of landscapes on either side of the great Pickwick. I have a recent yearning for pictorial pictures again. To stand and look far back to distant mountains, to which tiny boats are heading, and on the shore tiny people picnic, while near at hand a family group of peasants — or of wealthy sightseers — gesticulate, smiling or sad, dangling long ribboned hats. patting long-haired, carefully painted dogs. The storytelling picture, the romantic painting — but at least doing something. Not blobs of color.

There are tall vases on the mantel, a shiny black bust of Beethoven on the piano. The chairs have carved legs, flowered seats, curved rockers; antlers sprout from the walls; flowers sprout from flowered vases. The Mexican vase is there. The bookcases have glass doors. Parlors, hallways, living rooms all seem to flow every which way, kept in order by massive sliding doors with square carved panels. There is so much going on in silence!

Josephine Johnson wrote Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places when she was in her sixties, and it’s a memoir constructed around the unusual framework of the seven houses in which she had spent most of her life to that point. The daughter and granddaughter of prosperous St. Louis merchants, she grew up in a household full of sisters and aunts but dominated by strong male figures. She took early to writing, but was astonished to learn she’d won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel, Now in November, in 1935.

And despite this success, as she writes in Seven Houses, “I seemed to be waiting to begin to live, and not all the beauty, all the intensity of the words on paper … all the desperate search for reform and change, the bitterness of the depression years, not the love for my sisters nor the tortuous refining of personal philosophy, seemed to be the reality of living that I wanted to find.” Despite establishing herself as a successful writer and growing up around strong women, her outlook was still dominated by the need for a strong male figure: “And then I met Grant Cannon and the waiting to live was over and the real life began.”

Seven Housess was written not long after Johnson published The Inland Island (1969), a book that some have compared to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — a book very much about the impact of landscape on the writer’s life and perceptions. And, ironically, despite its title, Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places is as much about the landscapes and seasons outside as it is about the things that went on inside. “But there was too much house, too little land,” she writes of a house she shared with Cannon and their children for over ten years. At times, Johnson seems to be struggling to understand where she wants to go with her memoir, but even in its occasional disorientation, Seven Houses is a unique and often moving reflection on life in all its elements.

Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places, by Josephine W. Johnson
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1973

The Education of Myself, from When Found, Make a Verse Of, by Helen Bevington (1961)

"Bad books are the fontain of Vice," pages from "Manuscript commonplace book, largely taken up with rules for constructing sundials," ca. 1745 by James Blake
“Bad books are the fontain of Vice,” pages from “Manuscript commonplace book, largely taken up with rules for constructing sundials,” ca. 1745
by James Blake

The education of myself began one day in March at the University of Chicago. It happened suddenly during the spring term of my junior year. I was eighteen years old and I saw a blinding light. That day I went into the university bookstore and bought two notebooks, one of them to hold a list of books that was beginning to gather in my head. Yesterday a professor had murmured a lovely title, The Golden Treasury, which became my first entry, page 1. The second entry was Bernard Hart’s The Psychology of Insanity, though I have forgotten now why I wanted to read it.

For the second notebook I had no clear plan except to put it to immediate use. When I returned to my room, I thought for a while and then wrote on the inside cover, “Chiefly about Life.” The book, secret and indispensable, became a major part of my education. Thereafter, anything I read, in a book, magazine, or newspaper, was a possible source of material. It might contain powerful and enlightened words that I could copy into my notebook.

Heaven pardon my taste, but at least it was catholic. From Carl Van Vechten’s current popular novel Peter Whiffle, I wrote, “A man with a broad taste in food is inclined to be tolerant in regard to everything,” and believing tolerance to be a good thing, I stopped disliking any food. Out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s silliest volume, Flappers and Philosophers, I took this: “All life is just a progression toward and then a regression from one phrase, ‘I love you.'” From Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I noted and learned by heart what happiness is: “Happiness therefore is that estate whereby we attain, so far as possibly may be attained, the full possession of that which simply for itself is to be desired, and containeth in it, after an eminent sort, the contentation of our desires, the highest degree of all our perfection.”

I set down Miltons prayer to the heavenly muse: “What in me is dark/Illumine,” and wrote in large letters from Peer Gynt, “Troll, to thyself be enough.” Occasionally, I even quoted my professors if, like Professor Percy Boynton, they were given to aphorisms: “I dissent from the rather fatuous dictum that all the world loves a lover. Most of us are bored and embarrassed by him.”

It was the first of my notebooks, all chiefly about life. Since that spring I have always kept one to catch the powerful words, wherever they are. When found, I have a note of. Sometimes lately I am aware that time has brought real changes to my mind and to the tone of my selections, which tend to lack there former earnestness and sobriety. Only yesterday, I came across a useful quotation from Max Beerbohm, another definition of what happiness is. He called it “a four-post bed in a field of poppies and mandragora.”

From When Found, Make a Verse of, by Helen Bevington
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961

Presented here to introduce, an off-shoot of this site, that is my own electronic equivalent to Helen Bevington’s notebooks: an Internet common-place book whose entries have in common only that I found them interesting and that they can usually be read in a minute or two.

Welcome to America, from The Trees and the Fields Went the Other Way, by Evelyn Eaton


I arrived in New York with thirty-five dollars, a camera and a fur coat. I asked the taxi driver where he thought I ought to stay and he took me to a small hotel on Broadway in the seventies. Here I found a room for nine dollars a week, paid for two weeks, and went out to pawn the camera and the coat.

When I got back I was tired, and more than a little afraid. I lay on the bed in the stifling little cell with its grimy walls, and turned on a switch marked “radio.” A grating in the wall gave forth with dance music. Then there came a pause and a man’s voice said gravely: “Now for an important message.”

“Here it comes,” I thought. “War . . . it must be war. . .” I braced myself in anguish for what everyone in Europe feared, expected. . . .

“Do you suffer from acid indigestion?” the grave voice asked. I could not believe what I heard. I thought perhaps my mind had given way. The strain of recent years, the journey, this exile in a foreign country . . .

There were no commercials on my radio in Europe. It was my first encounter with the never-never land of phony sell. I listened bewildered. The news when it came said nothing about war. It talked of names and people and events I could not relate to. I knew nothing about the United States except what I had gathered in my childhood. I might as well have traveled to the moon for all I knew about my new surroundings.

From The Trees and Fields Went the Other Way, by Evelyn Eaton
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974

The Shop in Hastings, from This Was a Man: Some Memories of Robert Mannin, by Ethel Mannin (1952)

Another feature of Hastings was a shop at the edge of the old town and the fishing quarters, with glass cases outside, full of every kind of shell, and boxes covered with shells, and shell necklaces, and shells painted with views; and dried starfish there were, and the hedgehog-like shells of sea-urchins, and shells like great horns–cornucopia such as one saw in paintings of goddesses of plenty, shells with rosy interiors, shells like great silver snails, shells that were flat plates of mother-of-pearl, and long narrow razor-like shells, and black ‘devil’s purses’-—a most wonderful and exciting shop. And just as you could listen forever to the blind men playing the violin and the piano together, so you could gaze at this wonderland of sea-treasures forever. What is good should never end, the moment be extended into eternity.

Only a few years ago I went back to Hastings, and to my great joy the shell shop was still there, and I could have sworn the same shells were in the glass cases, and I gazed as raptly in my forties as the child with not a decade of years to its name had gazed, in summers that seemed always hot and sunny. We do not, fundamentally, change; of that I am convinced. Life knocks us about, pushes us around, this and that happens to us as our bodies increase in size and our minds expand in receptivity and power, but the core of the individual remains the same-—delighted with cornucopia shells, frightened of dogs, shy of strangers, the anxieties and the eagernesses better under control, but induced by very much the same experiences. And, given a chance, we are still capable of that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which makes it possible to hear-—quite plainly—the sea’s murmur in a shell.

This Was a Man: Some Memories of Robert Mannin is a slender tribute to her father that Ethel Mannin wrote several years after his death. She later wrote that she considered it her best work. The book certainly displays a tenderness, a wistfulness, that is rarely found in her own memoirs.

Robert Mannin led an unexceptional life. Born in Westminster when that area of London still had its share of slums, he took advantage of what little education he had to earn a low-paying position as a mail sorter in the Post Office, where he worked for over thirty years. When he retired, he and his wife took a small house in the countryside near London, and he spent many of his last days living with Ethel. He died on Christmas Eve, 1949, in the public ward of a London hospital. At his funeral, “No one wept, and no one felt constrained to utter any of the conventional falsities.”

This Was a Man: Some Memories of Robert Mannin is a tribute more to his character than his accomplishments. by his daughter’s account, he was a pleasant man who held no great credos aside from an almost-Buddhist sense of peace with his fate. He refused, for example, to leave his bed and evacuate to a shelter during the bombing raids on London. “If a bomb’s got Bob Mannin written on it,” he told Ethel, “then I’m for it whatever I do, and if it hasn’t there’s nothing to worry about!” Although he loved to tell stories about the music hall performers, such as Little Tich and Marie Lloyd, that he saw in his youth, he was could also spend hours sitting in Ethel’s garden doing nothing more than watching the clouds in the sky. His relaxed approach to life hardly rubbed off on his daughter, though, who wrote that, “My own inclination is always against procrastination or postponement, just because ‘tomorrow’ so soon becomes ‘today.'”

In the decade of your youth, from Un-American Activities, by Sally Belfrage (1991)


Of course it’s possible to make generalizations about numbered ten-year slots, thought they don’t much work until after the fact. “We’re not in ‘the eighties,'” said Abbie Hoffman about a later decade, “we’re in a delicatessen in New York City.” You could say the fifties were the end of the era when chauvinism was still about countries and a dip was something you did on the dance floor, not stuck your crudités into; before smoking officially killed you and food, air, sex, and water generally didn’t; when the drugs in circulation were legal and it was safe to walk alone at night. But such observations have no significance at the time to a person who is simply swamped by the whole thing. When you are growing up in it, it isn’t the fifties or the sixties or anything else–it’s just a part, your part, of some terrible, vast ocean. You don’t give any thought to whether the waves are Atlantic or Pacific; if they’re about to drown you, who cares if they started in the Black Sea or the Red, or are saltier or tougher than the Caribbean? In the decade of your youth, the first wave merges with the last, and you know nothing about the time’s distinctness: your job is just to keep afloat.

Sally Belfrage’s Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties is both one of the funniest and one of the saddest books. Growing up in an America where fitting in seemed a higher goal even than getting rich, Belfrage was cursed with some seemingly insurmountable obstacles: “My parents were foreigners and got married a lot, they went in for weird food and funny clothes, they were always moving.” Her mother, Molly Castle, had been the hottest young columnist in England in the 1930s, “The Girl Everyone Reads,” a voice of authority on style, glamor and celebrity. Her father, Cedric Belfrage, had been a film critic, a press agent for Sam Goldwyn, a screenwriter in Hollywood, an operative for M.I.6 in New York City, an agent for the Americans in post-war Germany, setting up democratically-oriented newspapers, and–oh, yeah, an ardent leftist and one-time Communist. He also had a mistress he’d brought back from Europe and set up apartment with, leaving his family to fend for themselves much of the time. She was the only kid in her class whose phone was tapped and whose house was regularly visited by F.B.I. agents.

“When my teens began, it dawned on me: the only untried, unheard-of, truly original ambition I might pursue was to be normal.” Much of Un-American Activities is devoted to recalling her earnest efforts to fit in. She had the help of her downstairs neighbor, Debbie, who knew everything from how to keep boys from getting past first base to when and when not to wear lipstick. Tall, blonde and beautiful, Sally should have had an easy time achieving a survivable level of popularity, but her academic abilities landed her in the Bronx High School of Science, where she still the oddball, the lone shiksa in a school full of geeky Jewish guys.

And there was the matter of her parents. Despite the fact that the half-life of Cedric Belfrage’s Communist Party membership could be measured in days, he was an open and unabashed pinko, the kind of radical who befriended emigrant European intellectuals, partied with Paul Robeson, and kept on founding left-wing magazines. He was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He simply would not keep a low-profile. Ironically, it was his wife who was the first to be deported.

Despite all this turmoil, however, Sally managed to get a boyfriend–a West Point cadet, no less. He offers her the promise of a life complete with two kids and a station wagon. All she has to do is keep his mother, who’s torn between hating her for being the daughter of Communists and hating her for being Goy. But then, when her father is finally kicked out of the country, Walter Winchell blasts out the news on his nightly radio show: “Flash. Pinko Cedric Belfrage, who edits a smelly sheet in NYC, will be taken from West Street jail to be deported, probably tomorrow. Good riddance!”

Un-American Activities ends with an epilogue in which Sally revisits her parents, both remarried (her father several times over) thirty-some years later, nurses her father in his final days, and has a whirlwind affair with her old West Point boyfriend, now a two-star general involved in Reagan’s Star Wars program. It is something of a let-down, offering little in the way of added perspective on the preceding story.

Which is unfortunate, because her story after her parents’ deportation–if she’d been a little more willing to go into the details–is that of a life far more interesting and individualistic than either of her parents. In the late 1950s, she played hooky from an escorted tour to the Soviet Union and ended up spending six months on her own in Moscow, telling the tale in her first book, A Room in Moscow (1958). A few years later, she joined the Freedom Riders, traveling through the segregated South and helping blacks register to vote, which she wrote about in Freedom Summer (1966). In the late 1970s, she left her husband (Bernard Pomerance, author of The Elephant Man) and spent time on guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s ashram, an experience she described in Flowers of Emptiness (1981). In the mid-1980s, she traveled to Belfast to collect the impressions of resident on all sides of the conflict for her 1987 book, The Crack: A Belfast Year. None of her books made much money, and when she died of breast cancer in 1994 at the age of 57, she was living in a tiny flat in Maida Vale. She was fondly remembered by her friends, however. Ceremonies were organized in her honor, including a tribute in New York City hosted by Maya Angelou.

Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties, by Sally Belfrage
New York City: Harper Collins, 1994

Innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish, from Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather

notunderfortyWilla Cather is hardly a neglected writer, but even in the work some of the best-known writers, there are little gems that have been rattled off into a dusty corner by the thumping feet of their magna opera. This comes from an essay on Katherine Mansfield in Not Under Forty (1936), which was the last book Cather published.

I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday “happy family” who are merely going on living their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them. Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavour. As in most families, the mere struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at the breaking-point.

One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbour’s household, and, underneath, another–secret and passionate and intense–which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works.

Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936

My Mother’s Hands, from Journey Around My Room, by Louise Bogan


My mother had true elegance of hand. She could cut an apple like no one else. Her large hands guided the knife; the peel fell in a long light curve down from the fruit. Then she cut a slice from the side. The apple lay on the saucer, beautifully fresh, white, dewed with faint juice. She gave it to me. She put the knife away.

(Or she would measure off, with one forefinger set across another, the width of some ribbon or lace which had run in rows around the skirt and sleeves of some dress she loved and remembered. “Narrow red velvet,” she would say, or “white Val lace”; and the color and delicacy of the wide circles would be perfectly brought back into being. Or she would describe the buttons on some coat or winter dress: “cut steel” or “jet” or “big pearl.” Suddenly all the elegance of her youth came back.)

Her hands were large and her fingers were padded under their tips. Their chief beauty lay in the way they moved. They moved clumsily from the wrist, but intelligently from the fingers. They were incapable of any cheap or vulgar gesture. The fingernails were clear and rather square at the tips. The palms of her hands were pink.

When she sewed, and that, in my childhood, was rarely, I could hear the rasp of the needle against the thimble (she had a silver one), and that meant peace. For the hands that peeled the apple and measured out the encircling ribbon and lace could also deal out disorder and destruction. They could tear things to bit; put all their soft strength into thrusts and blows; they would lift objects so that they became threats of missiles. But sometimes they made that lovely noise of thimble and needle. Or they lifted the scissors and cut threads with a little snip.

From Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan, a book of exceptionally fine writing, in a category with John Guest’s Broken Images–so good I find myself slowing down to savor, slowing down to make it last.

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

The Piano Box, from Hide and Seek, by Jessamyn West


The Kurzmann itself was wasted on me, but the box it was shipped in wasn’t. It became my house; not a playhouse, a place where I played at keeping house, but a real house where I lived. Who needs to play at keeping house when there are three younger children, and a mother never very well, to keep house with?

… Actually, I didn’t spend much time looking out. The box was for being in, not looking out. I didn’t get in there to escape work; if anyone wanted me they knew where I would be. I didn’t play house there. I was a constant reader, but I never read there any more than I would read in church. I was a considerable eater, but I never ate there. I never entertained visitors there; though, since the biting episode, no one was very eager to share close quarters with me.

I got into the box to experience a feeling I had only when I was in a place of my own, alone, with no one near or threatening to be near. I do not even yet know the exact name for the feeling. It was an intense feeling of awareness and of complete peace. I might call it joy, but I could be joyful when I was with others: while box joy, tub joy, the joy of solitude, was a bliss that came only when I was alone and then only on special occasions.

At that age I did not know that I got into the box or the tub or later the room or the trailer in search of box bliss. Later I knew what I was seeking. Later the feeling included what I saw: the room and its objects — books, fire, flowers, the swinging pendulum of a clock. When the bliss came upon me or was coming upon me, I would move a chair so that the firelight could not be blocked from a brass bowl. I would replace a blue-bound book with one that was red. I would seep the hearth if I saw that it was dusty. The room, the shell of my solitude, and its contents was a still life I had painted and was still painting. Sitting alone in that room, waiting, experiencing, I became part of the still life. The room have me beatitude, and my beatitude filled the room.

The experience was not unlike those reported by drug-takers, though nothing strange or frightening ever happened: flames never crept up the walls; wallpaper designs did not come to life with octopus tendrils; the sofa’s edge never hung above an abyss. There was a high, a euphoria, a radiance that enveloped and presently ebbed. But never anything that alarmed.

In the piano box, the dream-box factory, I did not, when I was a child, usually look out. Seeing outside, when I was a child, shattered box magic. But occasionally the magic was strong enough to envelop and enhance the persons I saw moving about in the yard. They were familiar but strange; related to me but with lives of their own, of which I had heard reports only. When the mystery took hold of them (and me), they walked about like storybook figures, out of a world stranger than mine.

Seen from my piano-box opening, my mother and father, brothers and sister were both more and less than themselves; less in that they were part of my dreaming; more in that, though they were part of my dreaming, the dream enlarged and enhanced them. I saw them not as the flat figures of one summer’s evening and relatives of mine to boot, but as characters, persons with the experience of their known past and even of their imagined future enveloping them.

from Hide and Seek, by Jessamyn West
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973


A Sleepless Summer Night in Bordeaux, from The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson (1945)

Later, from the window of my bedroom on a corner of the Place des Quinconces, I watched the lights blazing outside the theatre — they should be gas-lamps — and along the quays, those on the farther side of the Garonne reflected in the past, in her present. A dialogue between a piano and a violin began in the large cafe at a corner endlessly continued, using up what little air, what little darkness, there was.

I was sleepless not only because of the breathless heat, but I feared to overlook the one thing that was keeping her and meaning to give her up in its own time. And Bordeaux scarcely slept. The cafe was awake until long after midnight, and at three o’clock men were sweeping the streets, and talking, between it and the river. Very early, almost before dawn, the lamps still burning along the quays, but as if abolished already by the still absent light, a single star, immense, appeared over the harbour.

I watched a little colour come into the sky as stealthy as that which unbelievably came back after she died, only to her cheeks, not her far too suave mouth above the shadow formed of trees and houses crowding the other bank of the river. In a few minutes there was a full chorus of birds in the Place des Quinconces, the star dwindled to a dot, the street-lamps went out on the quays, flicked off by a thumb. Stretching itself, the light pushed the sky away on all sides, and just after four the sun sprang from the Garonne directly into my room. I ought now to have closed the shutters, but I was too eager. Abroad, I am very much the captain’s wife in my curiosity: which is at its most alert in towns: it seizes its chance to sleep when I take it to the country.

Bordeaux was making signs and I could not read them. The conversation went on outside, growing more lively and complicated a plume of factory smoke in the clear sky ; cranes leaning over the unruffled brightness of the river; oddly cut down by the sun, the two lighthouse-columns; the breeze, only audible where it crossed the branches of a tree ; the traffic thickening with every minute; a girl and a young man laughing together on their way to work; men in washed-out blouses: above them all, an incessant darting and crossing of noisy shuttles, the swifts.

By seven o’clock the heat was frightful, the Garonne had lost its colour a breath of mist clouded the glass. I closed both shutters, but the heat had settled itself firmly in the room ; it clung to the heavy gilt overmantel and the stains on rose-flowered carpet and wall-paper. I felt ill, and rang for coffee to pull me together.

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

Around the Campfire, from The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, by Josephine Herbst (1991)

Editor’s note: In 1898, Josephine Herbst journeyed from Sioux City, Iowa with her mother and three sisters to visit an uncle in Oregon. Together, the two families traveled by wagon to the coast, where they spent a few weeks camping in the woods alongside a beach, playing, swimming, fishing, and talking at night around the campfire. Nearly seventy years later, she recalled that trip in an essay about her childhood, parents, and family, titled “The Magicians and Their Apprentices.” Unpublished during her lifetime, it was collected along with three other autobiographical pieces in The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs, with an introduction by Diane Johnson–a book that, in my opinion, ranks as one of the finest works of autobiography written by an American during the 20th century.


This was a summer for lore beyond books. Your hands and feet learned more than they had ever known they could do: how to catch mud cats and cut them up for bait; how to cast a line in a trout stream; how to dig your hands in oozy mud after the clam had squirted the signal of his little geyser. How to wait on the tide and how to find sea urchins and small frogs and ferns of sea moss in quiet pools. How to pry the rock oyster from his stony bed and how to cook him. How to catch a crab without getting pinched. How to walk barefoot on a slippery fallen log across the fiery sparkle of a tumbling mountain brook. How to stand still when you saw a deer. How to sit still around the campfire and listen to the gorgeous talk of grownups, who lived in their world, and you in yours, neither troubling to be pals with the other but only good friends.

It was a summer to remember not just for the new things your hands and feet discovered but for the glitter it offered of some distant beyond. There was someone’s beyond behind you, and a beyond to come to pass, and this interlude was the curious glowing union of past and present, promises and reality. The grownups were the magicians, the children their apprentices.

It was at night, in the light of the big campfire of driftwood, where the burning splinters fell in sparks the color of the rainbow or shot into tiny sulfurous spurts or foundered in pools of verdigris green, that the magicians and the apprentices played their true roles. For the circle was so gently relaxed, some sitting on rugs, some lying down and extending hands or feet toward the blaze, that a child of six could feel as detached as a bit of moss in a pool now covered by the tide. The very sound of the ocean and the sight of the sky, where the stars were bright buoys floating on their own watery deep, made you feel gently suspended in water, rocking in the vast hammock of the night. The voices of the grownups, slow, sometimes quietly breaking into laughter, communing over things dead and gone, remembering when my uncle and my mother were boy and girl together in a big family of other boys and girls, now scattered or dead, cast long lines backward in time and across a continent. There became here and then was now. The magicians might have been casting lines across an ocean covering buried towns and farms, so dreamlike was the world they called to life, so haunting the images, so watery the night, so true the history that branched its coral islands to you, because it had belonged to them.

Strange names of towns burst like sparks of dying wood. A dead aunt once more played the piano on Arch Street in Philadelphia, and the wild boy who went south to Georgia sent home a bunch of bananas to hang at the top of the stairs. The red bird sang in his gilded cage, and the mockingbird died. Once more the faithful dog Rebbie begged for bread spread with smearcase and apple butter. And against the glow of the fire, the flesh of your bare toes became rosy luminous; the delicate dark skeleton showed stiff as the charred twigs of a burning bush.

from The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs, by Josephine Herbst

Contemplating Heaven and Hell, from Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, by Lesley Conger (1963)

I am sitting here and contemplating Heaven and Hell.

Of course at the outset it has to be understood that I don’t believe in either of them. Still, as concepts they are interesting, and what is particularly interesting is that all the minds that have been bent to the task over the centuries have made a much better job of imagining Hell than they have of imagining Heaven. So far what I’ve seen of Dante’s Hell fits into the usual patter of tortures and torments, but it is more subtle, more ingenious, and more detailed. Dante, like the Mikado, has made the punishment fit the crime — which is, I think, philosophically acceptable. I wrote a short story once (it never saw the dark of print) in which Hell was a place where some power gave us the giftie of seeing oursel’s as others see us. The sinner was doomed, in my Hell, to reliving endlessly the least savory moments of his past, with the added pleasure of being able to perceive, as if he were audience as well as actor, how mean and petty, vicious and cruel he had been. In a Heaven to match, I suppose, one would be allowed to fit one’s most inflated self-image.

I find Heaven, however, unimaginable. The traditional clouds, wings, and harps are preposterous; and as for the eternal picnicking and fish frying of Green Pastures, well, I have never cared that much for picnics. The idea of a perpetual summer vacation repels me. Nasty as it is, the world seems more interesting and more suited to man’s psychological make-up, though perhaps in Heaven man is relieved of his earthly psychology and can therefore tolerate tedious and eternal bliss.

Struggle is a natural factor in man’s relationship with his environment, his fellow man, and himself. Where would be the joy in growing a garden if there were no weeds, if sunshine and rain came in the required amounts, and everything were bound to flourish even if you did nothing about it? I am not much of a gardener, so let us suppose that in Heaven a writer needed only paper and pen (easily requisitioned from the angel in charge of office supplies) and knew that all he had to do was set one to the other and a work of genius would automatically result. My reaction would be — why bother? You would find me sitting on some primrose cloud, disgruntled and miserable and bored to tears, with nothing to do that seemed worth doing.

Happily ever after is really a ghastly ending to any story. Besides, happiness is nothing absolute; it requires unhappiness to make it palpable. Food is useless without hunger, sleep demands fatigue, and accomplishment is the lofty mountain that rises from the plain of inactivity and failure. In a perfect world, what opportunity would there be for the exercise of wisdom, of tolerance, of pity, of charity, of fortitude? We would have to shed all these like so much excess baggage and sit in beatific contemplation of the beauties around us, rather like a stupefied and inert television audience.

To turn to Hell — could absolute torment remain torment forever? Or is torment torment only when one entertains some small hope of escape or release? The souls immersed in Dante’s river of blood, boiling in it to the end of time — why do they struggle to get out? In Hell is the soul forever reactivated in its human desires while in Heaven it is relieved of them? Or if in Hell it is cunningly contrived that each tormented soul shall know short periods of relief in order to keep the torment sharp and stinging, is it likewise ordered in Heaven to provide enough misery and disappointment, enough hunger, fatigue, cold, and pain, to make pleasure pleasurable?

My coffee is fine, and so is the gorgonzola spread on the tiny crackers. I like it so moldy that it makes my ears sing as if they were full of gnats. Is there mold in Heaven, or only for those who love mold? Would my cheese become moldy and my neighbor’s not?

A Jehovah’s Witness once asked me in syrupy tones if I didn’t want to like in the Kingdom where the lion would lie down with the lamb, flowers would be everywhere, and all would be perfection. I said no, it sounded tiresome; and I shut the door.

I am still waiting for somebody to come up with a Heaven worth getting into.

from Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, by Lesley Conger (pseudonym of Shirley Suttles)
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963

The names of the cars had thrilled him, from Cousin to Human, by Jane Mayhall

The names of the cars had thrilled him. Hudson and Buick, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Lincoln and Ford, Chevrolet, Studebaker, DeSoto and Dodge; their names stabbed in his heart like weapons of love. And that there should exist fifteen thousand automobiles in the city, and that one of these ready-made vehicles should not, at last, belong rightfully to Norman Cole was beyond his powers of understanding. That the great names, the life-giving names of engine and wheel, General Motors, American Trucking, Goodyear, and Body by Fisher, or that the names of turbine and throttle, axle and pinion, names of steel companies, aluminum, and importers of rubber, that these great dynastic names and name-givers of time and space, in a clamor of pistons, combustion, and fast acceleration, providing the wherewithal to encompass the worlds of America—that these mixed spirits of whose ubieties he knew not, but sensed where they were, omnipresent and unseen, that the magnanimous names and name-fathers of industry should not make it finally possible for Norman to attain and to keep a new car was almost beyond his mind and his reason. The city itself, abounding with the visible influences of whiskey merchants, tobacco tycoons, moguls of metal, the sheer weighty sum of illustrious tradesmen and affluent producers, appeared to present a grand and superlative evidence that opportunity was open to one and to all. “Buy More and Save,” “Dividends and Plus,” “New Heights of Delight.” Ready and open and given to all. On upper Broadway, set beyond intentions of glittering glass, the automobile salesrooms were constantly ablaze with spotlights and mirrors, standing out at night like an electric sunrise. Or, he thought of them by day, opalescent and strange, like transparent caves wherein lolled the comely creatures of self-locomotion; shining with non-breakable windows, bodies of chromium-blue, sable and mauve, crimson or pale yellow—like fish in a formidable bowl, they floated with a beauteous mien.

“Pay Us On Time,” “The Choice Is All Yours,” “Enjoy Yourself While You Can.” Everywhere now, when he saw these advertisements, his secret manhood was touched; Norman felt awakened to a sense of aspiration that he had thought long since dead. That was who he was! Dodge and Plymouth, Buick and Whippet, and sometimes the names seemed almost to have been invented by himself—so near they were to his marrow. He was not an immodest man, and he saw himself in perspective. But was it not finally for him, and others like himself, hard working job-owners who earned what they made, that the sovereign powers were intended? Was it not for him that the cities and the countryside were plotted with roads, and the highways to new adventure? It was the normal way to live, and it only seemed right. Every week, he saw it exhibited there, in Liberty Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, some vision of stalwart cliffs and frothy cascades, picnic grounds extending three thousand miles long, bewitching, exotic, verdant, and free. Was it not he, himself, who was meant to enjoy the sun-baked desert and green-oaked forest? Lush in the sward and the sweet downy glade. Off the coast of South Carolina, there were isles of romance, fruit-bearing trees and black-tufted palm.

“The World Is Your Own Back Yard!”

Well he knew that, and only required the time yet to prove.

from Cousin to Human, by Jane Mayhall

Shut Up and Eat Your Squab, from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma, Lady Furness


Once Mamma left us in Barcelona while she went to America for a short visit. We were then eight, going on nine, and we had not yet seen our own country. We asked to be taken with her. Mamma did not approve, so we stayed home with Papa. But a week or so after Mamma left, we had a wonderful surprise. Dr. Mann, our family physician and friend, arrived at the house with four pigeons a pair for each of us. Carlos, the butler–also our friend–built us a cage for them on the terrace. The pigeons seemed happy in their new home, and we promptly named them. They were Isabella and Ferdinand, Jeanne and Carlos. One day, when we got home from school, our friend Carlos met us at the door. “I have news for you, twins,” he said, leading us to the pigeon cote. “Look, they have laid eggs and are sitting on them. Someday soon you will have baby pigeons.”

“When? How soon?” we asked.

Carlos smiled. “You will have to wait,” he said. “Nature takes its own time.”

Naturally, we were excited. We had never had any pets of our own before, much less baby pigeons. Every day after school we would sit by the hour, watching the nesting birds. We sat in silence, afraid that any sound might disturb the delicate balance of nature. Then one day as we clambered up to the terrace we heard Carlos calling to us. “Look, twins/ he said, “they are here–the little pigeons–six of them.”

We ran to the nest, and we were horrified. We had expected soft, fluffy little things-like the baby chicks you see at Easter. Instead, we saw six wet, ugly little creatures with heads bigger than their bodies. We were ready to cry. But Carlos comforted us. “Wait and see,” he said. “In a few days they will be beautiful.” And they were.

Meanwhile, we racked our brains trying to find suitable names for them. Mamma returned from America. “Come, Mamma,” I said. “Come outside and see what a beautiful sight we have to show you.”

Mamma took one look at our baby pigeons; then, to our horror, she ordered them killed. From inside the house we heard her say to Carlos, “Let the parent pigeons loose, Carlos. Then kill the baby pigeons. We will have them for dinner.”

“Oh, no, Mamma!” Gloria wailed; “please let them stay at least until they are old enough to fly away.” Now, very near hysteria, we screamed in turn: “Don t kill them! Don t kill them! Why? Why? They’re so little they don’t take up any room at all.”

All our pleading left Mamma cold. Her mind was set.

“Why are you doing this?” I screamed, as she turned to leave. “Why?”

“Why?” Mamma looked at me with ice in her eyes; I had dared to question her orders. “Because,” she said, “my dear grandmamma always told me that pigeons bring misfortune, bad luck, and poverty into a house and my dear grandmamma was always right.”

Gloria and I put our arms around each other and cried help lessly and in desperation; this was our first great grief. But whether we were brokenhearted or not, that night we were given squab for dinner. Carlos must have been crying, too, for as he served our baby pigeons we noticed that his eyes were red and swollen.

Heads down, out of the corners of our eyes we watched Mamma. “Eat your dinner,” she commanded.

“Oh, no, no, Mamma,” Gloria said pathetically. “We cannot eat our babies.”

“Stop this nonsense,” Mamma snapped. “Eat your dinner or leave the room.”

The tears again started down our cheeks. Together we got up and left the room. Through the fog of our feelings we were conscious of her brittle voice announcing, “No dessert for a week.”

We went to our room and sobbed until we were exhausted. “I don t care if we never have dessert again,” Gloria wailed. “I only want to bring our baby pigeons back to life.” And together we cursed this ogress of a grandmother, a woman we had never seen and would never see who seemed to stand for everything that didn’t matter, and who seemed to destroy everything that did.

While horrifying, this anecdote–perhaps more imagined than remembered–reminds me of one of those old “Mommy, Mommy” jokes from the 1960s:

“Mommy, Mommy, want happened to Fido?”
“Shut up and eat your meatloaf!”

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

Snow in London, from A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley

"London Snow," a wood engraving by Gwen Raverat

The Wind Blows High

The wind, the wind, the wind blows high,
The snow is falling from the sky.
Maisie Drummond says she’ll die
For Want of the Golden City.

Children’s Game

The last day of February I929.

At Bayswater when I enter the Underground the sky is dull as canvas and still — the shadowed ceiling of a marquee without so much as a flap. Here, at Charing Cross, I step into this white and whirling dance of snow. I stand on the kerb-edge beside this huge policeman. His black cape flaps out like a crazed or injured bird while his broad red hand directs those who wish to cross the Strand. I do not wish to cross. I stand there, the palms of my ungloved hands upturned, face flung back, eyes closed, mouth open to catch the dancing flakes. It is no use, they melt before one can taste them; they do not make enough moisture even to swallow. But they touch my eye-lids with infant’s fingers. And my dark hair is full of a scatter of white flowers. “You want to cross?” the policeman’s voice is very loud and close; I open my eyes with a jerk.

“Isn’t it marvelous,” I say.

“Marvelous? Ugh!” He guides a child by the arm and crosses between the stationary traffic: then, ponderously, taking his time, he returns to my side.

Now he looks me over. My face, my throat and the backs of my hands are brown as an Indians.

“You a Londoner?” he asks.

I laugh at his perplexity. “Yesterday — not. Today . . . perhaps,” and find myself perplexed.

“You staying long?”


And then . . . Is that true, I think . . . am I staying forever? London. This city to which I’ve travelled twelve thousand miles — whose streets my guided fingers traced at the age of four — nostalgic since infancy? Not the land of the Maori — but this so-strangely-known city, birthplace of my father . . . is it to be my city also? — the goal, the end of seeking? This “Here and Now,” . . at last my home?

I fling my arms wide — “For all my life,” I add.

from A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley
London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1982
New York: McGraw Hill, 1983

Dinner Party at Sea, from Flamingo, by Mary Borden


The dinner party, thanks to the little pills that Mr. Parkinson always had by him, was a great success. Mr. Parkinson swallowed one, and made Mrs. Prime do the same, saying in his high, funny falsetto voice, “Here you are, Biddy,” and then the cocktail table shot across the floor and he went with it, landing on his head in a flowerpot. But he didn’t seem to mind. He picked himself up, ruefully feeling his head and smiling, and Mrs. Prime cried out, “Oh, darling Perky,” rather crossly, and pulled his clothes straight. They were evidently great friends.

That sort of thing kept happening during the evening. Still, Mr. Daw’s little dinner was very nice. It was like all pleasant expensive dinners, except that the ship turned over on its side every ten minutes, carrying with it down the sliding slope of a rushing monstrous mass of water the panelled restaurant with its gleaming white cloths and its pretty shaded lamps; except that the waiters clasping bottles of champagne fell on their knees and shot swiftly backward like crabs, and the peaches from California rolled round the floor, and the musicians went headlong with their fiddles and music racks on top of them, after the piano, crash, into a heap in the corner; except that Gussie’s slim little feet were covered with a soft warm mess of scrambled eggs that came scuttling and spilling under the table from somewhere, and that the iced soufflé went into Bridget’s lap. Otherwise, one would have thought one was at the Berkeley or Claridge’s or the Embassy Club.

from Flamingo, by Mary Borden
New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1927

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving the Dictionary, from Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay


On a blank page at the beginning of the Supplementary Volume of my Dictionary, I record emendations, corrections, additions, earlier uses of Words, as I come on them in reading. Ah, I say, congratulating myself, here Messrs. Murray, Bradley, Craigie and Onions are nearly a century out; here were sailors, travellers and
philosophers chattering of sea turtles from the fifteen-sixties on, and the Dictionary will not have them before the sixteen-fifties. And how late they are with estancias, iguanas, anthropophagi, maize, cochineal, canoes, troglodytes, cannibals and hammocks. As to aniles, or old wives’ tales, they will not let us have this excellent noun at all.

Thus I say to myself, as I enter my words and dates. To amend so great a work gives me pleasure; I feel myself one of its architects; I am Sir James Murray, Dr. Bradley, Sir William Craigie, Dr. Onions, I belong to the Philological Society; I have delusions of grandeur. Had I but world enough and time, I would find earlier uses of all the half million words, I would publish another supplement of my own, I would achieve at last my early ambition to be a lexicographer.

If there is a drawback to this pure pleasure of doing good to a dictionary, I have not yet found it. Except that, naturally, it takes time.

Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936

Cousin Georgia who was beautiful …, from Along Came a Witch, by Helen Bevington (1976)


As we left the theater, I was thinking of a cousin of mine, Cousin Georgia, who had been not deaf or mute but desperate. The particular memory had to do with her going to a movie one Saturday afternoon. I never knew her story, more than that Cousin Georgia who was beautiful was unhappy, and she lost her mind as if she had mislaid her purse while watching a picture in a movie house. This occurred after her divorce, after the loss of her child, after she had returned alone to her parents’ house. Some plot unfolded on the screen recounting her own tragedy. Raising her fists she stood up in the theater, screamed out “You can’t do this to me!” and was frantic, from that moment insane. She lives on in an asylum.

from Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington

The Spirit of the Bayonet, from The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford

Marine Corps recruits

Parris Island, South Caroline, the United States Marine Corp Recruit Depot, and eight-week college for the phony-tough and the crazy-brave, constructed in a swamp on an island, symmetrical but sinister like a suburban death camp.

Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim spits. “Listen up, herd. You maggots had better start looking like United States Marine Corps recruits. Do not think for one second that you are Marines. You just dropped by to pick up a set of dress blues. Am I right, ladies? Sorry ’bout that.”

A wiry little Texan in horn-rimmed glasses the guys are already calling “Cowboy” says, “Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?” Cowboy takes off his pearl-gray Stetson and fans his sweaty face.

I laugh. Years of high school drama classes have made me a mimic. I sound exactly like John Wayne as I say: “I think I’m going to hate this movie.”

Cowboy laughs. He beats his Stetson on his thigh.

Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim laughs, too. The senior drill instructor is an obscene little ogre in immaculate khaki. He aims him index finger between my eyes and says, “You. Yeah–you. Private Joker. I like you. You can come over to my house and fuck my sister.” He grins. Then his fact goes hard. “You little scumbag. I got your name. I got your ass. You will not laugh. You will not cry. You will learn by the numbers. I will teach you.”

Leonard Pratt grins.

Sergeant Gerheim puts his fists on his hips. “If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon, you will be a minister of death, praying for war. And proud. Until that day you are pukes, you are scumbags, you are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human. You people are nothing but a lot of little pieces of amphibian shit.”

Leonard chuckles.

“Private Pyle thinks I am a real funny guy. He thinks that Parris Island is more fun than a sucking chest wound.”

The hillbilly’s face is frozen into a permanent expression of oat-fed innocence.

“You maggots are not going to have any fun here. You are not going to enjoy standing in straight lines and you are not going to enjoy massaging your own wand and you are not going to enjoy saying ‘sir’ to individuals you do not like. Well, ladies, that’s tough titty. I will speak and you will function. Ten percent of you will not survive. Ten percent of you maggots are going to go AWOL or will try to take your own lives or will break your backs on the Confidence Course or will just go plain fucking crazy. There it is. My orders are to weed out all nonhackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. You will be grunts. Grunts get no slack. My recruits learn to survive without slack. Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. Am I correct, herd?”

Some of us mumble, “Yes. Yeah. Yes, sir.”

“I can’t hear you, ladies.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I still can’t hear you, ladies. SOUND OFF LIKE YOU GOT A PAIR.”


“You piss me off. Hit the deck.”

We crumple down onto the hot parade deck.

“You got no motivation. Do you hear me, maggots? Listen up. I will give you motivation. You have not esprit de corps. I will give you esprit de corps. You have no traditions. I will give you traditions. And I will show you how to live up to them.”

If this scene seems familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie, Full Metal Jacket. In the film, former Marine drill instructor R. Lee Ermey takes Sergeant Gerheim’s dialogue and embellishes it with his own improvised insults and obscenities, creating an electrifying and unforgettable scene. (You can find it excerpted here on YouTube).

Written by Gustav Hasford, upon whose experiences the novel is heavily based, The Short-Timers (1979) received enthusiastic reviews when it was first published. Newsweek called it, “The best work of fiction about the Vietnam War.” Harlan Ellison praised it as “One of the most amazing stretches of writing I’ve ever encountered.”
Covers of various editions of 'The Short-Timers'
Based on this critical acclaim, the hardback sold several thousand copies and Bantam issued a paperback edition in 1980. It was the kind of book that was passed along and had a much wider readership than its sales figures suggested. A few years later, Hasford was contacted about selling the film rights, an inquiry that eventually traced back to director Stanley Kubrick. When Kubrick began to work on the screenplay, he hired Hasford, along with reporter Michael Herr, whose 1977 book, Dispatches, is widely considered the best non-fiction book about the Vietnam War. The three men were later nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay adapted from an original work, and The Short-Timers was reissued with an explicit tie-in with the movie.

Although Hasford went on to write a sequel to the book, The Phantom Blooper (1990), as well as a pastiche of the Raymond Chandler-style hardboiled crime novel, A Gypsy Good Time (1992), he had more than his share of personal demons to struggle with. You can read Grover Lewis’ moving account of Hasford’s decline, “The Killing of Gus Hasford,” originally published in the L. A. Weekly in 1993 following Hasford’s death from untreated diabetes, on Alex Belth’s “Bronx Banter” website (link).

The Short-Timers has been out of print since the early 1990s. Hasford’s cousin, Jason Aaron, maintains a website ( devoted to his life and work.

The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford
New York: Harper & Row, 1979

Largo by the Sea (A Prologue), from Varmints, by Peggy Bennett (1947)

You have read, no doubt, the damp masticated and printed wood pulp called the morning paper, wielding its unwieldly pages (the tabloid excepted from the clumsy kinds) impatiently, eager for the greasy crumbs of news the newspaper empires have selected for you, have written for you from the moral slant of a particular newspaperman or an editor, each intensely human and subject to his share of human stupidity and roughhewn grammar. You know the world, you do.

The comic strips, twentieth-century fairy tales, manage to absorb part of your consciousness, to keep your susceptible minds off that filthy vague excrement smelling on the front page, and the sports pages are exceedingly enlightening. You compose a record crowd in innumerable halls and stadiums. A good crooner is worth a dozen or ten dozen ordinary hard-working citizens, and a cute little smug chubby round-jowled chow is infinitely funnier than a baby, and not half so much trouble in the bargain. You spend most of your spare time seeking entertainment. You listen to music so that you may hear voices in the pure and abstracted form, exactly like no human voices, and yet so like your very own that you are entranced, hypnotized (you can easily hypnotize yourself). Is music a refuge ? Is art an escape ? You may argue that it is, on the contrary, a new and better way of living. Ah, those beauties, those pearls of emotional wisdom. In their moments you may espy eternity, and then you must go on with business as usual, pursuing careers and fat paychecks, bathing away perspiration and other odors, ejecting wastes from your bodies, mincing and devouring those strange concoctions you recognize as your food, worrying, changing with the weather, lusting a little for power, falling prey to riots of bacteria, dying ignominiously natural human deaths, decaying insensibly.

You have readily patronized the motion picture industry and watched the puppets being drawn through the fantastic folds of drama, in which simple home life is shown as an extravaganza, complex human emotions and relationships are shown as simple shallows, and dreamworld sex is the perpetual motive, the neverdying underlying theme. All sentiment suddenly becomes a heavy inhuman fog, or perhaps a chocolate bar melting in the sun. The ethereal seems indelibly neurotic, and vulgarity synonymous with health. Suffering is made a form of nobility, pain pleasurable, and greatness a simpleton’s struggle to be himself in the midst of evil. Evil is anything (either brilliant and human or stupid and inanimate) that trips up the inspired fool. The obscure music lubricates the creaking mechanisms of the drama and steals upon the listener unawares, massages him as he sits passively in the cushioned seat. The strange eerie flat gray world now comes brilliant in unearthly splashy and splotchy technicolor, but still flat, mosaic. Now you think of yourselves as weirdly beautiful faces and torsos, curving curvaceous legs, tantalizing smoothness and roundness of breasts and thighs and hips or of hard male flatness and narrow hips and iron muscle, and you are moving in close-ups, slow-motion, or in long-range action shots, lightning fast. Voluptuous throes of emotion ; how exquisite it is to writhe in make-believe passion.

Perhaps you’d rather spend your evenings listening to the warm cordial atmospheres generated by your radio. Genial men flatter your good taste, introduce you to personages chummy, winningly idiotic, noble and high spirited, and so on. Unlike prosaic diurnal living, whose genuine people move with masks on their faces and can be judged only by the sums of their lives, radio personalities come in types as variable as stovepipes. How fondly we remember our adolescence all day long. Periodic soulshaking and mirthquaking rhythms of studio laughter. Impressive sounds, some of them, seeming to assure you that somewhere in the world life must be tremendously diverting, exceptionally exciting, and all good clean fun in the meantime.

God, how great are these United States. Yes, you’re a pretty great people, you are. And even, now and then, truth reaches you with the penetrating power of a very quiet voice.

I came across Varmints while nosing around the Internet Archive, which has been my electronic substitute for the great libraries where I’ve always loved to spend hours scouring the stacks for the odd and intriguing. The energy, the venom and the God-like authority in the above passage grabbed me immediately and I soon downloaded a copy and kept on reading. This excerpt is part of the ten page prologue to Varmints, Peggy Bennett’s first and (apparently) only novel. Bennett was just 22 when the book was published, but she could have given Rebecca West a run for her money when it came to confidence in her perspectives. This prologue goes on to give us a survey of a half-dozen broken lives, from a woman suffering agonizing pain in North Carolina to a black cook who accidentally chops off his thumb while working in a Los Angeles diner one night.

PeggyBennettThe novel itself goes on to tell the story of three children–Ethel, Hilliard and Mutt–taken over by their grandparents after their mother’s death. They live together in a town in northern Florida, where the grandfather is a master carpenter now mostly retired. The three children take in their world in very different ways. Ethel is hyper-sensitive, sometimes overwhelmed by what she sees around her. Hilliard is a genius who grows ever more distrustful of the world outside and spends most of his time alone in his room, reading. And Mutt is highly sociable, easy-going and popular with everyone. The grandparents are neither demons nor angels but people struggling themselves with choices and the lack of simple answers.

Unfortunately, just what message Peggy Bennett wanted to get out by writing this novel is unclear. Although there’s nothing quite so iconoclastic as the prologue, the book seems filled with a great deal of anger, anger desperately seeking its targets. She dips a few times into overwrought Faulknerian language, but not so much as turn the book into a parody. There are some very funny, if caustic, lines and at least one heart-tugging tragedy. The energy of the initial pages, however, ultimately fizzles out toward the end.

Peggy Bennett went on to write a number of short stories that were published in little magazines as well as in several short story collections from the 1950s. It’s not clear that she published anything after that. She died in April 2011 at the age of 86.

The Varmints, by Peggy Bennett
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947

Lady with a Pretzel, from Celibate at Twilight, by John Mosher (1940)

The waiter slammed the shallow basket of pretzels down on the table, and turned away. It never occurred to him, evidently, to pass the pretzels to each person at the table. That was the sort of place it was. Rough! The lady sighed with satisfaction. This was Life. Life in the raw. She was seeing Life.

At the same moment she saw herself in the dingy mirror opposite, and her satisfaction was in no way diminished. While seeing Life she retained all her own perfect style. She was pleased now that she had not borrowed her maid’s hat, as she had thought of doing while planning her costume for this excursion into the underworld. In novels great ladies always borrowed their maids’ things when circumstances compelled them to venture in dubious regions. But Cécile’s hats were grotesques, and there was no sense in making a comic of yourself just because you were going to dine with gunmen. It was only fair to them to try to look your best. Poor things, they had so few chances to view the authentically chic! She had no doubt that these various persons about them, though not outwardly as sensational as she had hoped, were gunmen and gangsters of the deepest dye, for she had been assured that this place was the real thing, and not faked in the least. It ought to be. They had had a hard enough time finding it.

She would have to stretch across the table for the pretzels. The others of her own party were absorbed in their beer, and their own noisy foolish familiar jokes. They weren’t paying any attention to her. The men felt obliged to forget their manners as soon as they got in a dive like this. The waiter, of course, had put the pretzels at an awkward distance from her. She was sure that he had done it just to annoy her. She had noticed the minute she saw him that he had taken an instantaneous dislike to her. He resented her. She was sorry that he did. He probably thought that she was just a sheltered, nurtured parasite, exquisite and fragile. He could have no comprehension of the peculiar problems that made her life hell. She felt very helpless and unhappy and weak. He wasn’t even looking at her!

A criminal type, obviously. He was too strong to be a Waiter by rights. A criminal temporarily disguised as a waiter to evade the police. Then a waiter had to be strong in a place like this. He must also be a “bouncer,” she believed. A bouncer? Such an odd word. To be bounced. Wasn’t there a song: “I Want to be Bounced by You”? If she got Oswald to take him into their house as a butler, he would look distinguished behind her chair, or behind Oswald’s chair facing her. . . . “Really, Adele, what an unusual-looking butler you have! Quite handsome!” . . . “I shouldn’t say he was handsome, my dear. We found him in one of those awful drinking places Oswald is always dragging me to. Marvellous beer! He’s an ex-convict. . . .”

She couldn’t understand how that couple in the corner who had just ordered two more beers from the ex-convict ever got to such a place as this. They looked so respectable. Iust a respectable married couple from the suburbs. Drab middle-class people. It was disconcerting to see people like that here. You only expected to find underworld types, and perhaps a few smart adventurers like themselves. But this couple was so obviously married, plain good honest shopkeeping people. The maid’s night out. Or their wedding anniversary. They gave a drab dull note to the whole room. Why was it that you could never get away from the respectable? They popped up everywhere, with their ethics and their morals and their good sensible shoes, and their appalling appetite for nutritious food.

Not that the food here was likely be nutritious. She eyed the remote pretzels skeptically. Hard, crustaceous edibles they were. Heaven knows how long they had been exposed to the dusty draughts of this place. Countless calloused hands had doubtless pawed them over, the hands of killers. Brutal hands! She shivered. She couldn’t imagine the submerged, distorted depths of society where such ugly contortions of pastry would be looked upon as really palatable and a delicacy.

But it was proof of the independence of the true aristocrat that she did not scorn an interest in the underworld. One must be amused at all costs. Had not great ladies long ago sneaked out of the Tuileries to have supper with the apaches? What she was doing now was all in the great tradition.

It required courage, too, to be here. Any moment there might be trouble. A fight! Some row. Someone at a near-by table might jump up and pull a gun. For all she knew they might keep a machine gun in the pantry. The respectable married couple in Hie corner would jump up and scream and carry on, but she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t flicker an eyelash. She had courage, the courage of the great lady. That waiter was looking at her now, scornfully, icily. He thought she was fragile, did he, and afraid? She would show him. She straightened in her chair, leaned across the table, and took a pretzel.

Cover of first US edition of 'Celibate at Twilight'Celibate at Twilight is a collection of fifty short stories (most under five pages long), many of them published in The New Yorker between 1925 and 1940. (I will probably get in Dutch with the magazine for daring to post this without their permission, but this book has been out of print for 70+ years). Mosher went to work for the magazine about a year after it debuted, and worked more as a manuscript-reader and editorial staff member than a writer until he started writing the “Current Cinema” column in 1937.

About fifteen of the stories deal with Mr. Opal, a middle-aged, mild-mannered bachelor most popular among members of the better society as a last-minute man to round out a dinner party. Mr. Opal is an upper-crust equivalent of cartoonist H. T. Webster’s timid soul, Caspar Milquetoast. But I prefer the character sketches like “Lady with a Pretzel,” which is such a perfect distillation of the stereotype society woman indulging in a bit of slumming so she can see “Life in the Raw.”

Mosher served as an orderly in a U. S. Army hospital in France in World War One, and after kicking around the Continent for a while after the war, returned to the States and eventually landed a job with the magazine. He was friends with Willa Cather, Janet Flanner, Wolcott Gibbs, and James Thurber and was one of the first members of the Manhattan gay community to make Fire Island his summer base. He died of a heart ailment at the age of 50 in 1942.

In one of the few obituaries ever published in the magazine, Wolcott Gibbs wrote of Mosher,

His editorial judgment has been responsible for much of the tone of The New Yorker and the appearance in it of a great many new writers. The fiction he produced from time to time, and collected in a book called Celibate at Twilight, was a very accurate mirror of its author’s personality–witty, perceptive, and informed by a deep and tolerant knowledge of the world. He was one of the most delightful companions we have ever known, and we record his death with a heavy sense of loss.

Celibate at Twilight, by John Mosher
New York: Random House, 1940

Venice, California, 1950s, from The Slide Area by Gavin Lambert


She lives in Venice, near the furniture store. A mouldering unfinished little town along the coast beyond Santa Monica, it began fifty years ago as an imitation of the Italian city. Moonstruck, an industrialist from the Middle West decided to create a romantic resort on the dreary tidal flats. He built some florid villas, a copy of St. Mark’s Square, a network of bridges, canals, lagoons, colonnades. The aged Sarah Bernhardt was imported to play La Dame aux Camelias on what is now a tadry, neglected amusement pier. Hardly anyone went to see her. Hardly anyone hired a gondola for a trip along the mosquito-ridden flats. Then oil was struck, machinery converged upon the lagoons. A few bridges still remain, spanning dried up canals, with pumps and derricks stretching away beyond them. Drugstores, banks, service stations have settled in the empty spaces between colonnades, and the villa are apartment house with rooms always vacant.

As we pass St. Mark’s Square, I notice a group of young motor cyclists dressed in black, with tight belts and slanted caps, leaning against the colonnades. Pigeons cluster nearby, then disperse as the cyclists set off with a roar, speeding along the empty boulevard, past a neon sign announcing BEER, past the Bridge of Sighs and the derricks in silhouette..

The noise rouses Zeena. She blinks, looks out of the window and recognizes landmarks: a closed-up hotel with broken windows, a plot of waste land with an abandoned moonlit sign, BOATS FOR SALE. She murmurs: “Why, I’m almost home.”

Gavin Lambert’s 1959 short-story collection, The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, is one of the best works of fiction to come out of Los Angeles. He followed it a dozen years later with The Goodbye People. Both are out of print now, which is inexcusable, given the quality of writing in both books.

The Slide Area, by Gavin Lambert
New York: Viking, 1959

Read anything, from Post meridiana: Afternoon Essays, by Sir Herbert Maxwell (1895)

If any young person of leisure were so much at a loss as to ask advice as to what he should read, mine should be exceedingly simple: Read anything bearing on a definite object. Let him take up any imaginable subject to which he feels attracted, be it the precession of the equinoxes or postage stamps, the Athenian drama or London street cries; let him follow it from book to book, and unconsciously his knowledge, not of that subject only but of many subjects, will be increased, for the departments of the realm of knowledge are divided by no octroi. He may abandon the first object of his pursuit for another; it does not matter, one subject leads to another: he will have learnt the habit of acquisition; he will have gained that conviction of the pricelessness of time which stirs a sigh as each day comes to its close.

From “The Craving for Fiction,” an essay in Post meridiana: Afternoon Essays, by Sir Herbert Maxwell (1895)
Available on the Internet Archive: Link

According to Wikipedia, “The Rt. Hon. Sir Herbert Eustace Maxwell, 7th Baronet of Monreith, KT, PC, FRS, FRGS (8 January 1845 – 30 October 1937) was a Scottish novelist, essayist, horticulturalist and Conservative politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1880 to 1906.

He wrote several collections of essays, including Meridiana: Noontide Essays (1892); Post Meridiana: Afternoon Essays (1895); and Rainy Days in a Library (1896).

The Brigadier General Bar, from Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill


The Brigadier Club had never endured for more than ten months under any single management and it had borne half a dozen names since the war. Bur it recurs, Martin thought, and may be here in a fresh avatar when the pigeon-loved bronze of General Dirksen has been sublimed away.

It had opened after the war as the clubhouse of a campus Veterans’ organization. The American Legion and the VFW had their own permanent buildings in the business section of town, but a large part of their membership was from townspeople or the incorrigible patriots who would always find something subversive in any organization they had helped found themselves.

The club had moved twice before it found quarters in the labyrinthine back rooms of a hotel that was thirty years fallen from its highwater mark of prosperity. It had gone broke and had been reorganized repeatedly. While it was still—with some pretense of legitimacy–a veteran’s co-operative project. Then it was “taken over” by an ex-aviator. For a while his name had been painted over the main entrance on a side street five blocks from the campus. He told all those who had by this time become addicted to it that “nothing would change.” He was going merely, to put it on a paying basis, “for them.”

Since then the club had been closed some ten times. Now and then it was closed (and disbanded) at the orders of the outraged university or municipal administration on a variety of charges which added up to something like mass moral turpitude. Sometimes bankruptcies closed it–at which times the onetime flyer “re-incorporated” and changed the name, clinging only to those names which had a common military denominator.

The outrage of authority sprang from semi-public disclosures that liquor was being sold here to minors, that obscene movies had been shown on stag nights, that the ROTC staff was using it as an outlet for the French erotic supplies they imported from tours of duty at overseas posts, or that whores from Chicago and Kansas City occasionally based there during the football season or the annual state basketball tournament.

The bankruptcies sometimes resulted from setting the price of drinks too low (the manager had moments of unbusiness-like compassion for his whole clientele), sometimes from over-paying the local police with bribes which they did not respect (a bribe plus a fine can ruin any business venture), and sometimes from emergencies in the manager’s private life (he fell head over heels for one of the Chicago hookers and went home with her when she left, carrying all his liquid assets and dissipating them on her in a six week binge).

But it was open again this fall, as it had been for at least part of every year, “under new management.” This merely meant that the manager would spend more time in a back room at one of the poker tables and less time hanging from the bar corner in ostentatious drunkenness, reaching for the girls as they danced. Each reopening was signalized by some amateur remodeling of the decor will wallboard and gaspipe, the immemorial peephole between the men’s and women’s toilets was usually plastered shut, and a new program of entertainment was advertised on mimeographed handbills. But essentially, year to year, college generation to generation, as Clare had promised–as he didn’t even need to bother promising, Martin thought–the club had not changed. As it had been, it would be.

The Fortress by the Sea, from Gog, by Giovanni Papini

New Parthenon, October 6
For the last few years the state of the World has been growing more and more alarming and dangerous, and I have thought best to prepare an impregnable refuge for myself. Wars, invasions, and rebellions are sure to continue for some time yet, and no one is safe. Let all who realize this, and who do not wish to be starved or butchered, take early precautions.

On the northern coast of -Brazil and not far from the mouth of the Parnahyba I discovered a small peninsula that exactly suited my purpose, and the work of fortifying it and making it habitable is already well advanced. It is connected with the mainland by a sort of isthmus, where I have laid three rows of mines; thus in case of danger in less than three minutes my peninsula could become an island.

On the highest point I have built a castle faced externally with stone and lined with steel plates, those of roof and terraces being especially thick. At a certain distance, hidden among the trees, are two buildings for the servants. The castle has a deeply excavated underground apartment divided into several chambers, where one could live quite comfortably in case of emergency. There are also spacious cellars for storing provisions and ammunition.

I have installed several plants to render me absolutely independent of the rest of mankind–water cisterns, electric and refrigerating plants, a wireless station, and a vast bin that is already full of coal. The castle is equipped with a library of nearly twenty thousand volumes, comprising the masterpieces of all literaLures, the best encyclopaedias, and manuals of every branch of science. There are also three orthophonic gramophones with thousands of disks, and a gallery containing reproductions in color of the masterpieces of all times and countries. On the highest terrace I have placed a telescope with a twenty-six-inch lens, which will be useful when I am suffering from insomnia. The terrace is also equipped with several anti-aircraft guns in case an inquisitive airplane should seek to pry into my affairs. Fortunately my peninsula has a natural harbor, where I shall always keep two motorboats, a yacht, and two whaling-boats when I am at the castle. I really believe I have not overlooked anything.

As soon as any undesirable changes or alarming demonstrations take place in the country where I happen to be living, I can rush off at once to my fortified hermitage, where I shall find everything necessary for comfort, and there await the end of the crisis in perfect safety. The place is well chosen, for I am near the Gulf of Mexico and in my yacht can cross to New Orleans in a few days. Fortunately there are no towns in my neighborhood, but the hinterland is fertile and could supply many articles that might become necessary during a long period of isolation. I should take some thirty persons with me, among them a doctor, a librarian, an engineer, three capable mechanics, and two athletes. I have already purchased a hundred rifles and six machine guns, and I have ordered twenty battery guns. Thanks to the conformation of the peninsula, it would be quite easy to defend it against an attack from the

A ship laden with all sorts of tinned and preserved foods is already on its way there from Brazil, and I intend to build a stable to hold about a hundred head of cattle. Thus equipped I should be able to hold out for at least a year Without receiving any supplies from outside. Thanks to the precautions I have taken, I need not fear solitude. Time passes quickly when one has books, music, and astronomy.

I am surprised that the great lords of the earth, men as rich or even richer than I, have never thought of preparing similar places of refuge against the misfortunes and upheavals of war and revolution. Man’s shortsightedness is appalling and passes belief. No one foresees, no one provides against, disasters that–if we consider the madness that has invaded mankind–must be regarded as not only possible but actually imminent. The example of Russia has failed to open the eyes even of those great plutocrats who are most in danger of being shot or despoiled. I alone perhaps, in the whole world, have thought of preparing a buen retiro for stormy times-—a bueno retiro partaking of the nature of the feudal castle, the fortified convent, and the pirates’ cave, but which will prove far more useful than those sumptuous villas the wealthy have erected in the open country within reach of every one, as if for the very purpose of arousing the envy of the poor and, by providing the opportunity, of awakening that instinct to plunder which is common to us all.

My peninsular refuge will also serve me in times of peace. Every now and then I am seized with the longing to get away not only from the city but even from thickly populated country places. At such times I shall be able to become an anchorite, a hermit, surrounded by all the comforts of civilization. And to my way of thinking, there can be nothing more delightful than to be able to isolate oneself from one’s own odious kind, to feel in every way independent of them, in a well—defended retreat where they can neither molest nor offend.

On the beach at Cark, from Broken Images: A Journal, by John Guest


I knew … that there was a dance on in the camp, so, though I felt little inclined, I decided to go, simply because it entailed no effort. I could at least stand and watch–which is what I did. But never have I felt more cut off from any activity. It was a big dance and I stood there for an hour, just watching and realising with every shake of the floor, every laugh, every sweaty face, every beat of the music, that I was completely isolated. I had a beer or two in the crowded bar, but it was warm and tasteless. Members of my troop greeted me, smiled—-but it was an effort to answer them. Finally I could stand it no longer. I rushed out, across the deserted camp, down to the firing point, over the embankment that holds back the sea, and on to the shore.

The tide was far out. It had stopped raining, and the air was deliciously fresh and salty. Blue rifts were breaking in the clouds above, spreading a benign evening serenity and radiance. The shore here is so flat that the sea recedes almost out of sight, leaving a sheer glistening level of sand that is so immense on all sides, so featureless, as to be actually thrilling. Walking towards the sea, and looking to my right and left, I could see nothing but the level shore and, driven into the sand, miles and miles of solitary poles running, for all I knew, to infinity. Can you imagine it? Like a dream, or the background of one of Dali’s strange thoughts. There being nothing except this luminous waste, the vistas of bare poles like intervals of time, the complete silence and the soft warm light spreading down from the sky, my crisis seemed to drain from me into nothing–there was nothing to hold it or reflect it back; it just flowed away. I don’t think I even thought about anything. I walked and walked towards the sea conscious only of the release and silence one feels with the sudden cessation of pain. The only, only object, mind you, that I recall seeing on all that shore, apart from the poles, was a battered wicker basket sticking up from the sand.

When, finally, I turned towards the land again, it was growing dark-—the sand and the sky were deepening in colour–a deep golden brown and a deep heavenly blue such as lapis lazuli might look were it transparent. Inland could be seen clearly the dark mountains of the Lake District (I never see them without thinking of Wordsworth) and rising above them the moon, neatly full, very clear and creamy; and round about it, in its light, little torn clouds of dimly shining grey. I went to bed, very tired and fortunately fell asleep almost immediately. . . .

Written 18 July 1942, at an Army camp near Cark, England

You can read more about Broken Images in my Featured Books post (Link).

Resurrecting Lost Words, from The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom


Among the possessions which he involuntarily left to me, the deceased had counted a little notebook, which I found in the uppermost drawer, together with a box of dry tobacco, an apple, half-eaten, and some other miscellanea. It was a little notebook, which appeared to be a scholarly diary or journal, in which a method of lexicography was established without which, in my view, the section ‘P’ in the Dictionary could never be complete. An artistic technique emerged from these pages, capable of redressing the sometimes painfully disturbed balance of language. The scope of this idea, which has become crucially important to my own thinking, extends far beyond the realm of mere deductive scholarship and endorses a wider argument, perhaps even bordering on the mystical. According to the theory put forward in the notebook, throughout the evolution of language, some Words out of the pool of possibilities, meanings, nuances and significances have flourished into the form and strength we know today, while others have been condemned to lead a marginal existence, stagnant and fragmented, used, if at all, only by imbeciles, prophets, wise men and babes. They escaped the net of scholarly recognition and finally their usage ceased altogether. Atrophied, shrunken into their embryonic stage and totally neglected, these words still exist in hiding, like the larvae of a butterfly under a coat of snow, only to come out again when they are called upon. The attentive reader will in such a case notice a gap between two words, a missing sound, or concept, which he then must restore with the sensitivity of the true artist, or, as the notebook puts it with exquisite taste, “return to language its prodigal sons.” The notebook, after having established this fact, goes on to state that the really observant editor who strives to write a truly comprehensive dictionary must trace these words and reinstate them at least as possibilities. These words are not neologisms, far from it! Where the latter is the crude invention of a new word out of ignorance of the abundance provided by language already, the task of restoration is only to reinstate what has existed all along.

The art developed in the notebook may be obscure, practised only by the fewest people, now perhaps only by myself. I would not be surprised if this were so, though it would make my responsibility all the greater. Some kindred spirits in the world of poetry, into which I often delve, both for pleasure and for duty, follow the principle of restoration with wonderful sense and sensitivity; while some thrash about in utter ignorance.

A random example: between ‘penumbrous’ and ‘penur’ the trained and perceptive mind senses a gap that cannot be filled without imagination. The symmetry of the whole page may be at risk, the balance of a tongue unhinged, just because nobody has seen that ‘penupy’ is the obvious and necessary word that alone can fill the awesome abyss. As to the meaning of such a regained word, this is a matter of wholly secondary interest. It will be discovered, rediscovered, just like its mortal coil, the word itself. This example was taken from the notebook, but I myself have been able to supply some additions and completions of my own: ‘piebent’ (between ‘piebald’ and ‘piece’) and, daring but absolutely necessary and entirely adequate, ‘pilbout’ (between ‘pilaw’ and ‘pilch’, a great step which had to be taken).

I admit that this art must seem somewhat mysterious,even obscure, to the untrained eye, but as in every refined pursuit in human life, the mind must be attuned to the novelties and joys of any idiom.

from The Simmons Papers, by Phillip Blom
London: Faber and Faber, 1995

Cousin Bettina, from The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow


She had no home of her own, and her life was spent in journeying back and forth to the homes of others. This operation she called “flitting,” which was surely a propitiatory term for railway travel in the South of those days; and not only its tediousness but all its odd contacts and predicaments, and even its occasional dangers, she seems to have met with perfect coolness and a sort of light dignity that never forsook her. On one occasion she spent the whole night by herself in a lonely little station, and on another in the company of a lunatic who thoughtfully locked the door on the inside and pocketed the key. I think she was a little proud of the time when the doors of the passenger coach got jammed in a collision and she heard the conductor say to a man who was breaking the window with his boot heel: “You all would do a whole lot better to quit your screamin’ and scufflin’ and go sit back in your places like that lady over yonder with the guitar.”

From The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow (1943)

The Blackstone Hotel, from Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth

blackstoneThe Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue, Chicago, is an honorable old stack, presuming honor is an adjunct of any explicitly public aspect of civilization. There are other hotels in town; a good many, in fact, since Chicago has always enjoyed a good business from travelers who had to stop there whether they wanted to or not: a question of the more or less fortuitous itineraries of the transcontinental railroads. Some of these other hotels are prettier than the Blackstone, more modern, more elegant, more expensive. On the other hand, a great many are uglier, older, less expensive, and decidedly less elegant. The Blackstone comes somewhere near the top of the list in these respects, but not at the top itself. Nevertheless, if it is possible to extract an “essence” from the great American hotel myth, then the Blackstone is “essentially” Chicago’s most honorable, most venerable hotel. Because for years it has been the gathering place of powerful men. Some of the juiciest deals in the manipulation of American industry — mergers of railroads, for instance — have been cooked up in the Blackstone, I have no doubt; and as for politics, the smoke-filled room, an indispensable element of American folklore, is virtually by definition a Blackstone room — this, I am sure, all politicos (if they have any sentiment for the traditions of their calling) will concede. Chicago is par excellence the city of political conventions. The jet airliner may rob Chicago of its status as the nation’s foremost stopping-off place, but nothing will diminish its attraction to the politicos — nothing. The blandishments of Los Angeles, so sordid, so crass, may prevail upon one or the other party from time to time, but you can bet they will always come back to Chicago. Los Angeles is mistaken in its belief that simply because a V-8 bosom over a twin-cam ass, hotly idling, will invariably pack the theater with paying spectators, sex must also be what the politicos are looking for. Far from it. Politicos are the least sexy of mankind; ask their wives; even their mistresses. After all, when you are hunched contentedly in conclave, totting up lists of delegates, rolling your tongue around a succulent fifty-cent Havana claw, soothing your ulcers with the larruping twelve-year-old sour-mash Jack Daniels that always appears at convention time, this is just when you do not want the irrelevance of some rutting broad draped on your shoulder. Fact. It is an axiom of all political theory that the center of a woman’s brain is her pudendum; no idea ever occurs to her which does not concern passage one way or the other through that portal. Nothing implicitly wrong with this, of course, but. . . . It’s a matter of power concepts, comparative study thereof. Chicago knows this. Take it as a general rule that all women fare badly in Chicago — you won’t go far wrong. It is a man’s city. Perhaps this is true of all prairie towns: Lewis Mumford would say they have no containing principle, essential to the femininity of a place. Be that as it may, Chicago offers no sex to the politicos at convention time, except to minor female delegates who must be shunted off to the fleshpots of North State Street to get them out of the way. Instead, Chicago offers the far more illuminating and encouraging spectacle of the stockyards. Just what the politicos require — a vision of God’s creatures marching docilely into one end of a machine, from the other end of which issues a steady stream of money. Can anyone doubt that this is the inspiration which calls the politicos eternally back to Chicago? It is demonstrable that the important political orbit at convention time lies between the Blackstone Hotel at one end and the Union Stockyards at the other.

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

A Game of Ping Pong, from The Second Miracle by Peter Greave

Athough to a casual observer we were engaged in a game—just two men, partially blind, partially crippled, knocking a small white ball about in a singularly unsportsmanlike manner—to us these matches were infinitely more significant. These contests were a kind of ritual. We were not so much engaged in a game of table tennis as bent upon the destruction of a rival. The game was only the channel through which we expressed the contest of wills that went on perpetually between us.

For from the first, in spite of the affection that existed between us, we were natural and instinctive enemies. We each tried to beat the other all day in everything we did. We were perpetually at war, perpetually at each 0ther’s throats. The essence of our odd relationship was discord. We were never happy out of each 0ther’s company, but we only stayed together because each hoped to down the other permanently.

And this permanent stream of competition had to find an outlet somehow. A couple of hundred years earlier and we would undoubtedly have set to with swords. If we had not been bound by hospital discipline we would have punched each other’s nose. But as it was, we played table tennis, using the game as an expression of the rivalry that held us together, so that our daily matches became epic battles, the results of which could depress me utterly or lift one to victorious pinnacles of joy.

We generally began by playing a couple of ragged sets as a kind of preparation. The score was always kept, but we would both realize that the real trial was to come. I would drive as hard and as fast as I could, and Brian would chop and spin the ball so that it leaped and spun like a dancing dervish.

Considering our ruined sight that made reading and writing so difficult as to be almost impossible, it was amazing how well we could follow the flight of the ball against its dark background. I think the secret lay in the brilliant overhead lighting that lent the ball a shining iridescence.

When the practice games were over, we took a deep breath and began the real contest. We were amazingly evenly matched, and die games generally followed a definite pattern.

We always played the best out of five sets. He would usually win the first and I the second. He would draw away with the third, and at the fourth I would pull level, so that the score would stand at two all, and the next set decide the game.

At this stage the tension would be terrific. Now that the pressure was on We would both pull out everything we had, and I, though I had lost a great deal of my speed and accuracy, was still capable of executing one shot that, when I was allowed to get it in, was both dramatic and effective. I could smash a ball with a forehand drive so that it was almost impossible for my opponent to return it, leaping into the air and following it through so that I spun round and round like a top. This gave me intense pleasure and, I believed, never failed to fill Brian with envy and dislike.

But, and I make the admission with extreme sadness, for every one of my tricks Brian had at least two. He could cut and feint and volley, and the ball under his direction seemed to possess a satanic life and energy of its own, so that I, with a sensation of black despair nagging at my vitals, would be forced to watch him piling up the points that seven times out of ten would bring him to victory by a narrow margin.

It was not that I was completely outclassed. I could always extend him thoroughly. But the fact remained that I was up against a superior player, one whose natural flair for the game was better than my own.

I found this extremely galling. It destroyed an integral conviction about myself. I felt that I should beat him, that I could do so if only I could put an ounce or two more effort and determination into the game; and so I would grit my teeth, roll the stuff of my will into a hard, compact ball and play with demonic concentration, launching an attack with every atom of energy I possessed. But even so, though I beat him at times—occasionally I would win three or four times in succession——more often than not he would feint and maneuver his way to ultimate victory. I am sure that I put more of myself into these absurd matches than I have ever brought to any other purpose in my whole life, and that if God had wanted to hurry up our cure He could hardly have found a better method than by putting the two of us together at this stage of our development.

We were so nearly matched, the rivalry between us so violent, that it was impossible for us to sink into a slough of inertia and self pity. We were obsessed by a resolve, an unflinching intent, and this acted as a continual spur and challenge and was of inestimable value to our health, even though the resolve was nothing more admirable than the determination to beat a brother, to humble him and tear him down.

On Doing What One Likes, from On Doing What One Likes, by Alec Waugh

nb173I found a much-banged-up copy of Alec Waugh’s 1926 collection of essays, On Doing What One Likes, a few years ago, stuck it in my shelves, and forgot about it.

Then, the other day, I took it down and started reading. Alec Waugh was, of course, the older brother of the now-better-known Evelyn. In 1926, thanks to his best-selling first novel, The Loom of Youth, and other successful books, it was Alec who was the star and Evelyn some nobody still having to sneak back to his rooms at Oxford when out too late. Now, although Bloomsbury Publishing is releasing a selection of his novels, histories and travel books, Alec will probably forever have to bear his nephew Auberon’s sentence that he “wrote many books, each worse than the last.”

I expected to encounter a rather brash young smarter-than-the-world voice in Waugh’s essays, but instead, I found a remarkable wisdom, particularly in the first one, “On Doing What One Likes.” It reminds me a bit of David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement address and other “how to live your life” pieces that get passed and linked to and tweeted all over the Internet. So, in hopes this might get the same kind of circulation, I am happy to provide here the full text.

“On Doing What One Likes,” by Alec Waugh (1926)

“It’s deplorable,” a friend said to me the other day, “your ignorance of painting.”

I nodded.

“And music, you know still less of that.”

Again I nodded.

“It’s disgraceful,” he continued. “No one who considers himself educated has the right to be so ignorant. On Friday afternoon I will take you to the National Gallery.”

And for a couple of hours on the following Friday we drifted down the long galleries, while he explained and dissected the particular beauties of each masterpiece. “The grouping there,” he would say, “The architectonics. You can see it, can’t you? And over there, look, the rhythm of that figure. You like it? Of course you like it, I knew you would, one’s only got to see the stuff; the trouble is that most people won’t take the fag to!”

Yes, unquestionably, I had enjoyed it, but I could not, at the same time, help feeling as I said “good-bye” to him, that I should have enjoyed myself more if, as originally intended, I had spent the afternoon reading the new novel by Arnold Bennett.

“I shall now,” I told myself, “be unable to finish it till Sunday, which means that Vere Hutchinson’s book will have to wait until next week and probably by then there will be some new book out that I shall desperately want to read at once. Vere Hutchinson will have to wait, and new things come along nowadays at such a pace that if one doesn’t read a book within a month of its appearance there is a strong likelihood that one will never read it at all.”

I was not at all sure that I had not wasted that two hours in the National Gallery.

It was held once upon a time that an educated person should know something of everything and everything of something. But the world was smaller then and life was slower, and there were no tubes and telephones and taxis: in this period of intense specialisation it would be an impossible task to attempt to know something about everything, and there are times when it is better to surrender than to compromise. There is so little time for the discovery of all that we want to know about the things that really interest us. We cannot afford to waste it on the things that are of only casual concern for us, or in which we are interested only because other people have told us that we ought to be.

I heard a man lamenting the other day the alarming dimensions of his ignorance, the incredibly large number of things that he had either forgotten or had never known. “We are all in the same boat,” he said, “it would be quite possible to set a general knowledge paper consisting entirely of questions to which a preparatory schoolboy of average intelligence might be expected to know the answer, on which any of us might fail to get fifteen per cent.”

But we are not on that account any the less good citizens. We are not any the less qualified to conduct the particular enterprise for which we may consider ourselves best fitted, because we do not know who followed Philip II to the throne, or what the capital of Chile is, or in what continent is Patagonia. It is simple always to find excuses for oneself. We can prove and disprove anything. But there is a case, and a strong case, for that particular form of indolence that allows us to move through life knowing only what immediately concerns us.

Sherlock Holmes certainly would have defended it. He knew intimately what he needed to know, and refused to dissipate his energy acquiring information that would be of no service to him. He could tell from the mud on a man’s boots in what part of London he had been walking. But he had never heard of the solar system. His defence would have been, that though it would have been interesting enough to understand the mechanism of the sun and planets, he had only a limited measure of time at his disposal, and he could not spare to astronomy the time which he required for the perfection of his studies of cigar ash.

Strength exists only as the opposite of weakness, and supreme knowledge of one subject presupposes as supreme an ignorance of others. Sherlock Holmes knew what he needed to know. And knew nothing else. He would have been in fact a less good detective had he understood the principle of the stars. For him that was unnecessary knowledge.

Knowledge is not wisdom. How little after all the ancients knew. And how much of what they thought they knew was wrong. Aristotle held that a body weighing a hundred pounds would fall to the earth a hundred times as fast as a body weighing one pound, and because in other things he was so wise, for twenty centuries it occurred to no one to contradict him. Plato believed that the earth was flat and that the sky was an inverted bowl. Pythagoras may have suspected that the earth was round, and revolved about the sun. And Aristarchus may have propounded a theory of the solar system. But Hipparchus was in a position to discredit both of them, and for two thousand years the earth was believed to be motionless, and the stars were held to be equidistant from the earth. Virgil and Seneca and Horace knew less about astronomy than a child of seven does today. Shakespeare not only did not know where Patagonia was. He did not know that it existed.

And yet it is to these men, who were on so many subjects incurious and misinformed, that we turn now from our surfeiting of knowledge for consolation and advice. They may have known little, but they were wise, and all the information that we have acquired through three centuries of discovery and speculation have not made us wiser than they were. Wisdom has not been increased with knowledge: it has, indeed, very little to do with knowledge. We acquire knowledge, but wisdom we bring with us, in great or little measure, to develop or let die within us.

It is interesting to know how flour is converted into bread; how sardines are rescued from the high seas to become hors d’oeuvres how the decomposition of forests produces paper. It is interesting, but I cannot see that it is of very much importance to the vast majority of us who will never have to hunt sardines, or bake bread, or control paper mills. There are some things we must be content to take on trust. Where there are so many books that we have never read, so many pictures that we have never seen, so much music we have never heard, and when so much of our life is spent in livelihood, I cannot see why we should spend one minute of our spare time discovering matters that are of no direct concern to us.

And we cannot be equally interested in everything.

The Hanoverian monarch who confessed that he did not like poetry and he did not like painting, was far wiser than the courtiers who laughed at him. There were certain things that he liked extremely, and he knew that every hour he devoted to books and pictures subtracted an hour from the sum of his life’s enjoyment. He knew that he had only a few such hours at his disposal.

We spend, I am very certain, the half of our time among people that we do not particularly like and on things that do not particularly amuse us, and consequently have no time for the people and things that do really matter to us. “It’s months since I’ve seen So-and—so,” we say; or, “It’s six weeks since I went to the theatre.” And we excuse ourselves and say that life goes so quickly that we have no time. But it is our own fault. We have had, in Dr. Temple’s phrase, all the time there is, and we have wasted it. Instead of going to theatres, which we really enjoy, we have been to dinner-parties that have bored us, and dances that have only mildly entertained us. We have allowed other people to dictate our tastes to us.

And we owe it not only to ourselves, but to society, to spend our spare time in whatever manner may be most agreeable to us. We are far pleasanter persons when we are happy than when we are bored. Happiness is a social lubricant, and George II, would have been a worse king had he decided that his distaste for literature was unkingly and spent long hours reading Shakespeare in the palace library. Had we three thousand years of life in front of us we might order our days on the assumption that we should know something of everything and everything of something. But we have only some seventy-odd years, and eight hours out of every twenty—four we must spend in sleep, and another eight in the earning of our living.

“The tragedy of life,” I heard someone maintain the other day, “is neither poverty nor age nor sickness, but the fact that if you live in Kensington you must, if you are to dine in Hampstead, leave Chelsea before six. I am not,” he continued, “being perversely paradoxical.” It is, that fact, a symbol of the hack-work, the dull, dreary, unimaginative hack-work of living that is imposed on us. We have so little time. We shall never do all that we should like to do; see all that we should like to see; know all that we should like to know. So little time, with so much to do in it. And yet what hours we spend a year dressing for this and shaving for that other party, getting from one extremity of London to the other.

And who is to deny the truth of his contention?

We imagine sometimes that by the doubling or trebling or quadrupling of our incomes the majority of our troubles would be removed. But in fact they would not. Of the innumerable small annoyances that fret and harass us, a few only would be discharged by any obvious increment of income.

Our friends would still be divided from each other and from ourselves by so many furlongs of tube and omnibus and car. There would be the same number of streets to cross. The same invariable varieties of dress. There would be ties to be arranged and faces shaved. And a millionaire cannot shave nor arrange his tie any more speedily than I can.

The hack-work of life; we cannot, whatever our income, escape our share of it. If only we could have it done for us, we sometimes think. If only we could be possessed of magic properties; if only with the waving of a hand we could find ourselves attired suitably for whatever engagement might lie immediately in front of us; if only the lifting of a finger could transport us from Bayswater to Chiswick; if only, that is to say, we had the vitality to sustain life at such a tension. For we might not have.

Edgar Allan Poe asserted that as it was impossible for a poet to sustain his inspiration over a long period, an epic could never be more than the setting for moments of occasional poetry. And it is certain that an audience can rarely support for more than an hour the intense excitement of big drama, big poetry, and big music. The curtain must be allowed to fall. There must be that ten minutes’ interval of chatter and cigarettes and cocktails. That was where the Victorian novelists were so wise. They loaded their pages with long wadges of description and dissertation. They were dull to an extent that the neo-Georgians have never dared to be.

We cannot deny, if we are honest with ourselves, that we have rarely read a classic without being for quite long intervals considerably bored by it. And yet it is the reading of those books that we recall with the most enjoyment; precisely, I sometimes think, because of those tedious interludes; /chose long accounts of trivial people and uninteresting conversations which provided so admirable a contrast for such sensations as the novelist had subsequently to offer. They were a breathing space. The Victorian novelists gave the reader an interval to recover in. They bored him so that he should be able to relish more keenly the excitement when it came. They quickened his appetite with hunger. “I have earned this,” he thought, as he reached delightedly, after thirty—seven pages of moralities, a brief interlude of dramatic action.

The Victorians had the courage to be dull, and through this dullness they achieved effects that are impossible for our contemporaries. The modern novel, whatever it may not be, is a live and moving thing; so live and moving that it does not satisfy. It is a series of fireworks that dazzle and bewilder and exhaust. In the nursery, where we were made to begin our tea with bread and butter, cream cakes were a delight to us. Now, when we can begin with cake, tea is a meal that as often as not we miss.

We have to be bored, it seems, before we can be amused.

And it may well be that as we find the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in spite or perhaps because of that facility of theirs to weary us, more satisfying than all save a very little contemporary work—it may well be that it is this very hack-work of life which we so deplore that makes life on the whole so entertaining. Three parts of the air we breathe, that air which is our life and sustenance, does little more than blur our consciousness, dull our appetite, deaden our vitality, and it may be that such an existence as the possession of a magic carpet and a magic casket would impose on us would be a process analogous to the extraction of the nitrogen from the air we breathe. For one rapturous year all things would be the slaves of our delight. But on the twelfth hour of the twelfth month we should be dead.

The hack-work of life, the hours we spend resentfully and unsensationally in buses and cars and taxis, in baths and in front of mirrors, may be, for all we know, the correctives, the price we pay for the animated periods they divide; they may be as necessary to us as nitrogen. Only we must see to it that our few free hours are undiluted oxygen.

We should treat our spare time as we treat our income. A man has a limited sum of money to spend on his amusements, and he has at the beginning of the year to decide which of his tastes he will be able to indulge. “I like cigars,” he may say, “and I like champagne. But I cannot afford both, and as I prefer cigars, I will content myself with Chablis.” In the same way should a man say, “I like books and I like pictures, but I have not the time for both and I prefer books. I like bridge and I like dancing, but I prefer dancing; I like Jones and I like Brown, but I prefer Brown.” And the wise man will concentrate on books, on dancing and on Brown. A philosophy of intelligent selfishness.

But we are beset by tempters. The man who plays bridge is surrounded by friends imploring him to dance; the dancing man is informed that there is nothing in the World like bridge. The musician is warned that his “soul’s welfare” is imperiled by his failure to attend the latest exhibition of pictures; and the painter’s preference for his own craft is received with austere disapprobation. On all sides our friends are importuning us for the sake of our ultimate salvation to do the things that we quite like instead of the things that we really like.

It behooves us to be very firm.

On Doing What One Likes, by Alec Waugh
Kensington: The Cayme Press, 1926

The Passing of Pengelley, from Blow the Man Down! A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, by James H. Williams

blowthemandown“The Passing of Pengelley”, by James H. Williams
from Blow the Man Down!A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, by James H. Williams and edited by Warren F. Kuehl

First published in Seafarer and Marine Pictorial, II (February 1922)

We lay three months in the port of New York discharging and loading cargo and repairing the hull and rigging of the Late Commander before we sailed again for Calcutta in May of 1887. Two months later, on the fifteenth of July—midwinter in the Southern Ocean—we rounded the boisterous Cape of Good Hope and began circling boldly away toward the forty-sixth parallel to begin running our easting down.

A week later, we were in the midst of our great easterly sweep toward the eighty- fifth meridian. The prevailing westerly winds peculiar to the zone had gradually increased in force and the sea had risen, so that now we were scudding through the tumult and smother of a mighty gale at a seventeen-knot gait. We were swinging three whole topgallant sails with preventer backstays set up and preventer braces on the cro’jack yards. Running with squared yards and everything bar taut, there was not much to do except relieve watches and stand by for emergencies.

For three consecutive days during this superb run, the old ship made a glorious record—over a thousand miles with five thousand tons of case oil as cargo in our hold. Here is an authentic sailing item for amateur sailors and deepwater yachtsmen to ponder over.

On the second day of that great run, we passed two British-Australian mail steamers. Both were high-diving until the crests of the seas threatened to flood their boiler rooms through the funnel tops. Their propellers churned wind oftener than water.

We were running with an old-fashioned log at that time—a canvas bag and a wooden plug trailed by a sticky line wound on a wobbly reel and held unsteadily aloft by a lurching seaman and timed by a sleepy apprentice with a worn-out sand glass. An honest taffrail log would have recorded us at least eighteen instead of the miserly fourteen-odd knots we were credited with. But sailors never were noted for doing anything remarkable except drinking rum and chewing tobacco.

On the third day of the big run, the wind had attained almost hurricane force, and the sea had risen to mountainous heights and fearsome aspect. Our grand old ship, however, carried on nobly and showed not the slightest symptoms of weakening or distress.

That night of Good Hope I shall never forget;
Ofttimes I look backward and think of it yet,-
We were plunging bows under, her courses all wet,
At the rate of fourteen, with to’gallan’ s’ils set.
So we’ll roll, roll, bullies,
Roll as we go,
For the kidapore ladies
Have got us in tow!

At four in the afternoon, before changing watches, the Old Man ordered the mate to take in the fore- and mizzen-topgallant sails since, as he declared, the ship was dragging instead of sailing. It had reached the limit of its sailing power, and the surplus canvas was now a hindrance rather than a help. As soon as ‘we had mustered watches, the order was given; clewlines, buntlines, and leechlines were manned fore and aft at the same time. In just twenty minutes, the two big kites were taken in and snugly stowed. The Late Commander carried a noble crew. As soon as we had the ship shortened down to a whole main-topgallant sail, the port watch was sent below and the watch on deck was left to clear up the tangle of loose gear washing about the deck and trailing overboard through the scuppers.

The ship continued her racing gait with no apparent slackening of speed after shortening sail, and she rode much easier and made better weather of howling winds and driving sea. When the starboard watch went below at four bells for the second dogwatch, the ship was high-diving and wallowing through the thundering seas at a terrific pace.

According to the common plan in British ships, the Late Commander’s forecastle was directly beneath the forecastle head, with two doors at one end, the hawsepipes at the other, and a massive patent windlass in the center. After our Act o’ Parliament supper of hardtack, “strike me blind,” and “water bewitched” had been disposed of, we lighted our pipes and gathered around the big windlass for our usual dogwatch smoke session and yarn-spinning contest.

We were a motley bunch of weather-beaten, hardened sailors, every mother’s son a typical man-Jack. Lords of the gale, we reveled in our manhood and our strength and knew no hardship except the misery and degradation of being too long ashore. The British element naturally predominated among us, not because the ship was British, but simply because the voyage had originated in England nearly four years before. All of the original crew had not yet been seduced into desertion by the crimps in the various ports. Still, the inevitable vacancies had had to be filled from time to time until now more than half of our foremast complement of twenty-two A.B.’s was non-British seamen. Only four of us, collectively known as the Yankee Squad, were native Americans.

Seated around the forecastle in various easy and careless attitudes, we were surely an uncouth and unearthly looking group that might have descended from some remote planet and been sent away into these desolate and uninhabitable solitudes where nothing but blowing whales and pinioned sea birds could find contentment or natural sustenance. All of us were fully clad in the height of the prevailing fashion—sea boots and pea jackets, with oilskins and sou’westers ready» on hand in case of an emergency call.

Ever since the mutiny at the Nore, a national superstition has prevailed in British ships, both naval and commercial, against striking seven bells in the second dogwatch and rigging the gangway out on the port side. When four bells terminates the first dogwatch at six P.M., the chimes begin with one bell again at six-thirty, two bells mark seven o’clock, and three bells are struck at seven-thirty. Then the usual intermediate one bell at a quarter to eight warns the watch below to turn out and get ready. The final stroke of eight bells ends the dogwatch and calls all hands on deck to muster at the mainmast.

It happened to be Saturday night, and just before three bells young Pengelley came splashing forward through the deck swash to visit the sailors. Pengelley was as welcome as a Christmas morning, for every man among us adored the big handsome young Cornishman. The entire watch arose as one man to greet him and offer him the place of honor in our midst as he pushed his way in. Of course, it was contrary to both rule and tradition for apprentices to associate in quarters with “common” sailors, but no one, not even old Cap’n Grummitt himself, ever thought of reprimanding Pengelley.

Like many other high-minded but hardheaded men, Pengelley’s father, being an officer in the Royal Navy, had insisted upon a sea career for his son even though the sensitive lad was unfitted by natural impulse and predilection for the hardships and drudgeries peculiar to the maritime service. Pengelley was a born scholar. He was studious, book-minded, and thoughtful rather than practical.

He was as much out of place among a windjammer’s crew as a marble statue in a farmer’s bamyard. Nevertheless, Pengelley was the light, the life, and the pride and ennobling influence of our whole ship’s company. We needed someone better, nobler, nearer the unknown unattainable than our miserable selves. That was why we all adored Pengelley. He never needed to do any sailorizing; we could do all that!

Politely but positively declining any of the vacated seats around the windlass, Pengelley stripped off his dripping oilskin coat and spread it over the horn of the windlass to drain. Then loosing his big woolen lammie at the throat, he stretched himself at full length in precarious comfort along the running board fronting the lower tier of bunks. The strait-laced restrictions of quarter-deck discipline evidently bored him, and he appreciated the homely good will and natural levity of us “common” sailors.

He seemed to be in unusually high spirits that night. His blue eyes twinkled with suppressed mirth and his chestnut hair glistened in the flickering light of the spluttering slush lamp. Although the constant lurching and diving of the ship rendered his recumbent position on the bunkboard somewhat insecure, Pengelley seemed to enjoy the situation. He began describing, with witty embellishments, some of the amusing mishaps to officers and crew which he had witnessed during the day.

The resonant clang of three warning strokes on the big watch bell directly over our heads interrupted his amusing recital and created an uneasy stir among the tired seamen. The short and comfortless dogwatch was nearing its close and we would soon be called on deck to wrestle with the warring elements again until midnight.

“Sing us a song, Pen, before the watch is called,” shouted Spike Riley. “Sumpin’ sad an’ sentimental; sumpin’ with a chorus so’s we kin all jine in an’ blow th’ wind. Ain’t no ladies present, ye know,” the old vagabond reminded us with an artful grin, “so we kin make all th’ noise we’ve min’ ter ‘ithout disturbin’ enybody’s nervous systim.”

“Let ’er go, Pen,” piped half a score of eager voices. “Order for a song! Go ahead, Pen. Sing ’er up.”

Always willing, Pengelley at once responded to our request. He broke into the opening verse of the sailors’ love song, “Anchor’s Weighed,” with all the entrancing vigor and glorious fervor of his marvelous voice. As verse after verse rolled out in perfect rhythm and soulful expression, the whole watch would take up the simple and appealing refrain with boisterous enthusiasm, our combined voices ringing and rising above the roar and thunder of the storm, the thousand deck noises, and the raging sea.

Our evening song ended in salvos of wild applause, and at the stroke of eight bells we donned our coats and hurried out on the deck. The night and the sea had assumed truly fearsome aspects. The heavy black wind bags that dominated the sky and shut out the light of heaven had settled over all apparent creation with appalling completeness. The night was as dark as a bottomless pit. Only the phosphorescent gleam of the breaking sea crests and the iridescent and fleeting glow of the splashing side wash afforded an occasional and flitting glimpse of the loom and tension of the bulging sails. The big westerly wind had settled down into a continual, monotonous, bellowing roar. The whitecaps were flecked angrily from the summits of the racing seas and lashed away in great windrows of gleaming spindrift that spread like driven snow flurries in the pathway of the rushing waves.

But everything on the ship held even though the storm seemed to have attained its maximum intensity. So, except for some untoward accident during the night, prospects seemed good that the ship would be able to carry on until morning.

When all hands had assembled at the main fife rail, Tom Splicer communicated the fact with the usual announcement, “Watch is aft, sir.” Then, after a brief interval of uneasy suspense, came the welcome, though slightly amended order and admonition: “Relieve the wheel and lookout. Two A.B.s at the wheel. That’ll do the watch. Stand by for a call.”

That the afterguard was feeling suspicious of the weather and preparing for trouble was quite evident, but it never pays to borrow trouble or spoil your peace of mind either by tragic anticipations or vain regrets. If we could read the inexorable decrees of fate beforehand, the human race would soon become extinct because every individual on earth would break his neck trying to dodge the inevitable.

As soon as the port watch had been relieved and gone below, the starboard watch scrambled for various safety perches above the level of the sea-swept deck. Most of the crowd climbed to the little flying bridge over the quarter-deck and wrapped themselves in the idle clew of the mizzen staysail, which had not been hoisted in over a week. The lookout was kept from the break of the poop, but as

I was the “farmer” that watch, having neither wheel nor lookout coming to me, I climbed to the top of the forward house and stowed myself snugly away beneath one of the big boats lashed keel upward to ringbolts in the beam skids. Lying down with my head pillowed on the oaken skid with only my sou’wester for softening, I soon fell sound asleep, entirely oblivious to all my wild and fear- some surroundings.

I was awakened from my slumber by hearing my name called in ordinary and friendly tone. Had it been a watch call, I should have scrambled out in a hurry and shouted, “Aye, aye, sir.” But as it was, I simply stretched out my hand, more provoked than alarmed, and felt a presence I could not see.

“Is that you, Pen?” I asked, sensing the identity of my unexpected visitor.

“Yes, it’s me, Jim,” answered the young apprentice. “Do you like manavlins? I gave the steward a shilling for the dog basket after supper last evening. The small stores are getting smaller now, and we don’t get much better food in the half deck than you men do in the forecastle.”

“I know it, you young rascal,” I answered as I sat up and eagerly accepted a generous section of sea pie proffered me in the dark.

After I had gobbled the cabin leavings, we sat together in shrouded silence beneath the pitch-black darkness of the upturned boat. Roundabout and overhead and down beneath us thundered the tumult of ship noises and the storm—-the rush and roar and hollow reverberations of driving seas; the monotonous, insistent wailing of the wind; the chaotic crash and tumult of an occasional comber breaching the rail, staggering the ship with its sudden impact and stupendous weight and battering the hatch coamings with the fury of a cataract. Overhead, the screaming tempest held high carnival in the vibrant shrouds. Idle chain gear rattled discordantly against the reechoing spars of hollow steel. The groaning yards and creaking blocks and grinding gins and singing boltropes told the terrific strain imposed upon our flawless gear.

Below the heavy deck, responding to every lurch, the throbbing hull labored incessantly beneath the avalanches of water constantly thundering aboard. The submerged clatter of disgorging sluice ports, the hollow chortling of choking scuppers, the occasional pounding of spare spars and loosened deck fittings kept apt and fitting accompaniment to the surrounding tumult. Above the storm, the wind reigned triumphant over all.

“What time is it, Pen?” I finally inquired.

“Six bells went before I came forward,” he replied. “Jones is keeping scuppers on the poop, and I’m standing by to call the watch. The second mate has been ordered to make one bell at half past and get all hands out. We’re going to take in the topgallant sail before the watch is relieved. It’s blowing harder now and we’re edging to the northward to get out of the zone and into smoother seas. “

“Well, Pen,” I said cheerfully, “I guess I’ll jump down into the forecastle and try a drag at the pipe before we start gehawking again. A feed like that deserves a smoke for consolation.”

“Wait a moment, Jim,” urged Pengelley in a pleading tone as he laid a restraining hand on my oilskins. “I want to ask a favor of you.”

“Sing out, Pen. It’s already granted,” I exclaimed, startled by the sudden tenseness and appealing solemnity of his voice. “What can I do for you?”

“Jim,” asked the young apprentice seriously, “do you remember the evening we first met in Calcutta?”

“Certainly,” I replied. “That was a year ago when all our squad went up to say goodbye to Black Harry and Piringee Katherine.”

“Yes, it was a year ago—just a year ago tonight. Do you remember that I told you it was the third anniversary of my apprenticeship?”

“Why, yes,” I answered. “I do. I suppose you are trying to remind me that tonight is your fourth anniversary in the half deck. Your indenture expires at midnight and tomorrow you will be eligible for promotion to the quarter deck. From Calcutta you will be sent to London to pass examination’ for your new rating. Congratulations, old man!”

I found Pengelley’s hand and gripped it warmly in the dark. For a moment neither of us spoke. Then he broke the tense silence beneath the sheltering boatwith a startling declaration.

“Jim, I am not going to reach Calcutta; I shall never see dear old England again.”

“Say, what ails you, Pen?” I exclaimed, horrified by his suddenly changed demeanor and mysterious talk. “You’ve been worrying about something and your wits are going astray. Tell me about it. You know I’m a safe counsellor and even if I can’t help you perhaps I can share the burden with you and help, you bear the strain.” I was so profoundly shocked by Pengelley’s behavior that I sat still in mystified silence waiting for him to proceed.

“Do you ever become frightened when you’re aloft, Jim?” asked the boy suddenly, gripping my oilskins nervously as he spoke.

“Scared, you mean? No, of course not,” I asserted contemptuously. “The safest place on a ship is aloft, especially on a night like this. You’re out of the deck smother, clear of the wrack, and above your officers for the time being. And the wind don’t blow any harder upstairs than it does down here. But why such foolish questions, Pen? You aren’t afraid of anything, are you?”

“There is only one thing I fear, Jim,” replied Pengelley, “and that is disgrace. I’ve always been timid about climbing; it’s a natural weakness that I cannot overcome no matter how hard I try. For a long time, I thought the feeling would wear away by enforced habit and constant practice, but in that hope I’ve been sadly disappointed. Ever since the night poor old Barney Dent was flung from the main topgallant yard, I’ve been oppressed by an unspeakable horror every time I go aloft, especially on that particular yard. Sometimes the terror makes me sick and causes me to vomit while I’m aloft; and then the reaction causes me to vomit again after I am safely on deck.

“Of course, everybody attributes it to seasickness, which is really chronic in some constitutions. In a sense it is seasickness, Jim. It is not actual fright. It is simply my stomach instead of my heart that gets in my mouth at such times, and it could not happen anywhere else except at sea; but it is a condition I can no more avoid or overcome than I can stop breathing and live.

“I know you will consider me silly and superstitious,” he went on, “but I know I shall never see the end of this passage, and before anything happens I want you to promise that you will do something for me after–after you reach Calcutta.” He faltered at the conclusion of the sentence, and I knew that his feelings were overwrought.

Although I placed no credence in his premonition, I realized that it was useless to try to reason him out of it. If he had been an ordinary, simple-minded old sailor oppressed by silly seasaws and ancient superstitions against capsizing hatch covers, striking the bell backward, or sailing on Friday, there might have been some hope. In that case, if he could not have been reasoned or ridiculed out of his groundless fears, he could have been kicked or cuffed out of them or otherwise left to steep in his own ignorance.

But Pengelley was different. He was a broad-minded, widely read, well-informed young man. I had never known him to harbor spooks or mental hallucinations, nor was he a victim of melancholia. In fact, he had always been regarded as the most cheerful of the four apprentices.

“If it is as serious as all that, Pen,” I said, for I was becoming alarmed for his safety by this time, “you had better lay up for a few days or until we run into fine weather again and your nervousness subsides. I am sure Captain Grummitt won’t insist on ordering you aloft if your life is endangered by it.”

“Jim,” he declared firmly, “I can’t do that. The other apprentices would despise me and my father would disown me. Please keep quiet about it,” he pleaded in genuine alarm. “Simply do as I wish you to.”

“But, Pen,” I insisted, “you are the bravest boy I ever saw to live through a horror like that for four years just to gratify your father’s whim. I am sure he would have withdrawn your indentures long ago and had you sent home if he had been aware, of the facts.”

But Pengelley was obdurate. All I could do under the circumstances was to humor him and appear to acquiesce in his plans, for he was really laboring under a dangerous mental aberration. His designs would have to be humored in order to be circumvented. I therefore pretended to act in accord with his wishes, but mentally resolved to frustrate his quixotic fancies of filial devotion even if it meant incurring his everlasting displeasure. I inwardly resolved to try not only to have Pengelley relieved, but, if possible, prohibited from going aloft during the remainder of the voyage.

“Well, Pen,” I resumed, “don’t be downhearted. We’ll run into fine weather in a day or two and the danger will be over. Meanwhile, whenever we have to go aloft, you stick close to me. That will encourage you and I will always be there to lend a hand.”

“Thank you, Jim,” exclaimed the boy with grateful fervency. “But before we separate I want you to promise that in the event of anything happening to me you will send this box to my sister Eunice, at Saint Ives. She knows of you already,” he added, thrusting a package into my hands as he spoke, “because I mentioned you to her in my last letter home from New York.

“In this package,” he went on, “there is a camphorwood box containing some letters and photographs, some private papers and trinkets, and the gold watch my father gave me when I left home. I know that if I am missing all my effects will have to be accounted for by the captain and owners of this ship. But in that case they would likewise have to be inspected, and the contents of this box are too sacred for that.”

“You can get Miss Primrose, the little missionary in Calcutta, to help you. She knows me well and I believe she knows you also. She can manage to have the package sent for you by special dispatch. Under the canvas wrapper around the box, you will find a letter addressed to my sister. I want you to send it to her together with another letter to be written by yourself.”

“Well, I’ll take your orders, Pen,” I replied, “and all the more willingly because I feel certain I shall never be required to carry them out.”

Pengelley wrung my hand warmly. “God bless you, Jim,” he exclaimed. “And now I want you to accept these trifles as a token of our friendship.” With that, he thrust into my hand a heavy gold; watch guard with a solid gold anchor pendant attached as a charm. I recognized the pieces and appreciated their intrinsic value and artistic merit, for I had seen Pengelley wearing them on special, occasions.

It was nearing seven bells now, and Pengelley and I crawled from beneath the sheltering enclosure of the inverted boat and descended to the slippery surface of the main deck. Pengelley went aft to take the time, and I dove into the forecastle to secrete my precious charge before the watch was called.

Returning to the deck, I proceeded at once to locate some of my; watchmates and arouse them to the fact that another furling match was about due. I could not think of taking in that big main-topgallant sail, however, without feeling concerned over Pengelley’s tragic premonition. There was great danger to anyone working aloft in the Late Commander because of the complete absence of any beckets, grab lines, or saving gear of any kind on her yardarms. The harrowing lessons of three tragic casualties on the previously run had made no perceptible mark on the hearts or minds of those responsible. No effort had been made to guard against future tragedies. She lacked even the most basic lifesaving attachments on the yardarms. This deficiency, because of the great girth of her principal spars and the immense spread and heavy weft of her enormous sails, made the Late Commander an extremely hazardous ship to manipulate aloft.

I tried hard to invent some lubberly trick, no matter how base, to prevent Pengelley from going aloft that night, but I was at my wit’s end and could not think coherently. There was no time to weave a plot or to execute it if found. The stroke of one bell found me still struggling with my inward terrors and with no hope of any design. In a few minutes, both watches were out and Tom Splicer was splashing around the deck roaring orders to everybody below and aloft.

There was no general muster, but within a few minutes all hands were hauling away on the main-topgallant running gear. Clewlines, leechlines, buntlines, and downhauls were all manned at once and the massive topgallant yard came creaking down handsomely to the topmast cap. The voluminous canvas came floundering, fluttering, and thundering with a tremendous straining and baffling uproar against the mighty tension of the gear.

Amid the momentary excitement and general din, I ceased for a time to worry about Pengelley; and when the tautened gear had been belayed and the braces steadied, I was among the first to lay aloft in response to the imperious order, “Tie ’er up.”

Upon reaching the masthead, I assumed one side of the bunt, with Big Mac for a side partner. With a forty-foot hoist on a sixty-foot spar, it was no child’s task to bunt that main-topgallant sail.

Moreover, it was always a desperate job, especially when running square, because the yard was rigged with old-fashioned quarter clewline blocks, there were no spilling lines, and the buntline lizards on the jack-stays were entirely too long. This left large quantities of slack canvas with which to contend. Consequently, there was always an immense wind bag to smother when the sail was brailed up.

When the watch had mustered along the yardarms and the gaskets were cleared, the huge bag bellied and bellowed above our heads as tense and rigid as an inflated balloon. The wet and hardened canvas was as unyielding as chilled boiler plate. Taking advantage of a momentary wind flaw in a lucky backsend of the ship, we all grabbed the slightly slackened canvas and, shouting encouragement to each other, made a united and desperate effort to smother the big wind bag and strangle it up snugly to the jackstay.

But in the next dive, the clews filled away again. In spite of the desperate exertions of ten strong men, the sail burst away with an exultant bang. And then, in the extremity of common danger, I heard a faint, wild, despairing cry and felt an ominous slackening of the footrope beneath my feet. Instantly a fearful dread froze my heart. Where was Pengelley? Had he purposely eluded me in the darkness and brought about the terrible fulfillment of his premonition? Trembling at the harrowing thought, I returned to the hazardous duty before us; and, after a few more daring attempts, we finally succeeded in overpowering the raging sailcloth and bunched it up securely on the swaying yard.

After passing the tail stop of the bunt gasket to Big Mac, I clutched the convenient warp of the topgallant backstay and slid, like a plummet to the topgallant rail. As I leaped to the deck, I met Jones, the junior apprentice, a muffled and impersonal shape in the darkness. I recognized him by his voice, and he probably knew me by my hasty and vigorous actions.

“That you, Williams?” he inquired.

“Yes, it’s me,” I responded. “Who fell?”

“Pengelleyl He wants you,” he replied in a horrified tone. “They carried him into the cabin and the cap’n says he’s dyin’. He’s been callin’ for you.” The young apprentice subsided with a smothered sob, and I made my way with bursting heart to the cabin. I pulled the heavy teakwood door open without any preliminary knock and strode unceremoniously into the forward cabin. It was likewise the officers’ mess room; and there, bolstered up on a berth mattress on the big mess table lay the broken frame and tortured body of the dying boy.

At the head of the table stood Captain Grummitt, a chastened look softening his wooden features. Beside him stood the steward, striving awkwardly to minister to the last earthly needs of the passing spirit. Ranged alongside the mess board were four able seamen standing in reverent silence. They were the rescue squad that had brought Pengelley into the cabin. Above, in the skylight, the telltale compass wobbled unsteadily with the yawing of the ship; the marine clock in the alcove ticked the fateful seconds away with relentless beats; and outside the storm wind howled a mighty greeting to the departing soul.

As I stood near the entrance, sou’wester in hand, Captain Grummitt beckoned me to the side of my shipmate. Stepping quietly to the head of the table, I bent reverently over the dying apprentice and listened attentively to his labored breathing to catch any parting words.

Pengelley lay perfectly still for a while. His hands were cold as ice, his eyes partly closed, and his handsome features, now distorted by mortal anguish, were as white as chiseled marble. Only the painful and irregular breathing and the slight twitching of the pallid lips after each feeble gasp indicated that the spark of life still glowed faintly.

“Do you know me, Pen?” I asked, pressing his cold hand firmly in mine.

The dark eyes opened slowly and a slight flash of glad recognition illumined the pale features. The bloodless lips moved inaudibly and I bent closer to catch the whispered words.

“You’ll remember, won’t you, Jim? The package and the letter?”

“Surely, Pen,” I murmured hoarsely. “I’ll do all I have promised.”

“Thank you, Jim,” he faltered once again. ‘I’m glad—you—came. Now—I am—content.”

Then the weary eyelids drooped again over the fading orbs, the death pallor deepened to an unearthly whiteness, and for fully a minute the labored breathing ceased. Then, just as Captain Grummitt was about to make an inspection to detect any lingering spark of life, Pengelley’s whole body became suddenly convulsed by a raging spasm of supreme agony. His eyes opened wide, staring and sightless. His classical features were fearfully distorted in an excruciating horror of unutterable anguish. His head rocked violently from side to side and raised spasmodically from the pillow in an uncontrollable ecstasy of intense soul-racking pain.

“Lord! Lord! Help me!” he shrieked in the terrifying accents of mortal extremity, and with that great agonizing appeal a surging hemorrhage burst the internal barriers of life. The pent-up flood poured forth from mouth and ears and nostrils in crimson streams, the raised head fell back limply to the waiting pillow, the contracted features relaxed in a smile of ineffable relief, a parting sigh of weary contentment escaped the colorless lips, a settled attitude of eternal repose stole over the stalwart form on the table, and all was still.

Aunt Bébé and the Count, from Aston Kings, by Humphrey Pakington

Aunt Bébé had married as her third husband a Belgian count some twenty-five years her junior, and the faithful count stood gallantly behind her chair, striking what he believed to be an English attitude, and dressed in a Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers of tussore silk, and on his head a check cap with ear-flaps tied under the chin as though to restrain the bushy brown whiskers that luxuriated from his cheeks. The count’s principal duty was to pick up anything Aunt Bébé happened to notice that she had dropped–a full-time job, as the bishop remarked–and the wonder was that with this amount of gymnastic exercise he continued to grow stouter year by year. He had never obtained a mastery over the English language, and, while he was naturally expected to speak English to the rest of the family, he and Aunt Bébé employed a sort of pidgin French as a means of communication between themselves. The signal that the count’s services were required would be a shake of Aunt Bébé’s ringlets and a trembling finger pointing down at the grass, whereupon the count would give a gentle neighing sound, followed by “Ma Bébé” in most feeling accents, would step forward, bend to the ground with surprising alacrity, and, grasping the fan, gaze with a look of loving inquiry into the eyes of Aunt Bébé. It might have been the fan that Aunt Bébé wanted, but if the count happened to guess right the first time she would switch over to something else. “Na, na,” and the trembling finger shifted its position, “ze mouchoir,” and the count would be rewarded by a pat on the hand and a “Mon chéri.” An unwary stranger might sometimes stoop to save the count, but Aunt Bébé would quickly explain that her chéri was of a jealous disposition where she was concerned, and would allow none but himself to serve her.

from Aston Kings, by Humphrey Pakington

New discoveries in this foreign country of illness, from You Still Have Your Head, by Franz Schoenberner

Cover of first US edition of 'You Still Have Your Head'

I am not yet able to write in the literal sense of the word. Writing always meant to me writing in longhand with a pencil which gave the wonderful chance to erase and to change every third word, or even, if you felt like it, to begin again the same sentence on a fresh page without much difficulty. It was almost a year after the accident that I started–not to write, but to dictate–this new story not of my life, but of something which was near death: a rather long voyage pretty near to the border of the unknown country from which nobody returns. It was indeed a very strange and instructive voyage; otherwise, I wouldn’t date to recount it, because nothing is more boring than telling about your illness. I shall try to speak as little as possible of illness–and as much as possible of health: the special sort of health which can exist even when your whole body, with the sole exception of your head, is lifeless and scarcely belongs to you.

But as long as your head, your mind, is still working and is not too much preoccupied with the strange state of your body you can make new discoveries in this foreign country of illness, discoveries which may be worth sharing with others–not only those who have gone or are going through a similar ordeal, but almost anybody who in one way or another suddenly faces the necessity of overcoming some suffering, some handicap, for which he was not prepared. … as everybody knows who has a longer and deeper experience of life, even the most tragic situation often includes a strange element of humor–tragic humor, perhaps, or sardonic humor, and even sometimes simple human humor. As long as you are able to see these elements you are not entirely lost in tragedy–not lost in your suffering. You are already a little bit above and beyond the factual situation when you are able to view it with the detachment of an objective observer. There is a certain sense of the grotesque, and sometimes cruel irony which seems to be an inescapable part and parcel of the process of living.

You Still Have Your Head: Excursions From Immobility is an account of Schoenberner’s experiences and–mostly–his thoughts during his recovery from being attacked and left paralyzed from the neck down. Schoenberner had gone to complain about loud music from a neighboring apartment. One of the young men in the apartment flew into a rage and savagely struck out at Schoenberner, breaking his neck. A German intellectual who had fled Nazi Germany two steps ahead of the Gestapo–a situation he recounted in The Inside Story of an Outsider–Schoenberner responded to his situation the only way he knew how: by considering it in light of history, literature, philosophy and, occasionally, human behavior. Possessed of a remarkable resilience of spirit and sense of humor, if he ever experienced a moment of self-pity, you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find one man’s attempt to put a horrific twist of fate into perspective, an example of understanding reached through the disciplined exercise of a lifetime’s worth of learning.

You Still Have Your Head: Excursions From Immobility, by Franz Schoenberner
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957

Charley’s death, from Charley Smith’s Girl, by Helen Bevington

I think Charley died of despair, as by now I have known others to do. The others chose suicide. But I am eternally grateful to Charley for not making that choice, hard as it is to say so when the only alternative was suffering–that I did not share–and in the end turning his face to the wall. My reason is simple and self-centered: the other way is too terrible an inheritance to be left with, too fearful a legacy for me and my children. It says too flatly and plainly that life is not to be borne. Charley didn’t quite say that. He bore it for as long as he had to, and no help ever came. Terrible as his measure of life actually was, he didn’t quite leave me with that silent, mocking answer.

I choose to say he died, as all people do, as Montaigne said he himself would die, of having been alive. Beyond that, he died because he was Charley. He loved life once and clung to it with a wild passion. He tried in his own violent way to live it. This was the way he lost, he finally lost. There is something even a little consoling to me in that idea …

My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair. Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.

Suicides, from Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg

Always there is death. In those early St Mary’s days death was close, for Bellevue had the morgue, and out of morbidness some of us went there to see rows of white-sheeted stillness on the slabs–the lost and forgotten corpses of a city that holds so much of life and happiness and hope. The wharves by the East River attract those drifting near the edge. Always we had the dinghy, a black-painted, four-oared boat, swung out in its davits at the port fore rigging. The call to launch was answered with alacrity. It would splash into the slip and stroke away toward the floundering of the desperate. Many would-be suicides were snatched from the cold river by the boys on the schoolship. I took part in a few of these rescues, the saved sometimes cursing us until hot coffee and a slab of corned beef brought them to their senses. Jumping from piers seems to be one of the reactions of the city. As buildings grew higher, jumping from windows and splattering on the hard cement became a ghastly fact. Not long ago, in the storm center of the depression, I had a man drop close to me on Forty-fifth Street. He landed with a thud and lay still. There was no human boat capable of saving him once he had started down; screams, terrorizing cries clattered about and echoed between the high walls of adjoining office buildings, but these came from women, spectators in opposite cubicles. The falling man was silent. A policeman pulled a tarpaulin from a truck and threw it over the inert body. Two young women who had been closer than I were carried into a near-by drugstore; they had fainted.

James Agate on Emil Ludwig’s Beethoven: The Life of a Conqueror

January 4, Thursday (1945)

Dipping into Emil Ludwig’s Beethoven: the Life of a Conqueror, I find this on the G major Piano Concerto:

At the beginning the piano emerges gently from dreams; this is truly Beethoven improvising. Two romantic themes, renunciation and hope, are gradually developed. When, after an orchestral interlude, the piano is heard again solo, it is as if a butterfly rose ecstatically from its cocoon. There are no fortissimos here, and when the call to new adventures sounds, the butterfly sinks back, dreaming. The whole thing is wrapped in dark-red velvet. . . .

And about the C minor Concerto, that it begins with

stormy scale passages three octaves long, like a roaring lion appearing suddenly with threatening mien in the midst of the orchestra.

I have nothing with all this stuff about cocoons, red velvet, and roaring lions. Presently I read, “Beethoven dedicated his adagios to women.” And I say that the man who can read sex into the slow movements of the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Ninth Symphony would believe that Wagner’s Venusberg music is a Hymn to Chastity! Next I read that in the F major Rasoumowsky Quartet, “the cello continues to exude platonic wisdom.” Feeling that this amateur has exuded enough nonsense, I open the window and neatly drop his book on to a passing lorry’s tarpaulin’d top.

From The Later Ego, by James Agate

The Tragic Fate of Squirrel Flotillas, from Oliver Goldsmith’s A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature

I’m reading E. L. Lucas’ The Search for Good Sense. In his chapter on Oliver Goldsmith, Lucas reprints the following particularly fantastic yet wonderful passage from A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, one of the many works written by Goldsmith in the interest of keeping a roof over his head.

In Lapland, and the extensive forests to the north, the squirrels are observed to change their habitation, and to remove in vast numbers from one country to another. In these migrations they are generally seen by thousands, travelling directly forward; while neither rocks, forests, nor even the broadest waters, can stop their progress. What I am going to relate appears so extraordinary, that were it not attested by numbers of the most credible historians, among whom are Klein and Linnaeus, it might be rejected with that scorn with which we treat imposture or credulity; however, nothing can be more true than that when these animals, in their progress, meet with broad rivers, or extensive lakes, which abound in Lapland, they take a very extraordinary method of crossing them. Upon approaching the banks, and perceiving the breadth of the water, they return, as if by common consent, into the neighbouring forest, each in quest of a piece of bark, which answers all the purposes of boats for wafting them over. When the whole company are fitted in this manner, they boldly commit their little fleet to the waves; every squirrel sitting on its own piece of bark, and fanning the air with its tail, to drive the vessel to its desired port. In this orderly manner they set forward, and often cross lakes several miles broad. But it too often happens that the poor mariners are not aware of the dangers of their navigation; for although at the edge of the water it is generally calm, in the midst it is always more turbulent. There the slightest additional gust of wind oversets the little sailor and his vessel together. The whole navy, that but a few minutes before rode proudly and securely along, is now overturned, and a shipwreck of two or three thousand sail ensues. This, which is so unfortunate for the little animal, is generally the most lucky accident in the world for the Laplander on the shore; who gathers up the dead bodies as they are thrown in by the waves, eats the flesh, and sells the skins for about a shilling the dozen.

“It may be doubted if this is very sound biology,” Lucas observes. What an understatement. But he does go on to credit that there is something sublime in this bit of ridiculousness: “Yet there is about it a charming sympathy with the little squirrels; far more genuine, I feel, than Coleridge or his Mariner really felt for albatrosses ….”

A bucolic romance, from As I Remember Him, by Hans Zinsser

Hans Zinsser
I’ve been taking great advantage of Hans Zinsser’s unique autobiography, As I Remember Him, to while away long hours of flights from Belgium to California today.

Zinsser wrote the book as he was battling leukemia, incurable when he was affected in the late 1930s. In its way, it’s as much a portrait of a life spanning a great transition as Henry Adams’ autobiography. Unlike Adams, though, Zinsser never retired from life. He was a pioneering medical researcher, one of the best-loved instructors at Harvard, a poet, organizer of professional societies, rider after the hounds. The spirit of As I Remember Him has more in common with Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. It’s hard to imagine Adams taking a role in the following comic skit, from the chapter “R. S. and Women” (“R. S.” stood for “Romantic Spirit”–Zinsser’s stand-in for himself):

One evening we were sitting on the porch. The old man had talked himself to sleep, and began to snooze right in the middle of the Wilderness [Campaign–the old man was a Civil War veteran.–Ed.]. Invention had tired him. Pansy and I were sitting closer together than the temperature warranted, and her arm was pressed caressingly against my shoulder. There was a crescent moon, and a gentle breeze enfolded us with the fragrance of the honeysuckle vine. If her head had followed her arm at that moment, God knows what might have happened. But Pansy, though–I still truly believe–a good girl, possibly intent on a bolder yet–I insist–entirely innocent (innocent in the conventional sense) attack upon my emotions, asked me suddenly whether I would like to see their new calf. It was so darling, she said, and had such lovely eyes and such a soft, wet nose. It was a temptation, for the calf of course was in the barn; and the barn was isolated and dark and full of hay. I fell, and said I’d love to see the calf. Merely for convention’s sake, I think, Pansy lighted a stable lantern, so that we might at least fulfill the ostensible purpose of really looking at the calf. Oh, how sweet and aphrodisiacally caressing is the odor of a cowbarn at night, with its indescribable blending of clover, cow manure, sour milk, and animal! A gentle tremor ascended my spine as I stepped over the threshold, and I drew Pansy’s soft form closer to my side as we stumbled over the rough boards by the dim and swinging light in her hand. I had lost all interest in the calf, and dear Pansy I believe had completely forgotten it. Yet we dared not not look at it–half craving, half dreading what might happen when we had seen it. But here Pallas Athene–ever my guardian goddess–intervened. Pansy walked into the stall, put her chubby arm about the calf’s neck, and held the stable lantern at arm’s length in front of her. And here they were–both confronting me, the dim rays of the lantern illuminating both their faces. Fascinated, I gazed upon them. They appeared like two sisters–helpless, bucolic, kindly; infinite vacuity looked out at me from these two pairs of large, swimming eyes. The expression of Pansy’s warm and moist lips was not more invitingly tender than the soft, velvety nozzle of the calf. There they stood–poor innocents–two calves together; and I gazed and gazed, hypnotically held in the light of the lamp, until I did not know which was Pansy and which calf. And I bent down and kissed the calf tenderly on the nose. Then I went out quietly, and untied my horse from the hitching post. Pansy followed me out. There were tears in her eyes when she said good-night, as I mounted and rode away–sadly, but not without a sense of relief.

As I Remember Him, by Hans Zinsser
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1940

The distant past, from The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs, by Bryher

Excerpt: the opening of Chapter I

When I was born in September, 1894, Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam was a secretary. Mallarme had just retired and was no longer teaching English to French schoolboys. The death duties that were to obliterate most of our feudal estates had been introduced in that year’s budget while the Fram was drifting through the polar ice and would-be explorers Cover of the first U. K. edition of 'The Heart to Artemis'dreamed about Bokhara, a fabulous city that was then more difficult to access than Tibet. I opened my eyes upon the end of not only the nineteenth century but of a second Puritan age. An epoch passed away while I was learning to speak and walk. Its influence remains as the start of memory and as a measuring rod for progress that even Edwardian survivors lack.

There were no motor cars, no taxis and no aeroplanes. The garden flowers were different; speech followed a more complex and leisurely patten, the houses were usually cold. The real background to these formative years, however, was the sound of hooves; the metallic thunder of the big animals drawing the carriages called landaus, the lighter trip-trop of the hansom cabs. On land, apart from a few trains, horses comprised the whole of transportation. I only realized how largely they formed a part of my earliest consciousness when I woke up in Lahore over fifty years later to listen to the passing tongas and wonder why the clatter seemed so familiar and comforting in that otherwise strange land? It took me some minutes to discover that it was because I was back in the world of the horse.

I remember reading this passage in the stacks of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington back in the late 1970s and thinking, “I really must read this book.” It was nearly 25 years later that I got around to it.

I think the second paragraph is one of the best and most succinct descriptions of the differences between a present and a past. Overall, The Heart to Artemis is a lively and interesting memoir. As the New Yorker reviewer put it, “Never afraid to get her hands dirty, she rode donkeys in Egypt, climbed mountains in a skirt, changed the hot and messy carbons in lights on early movie sets, flew airplanes, and helped people escape from Nazi Germany.” She had drinks with Man Ray and Gertrude Stein in Paris, was psychoanalyzed by Freud, travelled to much of the civilized world at some time or other, and enjoyed many of the benefits of being an heir to one of England’s biggest fortunes.

On the other hand, as memoirs go, The Heart to Artemis is remarkably depersonalized. If Bryher were to take a Myers-Briggs test, I’m pretty sure she would prove to be an NT. We learn a great deal about her thoughts and very little about her feelings. For a life so full of experiences, it’s almost creepily dispassionate.

The Heart to Artemis, by Bryher
London: Collins, 1963

A humble introduction, from Freedom in a Rocking Boat, by Geoffrey Vickers

Geoffrey VickersA lovely acknowledgement from the introduction to Geoffrey Vickers’ 1970 book, Freedom in a Rocking Boat:

An introduction is the place for acknowledgments; but my sense of indebtedness leaves me dumb. Socialized and humanized by being claimed from birth onwards as a member of so many communicating human groups; ushered into self-awareness through a language, every word of which resonates with the meanings of ancient usage; heir to several cultural traditions, each far too abundant for my assimilation–how can I name or number or know the living and the dead who have shaped my thoughts and me?

Freedom in a Rocking Boat, by Geoffrey Vickers
London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1970

Uncertainty is the prerequisite to gaining knowledge, from The Prophets of Israel, by Edith Hamilton

Still it is true that much of what the prophets said belongs to their own day, not to ours. The politics they threw themselves into with such vehemence are comprehensible now only to the scholar. When they said an earthquake happened because God had arisen to shake terribly the earth, they were offering their own scientific explanation which long since yielded to others as every explanation does. Old ideas are continually being slain by new facts. There is nothing stable in the conclusions of the mind, and it is impossible that there ever should be unless we hold that the universe is made to the measure of the human mind, an assumption for which nothing in the past gives any warrant.

Keats once said that he saw in Shakespeare “the power of remaining in uncertainty without any irritably reaching after fact and reason.” There is no foe so deadly to the truth as complete intellectual assurance. It substitutes an easy and shallow certainty for the deep loyalties of faith. It puts an end to thought, which can live only if it is free to change. Uncertainty is the prerequisite to gaining knowledge, and frequently the result as well [Emphasis added]. Greater knowledge does not mean greater certainty. Oftenest the very reverse is true. We are certain in proportion as we do not know. We seem, indeed, so made that intellectual certainty is not good for us. We grow arrogant, intolerant, unable to learn and to attain better grounds of certainty precisely because we are certain. The right attitude for the mind would seem to be humility.

This seems to be to be one of the best and truest things I’ve read in many years. This passage may come closer to capturing my own credo than anything else I’ve ever read. Both The Prophets of Israel and Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters are short, simply-written, and profound studies of selected books from the Old and New Testament that deserve to be as readily available as water from a tap. I shied away from Hamilton’s work for decades, recalling her The Greek Way as one of those dreaded required texts in high school, but I found both her Biblical books to be marvelous examples of the truth of the quote that “The great art of writing is knowing when to stop” (or of Pascal’s line, “If I had more time I would write a shorter letter”).

The Prophets of Israel, by Edith Hamilton
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1936

The General Is Older Than the Capital, from Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech

I. The General Is Older Than the Capital

Cover of 2001 reprint of 'Reveille in Washington'That winter, the old General moved from the rooms he had rented from the free mulatto, Wormley, in I Street to Cruchet’s at Sixth and D Streets. His new quarters, situated on the ground floor–a spacious bedroom, with a private dining-room adjoining–were convenient for a man who walked slowly and with pain; and Cruchet, a French caterer, was one of the best cooks in Washington.

In spite of his nearly seventy-five years and his increasing infirmities, the General was addicted to the pleasures of the table. Before his six o’clock dinner, his black body servant brought out the wines and the liqueurs, setting the bottles of claret to warm before the fire. The old man had refined his palate in the best restaurants in Paris; and woodcock, English snipe, poulard, capon, and tête de veau en tortue were among the dishes he fancied. He liked, too, canvasback duck, and the hams of his native Virginia. Yet nothing, to his taste, equaled the delicacy he called “tarrapin.” He would hold forth on the correct method of preparing it: “No flour, sir–not a grain.” His military secretary could saturninely foresee that moment, when, leaning his left elbow on the table and holding six inches above his plate a fork laden with the succulent tortoise, he would announce, “The best food vouchsafed by Providence to man,” before hurrying the fork to his lips.

From his splendid prime, the General had retained, not only a discriminating palate, but the defects suitable to a proud and ambitious nature. He had always been vain, pompous, exacting, jealous and high-tempered. Now that his sick old body could no longer support the racking of its wounds, his irascibility had dwindled to irritation, and his imperiousness to petulance. His love of flattery had grown, and he often declared that at his age compliments had become a necessity. While taking a footbath, he would call on his military secretary to remark the fairness of his limbs. In company, he spoke of the great commanders of history, and matched with theirs his own exploits at Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane, at Cerro Grande and Chapultepec. Near his desk stood his bust in marble, with shoulders bared; classical, serene, and idealized. The walls were brilliant with his portraits at various ages, from the young General Winfield Scott who had been victorious over the British in 1814 to the already aging General-in-Chief who had defeated the Mexicans in 1848. They were arresting figures, those generals on the walls; handsome, slender, heroic, with haughty eye and small, imperious mouth. Gold gleamed in spurs, in buttons and embroidery and huge epaulettes, in the handle of the sword which had been the gift of Virginia; and one portrait showed the superb cocked hat, profusely plumed, that had earned for Scott the sobriquet of “Fuss and Feathers.” He stood six feet, four and a quarter inches in height, and had been wont to insist on the fraction. But, swollen and dropsical, he spoke no longer of his size. He pointed instead to the bust, to the portraits, to show what he had been.

Such was the commanding general of the Army of the United States in December of 1860, but not so did his compatriots see him. His eye had lost its fire and he could no longer sit a horse, but in huge epaulettes and yellow sash he was still his country’s hero. Europe might celebrate the genius of Napoleon; the New World had its Winfield Scott. For nearly half a century the republic had taken pride in his achievements as soldier and pacificator; and if he now lived in a glorious military past, so did his fellow-countrymen. He was the very figure to satisfy a peaceful people, fond of bragging of its bygone belligerence. The General was as magnificent as a monument, and no one was troubled by the circumstance that he was nearly as useless.

Reveille in Washington is back in print (at $39.95 list — Ouch!), so, for the moment, it can’t be considered completely neglected. But as the above excerpt suggests, it’s a richly detailed and wisely comic narrative that ranks as one of the best pieces of American historical writing around. Used copies can be found for as little as $0.01 plus postage, although I suppose it’s hypocritical to write about neglected books and then encourage you not to buy your own copy from a publisher that’s keeping it in print. Multi-Pulitzer winner David McCullough often cites it as one of the books that inspired him to become a historian, and it’s difficult not to believe that Gore Vidal didn’t have a copy close at hand while he was writing his Lincoln. An excellent book for some winter nights’ reading.

Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941

Sharing the Rice-Mash, from A Dragon Apparent, by Norman Lewis


CoverThere were seven jars attached to the framework in the centre of the room and as soon as the chief’s sons-in-law had arrived and hung up their cross-bows on the beam over the adventures of Dick Tracy, they were sent off with bamboo containers to the nearest ditch for water. In the meanwhile the seals of mud were removed from the necks of the jars and rice-straw and leaves were forced down inside them over the fermented rice-mash to prevent solid particles from rising when the water was added. The thing began to look serious and Ribo asked the chief, through his interpreter, for the very minimum ceremony to be performed as we had other villages to visit that day. The chief said that he had already understood that, and that was why only seven jars had been provided. It was such a poor affair that he hardly liked to have the gongs beaten to invite the household god’s presence. He hoped that by way of compensation he would be given sufficient notce of a visit next time to enable him to arrange a reception on a proper scale. He would guarantee to lay us all out for twenty-four hours.

This being the first of what I was told would be an endless succession of such encounters in the Moï country I was careful to study the details of the ceremony. Although these varied in detail from village to village, the essentials remained the same. The gong-orchestra starts up a deafening rhythm. You seat yourself on a stool before the principal jar, in the centre, take the bamboo tube in your mouth and do your best to consume the correct measure of three cow-horn’s full of spirit. Your attendant, who squats, facing you, on the other side of the jar, has no difficulty in keeping a check on the amount drunk, since the level is never allowed to drop below the top of the jar, water being constantly added from a small hole in the side of the horn, on which he keeps his thumb until the drinking begins. After you have finished with the principal jar, you more to the right of the line and work your way down. There is no obligatory minimum consumption from the secondary jars. At frequent intervals you suck up the spirit to the mouth of the tube and then, your thumb held over the end, you present it to one of the dignitaries present, who, beaming his thanks, takes a short suck and hands it back to you. In performing these courtesies you are warned to give priority to those whose loin-cloths are the most splendid, but if, in this case, the apparel oft proclaims the man, age is a more certain criterion with the women.

The M’nongs are matriarchal and it is to the relatively aged and powerful mothers-in-law that all property really belongs. Although the women hold back for a while and it is left to the men to initiate the ceremonies, the rice alcohol, the jars, the gongs, the drums and the house itself are all theirs. It is therefore, not only a mark of exquisite courtesy but a tactful recognition of the economic realities to gesture as soon as possible with one’s tube in the direction of the most elderly of the ladies standing on the threshold of the commonroom. Wth surprising alacrity the next stool is vacated by its occupying notable to allow the true power in the house with a gracious and impeccably toothless smile to take her place. This toothlessness, of course, has no relation to the lady’s great age and arises from the fact that the incisors are regarded by the Moïs as unbearably canine in their effect and are, therefore, broken out of the jaws at the age of puberty.


A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, by Norman Lewis
London: Jonathan Cape, 1951.

Biff Jordan gets into the movies, from The Late Risers, by Bernard Wolfe

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Late Risers'


Biff Jordan got into the movies because he was skinny, women made him nervous, and it’s cold in Alaska. All during the war he was stationed in the Arctic Circle way north of the Kotzebue Sound, sending up meteorological balloons and catching them when they came down. He was a rangy boy from the Panhandle, elongated but with no insulating meat on him, and there among the tundras and inching glaciers and machete winds he felt he was doing duty in a mortuary icebox. Dressed in mackinaw and ear muffs, he went around the weather camp with his teeth doing a dice click, saying to everybody, “Boy, here is where the zero gets absolute. My cornflakes taste like dry ice in the morning.” He dreamed of orange groves in California.

California became a sirocco vision to him, some Eldorado of British thermal units. When he got his discharge papers he made tracks for Laguna Beach, where he landed a job as carhop in a drive-in beanery. He tended to be shy, and the brassy klieg sun made him even more self-conscious, especially when there were lady customers around: he was almost thawed out but he felt naked.

One day a cerise Cadillac convertible drove up. The man at the wheel wore smoked glasses and a purple knubby tweed jacket, and the woman with him had jet-black fingernails and green-tinted hair. They both ordered nutburgers on toasted English muffins and lemon frosts, and as they ate they stared at the young lath-lean Texan. He couldn’t leave his station, but he was uncomfortable: he shifted from foot to foot, scratched himself in various places, wondered if his fly was unbuttoned.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” the man finally asked.

“Six ways from Sunday,” the girl said.

“That,” the man said, “is a shitkicker. Does calisthenics every time you look at him.”

“That’s a shitkicker to end shitkickers,” the girl said.

“Even his eyeballs blush,” the man said. “You look at him, his hands get like windmills. That’s a shitkicker for the connoisseur. That’s a shitkicker’s shitkicker.”

“He introduces an entirely new dimension into shitkicking,” the girl said. “With him it becomes an art form, like ballet.”

“That,” the man said, “is shitkicking like Shakespeare would do it. Odets. De Mille.”

Their conversation puzzled Biff: they sounded like scientists trying to classify a bug.

“Good feature,” the girl said. “Like Ty Powers.”

“More along the Cooper lines,” the man said. “High pockets, pelvis like a Yale lock, and plenty of malnutrition. The cheeks caved in fine.”

“What are we waiting for?” the girl said.

“Boy!” the man called out.

Things happened fast after that. Dark Glasses said his name was Sid — he was a Hollywood agent and how would Biff like a screen test? Biff replied that he wouldn’t care to test any screens because he didn’t have any house to put them in.


• Commentary magazine, November 1955

The Late Risers is all about Broadway-show girls, call girls, con men, publicity agents, actors, actresses, marijuana salesmen and consumers, columnists, their ghosts, and other meshuggene…. These characters are linked together in a fantastic plot that operates for seventeen and one-half hours of a single day, at the end of which their masks are lifted, and true natures established.

• Broadway columnist Billy Rose paid Wolfe the ultimate compliment of giving The Late Risers a prominent mention in his column (from 30 June 1954):

The other night … I read a book which does the job for me. It’s a new novel entitled The Late Risers, written by Bernard Wolfe with a tommygun in one hand and a bottle of acid in the other.

In what he calls a “midtown mezzotint,” Wolfe puts the microscope on a two-bit press agent named Mort Robell, whose office is in his pork-pie and who operates out of a drugstore phone booth. He argues, and I agree, that though Mort is a marginal stumblebum, he’s pretty much the spirit of the whole communications-fixing industry. The Broadway woods, Wlfe maintains, are full of professional magpies who figure that, “since reality isn’t newsworthy enough, it has to be stage-managed…. Under their auspices, reportage yields to reverie. . . . Some of those gents operate out of executive Suites, some out of cisterns. But svelte or sleazy, they’re all paid to tamper with the flow of information. . . . A shill is a shill is a shill.”

The springboard for the plot of The Late Risers is a story which I happen to know is true. A few years ago there was a press agent on Broadway who continually phoned the columnists, myself included, offering to trade “exclusives” for a mention of one of his clients. It was only after several months that somebody discovered where this enterprising worm got his “exclusives” from. He occupied a room in a Broadway hotel which commanded a view of the electric news sign on the Times Building!

The Late Risers, I think I ought to point out, isn’t entirely devoted to Mort Robell and his ill-gotten ilk. It dissects just about all the ladies and gentlemen of the late watch — the hipsters who take the sun as a personal affront. These characters are by no means figments of Wolfe’s imagination. They exist, and I have the scars to prove it. If you enjoyed Damon Runyon’s cynical-sweet sagas about Broadway in the ’20s, you’re a cinch to like The Late Risers.

I wouldn’t recommend it as hammock reading, however, unless you re prepared to be knocked out of your hammock.

Find a copy

The late risers, their masquerade, by Bernard Wolfe
New York: Random House, 1954

After the accident, from The Descent, by Fritz Peters

Order, which had ceased to exist until the sudden, unexpected arrival of a State Police car on a routine highway patrol, had come slowly, with monotonous, routine efficiency, out of the chaos of the accident back into the lives of the people involved. Bodies were extricated from the wreckage, wreckers and ambulances arrived, cars were moved, a single lane was cleared through the tangle of the accident and through traffic was pushed relentlessly on its way.

Twenty miles south of the scene of the accident, in the corridor of the hospital outside of the emergency room, the combined smells of blood, sweat, medicine, cigar smoke (from the cigar of one of the policemen), and the sickeningly sweet odor of burnt flesh mingled with the sublter odors of fear and death.

Reality, the fundamental, basic reality of life, had been imposed upon everyone involved in the accident for at least a short time. The dreams, illusions and enchantments, the superficial aims and purposed, desires and wishes, of the victims and the spectators were stripped away by the shock, leaving only the human essentials. The veneer of civilization that passes for human dignity had — for a time — ceased to exist.

For the doctor, supervisor, nurses, orderlies, ambulance drivers, and even the police, the aim and the purpose — as much because of habit as for any other reason — was not only to preserve life, but to restore order and security, to efface the accident by removing all its traces.

With the debris cleared from the road, the night, the land and the hill remained; indifferent to what had taken lace, ready for the next time. Except for the people directly involved, who would continue to reverberate to the consequences of the accident until such time as their wounds were healed and their habitual life reestablished, the accident became in the course of the night just one more even recorded in the reports of the Safety Council, reported in the newspapers, added to the columns of the statisticians.


Manas Journal, 29 December 1954

Fritz Peters’ Descent continues this unusual writer’s exploration of uncommon subjects. His World Next Door, a story of insanity and recovery, received considerable attention in MANAS, since the philosophic overtones of the book were so striking. Later, Peters undertook a story of homosexuality, Finistère, which departed from the norm of the few books dealing with that topic in several respects — principally by neglecting no psychological dimension, and avoiding a thesis or theory. Descent is a novel about an automobile accident, in which each one injured or killed is shown to have created the conditions drawing him toward the tangled wreckage, months — even years — before the crash actually occurred.

Those who have read J. W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time may suspect that Mr. Peters has read it, too, and has for some time been wondering about the psychological meaning of such terms as “fate,” “nemesis,” “karma,” etc. The fatalism implied by the sequence of events in Descent, however, is conditional, since some persons only come close to the tragedy, being warned by strong premonitions in sufficient time to avoid death or serious injury. After the accident happens — the reader somehow knows all through the book that in a sense it is “real” before it takes place, and that each sufferer has contributed to its occurrence — one who escapes muses about the subconscious warning which was his own salvation:

He could understand, somehow, that nature required death of every living organism. It demanded its quota through sickness, disease, old age, manifestations of violence, volcanoes, floods, storms . . . but in all of these things there was a curious logic; creation and destruction were nature’s prerogatives, they could not be questioned.

What made no sense to him, what robbed life of any apparent purpose and design, was man’s own war against man. Not only armies of men fighting each other, but the so-called accidents, the murders, the suicides . . . Why had it had to happen? Why to those people? It could not, in his mind, be resolved — as it would be for the police with their facts and reports — by finding out who had caused it. There was something more than any human action involved. Why had Dorothy Simms tried to pass that truck then? Why had Stephen Williams passed him? What series of coincidences, what acts of fate, had selected this group of people? What was it that had protected him?

The warning — and his feeling of alarm was unmistakably that — had stopped him just in time. He had felt the approach of death — even if he had not known at the moment what it was — reaching out for him, like a huge hand with fingers outspread, for all of them. Had it been just for him, then, or had it come too late for the others? Either it had not been quite big enough to get them all, or else it had not been intended to reach them . . . yet.

Find out more

The Descent, by Fritz Peters
New York : Farrar, Straus and Young, 1952

The hour before execution, from Arrow to the Heart, by Albrecht Goes

Published in the U.S. as Unquiet Night. Recommended by Christopher Fry in Writer’s Choice.


It was a severe task that lay ahead of me–it was as though I had to perform a grave and spiritual saraband. There were words to be spoken, comprehensible human words, but clearly there was more than just this. Klaus, my frater catholicus, could give absolution, the host and the chrism; he had for his people a language of signs which at one and the same time may not be understood and yet which must be and is understood. But I, here, today? Up there, in my own district, I knew the men condemned to die in the prisons as well as, and frequently much better than, the other men condemned to another sort of death in the hospitals. We had a broad basis on which to build our last hour together, and there was never need to try to start at the last moment. Here I must begin from almost nothing. For, strictly speaking, I should not admit that I knew what I had read in the documents. Otherwise he might well say to himself that the pastor had been spying on him, and had come here with the intention of putting something across. I could imagine him saying: “No thanks. No rubbish for me from your piety junk shop.”

“We have one hour left to spend together. It is up to us, my friend, to make the most of it.”

Was that the right way to start? I had said it principally to myself.

Reviews and Comments

Book World, August 1951

We believe this to be one of the most moving novels to have come out of Germany (or indeed Europe) since the war. Its story is simple — a Lutheran padre’s visit to attend a deserter’s execution — but its underlying theme, of the survival among the jungle ethics of war … the fundamental virtues of goodness, courage and Christian charity make it a deeply impressive book.

Frederic Morton, New York Herald Tribune, 26 August 1951

In simple accents, with unadorned fidelity, Unquiet Night [U.S. title of ‘Arrow to the Heart’] records not only the corruption of evil men but also the corruptibility of the good. The very fact that the chaplain, an upright, high-minded believer, is also a little unctuous, a trifle complacent, just a shade selfish, addes to the poignance of the portrait.

Robert Pick, Saturday Review of Literature, 22 September 1951

This is a story of Christian love in a world hardly Christian any longer. It is very moving. It is religious writing of a kind that probably comes to life only where religion in its hope for survival has to go back to its sources in man.

Richard Plant, New York Times, 26 August 1951

The story is remarkable for its warmth, its simplicity and for the classical restraint with which the somber, swift moving events are related. Much of the credit should go to the excellent translation by the English writer Constantine Fitzgibbon, one of the top practitioners in this field.

  • Search for it at Arrow to the Heart or Unquiet Night

  • Search for it at Arrow to the Heart or Unquiet Night
  • Arrow to the Heart, by Albrecht Goes
    Translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon
    London: Michael Joseph, 1951

    A network of roads, from Jew Süss, by Lion Feuchtwanger

    from the opening:

    A network of roads, like veins, was strung over the land, interlacing, branching, dwindling to nothing. They were neglected, full of stones and holes, torn up, overgrown, bottomless swamp in wet weather, and besides everywhere impeded by toll-gates. In the south, among the mountains, they narrowed into bridle-paths and disappeared. All the blood of the land flowed through these veins. The bumpy roads, gaping with dusty cracks in the sun, heavy with mud in the rain, were the moving life of the land, its breath and pulse.

    Upon them travelled the regular stage-coaches, open carts without cushions or backs to the seats, jolting clumsily, patched and patched again, and the quicker post-chaises with four seats and five horses, which could do as much as eighty miles a day. There travelled the express couriers of courts and embassies, on good horses with frequent relays, carrying sealed despatches, and the more leisurely messengers of the Thurn and Taxis Post. There travelled journeymen with their knapsacks, honest and dangerous, and students as lean and meek as the others were stout and saucy, and monks with discreet eyes, sweating in their cowls. There travelled the tilt-carts of the great merchants, and the hand-barrows of peddling Jews. There travelled in six solid and somewhat shabby coaches the King of Prussia, who had been visiting the South German courts, and his retinue. There travelled in an endless tail of men and cattle and coaches the Protestants whom the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg had driven with insults from his country. There travelled gaily-decked actors and soberly-clad devotees, sunk in themselves; and in a magnificent calèche with outriders and a large escort the lean and arrogant Venetian Ambassadors to the Court of Saxony. There travelled in disorder, on laboriously constructed vehicles, Jews deported from a middle-German city of the Empire, making for Frankfurt. There travelled schoolmasters and noblemen, silken harlots and woolen clerks of the Supreme Court. There travelled comfortably with several coaches the plump, sly, and jolly-looking Prince Bishop of Würzburg, and on foot and out-at-elbows a Professor Lanshut from the University of Bavaria, who had been dismissed for seditious and heretical opinions. There travelled with the agent of an English shipping company a party of Swabian emigrants, wives, dogs, children and all, who wanted to go to Pennsylvania; and pious, violent and bawling pilgrims from lower Bavaria on the way to Rome; there travelled, with a rapacious, sharp, observant eye on everything, the requisitioners of silver, cattle, and grain for the Viennese War Treasury, and discharged Imperial soldiers from the Turkish wars, and charlatans and alchemists and beggars and young gentlemen with their tutors journeying from Flanders to Venice.

    They all swept forwards, backwards, and across, came to a standstill, spurred on, stumbled, trotted easily, cursed the bad roads, laughed bitterly or with good-natured mockery at the slowness of the stage, growled at the worn-out hacks, the ramshackle vehicles. They all poured on, ebbed back, gossiped, prayed, whored, blasphemed, shrank in fear, exulted, and lived.

    Jew Süss, by Lion Feuchtwanger (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir)
    London: Martin Secker, 1926:

    The death of Scarponi, from The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith

    from Chapter Twenty-Two: The Death of Scarponi

    In Chicago there was half an hour of heavy rain. Underpasses flooded, water roared black and white along the gutters, and the streets and buildings gleamed as though shellacked. Throughout the city the name of Scarponi spelled itself repetitiously on the neon signs that hung before Scarponi’s liquor stores, reflecting in fuzzy, elongated, and glaring grean, red, and white letters on the slick black pavement of the streets. Cars splashed through the colors, took and bent the letters momentarily on their trunks and hoods. Pedestrians who crossed the street stepped into an O, waded through a P, took the colors on their rubbers and domes of their umbrellas. Like spilled gasoline, streaks of color ran in the flooded streets. Inside the Scarponi stores, which were the size of supermarkets and like great technicolor billboards set out against the night, drowsy clerks stood in the aisles between the shelves of bottles and lines of empty grocery carts with their arms folded across their chests, or they leaned upon the counters by the cash registers, pencils tucked behind their ears, staring out through the downpour that rolled down the plate-glass window at the bedraggled, floundering, pedestrians and the creep and glitter of the traffic in the streets.

    It was tonight that the Tanker, who was not a professional killer but only a young car thief and burglar of far less experience than he liked to claimed, was to kill Scarponi. In fact he had been hired to kill him not once but twice and, although he did not know it, by two different men. On the shortest possible notice he had been ordered to follow the skeleton of a plan and to improvise the rest. He had received these orders from Romanski, who had allegedly received his from Fiore but actually from the Doctor, who had received his from his nephew Allegro, and he now in turn entrusted the first step of the plot to kill Scarponi to Ralph Borman, a boyhood friend. They had grown up together in the old North Side neighborhood of narrow, odd-sized frame houses often shingled in asphalt and in various stages of decay and expedient repairs, with no two of them on the same street the same color, looking as though they had been saved from demolition and moved to their present lots from somewhere else. It was a neighborhood that smelled of machine oil and the tannery on the river, that was traversed day and night by big trucks, where someone was always working on the engine of his car in the street and boys were interested in cars and jobs and money and left school at sixteen to apprentice to a trade. Both Tanker and Borman still lived in this neighborhood. Tanker knew that Borman needed the fifty dollars he had promised him if he would steal a late model Oldsmobile and leave it with the keys on the front seat at the designated hour in the parking lot of a restaurant in Edgebrook in the northwest section of the city. Friendship alone determined his selection of an accomplice. If Tanker had a favor to give, he gave it naturally to a friend. That Borman, in his opinion, was weak, unlucky, and incompetent only gave him, the stronger and more competent if not exactly always the luckier of the two, all the more reason for helping him. He felt responsible for his old friend.

    At present Borman was under indictment for armed robbery but was out on the bail Tanker had arranged through Romanski. He had held up a cab driver, who, as his luck would have it, was a moonlighting cop. Upon hearing the childlike and apologetic voice at his back demanding his money and observing that the pistol pointed at him was made of plastic with a seam running down the center of the plugged-up barrel and the color of the plastic a kind of mauve, the policeman had taken his time in removing a thick piece of hose from the glove compartment (“I always carry an extra piece of hose with me,” he was later to tell the press, “because you never know when the hose to your radiator might spring a leak”), had taken his time in locking both rear doors, and taken his time in clubbing Borman unconscious on his seat. Tanker had first heard of it on the news in his car radio and had shouted out loud in surprise at the mention of his old friend’s name. It was typical of Borman’s destiny that the announcer treated robbery and robber with amusement, as did the newspapers in the morning. It was the light side of the news. Tanker had been puzzled by Borman’s resort to robbery. He thought he held a steady job as a bartender in an old-fashioned tavern in the old neighborhood. Located on a residential street corner that even the local residents rarely passed, it had large unwashed windows, steps you had to walk up to enter, and a musky air that smelled like beer thrown on the embers of a wood fire. Borman had stood behind the bar in a white apron and soiled white shirt, with his pale, fat, frightened face and his blond hair slicked down along his sideburns, looking as though he were afraid of being robbed, fired, or ordered to make a drink he had not heard of before. Even his numerous tattoos did not suggest military service, manliness, or evil so much as his having been held down forcibly by sadistic friends and mutilated.

    The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith
    New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974:

    The Universal Exhibition of 1867, from Money, by Emile Zola

    from Money, by Emile Zola, (translated by Ernest Allen Vizetelly)
    London: Chatto & Windus, 1894

    It was on April 1, in the midst of fetes, that the Universal Exhibition of 1867 was opened with triumphal splendor. The Empire’s great “season” was beginning, that supreme gala season which was to turn Paris into the hostelry of the entire world–a hostelry gay with bunting, song, and music, where there was feasting and love-making in every room. Never had a regime at the zenith of its power convoked the nations to such a colossal spree. From the four corners of the earth a long procession of emperors, kings, and princes started on the march towards the Tuileries, which were all ablaze like some palace in the crowning scene of an extravaganza.

    And it was at this same period, a fortnight after the Exhibition opened, that Saccard inaugurated the monumental pile in which he had insisted upon lodging the Universal. Six months had sufficed to erect it; workmen had toiled day and night without losing an hour, performing a miracle which is only possible in Paris; and a superb facade was now displayed, rich is flowery ornamentation, suggestive in some respects of a temple, in others of a music hall–a facade of such a luxurious aspect that passers-by stopped short in groups to gaze upon it. And within all was sumptuous; the millions in the coffers seemed to have streamed along the walls. A grand staircase led to the boardroom, which was all purple and gold, as splendid as the auditorium of an opera house. On every side you found carpets and hangings, offices fitted up with a dazzling wealth of furniture. Fastened in the walls of the basement, where the share offices were installed, were huge safes, with deep oven-like mouths, and transparent glass partitions enabled the public to perceive them, ranged there like the barrels of gold that figure in the folk-tales, and in which slumber the incalculable treasures of the fairies. And the nations with their kings on their way to the Exhibition would be able to come and view them, for all was ready, the new building awaited them, to dazzle them, catch them one by one, like an irresistible golden trap scintillating in the sunlight.

    French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime, by John McManners


    There was a fund of resourcefulness, truculence and independence in Robin’s character which made him a most redoubtable opponent. He was of solid bourgeois origin, and as proud of it as another man might be of four quarters of nobility. A little country house which he built at Empiré, on the outskirts of his parish, was adorned with busts of himself and of the wholesale corn, iron and coal merchant of Saint Florent-le-Vieil who was his father, while his boastful autobiography in Latin verse does not allow us to forget that he had sacrificed a profitable inheritance in the family business by seeking ordination. Perhaps out good abbé insists too much on these worldly advantages nobly forgone, yet we may readily forgive him, for, while at different levels of the hierarchy, to the son of a noble or a peasant an ecclesiastical career was an avenue of advancement, for children of the prosperous lower bourgeoisie it was likely to entail genuine sacrifice. Minor promotion pleased those who escaped from poverty, major promotion went to those with influence: those who were neither poor nor influential could more easily be disappointed. Robin’s vocation certainly involved him in a long period of apprenticeship as a vicaire in various parishes before he obtained the modest living of Chanehutte, and he was thirty-seven years of age when he finally rose from the morass of minor country clergy to a stall at Saint-Maurille at Angers. Being no careerist, he does not complain of this comparatively slow promotion, but there is nevertheless a bourgeois pride and self-conscious rectitude about him which forms the basis of his vivid and combative personality.

    His egocentricities were reinforced by another and very different passion, which added a delightful touch of extravagance and whimsicality to his character. An oddly erudite student of the past, he was caught up in fantasies born of his own living, and was deliberately acting a part of the stage of history. He believed that his writings were destined to immortality, and to make assurance doubly sure, he immured copies of his books in walls and public monuments for the benefit of future archaeologists. “They call me impossible,” he confided to one of his vicaires, “but they will come in pilgrimage to my tomb”–and that tomb, complete with a Latin epitaph, was already prepared for veneration in the chapel of his little house at Empiré. The canons of Saint-Pierre were faced by an opponent who could not easily be brought to reason by practical or cautionary considerations, for while they fought for their profits and their privileges, he had posterity in mind as well. In 1752, six months after acquiring a stall at Saint-Maurille, Robin exchanged it to return to parochial work. It seems that the role he had set himself to play and which filled his imagination was essentially that of a curé, and for no worse reason than a genuine love of the manifold duties of parochial responsibiliy, which brought him into daily touch with common people, who saw little of his pride and inflexibility, and loved him for his unconventional sermons, his care for children and his genial accessibility. In everything, our curé was a partisan–witness his opinions, pungently expressed, on a trip to Paris and Rome in 1750. After being present at a disputation of the Sorbonne, he observes that this was an “ordinary” difficulty compared with subjects normally set at his own university; when he first sees Genoa, he reflects that the tiles on the roofs are of poorer quality that those in Angers; his considered opinion of Rome is that only “a French pope with 50,000 men of his own nation” could possibly “introduce good manners and honest morals” there. And above all, he is a partisan when he considers the dignity of his own office of parish priest. To a footman, who tried to exclude him from watching the King at table, he replied, “I am one of the King’s men, I am a curé of his dominions, and I desire the honour of seeing him dine”; that being so, he stayed to examine the gold plate and sample the dessert. After seeing the Pope at his devotions, he declares openly and dangerously, that he’d rather be curé at Chanehutte than Pope at Rome. If the humble priest of Chanehutte admitted no superior, clearly the curé of Saint-Pierre would not yield an inch of ground when his just rights were in question. If this was the green tree, what would he be in the dry?


    French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime was recommended by Peter Gay in The American Scholar’s “Comments on Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years” feature from 1970. In the article, Gay wrote:

    Your idea of rescuing neglected books from oblivion strikes me as a most excellent, and, as a matter of fact, I have a candidate. The book is rather specialized and is not likely to appeal to a very wide audience. Still, I think it might be worth calling to the attention of your readers, especially since I believe it was never published in the United States. The author is John McManners, and the title is French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime, published by Machester University Press in 1960. The book is a brilliant, affectionate, and at the same time detached and sardonic portrait of a town in eighteenth-century France whose single industry in a very real sense was the church. By digging through the most recondite sources and making sense out of what must have appeared at the beginning a mess of unrelated facts and trivial reports, Mr. McManners has succeeded in clarifying confused issues, laying out, as it were, before our eyes the life of a city which was engaged, above all, in religious observances and in its religious business, and has done so with so much skill and so much historical objectivity that what emerges is a wholly authentic and convincing account of a single town in the process of change and face to face with revolution. Mr. McManners is a master of research and possesses the synthetic historical imagination at its finest. As many historians know, the eighteenth century, particularly in France, is normally protrayed as a single, simple fight between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Of course, if one happens to be not a Christian, the forces of light are the philosophes; if one is a Christian, the forces of light are the representatives of the church. Mr. McManners avoids such unfortunate oversimplification; he shows life as it really was — complex in all its manifestations. He rescues a number of interesting individuals from oblivion, he clarifies complicated matters of rivalry among clerical orders or houses, and in that sense greatly advances our knowledge of the eighteenth century in France. I can think of few books that I would rather give to a student of history — even of other periods — than this one.

    French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime: A Study of Angers in the Eighteenth Century, by John McManners.
    Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1960.