Bernice Kenyon published just three collections of her poetry, the last over thirty years before she died. And perhaps this is because her preference for simple, concise words and phrases reached the point at which writing itself became impossible. Even in her twenties, one critic remarked that “Miss Kenyon is an artist who loves to chisel at her material until she achieve perfection.” Whatever the real reason, her work is largely forgotten now, and while I wouldn’t argue that she deserves recognition as one the greatest American poets of her time, I do find her last collection, Night Sky (1951) a quiet, humble, and moving set of meditations upon our place in the universe. Take the lines that open the book:
Let me lift up my glance to the night sky —
More strange than mystery, more clear and plain
Than treasured truth; so shall I hope and try
Unceasingly, and even if in vain,
To know, though I can never indeed define,
The infinite way, its symbol, and its sign.
On old interminable strife,
On deep unrest, we build secure;
And who shall find for any life
Foundations yet more sure?
For want of basic certainty
The little structure of these days
Would go unbuilt. But wiser we:
Our tower rocks and sways
And mocks the assaulting elements
With slender strength and fragile form.
And we can laugh if its defense
Comes clattering down in storm.
Kenyon began working as a story editor at Scribner‘s magazine soon after graduating from Wellesley, and, in 1927, moved over to the magazine’s publishing house, Charles Scribner’s Sons, where she worked as an assistant to legendary editor Maxwell Perkins throughout most of Perkins’ time with the firm. Her husband, Walter Gilkyson, was nearly twenty years her elder, and the couple enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle that sometimes earned the jealousy of other writers and artists with whom they socialized. In one of her letters to Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan wrote, “you should see her: she closely resembles a Swedish cook and she wears false furs (meow, meow) in profusion….”
I suspect, in fact, that Kenyon’s poem, “Smiling Woman,” may have been a veiled portrait of Bogan, who often wore a Mona Lisa-like sardonic smile in her photographs:
Her personable countenance
Incites the mind devoid of laughter;
She is a smooth and supple lance
That, bent, retained some bending after.
Always the sun will flash from it,
Tracing that length that never broke —
Her lovely grace — her singing wite
That cuts a curved and cruel stroke.
The title of Songs of Unrest is unfortunate and misleading. Kenyon’s work was not the least bit radical or revolutionary, and whatever unrest she intended to convey was purely personal and psychological.
The centerpiece of her second collection, Meridian: Poems 1923-1932 (1933), is a sequence titled, “Sonnets in Protest,” but the protest has nothing to do with the political or economic conditions of her time. Instead, these are the replies of a lady “to the Poet who wishes to immortalize her in his verses”:
Write if you will, in each enduring phrase,
Of her whose cruelty has brought you sorrow;
But when the past devours a thousand days,
And you count treasure fr the hundred morrows,
You will be baffled with a wordless rage
To find your captive vanished from your cage.
I find Meridian: Poems 1923-1932 an uneasy mix of anger, love of nature, and the occasionally whimsical (e.g., two poems about cats). Her comments upon the crowd in “Sonnets Written in the Pennsylvania Station” seem almost snippy with superiority: “They do not live. There is not one is warm./There is not one who cares to give or yield/An atom’s breath.” In the hands of someone like Philip Larkin, such nastiness can sometimes rise to the level of art. But not here.
Night Sky is, by far, her best collection and perhaps the only one fully worth rediscovering. Night Sky collects around fifty poems, organized into four sections: “Of the Green Earth”; “Of Human Kind”; “Of One Love”; and “Of Several Destinies.” A rough arc is traced through this progression, from the specific and mundane to the vast and infinite. In “Sigrid’s Song” in the first section, Kenyon rejoices in the vocabulary of wildflowers (“Fire-weed, saxifrage, bee-balm and feverfew”) but recognizes that what endures is their timeless beauty: “Nothing lasts as flowers last, with simple form and savour;/Nothing shines as flowers shine, although their time be brief.”
Impermanence continues as a theme in “Of Human Kind,” with lines like “Thus are my walls gone down, and the tower crumbled./These I had hoped would last forever and longer” and “Of One Love” (“The stars have given no pledge that we should be/Forever happy as we are today”). As Gerard Previn Meyer wrote in Saturday Review, “Deeply introverted, tranquilly unified in theme, these poems express the poet’s search through time toward timelessness, through the finite toward the infinite.” In the final section, “Of Several Destinies,” each poem is a variation upon a single theme, that of acceptance of our limitations, our inability to fully grasp the vastness of time and space in which our life is just a blink:
Since there is not, for you and me,
One instant of tranquility,
But always beating in the throat
Such clamor and such high confusion —
Let us preserve the mind remote,
And build our silence of illusion.
Think for a little of those shining
Worlds where no man has set his foot:
Where dark and daylight have no meaning —
Only as distance; where no root
Of deep disaster strikes and holds;
Where only wonderment unfolds.
Then you will find, most certainly,
That all you sought was fantasy.
The stream of life runs loud and wide,
Bearing us toward infinity.
How shall we learn to know — to ride
The noise of this our destiny?
Here rest a moment — rest you here,
Where your own thoughts are still and clear.
From an artistic standpoint, I can see weaknesses in Kenyon’s poetry. Her choice of words may, at times, be too simple, her statements too direct, to stand up under sustained study. And perhaps this is why, although she continued to write, she published no other collection before her death at 84. Her New York Times obituary suggested that she was in the process of compiling a four book, “Mortal Music,” when she died, but there is no evidence that she was working with any publisher. It’s a shame to have lost her best poems (such as “Never,” reprinted here last year), however, as they achieve a level of peace and understanding that is almost like a prayer. I have a feeling that Night Sky will have a lasting place in my nightstand, as a book I can reach for again and again to settle the day’s madness.
Not long after I mentioned her 1977 novel, The Blue Chair, in a Reader Recommendations post, Joyce Thompson emailed with thanks for the notice and reported that she’s busy working as a writer of fiction again, after a long stint as a technical writer for Microsoft. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions about The Blue Chair and about some of her more recent works.
What was your reaction when you found a post referring to The Blue Chair as a neglected book?
Better neglected than forgotten! Over the many years since its original publication, I’ve gotten correspondence from readers who can’t forget the book, or heard the occasional voice in the wilderness proclaiming it a must read. Most recently, someone found and pinged me on Facebook to say, Now that I’m the age that Eve Harmon was, I’m struck by how much of The Blue Chair has come true.
The Blue Chair was your first novel. How did you come to write fiction?
My kindergarten report card says, Joyce keeps us amused with her stories.
For me, storytelling is the key to the kingdom, the journey and the test and the joy. Stories find me and I engage with them. I’ve also written stage plays, produced, and a few screenplays, paid for but not realized on film. I used to think of myself as a poet. But prose fiction is the most durable, most pliable container for a storyteller. Sometimes it requires you to reinvent the form so that your story can be told.
And The Blue Chair was not my first novel. I’d written a much more realistic novel right out of college, part of teaching myself the form. Seymour Lawrence, who then had a star editor imprint at Delacorte, read it and gave me a lot of great notes. He even called me a couple of months later to see how my rewrite was progressing. But I had no idea how to rewrite a novel then, so I waited for the next one to come along. That was The Blue Chair. Nobody asked for rewrites. Lawrence did, bless him, make me understand that I needed to tame my lyrical impulse in order to write good prose. That lesson stuck. At the time it was published, The Blue Chair was considered science fiction. Looking at it now from a distance of almost forty years, does that label still fit?
Insofar as the social premise is based on the assumption that science will advance, and those advances will affect humans in unforeseen and irremediable ways, sure. I think I was a lot closer on the pure science than the technology. People consume text on screen, I got that right, but in 1975, I was imagining microfiche on steroids, not the digital revolution.
What does resonate today is the premise itself: That in the course of looking for a cellular level treatment for cancer, science has discovered a way to extend human life indefinitely, an innovation with serious implications for the ability of the planet to support a species that does not replace itself and die. In the novel, only white first-world citizens are eligible for immortality, this only if they choose not to reproduce. Those who do reproduce are limited to two children per couple; once they reach the age of 70, they’re entitled only to palliative, not life-prolonging medical care. The rationing of health care and state intervention in the cycles of life and death doesn’t seem so far fetched anymore.
I would add that I consider myself a “literary” writer who likes to put a genre engine under the hood. Fiction is my way of exploring the other—in terms of race, age, gender, class, sexual preference, soma, soul. That’s novels—the form for exploring what you don’t understand but want or need to. Short stories, for me, are the form for writing about what you do understand, what you know in your bones. My stories—two collections published—are more conventional, more drawn from my own real experience than my novels are. The Blue Chair is set in an America where the privileged (white) people are cared for by an underclass of (dark skinned) emigrants and have the possibility of attaining immortality. To what extent would you say that some of what you anticipated has come true?
The premise was that people could escape the chaos and deprivation of the Third World by indenturing themselves to the First (imperialist) World. In the novel, American blacks are citizens with full rights, but too often mistaken for indentured immigrants because of the color of their skins. That’s all pretty much come true. What I didn’t foresee in 1975 was the Reagan/Clinton one-two punch, the infusion of drugs into communities of color and the mass incarceration of young black men, coincident with the rise of for-profit prisons, that we were, in effect, building our own Third World, from our own citizens and in our own neighborhoods.
Was your characterization of the security state in which TThe Blue Chair is set in any way a reaction to things you saw going on in the Seventies, such as Watergate?
The security state was pretty much a 20th century paradigm, a meme of the tendency of governments to control their people through surveillance, oppressive bureaucracy and domestic military policing. It’s kind of an inescapable historic and literary theme. I just put my own spin on it.
The Blue Chair was published as a paperback original by Avon Books, which had up to then been pretty much exclusively a re-publisher of works first published in hardback. How did their choice to release your book come about? The Blue Chair’s first person protagonist is a 70 year old woman poet in a dystopian future society, who is able to re-experience her life by sitting in her blue chair. Ten editors said lovely things about the writing and their personal experience of the book—and also said they didn’t believe it would sell. The 11th was a young editor at Avon and The Blue Chair was either the first or the second book she got to choose herself—risk fiction. She grew up to be Susan Moldow, now President of the Scribner Publishing Group, with a long and brilliant career in publishing. At that time, she worked under Bob Wyatt’s wing—he who brought out affordable English translations of the all the emerging Latin American novelists of the time. I felt like I was in good company.
Paperback originals are ephemeral, but the first press run was huge, there was a substantial second printing adding up to over 100,000 books out there in supermarkets, bus stations and bookstores. A couple of years later, Avon reprinted the book in their Bard line, which kept it in print longer and in better company than would otherwise have happened. Checking WorldCat today, I see it’s the only one of my six published novels that doesn’t currently have any library life.
In the mid-1990s, you took a break from writing fiction and joined Microsoft as a technical writer. How has that experience changed your perspective as a writer?
In the mid-90s, I was raising and supporting two kids by myself. I was having a wrangle with my then-publisher about the second book of a two book contract and teaching fiction in a not-very-exciting MFA program. A friend invited me to do something new in another part of the forest. I went for new—not technical writing but writing creatively and collaboratively for new media. I worked on various teams at Microsoft for 3 ½ years, then stopped commuting to Redmond and started my own business. That’s when I discovered I could talk to engineers and translate them into language regular people could understand. I’ve never written manuals but I’ve helped bring 20 years’ worth of emerging technologies to market and public attention. That experience has given me an inside view of the vast changes in culture, consciousness and communication those technologies have driven. The novel I’ve just finished, A Wake for Paper, is about three generations of writers in one San Francisco family, living out those tectonic shifts through the recent recession. Grandpa’s a poet/professor, the parental generation are journalists, the youngers a coder/hacker and an online blogger, respectively.
Harper Collins published Sailing My Shoe to Timbuktu, a memoir about dealing with your mother’s Alzheimer’s and your initiation into Santeria, in 2003. Are you interested in doing more autobiographical work, or are you planning to stick with fiction? I loved writing Sailing My Shoe, which I did in the year after my mother died. If I’m lucky enough to live an interesting life for the next ten or twenty years, I might have another memoir in me.
Has the reception of your 2013 novel, How to Greet Strangers: A Mystery, encouraged you to write another work featuring your lead character, Archer Barron? How to Greet Strangers, like The Blue Chair, is a story and character that took hold of me and demanded to be written. Archer is a black drag queen disengaging from Santeria and an accidental detective in the mean streets of Oakland, where I’ve lived for the last 15 years. Like The Blue Chair, it’s a book that keeps readers up all night and mainstream publishers say they can’t sell. In its small press edition, it was a finalist for Lambda Literary’s Best Gay Mystery. The ALA called it “an important addition to any fiction collection.” The second volume of Archer’s story, Cops and Queens, is done. Did I mention that I’m looking for someone bold enough to publish them right? Here’s hoping this post catches the eye of an interested publisher. Thanks, Joyce.
The name of Ouida has been vaguely familiar to me ever since I saw Under Two Flags on the list of Classics Illustrated comic books. Somewhere in the course of studying English literature, I assimilated the knowledge that she had written a great many popular novels of no great merit in the second half of the 19th century, and as I more recently began to investigate what works by neglected women writers there might be to discover, I kept seeing her titles popping up in search results on the Internet Archive. And I would probably have left it at that have I not stumbled this morning onto Elizabeth Lee’s 1914 book, Ouida: A Memoir, began to read it, and from there set off on a meandering path around the many corners of the web that led me to conclude that this is a life that deserves to be better known, if only for its quirks and contrasts.
She was born Maria Louise Ramé, with a French father and English mother, in Bury St. Edmonds in 1839. She hated the town, which she considered an uncultured backwater. She referred to it as “that lowest and dreariest of Boroughs, where the streets are as full of grass as an acre of pasture land,” and said that “the inhabitants are driven to ringing their own doorbells lest they rust from lack of use.” Many years later, when the town placed a plaque in her honor outside the house where she was born, she snipped to a friend, “This tomfoolery in Suffolk annoys me very much. I identify myself with my father’s French race and blood, and I shall be greatly obliged if you would do your best to prevent any inscription of the kind you named being put as you say.”
Maria Louise was delighted to leave the town behind and moved with her mother to London in 1857. Through their doctor, she was introduced to the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, who was then working as the editor of Bentley’s Miscellany and who encouraged the girl’s interest in writing. Her first story, “Dashwood’s Drag: or, The Derby and What Came of It,” appeared in the magazine in 1859 under the pseudonym, “Ouida,” which appears to have been her own toddler’s version of “Louise.” “Dashwood’s Drag” is something of an anomaly in Ouida’s oeuvre, as it’s told in the voice of a rough-and-tumble young friend of Dashwood’s and displays a certain amount of humor–a quality legendary in its absence from her writing.
She quickly learned what appealed to readers, and to her great fortune, that was much of what appealed to her, too. Although her own education was limited, she thought her father’s French roots entitled her to consider herself a woman of culture, and she aspired to be treated as one of the gentility. At the same time, however, she loved melodramatic subjects. As Natalie Schroeder and Shari Hodge Holt put it in Ouida the Phenomenon: Evolving Social, Political, and Gender Concerns in Her Fiction, her first two novels, Held in Bondage and Strathmore “contain secrets, bigamy, adultery, the dead-alive, murder, shipwrecks, gypsy fortune tellers, secret marriages, and strong female villainesses.” With her talent for what Anthony Powell would later call “an extraordinary vitality in the presentation of her narrative” soon gained great popularity,” Ouida became one of the most successful writers of her time.
Over the next forty years, she would publish 47 books, including 41 novels, several short story collections, and a few works of nonfiction. Of these, her best-known today are A Dog of Flanders (1872), of which at least ten different film versions have been made, and Under Two Flags (1867), which was also filmed several times. With its story of a Guardsman who runs away to Africa and joins a precursor to the French Foreign Legion, Under Two Flags almost certainly inspired P. C. Wren’s 1924 best-seller, Beau Geste. Looking back from a far difference perspective than that of 1867, however, Talia Shaffer, in her The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (Victorian Literature and Culture Series), describes it as “a novel of homoerotic thrills.” It’s hard not to say she might be right, given Ouida’s description of her hero, Bertie Cecil, known as “The Beauty of the Brigades”:
His features were exceedingly fair — fair as the fairest girl’s; his hair was of the softest, silkiest, brightest chestnut; his mouth very beautifully shaped; on the whole, with a certain gentle, mournful love-me look that his eyes had with them, it was no wonder that great ladies and gay lions alike gave him the palm as the handsomest man in all the Household Regiments — not even excepting that splendid golden-haired Colossus, his oldest friend and closest comrade, known as “the Seraph.”
Less than thirty years after the novel was published, Willa Cather gave it the kind of mixed praise that characterizes even Ouida’s most enthusiastic advocates: “Really, it would be hard to find a better plot than is in that same Under Two Flags, and the book contains the rudiments of a great style, and it also contains some of the most driveling nonsense and mawkish sentimentality and contemptible feminine weakness to be found anywhere.”
In some ways, Ouida’s novels were the action comic books of their time. Her characters were certainly as one-dimensional as comic book heroes and villains. As Bonamy Dobrée wrote, “Her wicked are so deeply wicked, her good so extravagantly good, the issues between them so strenuously fought out, that one abandons any hankering after analysis, probability, subtlety, and floats, even now, deliciously on the great wave of her exuberant, superabundant vitality.” “Ouida’s persons are types, or rather, they are what used to be called ‘humours'”, Dobrée wrote; Max Beerbohm — one of her fans — called them “abstractions.”
Take, for example, the French nobleman/defender of the people/artistic genius of her 1870 novel, Tricotrin. Tricotrin is everything but faster than a speeding bullet:
A man with the wit of a Piron, the politics of a Jean Jacques, the eloquence of a Mirabeau, the Utopia of a Vergniaud! — a man with the head of a god and the blouse of a workman, the brain of a scholar and the life of a scamp, the soul of a poet, and the schemes of a socialist.
And a “Straduarius” violin with which he plays Mozart for the peasants in the fields.
“Straduarius” is only one of the many, many factual gaffes for which Ouida was criticized. She commonly put historical figures in places they’d never been, placed events in the wrong year, and misinterpreted or mistranslated foreign terms. She gave elaborate and fanciful descriptions of places she’d never seen, attributed incredible abilities to her characters, and moved her narratives along with utterly implausible motives and actions. As W. H. Mallock wrote in his memoirs, “Ouida lived largely in a world of her own creation, peopled with foreign princesses, mysterious dukes — masters of untold millions, and of fabulous English guardsmen whose bedrooms in Knightsbridge Barracks were inlaid with silver and tortoiseshell.”
Subtlety was never her forté, but her work seems to have left no one in the middle ground. The reading public of the time loved almost everything she doled out. Reviewers–pro or con–were rarely unmixed in their assessments. Of her 1885 novel, Othmar, one reviewer wrote, “This latest production from the fertile pen of “Ouida” is at once one of the most powerful and penetrating, and weak and superficial, novels of the year.” Writing in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, George Bernard Shaw described the typical Ouida novel as “diffuse, overloaded with worthless mock sociology, perceptibly tainted by a perversion of the sexual impulses, egotistical and tiresome and yet imaginative, full of vivid and glowing pictures, and not without a considerable moral stiffening of enthusiasm — half-reasoned but real — for truth and simplicity, and of protest against social evils which is not the less vehement because certain emotional and material aspects of it have a fascination which the writer has not wholly escaped.” Robert Louis Stevenson and some of his friends once wrote a parody of Ouida as a parlor game. The result, titled, An Object of Pity; or, the Man Haggard: A Romance (it also mocked H. Rider Haggard) carried the following dedication: “Many besides yourself have exulted to collect Olympian polysyllables, and to sling ink, not Wisely but too Well. They are forgotten, you endure. Many have made it their goal and object to Exceed; but who else has been so Excessive?”
Few of the many thousands of her readers objected to any of this, however. Indeed, they reveled in all the things that serious critics derided. And it earned her a very plush lifestyle. At the height of her success, Henry James wrote a short story, “Greville Fane,” which mocked her strategy of aiming for the lowest common denominator:
She made no pretence of producing works of art, but had comfortable tea-drinking hours in which she freely confessed herself a common pastrycook, dealing in such tarts and puddings as would bring customers to the shop. She put in plenty of sugar and of cochineal, or whatever it is that gives these articles a rich and attractive colour. She had a serene superiority to observation and opportunity which constituted an inexpungable strength and would enable her to go on indefinitely.
Ouida held her own work in considerably higher regard. As early as 1881, she was writing one of her publishers, Baron Tauschnitz, “English literature is very sorry stuff nowadays. You must make much of me for now George Elliott [sic] is gone there is no one else who can write English.” She had a very old-fashioned view of success, however. She wasn’t interested in pursuing the cult of celebrity and tended to avoid publicity for herself. She once described interviewers as “the vilest spawn of the most ill-bred age that the world has ever seen.” And she didn’t think much of the changes in the publishing business that were taking place. In a letter to the Times she wrote, “The literary agent … is a middleman between other middlemen and the producer; he is, to use a homely simile, the maggot of the nut; he is neither the kernel nor the shell; he is an esoteric body living between and upon the two. Maggots have rights and uses no doubt, but the nut never yet was the better for them.”
What success entitled her to was not celebrity but social status. “Please to address me Madame de la Ramée, or Madame Ouida. It is the more correct way to address a woman of eminence,” she advised a new acquaintance. And her bias toward gentility sometimes put her in foolish positions. “In whatever company she might be in, her first anxiety was to ingratiate herself with the most important members of it,” Mallock recalled,
but she was constantly making mistakes as to who the most important members were. Thus, as one of her entertainers — Violet Fane — told me, Ouida was sitting after dinner between Mrs. _____ , the mistress of one of the greatest houses in London, and a vulgar little Irish peeress who was only present on sufferance. Ouida treated the former with the coldest and most condescending inattention, and devoted every smile in her possession to an intimate worship of the latter.
Toward the end of the 1880s, Ouida’s work found a new set of advocates among the Aesthetes. Writing in 1889 the same magazine as Shaw, Oscar Wilde rose to her defense, calling her “the last of the romantics.” He admitted that her style was “full of exaggeration and overemphasis,” but held that it showed “some remarkable rhetorical qualities and a good deal of colour.” He did, however, concede the limitations of her intellect, writing that “Ouida is fond of airing a smattering of culture….” As with many of her supporters, his endorsement is less than unqualified: “Guilderoy, with all its faults, which are great, and its absurdities, which are greater, is a book to be read.”
Wilde’s review quotes numerous epigrams from Guilderoy that certainly betray more than a few signs of being an influence on his own style:
Moralists say that a soul should resist passion. They might as well say that a house should resist an earthquake.
Men always consider us unjust to them when we fail to deify their weaknesses.
And the country in England is so much more intolerable than anywhere else, because the weather is so bad: to endure it long one must have the rusticity of Wordsworth’s mind, and boots and stockings as homely.
Ouida’s characters often speak in epigrams, and in her day these nuggets were consider worthy of being captured in books titled The Wisdom, Wit, and Pathos of Ouida and A Flash of Ouida. Not all of them stand the test of time, however: “A pipe is a pocket philosopher, a truer one than Socrates. For it never asks questions. Socrates must have been very tiresome when one thinks of it.”
Not long after Wilde’s review, G. S. Street wrote “An Appreciation of Ouida” that appeared in the influential magazine that gave its name to the 1890s, The Yellow Book. “I respect an unrestrained and incorrect eloquence more than a merely correct and periphrastic nothingness,” he wrote in something of a left-handed compliment. For Street, the two qualities that underlay the best of Ouida’s work — “and which must have always saved it from commonness” — “are a genuine and passionate love of beauty, as she conceives it, and a genuine and passionate hatred of injustice and oppression.” In the end, he declared, “I take the merits in Ouida’s books to balance their faults many times over.”
Another The Yellow Book dandy, Max Beerbohm, dedicated his 1899 collection of essays, More, “To Ouida, with Love,” and offered similarly passionate yet qualified praise: “Her every page is a riot of unpolished epigrams and unpolished poetry of vision, with a hundred discursions and redundancies. She cannot say a thing once; she must repeat it again and again, and, with every repetition, so it seems to me, she says it with greater force and charm.” Yet more than a few critics and academics have since noted evidence of Ouida’s influence in the work of George Meredith, J. K. Huysmans, and Ronald Firbank.
Ironically, while the Aesthetes were rising to her defense, Ouida’s own career was beginning to decline. Her formula was growing weaker and weaker from constant reuse and dilution. One of her harshest critics, Malcolm Elwin, later wrote that, “Towards the end of the ‘eighties, she began to lose her grip. In spite of her highfalutin blather about her ‘art’, she wrote purely and simply for money, and all but herself could see that her work had degenerated.” Even one of her more recent advocates, Talia Shaffer, writes bluntly that by the 1890s, “Ouida finally ran out of ideas.”
By that time, she had long left England for good, moving to Florence, where she bought an expensive villa where she and her mother lived with a pack of pet dogs. She quickly developed a deep affection for Italy and the Italian people, and within a few months of arrival had written a novel, Pascarel (1873), set there. It was the first of nearly a dozen, including A Village Commune (1882), In Maremma (1882), and The Waters of Edera (1900). Some, like In a Winter City portrayed the expat society around Florence and Rome, but most were set in the countryside and portrayed the various ways in which corruption and capital was used to exploit and repress the peasants and workers.
She fell in love with an Italian nobleman, the Marchese della Stufa, who took maximum advantage of her adoration and generosity while at the same time encouraging the affections of other women, including a fellow English expat, Janet Ross. Ouida took revenge on Ross by writing Friendship (1878). A little taste of how Ouida took the knife to her victims can be obtained from this excerpt from a less-than-enthusiastic review:
The whole plot of the story is that a thoroughly depraved, covetous, swindling, bullying, brazen adventuress of noble Scottish birth, whom some early and unexplained scandal has forced into a marriage of convenience with a speculating trader, first pigeon and then rook, and who is compelled to live out of England, has succeeded in forcing an Italian prince into a prolonged intrigue with herself (the friendship of the title), carried on with the full knowledge and consent, but simulated ignorance, of her husband, who is partner with his wife in the business side of the transaction, which consists in ruining the lover, and practically seizing his ancestral estate.
Yes, folks, that’s all one sentence. Della Stufa seems to have been her one great love. She never married and became, increasingly, an eccentric recluse. As Rose Macaulay later wrote, “She spent her great fortune recklessly, on lavish living, on rich dinner menus for her dogs, on going continually to law.”
By 1893, Ouida had spent so much that when her mother died, as Elizabeth Lee recounts in her memoir, “There was literally no money in the house at all, and there seems no doubt that Ouida kept her mother’s body upstairs long after it should have been buried because she could not endure the thought of laying her in a pauper’s grave in the Allori Cemetery.” Yet she refused to accept help from her friends, and when one of them arranged for meals to be brought to her from one of the finest restaurants in Florence, she gave the food to her dogs, preferring to live on tea and toast. A notable neighbor and expat, Walburga, Lady Paget wrote that she found Ouida on one visit “… in a draggled white nightgown, trimmed with lace, and a black cape. Eight dogs kept up an infernal noise and went on mistaking the lace frill of her nightdress for a lamp-post.” And another friend confided in a letter that “Ouida is now by her own folly denuded of everything.”
She eventually had to give up the villa and move, first to Bagni di Lucca and then to a cheap apartment in Viarregio, on the coast north of Pisa. (Viareggio has attracted its share of unfortunate English writers, starting with Shelley, whose body washed up on its shores, and later, Marjorie Bowen, who nursed her husband there through much of the First World War.) Her situation became so desperate that Lady Paget begged the then-Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, to award her a Civil List pension in 1906 — to which Ouida responded in typical hauteur, “What right have they to offer me a pension only fit for superannuated butlers?” She died there of pneumonia in early 1908. Her friends purchased a fine tomb for her in the cemetery in the spa town of Bagna di Lucca.
Her obituary in the Times shows just how far her star had fallen by then — indeed, it’s almost shocking in its derisive tone:
The comparative study of her writings, though these cover a period of about 40 years, discloses but little artistic growth. From first to last Ouida, with certain exceptions to be noted, entirely failed to realize the life that was going on around her. Her most famous novels all suggest a schoolgirl’s dream of the grande passion. She seems to be living and moving in a world, not of men and women, but of demi-gods and demi-reps. She takes her facts from her imagination, and does not check them by inquiry.
“To enjoy her work,” declared the Times writer, “it is necessary to forget everything that you know, and resign yourself to hallucinations and deceptions.”
By the 1930s, Ouida was a favorite object of ridicule. In his survey of popular Victorian literature, Victorian Wallflowers, Malcolm Elwin wrote dismissively, “The popularity of Ouida’s novels illustrates the degenerate taste of the new reading public of the commercial middle class…. As a novelist, she lacked humour, reality, and humanity, she had the scantiest of skill in devising a plot, a stereotyped sense of character, and an almost complete absence of culture.”
With the rise of feminist critics and academics in the last thirty years, however, Ouida’s critical reputation has begun to be restored. Two academic books — Schroeder and Holt’s and Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture, edited by Jane Jordan and Andrew King — have been published in the last ten years, and she has been the subject of a 2008 PhD dissertation by Carla Molloy. 300-some different versions of her works are available for free on the Internet Archive. And in an age where the pulp fiction and sleazy novels of the 1950s and 1960s are routinely celebrated and studied, one could argue that this great Victorian producer of potboilers deserves her own recognition, whether you side with her critics (“a schoolgirl’s dream”) or her supporters (“extraordinary vitality”).
In the eyes of some critics, Taggard has only herself to blame. Somewhere in the early 1930s, Taggard decided that her work was simply not confronting the traumatic social conditions she saw around her. She “refused to write out of a decorative impulse because I conceive it to be the dead end of much feminine talent.” Instead, she chose to write what she considered “poetry that relates to general experience and the realities of the time.” Although she gives Taggard prominent mention in her landmark survey, A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter concludes that the poet’s choice to reject her early lyrical style in favor of a more politically-oriented realism “stifled the ardent feminine voice that had made her poetry alive.”
The fact that her second husband, Kenneth Durant, was the American agent of the Soviet news agency, Tass, and that her poems regularly featured in New Masses, colored the opinion of even her closest friends. In an interview for an oral history project, Sara Bard Field claimed, “She wrote a poem called something like ‘Our Good Father Stalin.'” (Bard may have been recalling Taggard’s 1942 poem, “Salute to the Russian Dead,” which includes such propagandistic declarations as, “Whatever is good and tangible and fair in time to come/Begins here, where they die in their blood, in their genius.”) Certainly, Taggard’s tendency to reach for the red banner and to wave it a little too enthusiastically after her marriage to Durant is difficult to look past, particularly after The Gulag Archipelago and the declassification of the Venona intercepts.
Yet it’s worth taking the effort to look past Taggard’s most strident verses and discover more about this woman and her work. And a great deal can be understood by a series of autobiographical pieces she wrote for various magazines between 1924 and 1934. The last of these, titled “Hawaii, Washington, Vermont,” appeared in the October 1934 issue of Scribners magazine, and contrasts the two extremes of her childhood: the bleak, narrow-minded aridity of Waitland, a small town in the farmlands of Eastern Washington; and the lush, gentle warmth of rural Oahu, Hawaii.
Taggard was born in Waitland, where her father had come at the invitation of his brother, a successful apple farmer, in hopes of improving his always-fragile health. The dust of farmland life, however, was ruinous, however, and in 1897, when Genevieve was two, he accepted an offer from the Disciples of Christ to run a missionary school on Oahu. They lived there for over ten years, then returned to Waitland, came back briefly, then left Hawaii for good, settling back in Waitland, where Genevieve graduated from high school in 1912.
For Taggard, Hawaii was, literally, “our Garden of Eden.” They lived with the diverse cultures of the island–“the Portuguese, the Filipinos, the Puerto Ricans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Hawaiian-Chinese, and the hap-a-haoles.” They ate mangos, scooped minnows by the hundreds from coastal lagoons, picked algarroba beans, and played in the warm Pacific surf. Having to return to Waitland was like being cast out of Paradise. In an article titled, “A Haole Scrapbook,” published in the June 1924 issue of The Bookman, Taggard recalled one of her last days before leaving:
John Frank, the greatest swimmer of all the native lads, stood on the big rock that overhung the Kalihi-kai swimming pool, the last day I saw him. His fathers had fished there, with spears and torches. The fish, white and languid, went back and forth, that day, in a shaft of sunlight that knifed the yellow-green water. John Frank stood on the stone worn into a little hollow by the feet of his forefathers. He didn’t own the stone. It was on a white man’s estate now.
“Wellakahou”, shouted John Frank, and cut the water with his joined palms.
I sat on the stone when he left it and strung myself a lei–it was a goodbye lei made of ilima flowers. The first span of my years–the first ten years spent in the islands–was ending the
John Frank’s smooth black head popped up from the water. “How long you going stay in the States?” he asked me, as if it had just become clear that I was really going,
“Three months”, I said.
“Mangoes getting ripe soon”, he offered.
A sudden pang at the thought of missing mango season went through me. John Frank had dived again. The water was sooty black and quiet. Then in a whirlpool came a brown arm. This time he popped up with a well formed idea: “Too bad you gotta be haole”, he said, and went under again.
Off and on, I have thought so too, all my life.
Waitland, on the other hand, seemed something very like Hell:
Hot stubble faces met us at the train window. I ducked down and took a quick look at the hot face of the town, with the feeling of a person about to enter a jail. Dust, ankle-deep, paved the
main street. Broken wooden sidewalks bordered by dusty weeds led to a block of ramshackle stores. A drooping horse and a spring wagon stood hitched in front of the post office. No trees in
sight; just stubble-covered hills through which we had come for hours. We children found even the first day in the new home town as dull as ditch, or rather dish, water. Houses had the blinds down to protect carpets. Houses were tight and smelled of dust. Kitchens were hot with wood stoves. Parlors were not to sit in. Flies swarmed around doorways. Outside there was stubble or dust, no grass. Children must not play in the orchards. If little girls were bored they could hem dish towels or swat flies.
James Taggard, Genevieve’s father, was given a miserable plot of land between two railroad lines and planted with a withering stand of pear trees. His brother, who had gotten his start with $2,000 borrowed from James, told him the orchard was repayment and just needed “intensive farming.” Instead, it failed, as did James’ already-poor health, and when Genevieve was accepted into the University of California Berkeley in 1914, the whole family moved with her.
Her mother ran a boarding house and Genevieve worked when she wasn’t taking classes. It took her five years to graduate, after which she parted from her family and moved to Greenwich Village. She quickly landed a job with a literary magazine, then another, then founded Measure, a Journal of Verse of which she worked as editor, and also worked as poetry editor of the Liberator, the slightly toned-down version of the Masses set up by Max Eastman. Her university classmate, Josephine Herbst, joined her, and the two were soon best friends. Taggard helped arranged for Herbst’s abortion after she became pregnant during her affair with Maxwell Anderson. The two complained about the character of the men they met: “What’s in the men nowadays–the women have the fire & the ardency & the power & the depth?,” Taggard once wrote Herbst.
Then she met Robert Wolf, who styled himself the model of the serious artist: “He had an extremely high idea of his own value as a poet,” recalled Sara Bard Fields. Taggard fell for him, hard, and they soon married. In an anonymous piece, “Poet out of Pioneer,” published in the Nation in 1927, it’s clear she was still convinced that Wolf’s art was the great cause for which she had to sacrifice: “I think I have not been as wasted as my mother was…. My chief improvement on her past was the man I chose to marry….. I married a poet and novelist, gifted and difficult….”
She gradually discovered just how difficult Wolf could be. He insisted he had to go off on his own to write, that she was too intrusive and confining for him to be able to create around her. After Genevieve gave birth to their daughter, Marcia, in 1921, he said she would have to take full responsibility for raising the child. They moved back to California and Genevieve went to work at Mills College while Wolf went off to the Pacific coast to write. Soon, instead of looking on her marriage as her “chief improvement,” she was writing Herbst that it was hard to sacrifice herself for his art “when you struggle for weeks with stoves and mud and diapers and canned food….”
Though they did not finally divorce until 1934, Wolf and Taggard spent less and less time together. He became subject to bouts of depression, bouts of hyperactivity, and bouts of anger, most of it directed at Genevieve. She continued to be the main bread-winner, working as a book reviewer, teaching at Bennington College, and still managing to write far more than Wolf did. Her first book, For Eager Lovers, was published in 1922. In it, in a poem titled, “Married,” the refrain tells us much of the state of her own marriage: “Apart, apart, we are apart.” The book included a poem that demonstrated just how much her initial idealism had given way to a much more measured view of the world:
Men go to women mutely for their peace;
And they, who lack it most, create it when
They make because they must, loving their men–
A solace for sad bosom-bended heads. There
Is all the meager peace men get no otherwhere;
No mountain space, no tree with placid leaves,
Or heavy gloom beneath a young girl’s hair,
No sound of valley bell on autumn air,
Or room made home with doves along the eves,
Ever holds peace like this, poured by poor women
Out of their heart’s poverty, for worn men.
Her second book, a small volume titled, Hawaiian Hilltop, was published in 1924. In 1925, Eastman asked her to edit May Days: An Anthology of Verse from Masses-Liberator. In her preface, she remarks that re-reading the back issues of the magazines “had the same fascination that the face of your father at the age of sixteen has, when you come upon it peering from an album, for the first time after years of pre-occupation with your own generation.”
Her third book, Words for the Chisel, was published by Knopf in 1926, but it was Travelling Standing Still (1928) that first earned her serious critical acclaim. Edmund Wilson called Taggard “a poet of our common human experience” and lauded her poem, “With Child,” as the best poem about birth he’d read. William Rose Benet, writing in the Saturday Review, said he found it “almost impossible to classify Miss Taggard as a poet. If you use the image of a gem, she has many facets, and she has always possessed a quality like the moods of water.”
Though she no longer considered her marriage a triumph, she still saw herself as something of a rebel against the conventions of her parents. In a piece titled, “Statements of Belief,” published in The Bookman, Taggard described how her inclination toward contrarianism started early:
We always sang four-part songs, in the Islands, at school and singing was important. I sat with the altos and sang the dark humming parts. After about a year, came along a singing teacher who applied her octaves and diagnosed: “But you are a soprano.”
There it was again. I was a freckled blonde when I wanted to be brunette, white when I wanted to be Hawaiian, and a soprano when I wanted to be alto.
“I’m going to keep on singing alto.” That was final.
“Very well, and ruin your voice. You have a real soprano. And you might sing solos.”
And so, Alto against Nature, with now (she was right), no voice at all . . . and the only chance for singing, on paper. Uncomfortable as a dog within ear-shot of high sopranos, still liking best middle register and counterpoint.
And so, Alto against Nature, she proclaimed herself quite the opposite of all that her parents stood for: “I am a poet, a wine-bibber, a radical; a non-churchgoer who will no longer sing in the choir or lead prayer-meeting with a testimonial.”
The late 1920s and early 1930s was perhaps the period of Taggard’s best work. Benet later selected a poem Taggard published in the 13 October 1928 issue of Saturday Review for his anthology, Fifty Poets (1933). The poem offers hints of the two worlds of her childhood:
Try Tropic for Your Balm
(On the Properties of Nature for Healing an
Try tropic for your balm.
And after storm, calm.
Try snow of heaven, heavy, soft, and slow,
Brilliant and warm.
Nothing will help, and nothing do much harm.
Drink iron from rare springs; follow the sun;
To get the beam of some medicinal star;
Or in your anguish run
The gauntlet of all zones to an ultimate one.
Fever and chill
Punish you still,
Earth has no zone to work against your will.
Burn in the jewelled desert with the toad.
In evening mist across your haunted face;
Or walk in upper air the slanted road.
It will not lift that load;
Nor will large seas undo your subtle ill.
Nothing can cure and nothing kill
What ails your eyes, what cuts your pulse in two.
And not kill you.
Taggard later wrote that, “One Summer evening in 1928 in a special key of loneliness and intensity and certainty, the whole thing came as if dictated…. When I wrote it … I had myself and you, reader, in mind … and many others … all of us, and there are many now–who run through books and landscapes looking for something, with worn faces. I chose this poem because it is about our life and our way of behaving.”
She joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College and began work on a biography, The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, which was published in 1930. In 1931, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed her to travel to Europe, where she spent several months living on the island of Mallorca.
When she returned to the United States, she appears to have brought back a conviction that she had to make a fundamental change in her poetry. She felt her previous work was frivolous, and she now wrote with a thumping seriousness worthy of Robert Wolf:
To the Powers of Desolation
O mortal boy, we cannot stop
The leak in that great wall where death seeps in
With hands or bodies, frantic mouths, or sleep.
Over the wall, over the wall’s top
I have seen rising waters, waters of desolation.
From my despair bibles are written, children begotten;
Women open the wrong doors; men lie in ditches retching,–
The horrible bright eyes of insanity fix on a blue fly,
Focus, enlarge. Dear mortal, escape
You cannot. I hear the drip of eternity above the quiet buzz of your sleep….
In a review of a collection of poems by William Carlos Williams written for New Masses at around the same time, Taggard bemoaned that Williams had “fallen among the Imagists” and declared that, “We do not need to pay such exaggerated attention to ‘real objects’ because now the fog clears off; real ideas challenge us.”
Divorced from Wolf in 1934, she joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, where she remained until forced by ill health (chronic hypertension) to leave in 1946. Through her work for New Masses, she met Kenneth Durant and they married in 1935. By all reports, the two were deeply in love. She became a member of the Communist Party and they took a tour of the Soviet Union in 1936. She published a selection of her new, realistic poems, Calling Western Union, soon after, and two years later, Collected Poems: 1918-1938, in which she formally declared her lyrical work a thing of the past.
Interestingly, her shift from modernism to realism was mirrored by a renewed respect for the values her parents–and, in particular, her mother, stood for. In the November 1938 issue of Poetry, she published the following:
To My Mother
The long delight and early
I heard in my small years clearly:
The morning song, bed-making, bustle for new undertaking,
With dish-washing and hay-raking,
This vanished, or seemed diminished,
Was lost, in trouble finished.
I did nervous work, unsteady, captive work and heady.
Nothing well-done and ready.
And heard in other places
Than home, and from foreign faces
The dauntless gay and breezy communal song of the bust,
I–idle and uneasy.
I said, my work is silly,
Lonely and willy-nilly.
See this hand with nicotined habits, this useless hand that edit
A chronicle of debits.
Join, if I can, the makers,
And the tillers of difficult acres;
And get somehow this dearly lost, this re-discovered rarely
Habit of rising early.
She had apparently also forgiven her mother for keeping a volume of Edgar Guest’s poems next to Genevieve’s books on her nightstand.
During the Forties, Taggard spent a good deal of her free time at a farm near Bennington that she had bought with the profits from her Dickinson book. Although she acknowledged she could never fully assimilate with the locals, the rural atmosphere somehow brought back her memories of Hawaii, and a lyrical strain began to force its way back into her poetry. She published A Part of Vermont in 1945–a slender book but with nary a sign of red banners or marching masses.
A year later, she published Slow Music, which showed a writer torn between the cause she believed in and the sensuality at the core of her spirit. Dross like “Salute to the Russian Dead” is overwhelmed by such poems as “Hymn to Yellow,” “A Dialogue on Cider,” “A Poem to Explain Everything About a Certain Day in Vermont,” and the playful “A Sombrero Is a Kind of Hat This Poem Is a Kind of Nonsense.” And the woman who rejected William Carlos Williams for fixating on objects came up with a lovely little poem with echoes of William’s red wheel barrow:
Even if the geraniums are artificial
Just the same,
In the rear of the Italian cafe
Under the nimbus of electric light
They are red; no less red
For how they were made. Above
The mirror and the napkins
In the little white pots …
… In the semi-clean cafe
Where they have good
Lasagne … The red is a wonderful joy
Really, and so are the people
Who like and ignore it. In this place
They also have good bread.
And so, with her last book, Origin: Hawaii (1947), Taggard returned to Oahu for the last time (and perhaps knew it for the first time). In her introduction to the collection, she wrote that, “A place that has not been truly felt and communicated does not, in a certain sense, exist. Just as a human being who is not quite conscious may be said not quite to exist either.” The collection includes the last poem she wrote, “Luau,” which, one could argue, offers her own equivalent of the Last Supper:
So I come home in the valley of Kalihi,
My bare feet on hard earth, hibiscus with stamen-tongue
Twirled in my fingers like a paper windmill,
A wheel of color, crimson, the petals large,
Kiss of the petal, tactile, light, intense …
Now I am back again. I can touch the children:
My human race, in whom was a human dwelling,
Whose names are all the races–of one skin.
For so our games ran tacit, without blur.
Here we are dipping and passing the calabash
In the ceremony of friends; I also;
But in frenzy and pain distort
The simple need, knowing how blood is shed:
To sit together
Drinking the blue ocean, eating the sun
Like a fruit …
Geraldine Taggard died in New York City in 1948 at the age of 53, of the debilitating effects of long-term chronic hypertension. Though all her books are now long out of print, by far the best place to start to discover her poetry is the collection compiled by her daughter, Marcia Durant Liles, To the Natural World, which was issued in 1980 but is available for free in PDF format (link. It includes some of her very best poems and suffers none of the shortcomings of Taggard’s “realism” period.
As a rule, I limit this site to out-of-print books and long-unpublished authors, but I want to break that rule today to take a little time to celebrate the work of one of my favorite writers, Wright Morris. To some extent, Morris does qualify for mention on the Neglected Books Page, for while most of his books are still in print, thanks to the outstanding support of the University of Nebraska Press for a favorite native son, his name rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great 20th century American writers. While Morris was still living, in fact, a reviewer in the Washington Post once wrote, “No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris.”
I first learned of Morris through a PBS documentary from the mid-1970s, one of a series of half-hour films on selected American writers. The show concentrated on Morris’ roots in the great plains and dry lands of central Nebraska, a place where, as Morris put it, “The man drives and the woman sleeps.” My grandfather, who was born about a hundred miles west of Morris’ home town of Central City, was still living at that time, and I had a strong interest in understanding the culture he grew up in. He had a remarkable patience and persistence that seemed a little mystifying to a kid who’d spent his days watching TV and going downtown to the movies.
Although Morris left the state when he was fourteen, lived in Chicago with his father, attended colleges in southern California, spent a year traveling around Europe, resided in Pennsylvania and California, and often visited Europe and Mexico, Nebraska remained strongly associated with him, and reappeared in his novels and stories throughout his career. Two of his earliest books, The Inhabitants (1946) and The Home Place (1948), were pioneering works of photo-fiction, combining Morris’ stark black-and-white photographs of deserted, wind-scarred buildings and abandoned interiors in rural Nebraska with stories of the odd people, mostly of few words, who survived there.
Where others might see emptiness, Morris found the source for intense imaginings. “In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in a man that begins to flow.” So opens The Works of Love (1952), which I consider one of the very best American novels of its century. For me, to steal an opening line from Ford, this is the saddest story I’ve ever heard. Morris tells the story of Will Brady, a man of the plains, who achieves a great success as an early corporate poultry farmer yet always seems a Grand Canyon away from the people he loves. One of his wives wraps herself up in their sheets to keep away from Will, and when, later, he is broke and working as a department store Santa Claus in Chicago, he writes long letters to a stepson who will never see them.
Morris’ first novel, My Uncle Dudley (1942), was a comic account of a trip from Nebraska to California that Morris made at the age of sixteen with his uncle Dwight in 1926. My favorite Morris novel–a pair of novels, to be correct–takes that journey in reverse. In Fire Sermon (1971), a wizened, straight-backed old man, Floyd Warner, aged eighty-three, takes his orphaned eleven year-old grand nephew and returns to his family home in Nebraska to settle the affairs of his sister, Viola. Floyd fixes up the 1927 Maxwell he’s had up on block for decades, and, driving well below the speed limit, slowly works his way East. Along the way, they pick up a hitch-hiking hippie couple, and when they arrive at Viola’s place, they find the same empty rooms and collections of silverware and kerosene lamps that Morris photographed thirty years earlier.
Fire Sermon was followed in 1972 by A Life, in which Floyd Warner continues his journey, leaving behind the young boy and picking up a somewhat mythical character, Blackbird, who leads him to his death. The two novels trace a symbolic path from the hard and innocent days of the 1920s to the energy and anarchy of Vietnam-era America–yet the one thing one could never say is that Morris ever strays from the concrete and tangible into symbolism.
Looking through the list of Morris’ novels, I am struck both by the size and variety of his oeuvre. In addition to his Nebraska novels, there are his expat novels, such as The Huge Season (1954), The Field of Vision (1956), and Cause for Wonder (1963). All feature rich, precise descriptive prose, electic mixes of characters and situations, and Morris’ ironic sense of comedy. Then there are two of the best novels written and set in the 1960s: In Orbit (1967), about the one day racing, raping and thieving spree of one Jubal Gainer, a character of pure energy and violence, and One Day (1965), which looks at a small California town on the day of JFK’s assassination.
In his last novel, Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980), Morris returned again to a Nebraska setting. In his review of the book, Larry McMurtry wrote, “No landscape moves him so deeply as the somber, muted plains country; for nowhere else is his depth of reference so nearly absolute.” Although the book received better publicity than most of Morris’ other books, it remained, like the rest, better spoken of than read. While the sum of his work represents a considerable richness and variety of writing, Morris never aimed to write for a large audience. Asked to describe his ideal reader, Morris said it would be one who possessed, “A well-established and chronic inclination to read slowly, and reread the line you just slipped by.”
As long as the University of Nebraska Press stays in business, there’s a good chance that Wright Morris’ novels will stay in print. But there’s little chance that his name and reputation will ever eclipse that of, say, John Steinbeck or Norman Mailer, given his predilection for spare, unpretentious prose and lean, less-traveled subjects and places. And so I consider him more than worth the time and space required for this modest tribute. If you’ve never read anything by Morris, I’d suggest Fire Sermon–just under 150 pages, dry, tough and funny. I’d recommend The Works of Love as well, but you’d better be prepared to have your heart broken and bled. Few writers have been as adept at speaking softly and wielding a big emotional stick as Wright Morris.
Although James Agate (pronounced AY-gett) was, during his lifetime, one of the best-known literary figures in England, it’s not surprising he’s utterly forgotten today. His primary form–theatre and film reviews for daily newspapers–is about as short-lived as there is.
Not that his work ethic ever acknowledged that fact. As his biographer, James Harding wrote,
As a talker, as a raconteur, he was spontaneous and witty without effort. As a writer, he was slow, uncertain and laborious. It took him three days to write his Sunday Times article, and he rewrote it as many as six or seven times. the manuscript ended up as a maze of crossings-out and second thoughts. He would go to bed reasonably satisfied with what he had done. In the middle of the night, new phrases would present themselves, and he would get up and slave at his desk again until dawn.
He made it a habit, in fact, to draft his review before even going to a play, just to ensure that he had something ready in time to make his deadline. But though he worked at a time when theatre was the leading form of lively arts in Britain and reigned for years as its most influential critic, there would be little reason for mentioning his name here had he limited his output to criticism (and three minor works of fiction).
What earns Agate a place not just on this site but on the shelves of any lover of literate amusement are the nine volumes of his Ego–a unique work that combines autobiography, journal, causerie, commonplace book, and collections of letters written to him by others. They are, in Harding’s words, “the perfect bedside books. You pick one up to check a point, and, before you realize what is happening, you are bewitched into reading on, and on, and on.” This is an echo of Jacques Barzun’s introduction to The Later Ego, which collects Ego 8 and Ego 9: “One can only say that nine volumes of this ideal bedside reading are none too many.”
Agate was approached to write his autobiography in the early 1930s. From today’s vantage point, one wonders why. At the time, he’d been working as a critic for over twenty years, covering theatre, music, books and, lately, film. A theatre lover from an early age, Agate found his talent for acting lacking and turned to criticism as an alternative. It was a profession he joined late, having spent the first twenty years of his working life following in his father’s footsteps as a cloth merchant. Although he’d begun to acquire a nationwide reputation through his appearances on BBC radio, his autobiography would seem to have more in common with a quickie book published to capitalize on a minor celebrity’s fame than anything of lasting literary value.
Yet when the first Ego was published in 1935, most reviewers acclaimed it as an exceptional work. Rebecca West wrote, “One would like to organise some graceful national demonstration in its honour. … Really, there is not anything much better than our Mr. Agate, save Mr. Pickwick and such bright diamonds of literature.”
The comparison with Pickwick was accurate. Agate was a larger-than-life character: foppish, heavy-drinking and smoking, a lover of cricket and horse racing, extravagant in his spending (he would keep cabs waiting for hours while he dined and wined with friends), and vastly well read. He was also gay, though his public brash drew attention away from his private preferences. He liked to be one of the last to enter a theatre, which he did with a flourish, and wherever he went, he loved the company of lively personalities … as long as he was allowed to outshine them. He once described himself as a character “who looked like a farmer, dressed like a bookmaker, ate like a Parisian, and drank like a Hollander.”
He also spent money like there was no tomorrow. While he did quite well when he worked in the cloth business, once he came back from serving as a purchasing agent in the British Army, buying fodder in the south of France for use by cavalry horses in France and Greece, he gave up all pretense of keeping his books. He opened a small shop when he first moved to London and it quickly went bust. He bought and sold horses with expert eye for horseflesh, but usually came out at a loss after factoring in his stabling costs. “Debt worries are a legitimate hell,” he wrote in his very first entry. In his very last, he notes, “Received this morning a curt communication from the Revenue saying that unless I find £940 within a week everything in my flat except the bed I lie on will be taken away.”
Although Ego and all the subsequent volumes were subtitled, “The Autobiography of James Agate,” it’s really a set of diaries than a narrative life story. The first entry in Ego 1 is dated 2 June 1932; the last in Ego 9 exactly fifteen years later–just four days before his death, of a heart attack, just short of his 70th birthday. Across the over two thousand pages comprising the nine volumes, Agate wrote and quoted–without ever a note of apology–whatever he felt. “It will be a relief to set down just what I do actually think, and in the first words to hand, instead of pondering what I ought to think and worrying about the words in which to express the hammered-out thought.”
It was never intended to be a private diary. He kept keeping it after being approached about the autobiography, and, as Harding puts it, “Agate wrote for immediate publication.” After Ego 1, the subsequent volumes appeared roughly every 18 months, and from the responses from critics and readers he quotes, each was eagerly anticipated. “I enjoy keeping this diary, yet would not write a word except with the notion that some day somebody may read it.”
Agate was opinionated, bitchy, frank (but not candid), and witty. Or, as Alistair Cooke described him in one of his last “Letters from America,” “irritating, brilliant, perceptive, self-centred, argumentative, charming, spoiled, explosive, capacious.” Agate was fluent in French, German and Latin, prodigious in his knowledge of literature and the history of the theatre in both England and France, and ready to pounce on the slightest mistake in a quotation from Shakespeare, Jonson, Congreve, and most of the other major playwrights.
Yet he managed to be expert without becoming pompous. He was capable of finding fine and funny things in the highest and lowest. An example: “I hold this Pipe Night [a short story collection by John O’Hara] to be ten times better than James Joyce wrote towards the end of his life, and a hundred and fifty times better than Gertrude Stein wrote at any wrote wrote at wrote wrote wrote period any any at.”
He also, it seems, trusted and liked well enough by a very broad reading audience for thousands of them to have felt free to write him on almost any topic at all. Agate includes hundreds of such letters–everything from an RAF airman in a remote station in Malaysia asking for a donation of a few books to enliven the base library to two girls in Manchester asking for career advice.
It’s a literary potpourri, and if you don’t find something funny or enlightening, keep reading: you will in the next page or two. I can’t agree with James Harding’s claim that, “The full flavour of the Ego books cannot be appreciated without reading them through consecutively. So much depends, as in a musical composition, on the individual themes which are stated, taken up, varied, developed, and then succeeded by other motifs that recur at given points.”
It just isn’t possible. Agate was a prodigious worker, enormously proud of his output, which he toted up each year and compared with the likes of Balzac and Trollope. But the diary entries are just as likely to be ephemera (“7.0. Get up. 8.0. Start to motor to Manchester. 12.15. Arrive Manchester”) or clippings (excerpts of other peoples’ reviews or articles) or letters from his many correspondents, high and low (“Dear Mr Agate, Are you a self-made man because I wish you could advise me how to be one too”) or jokes:
From a Harley Street lecture on the subject of How to Sleep Well: “Be careful how you spend the evening. It’s what you do out of bed that affects you when you turn in.” One of those cases, surely, in which the converse is equally true!
It’s this unpredictability that makes the volumes of Ego so wonderful for serendipitous browsing. I dip into Ego 6, arriving in mid-1942:
May 31, Sunday
Opening my paper in the train to Bournemouth, I read that John Barrymore has died. Oddly enough, among the books I have brought down with me is a review copy of Mrs. Alma Power-Water’s biography published this week. “For God’s sake don’t whitewash me,” Barrymore said to her. “Play me as I am.” ….
July 1, Wednesday
Billy Bennett, the music-hall comedian, died yesterday….. Billy Bennett was forthright, bawdy, and wholesome. He knew what sailors and soldiers on leave look for is not a rock bun, a symphony concert, or a lecture on modern poetry. He knew that a Saturday night audience is a crowd of clerks and shop assistants, let out after being pent up for the week in warehouse or store. He was a wiser man than Burke, who ought to have known that vice which loses its grossness doubles its evil. Bennett’s grossness had that gusto about it which is like a high wind blowing over a noisome place.
July 30, Thursday
Meric Dobson, now a sub-lieutenant in the R. N. V. R., told me this. During his recent leave he visited a travelling circus near Bristol. Introducing “Miss Zelfredo, the world-famous snake-charmer,” the ringmaster said, “It is with great regret that I have to announce one of the great tragedies of the Ring. Doreen Zelfredo’s python, which had been with her for six years, died on Friday at Knowle. I am sure the audience will join with me in sympathy for Doreen, and in the wish that she may soon find a new pal. If ever a woman loved a snake Doreen did. Miss Zelfredo will not enter the ring and perform her act without her snake.”
A few days after this, Agate wrote,
This sixth and possibly final volume of Ego–I can feel an October nip in the air–will be my thirty-seventh book, unless, of course, I publish some more while it is writing. This means thirty-seven slabs of stolen time. Every moment spent on Ego had been filched from the hours I should have been giving to this editor or that…. But since, all deductions made, my books have never brought me in even a hundred pounds a year, I must continue reviewing plays, films, novels. And then there is the old income-tax nuisance. My arrears tie me to the stake. Bear-like, I must fight the course.
The lucky readers who discover Ego will thank James Agate for filching these moments, for these are pages that are still to be enjoyed long, long after his finest Sunday Times reviews will have been forgotten.
It would be a challenge to assemble all nine volumes of Ego, as several of the early books are quite rare. The later volumes, however, are easier to find, and fairly cheap. Easier still are the three volumes of A Shorter Ego (Vol. 1 (1946); Vol. 2 (1946); and Vol. 3 (1949)). There is also The Later Ego, (1951) edited by Barzun, and the rather slim The Selective Ego (1976), edited by Tim Beaumont. Any of these is a great place to start–and I challenge you to stop with just one. There’s a good reason why Barzun, in his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, called Agate “the Supreme Diarist.”
Humor is a bit like wine: a lot of it doesn’t age well, and depending on your taste, it might not even young well. And unlike other forms of literature, for which there’s a chance that the right teacher or critic might help you appreciate what first turned you off or left no impression at all, it’s pretty hard to make something funny by persuasion.
If you Google “Ira Wallach,” you’re more likely to find pages about the millionaire philanthropist than about the novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, playwright and, back in the early 1950s, industrious writer of parodies. Even the bios of Ira Wallach the writer focus on his work for Hollywood and the stage. Frankly, unless you’re S. J. Perelman, writing parodies is unlike to earn you a significant spot in literary history. Parodies rank pretty low on the totem pole, just slightly above “How To” books.
Actually, “How To” books have a better chance of surviving in the eyes of the reading public. Dale Carnegie still sells thousands of copies a year, while no one cares about How to be Deliriously Happy, Wallach’s send-up of the blithely optimistic Carnegian school of self-help books.
Both Hopalong-Freud books collect parodies of a wide variety of then-current writers and styles. Fortunately for today’s reader, most of Wallach’s targets have since earned a lasting place in the literary canon, so one can easily appreciate his success or failure in exaggerating their quirks and flaws. Hopalong-Freud, for example, is a take-off of T. S. Eliot’s 1949 play, The Cocktail Party, which was his greatest popular success. Freud, Wallach’s twist on Eliot’s psychiatrist-comme-priest, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, offers up such weighty pronouncements as,
No, no, one never knows the Glutzes.
One may have the glimmer of the Glutzes
Or feel the shadow of the Glutzes as they pass,
But to know the Glutzes is to know oneself,
And to know oneself is more than
It is given to man to know.
Of course, shooting at Eliot as his most solemn is a bit like shooting at a balloon: it’s already laden with enough gas to be on the verge of bursting. The same goes for “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Soup,” which blasts Hemingway with a mortar–rather as Wallach’s protagonist does a duck (along with “one sparrow, one caneton, and a B-36″) in the story’s opening scene.
A couple of Wallach’s pieces no longer have a solid point of reference to stand up against. How many will recognize Lin Yutang’s somewhat dated bits of Chinese wisdom, let alone Wallach’s pastiche (which naturally involves large quantities of tea). On the other hand, while Bob Hope’s ghostwriters have long since put down their pens, the best-seller lists are still full of routines by stand-up comedians recycled as books. Wallach’s “Modern Joe Miller” is a wonderful example, taking the following story and running it through the wringer several times in a row:
Walter Hampden told this to Eddie Cantor when they were visiting Eleonora Duse at George Bernard Shaw’s house shortly after they had all been guests of the Prince of Wales at the Ascot Races. Seems the late Czar of Russia once met a familiar figure walking down the streets of Moscow. Seizing him by the shoulders, the Czar exclaimed, “Rasputin, how you’ve changed! You used to be tall. Now you’re short. You used to have a beard. Now you’re clean-shaven. You used to be stoop-shouldered. Now you stand erect.”
The Czar’s friend stopped him. “Your Majesty,” he said, “my name’s not Rasputin. It’s Kerensky.”
“Oho!” cried the Czar. “So you’ve changed your name, too!”
The best of the four books, for me, is Gutenberg’s Folly, which provides a sampler of the works of the late Mitchel Hackney, a contemporary of Hemingway, who tried his hand at most of the major literary styles and genres of the 1930s to 1950s, along with a selection of critical commentaries. This device allows Wallach to play upon the worst aspects of Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, William Saroyan, William Faulkner, and others.
I particularly liked “The Pilgrimage of Bixie Davis,” Hackney’s attempt to trump Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Having recently tried to listen to an audiobook version of another Bellow novel, I was ready to appreciate Wallach’s spot-on version of Bellow’s style, which always seems hell-bent on tossing another ingredient into an already-overloaded prose stew:
Uncle Gordon who lived with us had a stand where he sold rubber goods, razor blades, sundries, and life insurance. His face was clear of wens but he had blebs, straggling hairs anchored at the top of his head, the whites of his eyes green, and above the eyes two eyebrows, one black, one red, condor-nose horning a Roland-call for breakfast. Which was oatmeal and tea. He was a Tenth Avenue Marco Polo and he Cathayed the years away, Gordon, until he parlayed a fortune into three more, Midas-fingered, gilding his daughter into the arms of Bolo Snider, the bookie.
Bolo gave me my first job taking the phone and keeping book behind the cigar store, buttering the cops and dunning the deadbeats while the ponies dug hooves into Belmont. A two-buck-across-the-board life. In general Bolo was a good man but constricted, a frog in the mouth of a snake, bug-eyed, face wenned and warted, full of blebs, long hairs dropping from his nose to his chin, one ear quartered, the other halved–O judgment of Solomon!–nose straight, Praxiteletic, from having been knocked to one side in a fight and knocked back in another. Well, “le présent est chargé du passé, et gros de l’avenir.” Or if you wish, dolce far niente. What the hell!
“If the unresponsive gods, so often invoked, so seldom complaisant, would grant me one sweet boon, I should ask of them that I might join that little band of authors, who, unknown to the wide careless world, remain from generation to generation the friends of a few fortunate readers.” This was Agnes Repplier’s introduction to Epistolae Ho-Elianae, a two-volume collection of the familiar letters of James Howell a 17th Century English bureaucrat and man of letters.
If ISI intended this quite misleading title to attract more attention than, say, “Selected Essays by Agnes Repplier,” it succeeded, garnering at least a few reviews in the major press. Michael Dirda covered it in the Washington Post. Titled “A Woman of Masterful Persuasion,” the review included Dirda’s admission that, as a lifelong scourer of bookstore shelves, he’d seen used copies of Repplier’s books hundreds of times, but that,”in appearance they all seemed mere period pieces, ladylike albums revealing a sensitive soul’s adventures among the masterpieces.” It was, however, “An understandable mistake. After all, there were so many similar litterateurs of that era–Augustine Birrell, Edmund Gosse, Alice Meynell, Robert Lynd, Logan Pearsall Smith.”
The main reason ISI’s title is misleading is not that Repplier was in no way a contemporary of Austen’s (she was born 38 years after Austen died, and lived to the ripe age of 95–twice as long as Austen). It’s that Repplier wasn’t even a novelist. After publishing a dozen or so short stories, she abandoned fiction almost entirely. Repplier was an essayist.
The literary canon seems to allot each century an average of one or two essayists for remembrance. Born in 1855 and still writing until 1937, Agnes Repplier didn’t make the cut for either of her centuries.
Not that she would have lost any sleep over it. She was pretty sanguine about her place in literature: “My niche is small,” she said, “but I made it myself.” She gave up fiction in favor of essays at the advice of her first editor, Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic World magazine. “‘I fancy,'” he said, ‘that you know more about books than you do about life, that you are more of a reader than an observer.'” He suggested she write a piece about her favorite author, John Ruskin. “And make it brief,” he added.
“That essay turned my feet into the path which I have trodden laboriously ever since,” she wrote. Her choice of genre was entirely pragmatic, however. Her father, a coal broker, lost his fortune in a failed iron foundry south of Philadelphia, and it fell to Agnes to be the main breadwinner, caring for her father, sister, and a feeble-minded brother who lived to the age of eighty. “The imperious necessities of life have driven me, in common with other workers, to seek the best market I could find for my wares.” “I have been a mere laborer in the trenches, with no nobler motive underlying my daily toil than the desire to be self-supporting in a clean and reputable fashion,” she wrote in a 1909 essay, “Catholicism and Authorship.”
The piece on Ruskin was published in 1884. Within a year of that, her work was appearing in almost every issue of the Catholic World. Her great ambition, though, was to be published in the Atlantic Monthly, the leading American literary and cultural magazine of the time. It took two years, but in 1886, her essay, “Children, Past and Present,” was accepted and appeared in the April issue.
The piece is a classic of the compare-and-contrast school. She cites numerous examples of child-rearing in the past, ranging from abuse to “Spare the rod and spoil the child” to simply leaving the child to fend for itself. Then she discusses contemporary views, influenced by a mix of romanticism (“the innocent babes”) and early professional educators. As is often the case in her essays prior to the First World War, Repplier sees merits and demerits on both sides. She acknowledges the charm of children brought up with “relaxed discipline,” but maintains that “The faculty of sitting still without fidgeting, of walking without rushing, and of speaking without screaming can be acquired only under tuition.”
While “Children, Past and Present” isn’t a good place to start if you’re interested in experiencing the pleasures of Repplier’s best work, it does display one of her greatest strengths: a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of literature, from the great classics to obscure books and writers. Among the names she mentions or quotes from in just the first half of the essay are Maria Edgeworth, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, Giacomo Leopardi, Jehan le Cuvelier, Madame de Rochefoucauld, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Edgar Quinet, Sir Francis Doyle, Adam Smith, and her favorite, John Ruskin.
“What Children Read,” which appeared in the January 1887 issue, is a better example of Repplier’s voice and viewpoint. In it, she mourns for the passing of a time when there were few books actually written for children, and what many young readers had to choose from were books intended for an adult audience: “Those were not days when over-indulgence and a multiplicity of books robbed reading of its healthy zest.” By the time Repplier was writing, no end of “Ripping Yarns” and tales of stalwart young heroes and heroines ala Horatio Alger were flooding the book market, substituting a safe world full of moral models for one in which an unsuspecting child might pick up “A Tale of a Tub,” “The Faerie Queen,” or The Three Musketeers.
Repplier convinced Houghton, Mifflin to publish a collection of seven of her early essays in her first book, Books and Men (1888). As Geore Stewart Stokes puts it in his 1949 biography, Agnes Repplier: Lady Of Letters (available on the Internet Archive), “she had become convinced that a book is a necessary form of advertisement for a periodical writer.” As it was, she had to subsidize the book, and the publisher “made it painfully clear that she was very probably throwing her money away.” Instead, it sold well enough to lead to three more printings, and Repplier went on to publish nineteen more collections of essays over the next fifty years.
At her best, Repplier is pragmatic, cuttingly insightful, and funny. Take her piece, “Lectures,” from her 1894 book, In the Dozy Hours: “Now, is it industry or a love of sport which makes us sit in long and solemn rows in an oppressively hot room, blinking at glaring lights, breathing a vitiated air, wriggling on straight and narrow chairs, and listening, as well as heat and fatigue and discomfort will permit, to a lecture which might just as well have been read peacefully by our own firesides?” (Remember, this was at the height of the Chatauqua movement). She remarks that, “The necessity of knowing a little about a great many things is the most grievous burden of our day”–an observation still true today. Or take her comment in “How the Quaker City Spent Its Money,” from Philadelphia, the Place and the People (1912), about a Quaker preacher: “He came to make a dull world duller.” This is an echo of the statement in one of her most famous pieces, “The Mission of Humor,” from Americans and Others (1904), that ” A man destitute of humour … is often to be respected, sometimes to be feared, and always–if possible–to be avoided.”
Something muddled her thinking and writing around the time of the start of the First World War. She developed a deep hatred of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Prussian militarism, and the German Empire. In his review of American Austen, Michael Dirda writes, “Repplier isn’t really squishy in the least; she regularly delivers sentences and similes of epigrammatic sharpness,” and he cites a passage from “The Cheerful Clan,” published in Points of Friction (1920):
Things are as they are, and no amount of self-deception makes them otherwise. The friend who is incapable of depression depresses us as surely as the friend who is incapable of boredom bores us. Somewhere in our hearts is a strong, though dimly understood, desire to face realities, and to measure consequences, to have done with the fatigue of pretending. It is not optimism to enjoy the view when one is treed by a bull; it is philosophy. The optimist would say that being treed was a valuable experience. The disciple of gladness would say it was a pleasurable sensation. The Christian Scientist would say there was no bull, though remaining–if he were wise–on the tree-top. The philosopher would make the best of a bad job, and seek what compensation he could find.
These are some wonderful lines. But one has to overlook these lines, which come a few pages earlier in the same essay:
Germany cannot–for some time to come –spring at our throat. If we fail to readjust our industries on a paying basis, we shall of course go under, and lose the leadership of the world. But we won’t be kicked under by the Prussian boot.
Her bitterness towards Germany may have just been part of an increasingly acerbic view of the world. The last essay in Points of Friction is titled “Cruelty and Humor,” and in it, she offers a contrarian view of the Reader’s Digest adage of “Laughter is the Best Medicine”:
We hear so much about the sanitary qualities of laughter, we have been taught so seriously the gospel of amusement, that any writer, preacher, or lecturer, whose smile is broad enough to be infectious, finds himself a prophet in the market-place. Laughter, we are told, freshens our exhausted spirits and disposes us to good-will–which is true. It is also true that laughter quiets our uneasy scruples and disposes us to simple savagery. Whatever we laugh at, we condone, and the echo of man’s malicious merriment rings pitilessly through the centuries. Humour which
has no scorn, wit which has no sting, jests which have no victim, these are not the pleasantries which have provoked mirth, or fed the comic sense of a conventionalized rather than a civilized world.
Repplier got to be a tough old gal in her later years. In the introduction to his biography, Stokes recalls their first meeting, when “We sat and talked that afternoon in October in the Victorian parlor of Miss Repplier’s Clinton Street apartment, her Grandmother Shorb’s tea set spread on a little table between us, its cups serving as a series of convenient ash trays.” She grew less and less patient with interruptions and unwanted visitors. There is a perhaps apochryphal story of a young admirer who came to call and then kept dithering about as she began to leave. “There was something I meant to say, but I’ve forgotten what it was,” she confessed. “Perhaps, my dear, it was ‘Good-bye,'” Repplier replied.
“Opening a new Humphrey Pakington novel is like noticing that the apples are ripening or a train is on time,” a New York Times reviewer once wrote. “There is a sense of living in an orderly, reliable world, not exciting or dangerous but pleasant and secure.” And lightly amusing.
Starting with Four in Family (1931) and ending with John Brandon (1965) over thirty years later, Humphrey Pakington managed to plow an exceedingly narrow row and harvest over a dozen novels from it.
Most of his books are set in the mid-to-lower strata of English nobility, where there are family estates, clergymen with livings, second or third sons in the Royal Navy, eccentric aunts or grandmothers how ask awkward questions, and charming young people holding tennis racquets and bumbling about with love and marriage. It all takes place somewhere between about 1888 and 1938, during which there are births and deaths, occasional bothers, and no great tragedies. If there are revolutions or strikes going on, they are too far away and too alien to be admitted, let alone acknowledged.
Instead, it’s a world where certainties are cherished and cultivated. “They prided themselves on moving with the times, while doing all in their power to make time stand still for themselves,” Pakington writes of the group of English ladies in Aunt Auda’s Choir (U.S. title, Our Aunt Auda). Of Canon Wargrave, the father in Aston Kings, Pakington observes that “he conformed to the general principle that the accumulation of wealth in an honest and straight-forward manner was one of the first duties of a Christian and a gentleman.” Wrote Roger Pippett, “It is a world few of us know from experience, but we are familiar with it every time the curtain in a theatre goes up on a chintzy English drawing room.” It’s a world from which Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster must look rather wild and daring.
Ironically, this sane and stable world seemed to have a great appeal to American readers and reviewers during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Every one of Pakington’s novels published between 1931 and 1951 were enthusiastically welcomed in Saturday Review and the New York Times. “This is a major book. Major in every way,” wrote Jane Spence Southron, reviewing Family Album for the Times.
Pakington’s lack of message was, in fact, considered something of a virtue: “So few authors turn their hands to good-humored humor, non-ax-grinding, non-crow-picking entertainment, that there is especial cause for thanksgiving when one who has a way with him takes pen in hand for a reader’s holiday,” wrote Saturday Review’s anonymous reviewer of Four in Family. Virgilia Peterson applauded his always-tolerant attitude towards his characters: “He contents himself with mirroring their habits, their pastimes, their platitudes, and their idiosyncracies.”
He is a haphazard writer. His novels proceed, more or less, until he is tired of writing them, at which point somebody is married off to somebody else, and that’s that….
His irrelevance, after all, is what binds us to Mr. Pakington, if we like him at all, and I for one like him very much. Why do I read him? Not to discover what is to happen next to Johnnie Bartlett, the hero of Family Album. Johnnie is an agreeable child, an agreeable youth, and an agreeable middle-aged man. He marries the girl he loves and when she dies he marries, after a suitable interval, the girl who has always loved him. No, the reason why one reads Mr. Pakington is because one always hopes to find on turning the next page some minor character who will delay the story for a while with amiable nonsense, and then not infrequently just disappear. Sir Gerald Frogg, the medico “who was only called in when it was quite certain the patient could not live,” is such a character.
Another is Auda Biddulph, who is no-one’s actual aunt, and who found music “a useful means of controlling, cajoling and bullying her acquaintances,” or Aunt Serena in Aston Kings, who was “always ready to welcome the worst,” or Aunt Lucy in Young William Washbourne, who invades Malta more successfully than did the Knights of St. John. There is usually at least one eccentric aunt in every book.
By the mid-1950s, however, Pakington’s formula was losing its appeal. Of one of his later novels, one reviewer wrote dismissively, “It makes few demands on a reader and offers the small rewards of a sincere and well-mannered narrative about some uncomplicated people.” A younger generation of reviewers and readers found his artlessness more tiresome than charming. While the Times welcomed The Vynes Of Vyne Court like a new crop of apples, Al Hines, writing in Saturday Review, diagnosed it as dead on arrival: “it is a combination which has been thoroughly drained of all the humor and interest with which Mr. Wodehouse and Mrs. Thirkell manage to impart quality to their long series of books in the same genre.” If not dead, it was certainly going stale. One of the few positive things said of John Brandon was that it was “pleasantly notable for the authentic glow of gaslight that pervades its early chapters.
No one could accuse Humphrey Pakington of not writing what he knew. Born the third son of the fourth Baron Hampton in 1888, he went to public school, entered the Royal Navy in 1903, and served with honor during the First World War. Several of Pakington’s protagonists, including young William Washbourne and John Brandon, also serve in the Royal Navy. After the war, he trained as an architect (one of his first books, for children, was How the World Builds). Novel-writing seems to have been principally a creative outlet, as he was already quite comfortably off through the combination of inheritances and architectural work. In 1962, he succeeded his oldest brother to become the 5th Baron Hampton. He had few reasons to complain about his lot in life. Not surprisingly, then, that one reviewer wrote of his autobiography, Bid Time Return (1958), “Happy lives seldom account for masterpieces, but when they are well spent, gracious, and successful, they can be good reading.”
None of Humphrey Pakington’s novels have been in print in almost fifty years. Only his 1945 guidebook, English Villages And Hamlets–which is, itself, an something of an artifact of a lost world–is currently available. While I wouldn’t try to propose any of his books as neglected masterpieces, there can be found in a few of them, such as Aston Kings and Family Album a sense of the comic that is both dry and loving.
One of the more noteworthy recent reissues in the wonderful New York Review Books Classics series is Theodor Fontane’s 1891 novel, Irretrievable. Fontane is considered by many of those familiar with his work as “clearly the greatest German novelist before Thomas Mann,” in the words of Gordon A. Craig, yet there are few of the truly major European writers of the nineteenth century–aside perhaps of Benito Pérez Galdós–who have suffered greater neglect among English-reading audiences.
In part he suffers a common fate with other German novelists. His works, as much as those of his contemporaries such as Adalbert Stifter and Theodor Storm, have a tendency to pop up in English translations, usually from academic presses, and then vanish out of print just as quickly.
The loss is ours. German writers get a bum rap, a reputation for ponderousness than is only partly deserved–and wholly undeserved in Fontane’s case. “There is also in Fontane,” writes Phillip Lopate in his Afterword to Irretrievable (Unwiederbringlich), “a Montaigne-like equipoise, a sunny melancholy, an investment in domestic family life that steadfastly avoids the demonic and apocalyptic….” Perhaps this is due to the fact that Fontane came to fiction very late: his first novel was published when he was sixty years old. Throughout his work, you find a sense of perspective, humor, and tolerance very few writers possess before middle age.
The other thing most English readers encountering Fontane’s work for the first time note is how modern his themes are. The problems of marriage–particularly from the wife’s perspective–are one of his most frequent topics, as are its most common responses: divorce, adultery, and simple unhappiness. Take, for example, Lopate’s setting on the story in Irretrievable:
Irretrievable is the story of a marriage that has worn thin. The partners have been together for some twenty-three years, are raising two teenage children, and for the most part have enjoyed a happy marriage. Still, they have reached a point where they no longer are
charmed but are irritated by the limitations each sees in the other.
His women are fully-drawn individuals capable of living outside their husbands’ shadows, and his men–like most of us still–are more often well-intentioned but clueless than autocratic and evil. In fact, Lopate suggests the lack of a radical sense of evil might be one of the reasons Fontane’s work has had a hard time winning popular and critical readers in English.
Fortunately, though, there’s never been a better time to discover Fontane in English. In large part this is thanks to Antony Wood, whose small press, Angel Classics has reissued four of his novels–including an alternate translation of Unwiederbringlich, No Way Back, translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers.
In addition to No Way Back/Irretrievable, Fontane books currently available in English translation include On Tangled Paths, translated by by Peter James Bowman. The tale of a romance between a cavalry officer and a seamstress. The officer intends for the relationship to be something of a place-holder until a wealthier and more socially acceptable wife can be found, but then the situation gets more complicated when they end up falling in love.
This novel is also available in not one but two alternate translations: Trials and Tribulations, translated by Katharine Royce, from Mondial Books, and in a volume from Continuum’s fine “The German Library” series, Delusions, Confusions, paired with another novella, “The Poggenpuhl Family.” Finally, there is Cecile, translated by Stanley Radcliffe, also from Angel Classics–also a story of adultery–in this case, initiated by the woman.
However, at least as many other English translations of Fontane’s works have disappeared within a few years of appearing in print:
This is easily Fontane’s best-known work, often compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary for its depiction of adultery. Thomas Mann once wrote that if one had to reduce one’s library to six novels, Effi Briest would have to be one of them. Although Angel Classics’ website shows their edition, also translated by Rorrison and Chambers, as being in print, Amazon shows that both theirs (issued as a Penguin Classic in the US in 2001) and the 1976 Douglas Parmee translation (also a Penguin Classic) as out of print.
This was Fontane’s first major work, about the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on the Prussian gentry and peasants. It was issued as an Oxford World Classic in paperback in 1985, but used copies now go for $25 and up. It’s compared by some to War and Peace, but aside from sharing a historical period, the two books have little in common. Although both novels portray wars from the viewpoints of the people they crash over like tsunamis, there is very little drama and quite a lot of conversation in Fontane’s book. It does cause one to wonder, though, what Fontane might have produced if he’d tackled this subject when he was twenty or thirty years younger.
Although a minor work, Under the Pear Tree is the closest Fontane ever came to a novel of incident (if not action). Hradschek, a village innkeeper, murders a man who comes to collect a gambling debt … only to wind up dead himself soon after.
“At the end an old man dies and two young people get married—that is just about all that happens in 500 pages” was Fontane’s own summation of this book. The Stechlin was Fontane’s last major work. It’s been called, “probably the finest chronicle of the life style of the German upper classes in the late nineteenth century.” Camden House published William L. Zwiebel’s first-ever translation into English in 1995.
Up north, whenever I could get out of the store I’d go out on the desert–lots of big ranches up there–and ride after cattle. I liked it and it kept my blood running; but down here I didn’t even have a store to try to get out of. I’d sit in the cafe and rechew the newspapers, and when I couldn’t take it any more of that I’d go out and drive my pickup around on these desert roads, which are all straight as strings and numbered A to Z in one direction (running east to west) and 1 to 100 in the other, with every tenth one laid right along the section line; easy to find your way wherever you wanted to go, but I didn’t know where that was. After a couple of weeks I began to think, “Well, if this is heaven I’ve had enough of it,” and I decided to go out and shop for a horse.
Max Schott has published just four slim books–barely 700 pages put together–in the space of 30 years. Even at that, he’d probably claim Pascal’s shortcoming (“I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter”).
Though he taught for over thirty years as a member of the English faculty at the University of California Santa Barbara, horses, not words, were Schott’s first love. A Santa Barbara native, as a kid he dreamed of being a cowboy. When he was able to head out on his own, he headed for the high desert country, where he learned to train horses and started competing on the rodeo circuit. He lived the life of a modern cowpoke for close to fifteen years before deciding it wasn’t how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. So he headed back to Santa Barbara, got his degrees, earned a spot on the faculty, and settled in for a life of teaching and writing.
His first book, a collection of short stories published through much of the 1970s, Up Where I Used to Live, came out from the University of Illinois Press in 1978. It was part of the Illinois Short Fiction series, a noteworthy series that published some of the best short story writers of the 1970s and 1980s–Jean Thompson, Barry Targan, Kent Nelson, Andrew Fetler, H. E. Francis, among others. Schott’s stories drew on his experiences with horses and rodeos, but what drew me in when I first read them shortly after the book came out was his tone: spare, dry, self-effacing, a bit tired, and mildly amused at the world’s foolishness.
Most of Schott’s stories are told in the first person. His narrators come from the world of horses, ranches, and large, sparse, dry places. Schott’s diction perfectly matches his characters: simple, laconic, but with a sly grin. This is a world where the last thing a man’d want to be know as is talkative. Better to keep your mouth shut than to run on like a woman. Hell, even the women in Schott’s world are careful with their words. It’s a world where words are like water–something you don’t waste.
This might explain why Schott has published so little. But not why he’s barely known outside a lucky circle of loyal readers. After all, he had a shot at the big time when his first novel, Murphy’s Romance (1980), was adapted and filmed by Martin Ritt. Unfortunately for Schott, Ritt quickly disposed with most of the story and setting and created a largely new narrative from the remnants. Ritt kept the title, which might at least have pulled in a few unsuspecting readers for Schott’s book, but there was no movie tie-in reprint.
Murphy’s Romance grew out of “The Old Flame,” one of the stories in Up Where I Used to Live. The title is actually a bit of fun on Schott’s part. Murphy Jones, a rancher retired to Pearblossom, California after some decades in eastern Oregon, briefly considers romancing Toni Wilson, a no-nonsense and very independent horse trainer, but ends up marrying her aunt Margaret instead. Though Murphy narrates the book, most of the story is about Toni’s turbulent engagement and marriage to Ben Webber, a rodeo vet in his fifties.
Schott carried the story forward–or backwards, rather–in his second novel, Ben. He takes us back to Ben Webber’s first marriage, which was even stormier, but this time we hear the story from Max, a young man probably close to Schott’s own age when he first got into the horse business. We’re still in the world of horses and tough men and women. Even when Ben gets drunk and throws up, Max notes that he has enough self control to do it “all neatly, like a man who knew how.” In the book, Max has to deal with the death of his mother from cancer, but fenced in by the likes of Ben and the other horse men, there’s little risk of getting into anything too sentimental. The only thing gooey in the book is a body accidentally tossed under a bronco’s hooves.
All three books manage to pack a great deal into very slim packages. “Just a chip, then, this little book–but gold all the way through,” Kirkus Reviews wrote of Murphy’s Romance, and the same could be said of Up Where I Used to Live and Ben. Throughout all his fiction, Schott creates remarkably rich and subtle characterizations with the slightest of strokes. The art is all in making it seem completely artless. If he’d lived in Japan he would probably have become a Zen master.
His most recent book, Keeping Warm: Essays and Stories, published in 2004 by the Santa Barbara-based John Daniel and Company, collects short pieces from magazines and newspapers published over the course of the last thirty years. His most intimate piece in the book, “Diary About My Father,” collects reflections on his father’s life and Schott’s relationship with him, and reveals that that same spare, understated voice heard throughout his fiction is Schott’s own:
He died two years ago today. At about two in the morning, so that to us it seemed like the night of the day before–which was five years to the day after Mom died.
After being ill for how long, fifty years? Sixty? She slipped away so easily.
A few years ago, if someone had said to me, “He behaved towards her like a saint,” I would’ve said, or wanted to say, “Yes, but I don’t like saints.” But now it seems to me that the truth is much simpler. No saint, but a man in a situation not of his own making, he did as well as he could.
I think most of Schott’s horsemen would be happy to have that last sentence for their epitaphs.
We might not see another book from Schott, who’s now in his late seventies. But any of the ones he’s already written will do as well as any could to convey his uniquely Western voice and outlook. Forget the movie of “Murphy’s Romance”–do yourself a favor and find the book instead.
In 1940, after immersing himself in the works of Marx and other 19th century thinkers to write his masterpiece, To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson turned his attention to lighter, more contemporary writers with a long piece for the New Republic, titled, “The Boys in the Back Room.” Of the mostly-California-based writers he discussed, all are still in print–James M. Cain, John O’Hara, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck.
All that is, save one: Hans Otto Storm. Wilson had the following to say of Storm’s work:
With Hans Otto Storm and John Steinbeck, we get into more ambitious writing.
Both stories had a concentration of form and a kind of conscientiousness in their approach to their material that were rare enough to excite interest in the author.
An engineer who thus goes in for literature is such a novelty that Hans Otto Storm is able to carry us with him because we have never listened to precisely his story before.
Add to this equipment–to this first-hand knowledge of aspects of American life which few American writers know at all–a mentality which is culturally closer to Europe than that of most American writers (there is a suggestion of Conrad about him); and you get something quite unique in our fiction.
Hans Otto Storm writes with a refreshing subtlety and with a distinctiveness that draws his novels quite out of the familiar orbit. His qualities are so individual that a review and convey only an inadequate impression of them.
Born in California in 1895, Storm studied engineering at Stanford and went into the nascent field of radio engineering. His first novel, Full Measure (unnoticed by Wilson, who calls Pity the Tyrant his first book) was published in 1929. It’s something of a romance of radio engineering with a strong autobiographical flavor. Like Storm, the young hero starts out at a powerful shore station providing telegraphy service to ships at sea, then goes on to install the first major station in a fictitious Central American country. And as is often the case with novels about technology written by technologists, the engineering aspects of Full Measure are far more interesting and well-developed than any of the characters.
Full Measure received mildly positive reviews but sold little over a thousand copies. Whether chastened by the lukewarm reception or caught up in the concerns of his day jobs, which included posts with the Federal Telegraph and with Globe Wireless Company, Storm did not publish again until eight years later. Then, in just four years, he published three major works: Pity the Tyrant (1937), a political allegory about a South American dictator; Made in U. S. A. (1939); and Count Ten (1940), a long bildungsroman about flying, radio, business, love, and independence. None of them have been in print in over 50 years.
These are three quite different books. Wilson considered Pity the Tyrant, set in Lima, Peru, Storm’s best work. Storm’s protagonist is, once again, a radio engineer. The Tyrant of the title is certainly based on Augusto Leguía, President of Peru from 1919 to 1930, whose rule was marked by rebellion, suppression of his opponents, and widespread corruption. In the book, the Tyrant mostly hovers in the background. Much of the story involves a series of set pieces that combine incident and philosophical meditations and debates, rather along the lines of one of Voltaire’s novels. But unlike Candide, Storm’s engineer does not retain his naivete in the face of violence, cruelty, and injustice. As the book closes, the engineer, having been ordered out of the country, sails off on steamship:
“Where do you think we are now, anyway?”
“Just off Trujillo,” he replied.
“Oh, why don’t we put in at Trujillo?”
“No,” he said, “the port’s closed.”
He didn’t tell her that at Trujillo there were a thousand dead, real dead, actual dead, people one knew by their first names or owed little bills to; tortured, mangled, decapitated, left to rot.
What was the use?
Storm is precise and telling in his choice of details, so there is a strongly realistic thread throughout the book. In more than a few ways, it’s a precursor of the magical realism of Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers of the 1960s.
Made in U. S. A. is somewhat more obviously allegorical. A tramp freighter with a small contingent of paying passengers runs into an uncharted sand bar somewhere in the South Pacific. The initial attempts to free it fail, and what was thought to be a brief delay turns into a protracted ordeal. As days wear on and the situation grows more serious, tempers grow raw, and suddenly the ship is divided into two camps. A short, clumsy battle of fists and clubs breaks out, after which the sides retire behind barricades of hay. The captain manages regain his senses and stare down the mutineers. Storm’s description of the morning after gives some sense of his style:
Such feelings and a good many other like them ran, expressed and unexpressed, through the minds of those two thirds of the passengers who found themselves abaft of the hay. They were not the only things that ran there through. They were the what you might call public feelings, and they by no means filled the foreground–most of the passengers had private things to think about that were more vivid. They got up late, many of them nursing cuts and bruises and sore joints, things which got worse rather than better with the night. Last evening they had marveled at themselves that they could fight–now they were even more surprised to find how frightfully one can get himself bunged up at it. Limbs ached just from the sheer exertion where they couldn’t even show a black and blue spot. More than one man of forty-two spent the time wondering with private apprehension how he had happened to get in that fight.
This is not a breakdown of civilization. It’s more like a violin string wound too tight and vibrating off-key.
Storm’s work in radio, along with years of dealing with the maritime business, shows in many telling details that anchor his story in a credible reality. But there is also a sense of Storm as puppeteer, manipulating his players, pushing them into extremis just to see the violence of their recoil. I found myself thinking of Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard and Isa Glenn’s Transport–two other neglected books set on ships somewhere out in the vast Pacific. All three novels play on the artificiality of shipboard life utterly isolated–save by radio–from the rest of the world.
Pity the Tyrant and Made in U. S. A. are relatively short books–around 200 pages each. Storm’s fourth novel, Count Ten weighed in at over six hundred pages. Rather than a short period of time, Count Ten covers over thirty years, following the life of Eric Marsden from boyhood, when his father teaches him to fly as well as bail out (he tells the boy to “Count ten” as he jumps from a crashing plane) through time as a conscientious objector in World War One, an ordinary seaman, a campaign worker, and finally an executive in business. The New York Times’ reviewer, William Jay Gold, proclaimed, “It is not only safe, it is necessary now to say that Hons Otto Storm has become one of our first-rank writers. His new novel, Count Ten, is one of the finest books of fiction produced in America for more than a decade.” Gold grouped it with other novels about the meaning of life: The Last Puritan, Of Human Bondage, and Jean-Christophe–not all of which remain quite their same standing.
Count Ten was widely advertised and sold by far the best of Storm’s books. In Wilson’s estimation, it was “very much inferior on the whole to the ones that had gone before.” He also thought that it showed “what seemed internal evidence of having been written earlier than they,” giving off the air of “one of those autobiographical novels that young men begin in college and carry around for years in old trunks.” Having read Full Measure, I would have to agree with Wilson. The book bears stronger resemblance to that early work than to the much more artfully conceived and concisely written Pity the Tyrant and Made in U. S. A..
Storm died in December 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbor. He was electrocuted while working on an Army Signal Corps transmitter station in San Francisco. He was 46. David Greenhood collected Pity the Tyrant and other fictional and nonfictional pieces Storm had written about life in Central and South America into Of Good Family, which was published by the small Swallow Press in 1948. And that was about the last the reading public heard of his work.
I must admit that I did not note Louis Auchincloss’ passing at the age of ninety-two in late January. For at least the last ten years, Auchincloss, whose career as a writer spanned over sixty years and produced over sixty books, seemed either to be someone I’d thought had already died or just assumed would live forever. For more than my entire life, he’d been publishing, publishing, publishing.
His productivity and energy seems to have come from another generation, from the Victorian and industrial age. He worked for over forty years as a lawyer in the heart of Wall Street and the East Coast establishment. He sat on the boards of museums and academies, and he knew everyone. He was president of the Century Association, probably the most exclusive cultural association in America, and a member of New York’s best clubs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Gore Vidal were related to him through second- and third-marriages. His wife was related to the Sloanes and Vanderbilts. He attended Groton alongside FDR’s son John and shared a room with William Bundy. He lunched with Brooke Astor at the Knickerbocker Club. In 2003, he was feted, along with Princess Yasmin Aga Khan and Blaine Trump, as one of seven “New Yorkers who make a difference.”
His father was also a New York lawyer and confidant of the wealthy and powerful. Auchincloss would always demur about his family’s place in society: “We were wealthy by the standards of the globe, not by the community.” But they managed summers at Bar Harbor, Maine, where Prescott Bush set up a family summer house. Not that the Auchinclosses and Bushes mingled: he once remarked to a Financial Times interviewer, “I just think the Bushes are a big family of shits. They might have existed anywhere.”
There is so much in that short quote. It’s not President George W. Bush, who presented Auchincloss with the National Arts Medal in 2005, that he condemned–it was the whole family, and for, one suspects, crimes against manners and culture rather than society. Then there is the use of the word “shits.” Most Americans would be more inclined to say something like, “full of shit,” but to call someone a “shit” is very much an upper crust idiom.
The world of New York, of wealth, elite society, and the law was the world Louis Auchincloss lived in and wrote about. For the first two, he was often and will forevermore be written of as the successor to Edith Wharton (and indeed, Edith Wharton: A Woman in her Time was the first of a number of biographies he published). He dismissed suggestions that he took a narrow view in his choice of subjects. He told an Atlantic interviewer in 1997:
If you look through the literature of the ages you will find that ninety-five percent of it deals with the so-called “upper class,” from The Iliad and The Odyssey through to Shakespeare with his kings and queens. If you go through the nineteenth-century novelists you will find much the same thing. Take a novel like War and Peace — the characters are taken not only from the upper class but from the very small upper-upper class that ruled Russia at the time. And yet Tolstoy is given credit for having written a “world” novel. It’s as if Norman Mailer had written The Naked and the Dead and made every Marine or Army man on that island a graduate of a New England private school. That would be quite a shocker to people, yet that is War and Peace.
I’m not sure he convinced many people with that argument. In her 2007 biography, Louis Auchincloss: A Writer’s Life, Carol Gelderman quotes Lady Bird Johnson–a sharper judge of character than she’s usually given credit for–on meeting him: “… polished, very Eastern. I couldn’t imagine him living or writing about life west of the Mississippi River.” “She could have said Hudson River and been just as accurate,” Gelderman adds. The Christian Science Monitor’s book critic, Heller McAlpin, had a lovely, if fainting damning, comparison for his work:
Thereâ€™s something oddly comforting about reading this patrician novelist of manners, successor to Edith Wharton. You know, to a certain degree, what youâ€™ll be served â€“ rather like eating at an exclusive social club. The food is rarely exciting, but itâ€™s never alarming, either, and itâ€™s impeccably presented. Manners are genteel, language is as proper and crisp as white linen napkins, and everyone is educated and well-heeled. It all feels like a throwback to a more gracious time.
Heller’s description recalls this passage from Dinitia Smith’s 1986 profile of Auchincloss for New York Magazine:
The Downtown Association, for instance, is Louis Auchincloss territory, the world of old money, of deals made behind closed doors. Like a number of the great clubs, the DTA, as it’s called, doesn’t even have a sign over the door. Your’re just supposed to know it’s there. The decor is a bit understated. The food is uninspired–one choice is tuna fish in a shell of tomato with dollops of mayonnaise for decoration, and desserts include those WASP staples, rice pudding with raisins and cabinet pudding.
But Auchincloss was no idle spender of old money. He was a working lawyer, which got him into rooms that would never have been open to Wharton as a mere woman and writer. He started out with the prestigious firm of Sullivan and Cromwell before World War Two, and later ran the trust and estates department of Hawkins, Delafield, and Wood. Vidal once wrote of him, “He is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs … things that we don’t often meet in fiction.”
The law was always his second choice, though. While attending Yale as an undergraduate, he wrote a long novel modeled on Madame Bovary. When it was rejected by Scribners, he decided to renounce literature and become a lawyer. While studying at the University of Virginia Law School, though, his passion for writing returned: “I stumbled into Cardozoâ€™s opinions, I became fascinated by his style and realized that the two occupations, law and writing, are more or less synchronized. I began the two careers I would follow from then on, law and writing. That summer I started a novel; the second summer I finished it.” Even as a lawyer, his talent for writing came out. Auchincloss loved to relate a comment made by the young Mario Cuomo upon reading a brief of his while clerking for the New York Court of Appeals: “The guy who wrote this ought to be a novelist!”
Graduating in 1941, Auchincloss was barely able to get started in his career in the law before being pulled into the Navy, where he served in Panama and captained an LST on DDay. He started a third novel, The Indifferent Children, which he originally published in 1947 under the pseudonym of Andrew Lee at his mother’s insistence. She thought it “trivial and vulgar.”
He was never a typical writer. Though he was friends with Ralph Ellison, travelled as a cultural ambassador with Arthur Miller and Allen Ginsburg, and served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, his work as a lawyer kept his routine within strict limits. He once told an interviewer,
When I married Adele, she said, Oh, weâ€™re going to see all these wonderful writers. One night Calder Willingham called just as we were about to go to bed. He asked if weâ€™d come out and drink with him. I said, Well, I donâ€™t think Adele wants to do that. Then why donâ€™t you come? His idea was weâ€™d sit up all night. I said, No, I donâ€™t do that. I had to get up in the morning.
That routine–and the support of an effective agent and a loyal publisher–paid off. Auchincloss published 31 novels, 17 short story collections, 17 works of nonfiction, at least a half-dozen coffee table books such as J.P. Morgan: The Financier as Collector, and contributed introductions and afterwords to dozens of other books, including numerous reissues of works by Edith Wharton.
How did he manage such a volume of work, particularly during forty years of Monday-to-Friday work as a lawyer?
One secret was a knack for writing in little snatches of time. He told George Plimpton for his Paris Review interview in 1994:
I’ve always had to use bits of time. For example, I would have little notebooks with me in court, and if I was waiting for something I might write a few paragraphs at a time. By mastering the ability to use five minutes here, fifteen minutes there, I picked up a great deal of time that most people allow to drift away.
I remember seeing an opera rehearsal once in which the conductor put down the baton, the singers stopped, and then he picked it up to go again. If I was singing I’d have to go back to the beginning. But no! They picked up right on the particular note they left off on. That’s what I’ve learned to do with my writing.
I can pick up in the middle of a sentence and then go on. I wrote at night; sometimes I wrote at the office and then practiced law at home. My wife and I never went away on weekends. I wouldnâ€™t recommend that anyone else try this method, but it worked for me.
Not worrying over what got scribbled into his notebooks helped, too. It was rare that he spent much time on rewrites. “… [O]rdinarily I find that when I have to rewrite, thereâ€™s something basically wrong. My best stuff usually comes out quite straight almost the first time,” he told Plimpton.
Writing the same book over and over–or, at least, using the same formula over and over–also kept his rate of production high. The use of multiple narrators and mixing first and third-person voices, which was cited by many as the distinguishing feature of his most critically successful book, The Rector of Justin, was, in fact, his standard approach to a novel. As Jonathan Yardley summarized it in his “Second Reading” of the book in 2008:
The novel begins in September 1939 and ends in April 1947. It is told principally through the diary of Brian Aspinwall, who comes to Justin Martyr at the age of 27 as an instructor in English and soon believes “that I may have a call to keep a record of the life and personality of Francis Prescott,” who “is probably the greatest name in New England secondary education.” Five other narrators contribute to the portrait: David Griscam, chairman of the trustees, chief architect of the school’s wealth; his son, Jules, expelled by Prescott for an act of defiance; Horace Havistock, Prescott’s oldest friend, “a remnant of the mauve decade”; Cordelia, Prescott’s rebellious daughter; and Charley Strong, one of Prescott’s “golden boys, Justin ’11, senior prefect and football captain, a kind of American Rupert Brooke,” who fled to Paris after World War I and underwent a crisis of identity and faith.
One can find the same technique in such works as The House of the Prophet, based on the life of Walter Lippmann, The Embezzler, inspired by but not entirely faithful to the story of Richard Whitney, one-time president of the New York Stock Exchange, and Honorable Men (loosely taken on the careers of his Groton classmates Bill and McGeorge Bundy).
In some cases, the line between his short story collections and his novels is hard to determine, particularly given his penchant for publishing stories linked by a particular theme or setting. The stories in Powers of Attorney, for example, revolve around partners and attorneys in the fictional firm of Tower, Tilney & Webb. The novel East Side Story is a series of eleven portraits of members of the Carnochan family from colonial to modern days. Fellow Passengers: A Novel in Portraits made the construct explicit in its subtitle, as did The Partners, which cautions the reader that it is, “Not a novel in the conventional sense,” but rather a series of sketches of another fictional law firm, Shepard, Putney & Cox. But even novels lacking these disclaimers, such as The Education of Oscar Fairfax, The House of Five Talents, and False Gods were essentially collections of character sketches rather than strong linear narratives.
And, in truth, the magazine piece–whether fiction or non-fiction–was Auchincloss’ forte. Open one of his books at random and you’re likely to find, on the copyright page, a note to the effect that, “Some of the [stories/pieces] in this book have appeared in …” followed by a list that ranges from the Saturday Evening Post, American Heritage, and the New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, and the Atlantic to McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Redbook to the Virginia Law Review and the Yale Literary Magazine.
This is not to dismiss his accomplishments, however. To publish hundreds (thousands?) of pieces in such a variety of mainstream magazines over the course of six decades required a remarkable ability to consistently produce an interesting, well-written, and fairly succinct story. And if the character sketch was what Auchincloss was best at, then he truly had few peers. Back in 2002, Russell Baker reviewed Edmund Morris’ 772-page second volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt alongside Auchincloss’ 155-page work in Arthur Schlesinger’s “The American Presidents” series, and it’s easy to see who emerged the winner in Baker’s view: “Louis Auchincloss’s concise Theodore Roosevelt, which compresses the full life, cradle to grave, into an elegant 136 pages, is a dandy handbook for the reader seeking guidance through Morris’s great forest.”
Throughout Auchincloss’ works, the example of the Duc du Saint-Simon, the legendary memoirist of the court of Louis XIV, keeps popping up. Indeed, he once wrote a novel–The Cat and the King–fantasizing that the duke kept on writing after his memoirs were published. “The Single Reader,” a story from Powers of Attorney, was about a lawyer who was secretly recording the life of Manhattan society in a diary inspired by Saint-Simon’s:
Inevitably, he came to think of his people as they would one day appear in his diary. If a judge was rude to him while he was arguing a case, if a government official was quixotic or arbitrary, Madison would reflect with an inner smile that they were marring their portraits for posterity. Yet he took great pains to avoid the prejudices which he suspected even in his idol, Saint-Simon. Most of the people whom he knew, like many of Saint-Simon’s, would survive to posterity only in his own unrebuttable pages. If he succumbed to the temptation of “touching them up,” of making them wittier or nastier or bigger or smaller than they were, nobody in a hundred years would be any the wiser. But his work would have become fiction, and he had no intention of being a mere novelist.
So, in making my closing argument in the case of Louis Auchincloss, let me quote from just one of the thousands of character sketches to be found in his oeuvre, a body of work certainly not packaged like Saint-Simon’s but certainly rivalling it in the wealth of observations about men and women in work and society. And it’s fitting that it be one of a lawyer–in this case, one Waldron P. Webb, partner of Tower, Tilney and Webb, the firm depicted in Powers of Attorney, in the story, “The Ambassador from Wall Street”:
Webb himself was a trying visitor, almost impossible to entertain. He was one of those lawyers who were frankly bored by everything but the practice of law. He was a big, stout choleric man, with a loud gravelly voice that was made for the cross-examination of hostile witnesses and not for gossip under the umbrellas. He indulged in no known sports, would not even swim, and expressed his contempt for the country in the uncompromising black of his baggy linen suit and the damp cigar that was always clenched between his yellow molars. He wandered about the house, pulling books out of the bookcases which he would then abandon with a snort, and asking for whiskey at unlikely hours. Mrs. Webb, the kind of forlorn creature that loud, oratorical men are apt to marry, contemplated him with nervous eyes, hoping, perhaps, that he would wait until they were alone before abusing her.
“Opening this book is like clicking on a switch: at once we hear the electric hum of talent,” Stanley Kauffmann wrote in his New Republic review of Irvin Faust’s first book of fiction, Roar Lion, Roar. And if there’s one characteristic of Faust’s work, it’s energy. For over 45 years–30 of them working nights, weekends, and vacations while holding down a regular job as a a high school guidance counselor–Faust has written some of the liveliest, noisiest, most vibrant prose published in America:
Vegas. Ocean’s Eleven. Sinatra. Judy. Thirty thousand a week. Sun. Desert. Red neon. One-armed bandits. Action. Faites vos jeux. Les jeux sont faits. Nothing Monaco. Nothing Reno. Pools. Tanfastic. Bikinis. Action. Vegas.
That’s from Faust’s first novel, The Steagle (1966), about a college professor who suffers a psychotic breakdown over the Cuban Missile crisis and goes blasting off around the country on thrill-seeking spree. Of Faust’s most commercially successful book, the 1971 novel, Willy Remembers, Elmore Leonard wrote (in his introduction to the 1983 Arbor House reissue, reprinted on his blog):
Thereâ€™s no one in American literature quite like Willy T. Kleinhans. And there is more sustained energy in the telling of what he remembers than in any novel Iâ€™ve ever read.
Willy Remembers takes off within the first two sentences, climbs, swoops, glides, does loops-all effortlessly-and doesnâ€™t touch down again until heâ€™s told us how things were. Really were.
Itâ€™s beautiful. More than that, Saturday Review describes it as â€˜a great, big, beautiful hunk of Americana, â€œThe New York Times calls it â€œa Book of Wonders.â€
Itâ€™s so good I wouldnâ€™t blame you if you stopped right here and turned to the first page, because all Iâ€™m going to do is tell you why I think itâ€™s great.
A World War Two veteran who served in both Europe and the Pacific, Faust took advantage of the G. I. Bill and became a teacher in the New York Public Schools. 1954, while teaching math and English in Harlem, he decided that, “I wanted to relate to [kids] differently from the way I could in a classroom,” so he returned to school, earning a doctorate in Education at Teachers College. He returned to public schools and worked a regular Monday-to-Friday job in high schools around the New York City area for the next thirty years.
As he told Don Swaim in a 1985 interview (available on the wiredforbooks.org website), he had been jotting down story ideas for years, and in the mid-to-late 1950s, he began submitting stories to a variety of small magazines. His first book, Entering Angel’s World, however, a casebook for practitioners, was based on his doctoral research and early experience as a guidance counselor. Faust once told an interviewer,
Guidance counseling hasn’t slowed me down. Actually, in many ways it has helped me to produce by getting me into the mainstream of life….
Both of these things are terribly important to me, and I love doing both. One is introverted, the other extroverted, and these are aspects of my personality. I’m very lucky to have found two things that work together for me and turn me on. I couldn’t give up either one, really.
Both Faust and his wife, Jean, were working professionals, and early in their marriage agreed that Faust would devote his precious spare time away from work to his second career as a writer. Faust’s quiet routine of working and writing has always provided a striking contrast to the vibrant, often chaotic tone of his fiction. “This pop novel pops so violently that it cannot safely be perused without welding goggles,” Time magazine’s reviewer wrote of The Steagle.
Popular culture is one of Faust’s primary energy sources. His characters revel in it, tossing in song, dance, movies, television, radio, tabloids, magazines, celebrities, and historical figures great and small with more Bam! than Emeril with a pepper shaker. A Time magazine reviewer once wrote that Faust’s protagonists “are consumed by a world of mass-produced trivia and popular mythology. They generate authentic obsessions about the inauthentic.” Again, from The Steagle:
He decided to pub-crawl and play it by ear on the outside chance of running into Selznick, who might be looking for new properties. He began drinking at eight at the hotel and worked his way along the Strip. At Lou’s Century Club he won a dance contest with a little white-haired lady who said you’re cute as a bedbug, Mr. Rooney. In the One Two Three he asked if he could sing with the combo and did “Rose Marie,” “High, Wide and Handsome,” “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” “The Piccolino,” and “Mairzy Doats.” At ten he called Selma Zorn and said baby, I’m in an all-night story conference at Metro and may have something very big. Get this: an American girl from Ohio is smuggled into Havana on a yacht owned by Harry Morgan and she does this Hayworth bit in a local bistro called Rick’s and Castro see her, and well, you get the picture, Mata Hari and Florence Nightingale, see … No, baby, I’m sorry, not tonight. No, I’m sorry. Listen, babe, listen … Selma, I’ll call you.
In the title story of Roar Lion, Roar, a Puerto Rican boy’s obsession with the New York Lions football team blurs into fantasies of becoming gridiron star himself, and much of Faust’s work is devoted to the shifting lines between reality and fiction. The very first two sentences of Willy Remembers demonstrates how easily memory can jumble up facts and create its own version of history: â€œMajor Bill McKinley was the greatest president I ever lived through. No telling how far he could have gone if Oswald hadn’t shot him.”
Reflecting on his writing in an interview from 1975, Faust remarked,
It seems to me that thus far my work has dealt with the displacement and disorganization of Americans in urban life; with their attempt to find adjustments in the glossy attractions of the mass mediaâ€”-movies, radio, TV, advertising, etc.â€”-and in the image-radiating seductions of our institutionsâ€”-colleges, sports teams, etc.. Very often this “adjustment” is to the “normal” perception a derangement, but perfectly satisfying to my subjects.
Yet while his characters take off into flights of fantasy at the drop of a hat or the first bar of a melody, Faust has always kept his own two feet solidly on the ground. Willy Kleinhans may have confused McKinley and Kennedy’s assassins, but Faust clearly recognizes that Willy’s reveries are closer to psychotic fugues than cute, if muddled, nostalgia. Although Willy Remembers was marketed as the comic memoirs of an eccentric but lovable old man, at the core Willy’s story is full of sadness. His recollections are his escape from the grim reality of a man growing old without the comfort and company of his wife and son, who died many years before.
Sad things happen to Faust’s people, but sadness is certainly not the mood one takes away from his writing. Not everyone might be so accepting of how his characters choose to cope with their realities, but it works for them, and–with the possible exception of Faust’s 1970 novel, The File on Stanley Patton Buchta, which Jerome Charyn called “a curiously humorless book”–it usually sparkles with invention and passion.
All of Faust’s novels and short story collections are currently of a print, but all are easily available for as little as $0.01 on Amazon and elsewhere. And if you happen to wonder into a used book store that actually has inventory older than the clerk behind the counter, you shouldn’t have any trouble locating his books–they’re the ones you see glowing and buzzing on the shelves.
More on Irvin Faust
Richard Kostelanetz’s essay on Faust’s work up to the mid-1970s.
IMDB entry for “The Steagle”, the 1971 film version of Faust’s novel. Paul Sylbert, the film’s director, later published a book, Final Cut:The making and breaking of a film, recounting how his original concept for the film–largely faithful to Faust’s story–was transformed into a pandering, pointless mess by the manipulations of Avco Pictures executives and others.
The American Scholar‘s Spring 2009 issue includes two features on Robert Phelps, who co-founded the Grove Press, edited numerous collections of the writings of Colette, Glenway Wescott, Ned Rorem, and others, was called “the best book reviewer in America” by Garry Wills, and struggled for 30 years to produce a second novel to follow his well-received 1958 debut, Heroes and Orators. The first, “Dawn of a Literary Friendship”, features the first dozen of over 200 letters exchanged between Phelps and the novelist James Salter between 1969 and Phelps’ death in 1989, an irresistable taste from what will be a future collection of their correspondence edited by John McIntyre.
Writing to Salter on Christmas Eve, 1969, Phelps gushes with admiration for Salter’s 1967 novel, A Sport and a Pastime (“my own favorite American novel of the ’60s”), his script for “Downhill Racer”, and his direction of the film, “Three”. Salter replied with praise for Phelps’ compilation of Colette’s autobiographical writings, Earthly Paradise: “I’ve given many copies away. Everything about it is beautiful. I love to pick it up.”
Salter was just hitting his stride as a writer. As Phelps struggled to create something original of his own, Salter slowly but steadily built up an oeuvre and a critical reputation as a writer who, in the words of Richard Ford, “writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” Composer and diarist Ned Rorem has described Phelps’ letters as “witty, lewd, sage, generous, gossipy, aggressively self-effacing, montrously opinionated without bitchery, engrossed by the literary life in general while being always directed to a unique recipient, and generally weaving something extraordinary out of something ordinary.â€ As this first sample shows, the combination of Phelps’ and Salter’s talents and genuine mutual affective and admiration promises to represent one of the most interesting and enjoyable collections of American letters of the 20th century.
The second piece, “I wanted to Be Robert Phelps”, by Washington Post critic Michael Dirda, shows Phelps both as a man of tremendous erudition and enthusiasm for writers and artists of past and present. Phelps’ study and office in his Manhattan apartment was, in Dirda’s eyes,
… the perfect room. The wooden floors had been stained black, the walls completely lined with bookshelves. Curtains were always kept drawn, blocking out the day and night. A pole lamp stood next to a rather high-tech chrome and leather easy chair, while extension lights were clamped to the corners of bookcases. On a coffee table in the middle of the room there always lay page proofs, literary magazines, publishersâ€™ catalogues. Instead of a sofa, a daybed butted up against the back of a freestanding bookcase and was covered with pillows embroidered with scenes from classical mythology (Beckiâ€™s handiwork). Near the music cornerâ€”lots of Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Ravel LPsâ€”stood a long low set of white shelves on top of which rested more books, some heavy tumblers and a big bottle of Tanqueray gin.
Beneath the cultured lifestyle Dirda admired, however, Phelps struggled to with his own demons. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease for years, was prone to drinking at times, and agonized over his sexuality, which was one aspect of Heroes and Orators praised by critics such as Leslie Fiedler. And he constantly took himself to task for failing to produce “worthy books”. As he once wrote Salter,
As it is, for 20 years, I have only scrounged at making a living: a low standard of survival and hundreds of articles, reviews, flower arrangements of other peopleâ€™s prose, etc. Not a good form of hell at all. This has become terribly clear to me in the past 6 weeks when I have been going through sheaves of old printed matter with a view to making our publisher a book called Following. I have been appalled by the waste, the thousands and thousands of irretrievable words on which nevertheless I worked long and hard and sometimes until 5 a.m. No. Somewhere I took a wrong turning. I should not have tried to earn my living with my typewriter. I should have become a surveyor, or an airline ticket salesman, or a cat burglar. As it is, I am far far beyond the point of no return and such powers as I once counted onâ€”the ability to write to order and out of my own battiness, so to speakâ€”are suddenly gone.
Instead of writing more novels, Phelps collected, annotated and edited. Colette’s writings. James Agee’s letters. Glenway Westcott’s miscellania. Ned Rorem’s first diaries. And The Literary Life; a Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene From 1900 to 1950, which one reviewer called “a loving elegy, a larky swansong, a doting, dotty, but undaunted Souvenir Album for books, books, books, and for all the men and women who ever believed in making them.” And Dirda says of it, “Iâ€™ve since carried the book with me my whole life; it has been on my bedside table wherever I have lived. I have read it over and over.”
He also taught writing, mostly at the New School, and inspired dozens of his students. Dan Wakefield portrays Phelps as his primary influence in his memoir, New York in the Fifties, as does Derek Alger on the online magazine, Pif.
Perhaps Phelps just didn’t recognize–or value, at least–the talent he seems to have genuinely had, even though he admitted it in one of his early letters to Salter:
Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabetsâ€¦how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a â€œpasticheur.â€ I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.
Certainly the warm spot Phelps’ pastiches of Colette and others continues to hold in the hearts of their readers suggests that his energies may have been better spent in creating them than in writing novels that might well have been forgotten as quickly as Heroes and Orators was.
Film and theater director Lindsay Anderson once said, “… when two or three who love the cinema are gathered together, the name of Mary Astor always comes up.” “She was an actress of special attraction”, he went on, “whose qualities of depth and reality always seemed to illuminate the parts she played.” Between 1921 and 1965, she appeared in over 100 films, dozens of plays, and plenty of television dramas, but looking through her list of credits, what strikes us today is that we remember Mary Astor despite the fact that most of her films, aside from The Maltese Falcon and a few others, are pretty forgettable.
What almost no one remembers today, however, is that Mary Astor also had a respectable career as a writer. In her 1971 memoir, A Life on Film, Astor implies that it started “as a sort of assignment to help me during a short period of psychotherapy,” but the version that appears in the book that resulted from this assignment, Mary Astor: My Story, is a little more vivid.
Astor repeats an old joke in A Life on Film about the five stages of an actor’s career:
“Who is Mary Astor?”
“Get me Mary Astor.”
“Get me a Mary Astor type.”
“Get me a younger Mary Astor.”
“Who is Mary Astor?”
Somewhere between stages 4 and 5, Astor became depressed over her declining career and ever less-interesting roles, developed a fondness for the bottle, and may have attempted suicide. During her recovery, she was in the care of a Catholic priest and practicing psychologist, Father Peter Ciklic, who encouraged her to write about her life and experiences. According to Astor, the result “was not meant for public eyes, but someone convinced me it should be a book.” She lucked into the support of a fine editor, Lee Barker, at Doubleday, who helped her shape the raw material into finished shape–remarkably, for a celebrity memoir, without the aid of a ghost writer.
Published in 1959, Mary Astor: My Story was one of the first confessional autobiographies to come out of Hollywood. Astor was candid, within the limits of her generation’s standards of discretion, about her affairs, emotional turmoils, and alcoholism. At the time when Donna Reed was still a leading role model, it was a real scorcher and became a best-seller.
For most celebrities, this would have been the end of the story, but Barker then suggested Astor try her hand at fiction, “…and I’ve been hooked ever since.” A year later, Doubleday released her first novel, The Incredible Charlie Carewe.
Although it suffers some of the typical construction problems of a first novel, The Incredible Charlie Carewe is a remarkable work that demonstrates “qualities of depth and reality” equal to those Anderson noted in Astor’s acting. Charlie Carewe is the handsome, charming, charismatic son of a wealthy East Coast Establishment family with impeccable bloodlines. On the surface, it seems as if the sky is the limit–no doors are closed to Charlie Carewe.
Unfortunately, something is a bit, well, odd, about Charlie. At first, there is just a sense that his behavior is a bit hard to explain, but given his class and status, his parents, his sister, the help–everyone writes it off to quirks in his character. But then his sister comes across Charlie in the rocks along the shore of their country estate–bashing a playmate’s head into the rocks:
There was absolutely no savagery in the action, no passion or hatred, no viciousness, He looked up briefly as he saw Virginia and Jeff and called out a smiling “Hi!” and then went back to his task. Firmly, purposefully, as though he were occupied in cracking a coconut. In the seconds before movement came back to the paralyzed observers another wave whispered up to the two boys and receded with pink in its foam.
Charlie’s victim is rushed off to the hospital with permanent brain damage and the Carewe’s social finesse is put to the test as they graciously usher out their guests as if nothing more than an unfortunate accident had taken place. The next morning, as he tucks into his breakfast, he asks chattily, “What’s the news on Roger? Did he die?”
The Carewes can recognize that they have something of a ticking time bomb on their hands, but their upbringing and lack of psychological awareness (the incident above takes place in the early 1920s) leaves them helpless when it comes to dealing with it. They shuttle Charlie through a series of elite prep schools, smoothing over matters when he’s quietly asked to leave due to thefts, attacks on other students, or other indiscretions. For a long time, the only person who seems remotely able to accept that Charlie’s actions are more than a little abnormal is his sister Virginia, and even she is at a loss to explain it:
As usual, she thought, she was making a fuss, putting too much importance on Charlie’s behavior. She should be used to it now. Wearily she thought, at least there was one consistency; in any given situation, Charlie could be counted on to do the wrong thing, the inappropriate thing. Nobody, but nobody, could be more charming when he wanted to be. He had, it seemed, a full command of the social graces, and in any gathering, especially of people who were strangers to him, could attract attention with no effort. People would gravitate toward him, toward the sound of his pleasant voice, his contagious laugh; but always he seemed to want to destroy it….
Schools could expel him, friends were quickly made and quickly lost, his contact with any kind of social life was brief, and none of it seemed to matter to him. Nor did it matter that the cumulative effect was destroying a family.
Astor displays a clinical objectivity in leading us through every step along the way as Charlie spreads havoc into the lives of almost everyone he meets. In each situation, the pattern is the same: glittering, showy success followed by abrupt failure due to some or other act of willful brutality. His forms a company, makes a great splash, achieves fame as a tycoon and philanthropist, and within a couple of years is being escorted out by his nearly bankrupted partners. He makes a show of joining the Navy after Pearl Harbor, then weasels his way out by pretending to be a bed-wetter. He drives his wife to divorce and alcoholism, borrows and loses money from friends, seduces wives and ruins friendships.
Not even the incredibly strong defenses of family fortune and status, though, can withstand the destructive force of Charlie’s will, however, and only an unlucky trip on a staircase keeps Charlie from standing alone in a wasteland of his own fallout. What Charlie is, we can now see in a glance with the benefit of much greater awareness, is, of course, a psychopath. The psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley recognized this, citing Astor’s book in the 1964 edition of his classic work on psychopathology, The Mask of Sanity:
In many respects the most realistic and successful of all portrayals of the psychopath is that presented by Mary Astor in The Incredible Charlie Carewe. The rendition is so effective that even those unfamiliar with the psychopath in actual experience are likely to sense the reality of what is disclosed. The subject is superbly dealt with, and the book constitutes a faithful and arresting study of a puzzling and infinitely complex subject. Charlie Carewe emerges as an exquisite example of the psychopath – the best, I believe, to be found in any work of fiction.
The Incredible Charlie Carewe should be read not only by every psychiatrist but also by every physician. It will hold the attention of all intelligent readers, and I believe it will be of great value in helping the families of psychopaths to gain insight into the nature of the tragic problem with which they are dealing, usually in blindness and confusion.
By this point, anyone reading this review who’s been in a bookstore in the last decade can’t help but think of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. If asked to sum up the book in a single catchphrase, I would have to say, “Imagine American Psycho written by Louis Auchincloss (or Edith Wharton).” Where Ellis writes to shock, Astor writes to show how people of refinement and elaborate rules of conduct respond when faced with pure irrational violence.
The Incredible Charlie Carewe is a remarkable novel not just in the detail and accuracy of its portrayal of a psychopath but in the “depth and reality” of its portrayal of the society in which this particular psychopath operates. Astor is very much in the territory of Wharton and Auchincloss, and she’s clearly deeply familiar with it. This is a novel that has more than a few parallels with the story of the 20th century as a whole, which is one reason it’s a genuine shame that it vanished after a single Dell paperback release in 1963.
Astor went on to write four more novels: The O’Conners (1964); Goodbye Darling, Be Happy (1965); The Image of Kate (1966); and A Place Called Saturday (1968). The last opens with a rape and goes on to tell about the victim’s decision to bear and raise the child that results. Clearly, Astor’s imagination ranged beyond the walls of the senior citizen apartment of which a visitor commented, “My, isn’t this nice! You can sit here and watch the cars go by!”
In her last book, A Life on Film, Astor revisited her life, but this time dealing almost exclusively with her experiences as a working actor, starting with a 1921 two-reeler, “The Beggar Maid”. Astor didn’t come to film: she was shoved into with both hands by her parents, particularly her father, Otto Langhanke, who was summed up by the great director D. W. Griffith as “a walking cash register.” Her first agent changed Lucile Langhanke into Mary Astor. Lucile was too young to understand much of the insidious nature of her father’s actions at the time, and by the time she was able to take some control of her life, she was in her early twenties and a veteran of over thirty films. So she writes:
As well as I know the actress, Mary Astor–every movement, every shade of voice, and I learned to manipulate her into many different kinds of women–she is still not “me.” A year or so ago I flipped on the TV set and then went into another room for a moment. I heard some familiar words and said, “Hey, that’s Mary Astor!” not “Hey, that’s me.”
Astor survived the transition from silents to sound. She recounts in the book all the troubles associated with the early sound recording techniques, which forced actors into behaviors more stilted and artificial than anything seen in the silents. By the start of the 1930s, she was a legitimate star, if not one of the first magnitude. Her life was regularly covered in Photoplay and a dozen other fan magazines, but as likely to be cast in a B-picture like “Red Hot Tires” as in a A-film like “Dodsworth”.
Then, in 1936, her private life became headline news as her husband’s attorneys attempted to introduce her diary as evidence. Although the studio execs managed to get it suppressed, gossip held that its contents were full of lurid sexual details of her affair with the playwright George S. Kauffman and dozens of male film stars. Astor consistently maintained that this was all hogwash, but forever after she was considered as dangerous material: a solid, consistent, and reliable performer but not safe to make a first-rate star of.
Although she gained some of her best parts in the years after the scandal, including her Oscar-winning supporting role in “The Great Lie” (1941), by 1944 she was, at 38, playing the mother of 22 year old Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis”. She began to think, she writes,
“What’s so damned important about being an actress?” I saw my little world, insulated, self-absorbed, limited. And all the twenty years of hard work seemed sour and futile. It was a partial acceptance of reality, but it was still a bit like a child saying, “You mean there isn’t any Santa Claus?” I wasn’t aware of, nor ready to accept, the fact that the mere doing, the achieving, was the point. Not what I had achieved. For what I had achieved would in due time be forgotten. The doing was important, it was part of my being–of what and who I am.
Ironically, as Mary Astor got less and less to work with in her roles, she made more and more of them. In his forward to A Life on Film, writer Sumner Locke Elliott recalls working with her on a ridiculous 1950s television play intended to showcase the talents of the latest Miss America. She spoke, he writes, in “the voice of the actress who has been through it all; this is the calm of the veteran who can get you through even if the set falls down.” By her last film, “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), her reputation as a professional had reached the point where Bette Davis could turn to director Robert Aldrich and say, “Turn her loose, Robert, you might learn something!”
A Life on Film is a terrific book and it’s entirely due to Mary Astor’s intelligent, ruthlessly honest, and ever ironic voice. This may be the least ego-filled book ever to come out of Hollywood. Astor makes no bones about the creature comforts that one can enjoy as the perks of stardom, but she never confuses film-making as a business of making money by creating distractions. This is a book about craft, about learning to build a character out of two-minute takes and hours and hours and hour of sitting around and waiting, written by a woman who was among the best craftspersons of her era.
If I had to pick just one of Mary Astor’s books for reissue, it would definitely be A Life on Film. As much as I admire and marvel at her accomplishment in The Incredible Charlie Carewe, I have to say I preferred her final memoir. I not only admired it–but I thoroughly enjoyed it and regretted at the end that I was closing the cover on Mary Astor’s last words as a writer.
A very long time ago, I checked a book titled The Experience of War out of my high school library. It didn’t look too inviting–the cover is a photo of small black figures–soldiers–walking across a dark gray field, silhouetted against a light gray sky. The pages were filled with long, dense paragraphs of small print. But it was two inches thick, and at the time, I thought size mattered–at least when it came to impressing my classmates with my seriousness.
I only got about 200 pages into the book before I had to return it, and for whatever reason, I didn’t check it out again. But I can remember being profoundly impressed by how … well, I guess I would say, cinematic the book was. It wasn’t like other history books I’d read–setting aside things like The Great Escape as adventure rather than history, that is. It wasn’t a sequence of “this happened and then this happened” facts, with an occasional bit of analysis. It was a series of scenes. Wendell Willkie in the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan, listening to the returns from the 1940 Presidential election. General Jonathan Wainwright waiting for the end in a tunnel on Corregidor. Navy pilots spotting and attacking the Japanese carrier Kaga just as they reach the very limit of their range, opening the battle of Midway. Harry Hopkins, already suffering from stomach cancer, flying from Washington to London and then on to Moscow to meet with Stalin in the early days after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union–and then back to Scotland to meet up with Churchill and travel to the first Atlantic conference:
For twenty-four hours he is in troubled air, his sick body tossed and buffeted. He has barely strength enough to jump from the plane to the slippery deck of an admiral’s launch, at Scapa Flow, when at last the flying boat comes down. A sailor with a boat hook hauls him sprawling across the deck to the safety of the cabin. But he laughs! He laughs at this undignified arrival of the President’s personal envoy upon a British boat. He laughs at his sickness, his weakness. He waves a cheery farewell to the crew of the PBY, whose captain will later speak in awestruck tones of his passenger’s “unbelievable courage,” his “splendid devotion to duty.”
Almost twenty years later, I pulled down a copy of The Experience of War from a bookstore shelf and began thumbing through it. My first reaction was much the same as before: “Hmm … looks very thick, slow, and dry.” But then I hit that passage about Hopkins again, and I suddenly remembered, and decided right there to buy the book and immediately begin reading it again. At the time, I was flying regularly from Washington to Denver and back, usually in the same day, and a good, thick book I could sink into was something I really needed.
But then, around 300 pages into it, I ran into the following at the start of chapter ten: “Let George do it, the saying goes. So call him George.” George is a Marine, and Davis leads us through his enlistment, his basic training, his transport to Hawaii, his transport to a ship off an island in the Southwest Pacific, to George’s part in the island’s assault and bitter conquest.
George is a fictional character.
I found this quite disconcerting. Was this whole thing just a crock, I wondered? Was Davis just toying with the reader?
But eight pages later, we were back in real history, travelling around the world with Wendell Willkie on his 1942 propaganda tour at FDR’s request, and for the rest of the book, we stayed in what I considered safe territory. Edmund Morris’ Dutch was still ten years in the future and I thought mixing fact and fiction was like adding even and odd numbers–in the end, the result would always be fiction.
This is a book about the American experience of World War II. It is not designed to be a formal academic history, though every effort has been made to assure its factual accuracy. Rather, its essential purpose is literary in that it attempts to rescue from the erosions and abstractions of Time something of what Webster’s Dictionary, in the definition of “experience,” calls the “actual living through an event or events; actual enjoyment or suffering.”
Looking through the reviews that greeted the publication of The Experience of War, you can see that the majority of reviewers stumbled over exactly the same point I did. Most praise the work’s overall breadth and richness of detail, but caution the buyer to beware that the whole package could be considered tainted by the one detour into creative writing. Almost three decades later, the fine historian David Hackett Fisher could still sniff that the book “promiscuously mixes fiction and fact.” Eric Goldman, writing in the New York Times was one of the very to express unqualified praise, calling it, “…[H]istory in the grand manner, broad and powerful in its themes, eloquent in style …,” and noting its “sharply etched vignettes of people and scenes.”
Soon after publishing The Experience of War, Davis began work on the project that consumed the rest of his life–over thirty years–and ultimately end unfinished: his massive five-volume, nearly 4,000-page biography of Franklin Roosevelt. His first volume, FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny, 1882-1928 published in 1972, was a critical and commercial success, earning him the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians.
From there on, however, it was a long downhill slide. Walter Goodman’s Times review of the second volume, FDR: The New York Years 1928-1933 (1985), ended with this litany of faint praises: “He is an assiduous researcher, a creditable psychologist, a fair-minded analyst and, when he isn’t trying too hard, an inviting chronicler of the most fascinating political personality of our age.” Irving Howe was much more enthusiastic about the third volume, FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937 (1986), calling it an “admirably rich book – rich in historical substance, political thought and character portraiture.”
He did note, however, that, “Sentence by sentence, Mr. Davis is not a bewitching writer: he has a curious weakness for stiff syntax and cumbersome phrasing.” And it must be said that the significant obstacle for Davis’ readers is less an occasional dalliance with fiction but his almost nineteenth century prose style.
But then, abruptly, deep disappointments. Dark disappointments, and even despairs …
The bright and the dark ran side by side in a rush of contrasting events through the weeks after Yalta; they thrust against one another and tumbled over one another as if struggling for the minds of men …
I can only imagine what Professor Sale would have written if I’d turned in a paper with that tempestuous bit of prose. It’s Bulwer-Lytton grade stuff.
Throughout Davis’ long career, which began with a wartime biography of Eisenhower in 1944 and continued through over a dozen works of biography and history and three novels for over fifty years, reviewers took exception to his stylistic foibles: thousand-word paragraphs composed from sixty-word sentences, topped off with telegraphic exclamation points for dramatic effect: “It made a great stir. Of course it would.” And, yes, those bits of poetic excess no self-respecting dispassionate historian would attempt today:
With decision came liberation. A heavy weight was lifted from Roosevelt’s mind: his long-oppressed spirits could again rise.
Despite the fact that Random House gave the fourth volume, FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940 (1993), the biggest publicity push of the whole series, Davis’ reputation continued to decline. Although Robert Dallek acknowledged that the work would “take its place in the Roosevelt literature,” he found the most distinctive aspect of the book “the mass of detail on all the major and many minor events of Roosevelt’s second term.” Boy, ain’t that the kind of acclaim that sells a book: “‘A Mass of Details’ says the New York Times!”
Davis died in 1999, leaving the fifth and final volume unfinished. Mary Ellen, Ralph Titus, and Robert Loomis collaborated to shape the completed portion of the book and Davis’ notes into FDR: The War President, 1940-1943, which was published in 2000. Even so, the book ends in the middle of the war, with Roosevelt screening Casablanca at the White House.
Davis was spared the indignity of the book’s reception, which reminds one of the old joke, “The food here’s terrible–and the portions are so small.” Here is Michael Lind, again from the Times:
FDR: The War President, 1940-1943 is not history. It is sensationalistic historical fiction of the kind associated with Oliver Stone and the Edmund Morris of Dutch. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reputation as a historical figure will survive this book. Kenneth S. Davis’s reputation as a historian will not.
One pictures Lind spiking his copy of the book into Davis’ grave and dancing a little touchdown jig.
So is that the fate of Kenneth S. Davis? To have steadily and diligently written himself into oblivion? At the moment, all but his history of Kansas are out of print. While his FDR books have been referenced by dozens of historians since their publication, as a quick Google Book search reveals, most of the time it’s for their details of color and character than the historical insights. And for readers unprepared for the task, the prospect of lugging a few pounds of a Davis book or sticking with his long, dense paragraphs probably seems like that of reading Proust without the payoff of being able to brag about it at parties.
For a few persistent and diligent readers, though, there are considerable rewards. I said early on that I remembered The Experience of War as a cinematic book. Irving Howe, on the other hand, saw the parallel for Davis’ approach in an earlier century: “… [T]he total effect of his book is strongly dramatic, reminding one of those naturalistic novels that marshal lumbering sentences in behalf of narrative drive.” Yes, there are plenty of lumbering sentences. But there are also such vivid, memorable scenes: Eisenhower pacing up and down the runway in Gibraltar, anxiously wondering how successful (or costly) the American Army’s landing in North Africa would be. John Hersey encountering the realities of combat in Guadalcanal. Oppenheimer torn between hope and dread at the first atomic bomb test. David Lillienthal wresting control of the Tennessee Valley Authority from the powerful electric utilities. An ordinary visitor experiencing the marvels of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Or FDR’s first fireside chat:
There was nothing fake about the hearty, laughing good humor, the optimistic faith (he knew everything would come out right in the end!), the indomitable courage, the incessant, stupendous joie de vivre which he exuded and which others, needful of it, soaked up as parched earth does water.
If what Davis set out to do in his books was, as he wrote in his prefatory note to Experience, to “rescue from the erosions and abstractions of Time” experience–“the actual living through an event or events,” I think we can say he succeeded, even if it was counter to critical preferences.
For the past umpteen years, I’ve usually had one or another of Davis’ books in my nightstand. In between books, I’ll pick it up, open a page at random, and dip in. And almost always, I find myself carried away through the next dozen pages by the power of his story-telling. And for that, I am grateful.
My candidate for the two most neglected books would be Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857) by George Borrow. In a way he was the first ordinary, modern English travel writer. But it takes a good 50 pages to tune into his language, which is obviously quite removed from English usage today.
150 years ago, Borrow was one of the most popular writers in the English language: one of his first books, The Bible in Spain, even outsold Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. His novels and non-fiction books, especially those about the Gypsies of Spain and elsewhere, were considered masterpieces of their time: dramatic, colorful, and comic. And for a good hundred years afterward, you could count on finding at least one or two titles by Borrow in any good collection of classics (Everyman’s, the Modern Library). Now, you have a choice between over-priced e-publisher editions or free downloads from Project Gutenberg.
It’s true that Borrow’s prose can, at times, be at least one or two removes from today’s language:
But to return to my own history. I had now attained the age of six: shall I state what intellectual progress I had been making up to this period? Alas! upon this point I have little to say calculated to afford either pleasure or edification. I had increased rapidly in size and in strength: the growth of the mind, however, had by no means corresponded with that of the body. It is true, I had acquired my letters, and was by this time able to read imperfectly; but this was all: and even this poor triumph over absolute ignorance would never have been effected but for the unremitting attention of my parents, who, sometimes by threats, sometimes by entreaties, endeavoured to rouse the dormant energies of my nature, and to bend my wishes to the acquisition of the rudiments of knowledge; but in influencing the wish lay the difficulty.
But scan through The Romany Rye, for example, and you’ll find much dialogue, some narrative, but little in the way of heavy-lifting prose. As Anthony Campbell argues, “In fact, he is a penny plain writer, not a tuppence coloured one; you don’t find those purple passages of description that were thought to be the mark of “style” at the time. In other words, he is closer to Defoe than to De Quincy.” And you’ll also find, from a man who was employed by the Bible Society, a remarkable share of irreverence:
“One thing,” said I, “connected with you, I cannot understand; you call yourself a thorough-going Papist, yet are continually saying the most pungent things against Popery, and turning to unbounded ridicule those who show any inclination to embrace it.”
“Rome is a very sensible old body,” said the man in black, “and little cares what her children say, provided they do her bidding. She knows several things, and amongst others, that no servants work so hard and faithfully as those who curse their masters at every stroke they do. She
was not fool enough to be angry with the Miquelets of Alba, who renounced her, and called her ‘puta’ all the time they were cutting the throats of the Netherlanders. Now, if she allowed her faithful soldiers the latitude of renouncing her, and calling her ‘puta’ in the market-place, think not she is so unreasonable as to object to her faithful priests occasionally calling her ‘puta’ in the dingle.”
On the back dust cover of the first edition of The Golden Vanity can be found the following note by the author, Isabel Paterson. I wanted to reprint it here to highlight again her wonderfully flippant and original style. Would someone please publish a collection of her columns and letters?
Every time I write a novel my publishers demand the story of my life. this is embarrassing, because as will Cuppy says we have only one like to live, if that, and I Told All the last time. The fact is, most of my life is a blank because I forget what I was doing at any given time.
During the part year and a half, my life has been comparatively blameless, except for the customary novel. All I’ve done is build a house in the country and go native. Building a house is great fun. It’s like magic. You say a few words and make marks on a piece of paper and go away and when you come back there is a house. Still more mysteriously, the magic gives out just one split second before the last pantry shelf has been put up, and never, as long as you live, can you get that shelf, or the final towel rod in the bathroom. Perfection is not attainable by mortals.
It doesn’t matter anyhow, because of the garden. The house is ultimately only a place to go into when it rains, and not then until you are thoroughly soaked. I’m not really a gardener; only a weeder. I don’t know if one ever develops from that stage. My garden consists of six zinnias, several cosmos [because of lack of space the publsihers deleted here certain particulars about Mrs. Paterson’s garden] and some shrubs, at present described as “What is that?” Many magnificent trees dot the landscape. A tree which I have decided is a mulberry lurks in the back lot. It has got to be a mulberry; I can’t be changing the name of the thing every five minutes. I have to get on with the weeding.
My friends and acquaintances express surprise that I should have rural tastes. This attitude indicates to me what is wrong with public opinion. It has no relevancy to the facts. I was born and brought up in the country, so far from any urban influences that I never saw an electric light till I was fifteen and was afraid of it when I did see one. This is why I hate clocks and appointments and can’t find a train in a time-table. My idea of time goes by the sun — morning, noon, afternoon, and night. I seldom know the day of the week and never the date of the month, so it is impossible for me to date my letters. I hate crowds, and radios, and public speakers, and cannot drive a motor car. These things being so, I lived in New York for years and years. Finally I acquired sense enough to move out. I don’t mind commuting because it gets me to the country. That is all for the present.
To an extent that puts better-known writers such as Steinbeck to shame, Caroline Slade wrote for the dispossessed, exploited, and impoverished Americans of the 1930s and 1940s. Educated at Skidmore College in the early 1900s, she spent three decades working and teaching in the field of social work before her first book was published in 1936, when she was fifty. She had begun to write years before that, though, winning an O.Henry prize in the late 1920s for one of her first short stories.
Her first novel, Sterile Sun, leaps straight into a subject few people were willing to discuss, let alone write about: prostitution. One by one, Slade takes the viewpoint of three prostitutes — Sue, a fourteen year-old runaway; Allie, a veteran of the streets who strenuously defends herself and her daughter; and Winkie, who filters everything through a romantic haze to avoid dealing with the reality of her situation. Of the three sections, the first, in Sue’s voice, is the most successful, very much a stream-of-consciousness monologue following the models set down by Joyce and others:
I wished I could get some more money then one day the old man met me down the road when I was coming from school he said Sue you go on up to the rocks and wait for me I want to tell you something I said hwo much will you give me he laughed he said well you little bitch but he said fifty cents so I said I would wait for him. He sat on a rock and made me stand between his legs he liked to feel me through my clothes he made such funny noises with his mouth I had to laugh I thought he was pretty silly but when he let me go he gave me a dollar bill I could hardly believe it he said will you meet me here again and I said I bet I would he just said you stand still Sue and then a whole dollar. I put it in my shoe I was so happy I could feel it with my foot in my shoe all that money I said it all for me and he said you bet it is then I was so scared my mother would find it.
Kicked out of school because she admits to having sex with older men, Sue hitch-hikes to a nameless city and soon turns to prostitution when her slim funds run out. She manages to avoid getting trapped into a white slavery racket, starts walking the streets, and then dies from a botched abortion. Allie and Winkie have managed to survive longer than Sue, but the novel ends with no indication that things will get any better.
At least one magazine criticized Slade for failing to suggest that society could solve the problems that led these women to their fates. But, as Paula Rabinowitz writes in her book, Black & White & Noir, “Faith in society was not going to solve these girls’ problems. Slade’s years as a social worker had taught her that already.”
Vanguard Press, which published Sterile Sun, took an odd marketing tact, advertising that it was issuing the book “in a special edition, the sale of which is limited to physicians, psychiatrists, sociologists, social workers, educators, and other persons having a professional interest in the psychology of adolescence.” Vanguard also prefaced the novel with a sober introduction by one Reverend John Howard Melish urging readers not to look upon the book’s pornographic values (which are none, by today’s standards). They still managed to sell enough copies that the book is relatively easy to find, online at least, for five bucks or less.
In her subsequent books, Slade continues to hold to the view that things get better only through a tremendous effort of will — or as a fluke. While she never puts a social worker in a heroic light, she at least shows an understanding of, if not a sympathy for, the grim job they have. Still, she recognizes the symbiotic relationship between the poor and the bureaucrats trying to help them. In Lilly Crackell, Miss Stallings, the case worker who works on Lilly’s case for years, admits at one point, “The truth is, I live upon the lives of hungry, cold, poverty-stricken people; their misfortunes make possible for me my good job. My God, I never honestly looked at my job before. Why, my own income rests upon the backs of the poor!”
I read Lilly Crackell (1944) after seeing a post on the Women Writers message board that proclaimed, “This is a great American novel(very possibly ‘the’ Great American novel) that, to put it bluntly, wipes the floor with Steinbeck.” Lilly Crackell is the story of a welfare mother back before that term was invented. The Crackells are a white trash family living on Sand Hill, next to the dump, in a shack with a dirt floor. They get a weekly care package from the town that keeps them on the edge of starvation. Lilly is a stunningly attractive young girl who fools around with one of her school classmates, a young man from one of the “better” families in town, and winds up pregnant.
The book follows her through two decades and six children. She gets a job keeping house for an older farmer and ends up having three kids by him before he drops dead of a heart attack. His heirs kick her off the farm and she returns to the shack on Sand Hill. Meanwhile, we see, from Miss Stalling’s viewpoint, social services go from private charities to government programs and influx of money and attention with the New Deal. Yet, as the book closes, with Lilly feeling another pregnancy coming on, the Crackells are still dependents. Her oldest sons can’t pass the Army’s physical due to bad teeth and other effects of long-term malnutrition and Lilly and her mother are still stuck on Sand Hill.
I can’t agree with the poster’s high regard for Lilly Crackell as a work of art. Slade’s flat prose style lacks much of the energy of her monologues in Sterile Sun. I have no doubt that her account of the Crackells and the social agencies is utterly honest and firmly rooted in real cases Slade worked on. But few of her characters are developed in more than superficial detail and Lilly herself shows almost no change in her perspective and thoughts between 14 and 30-something. Still, I can agree with the New Yorker reviewer who wrote of the book, “Mrs. Slade has the talent, rare in these days, of combining warmth and compassion with intelligence, and she writes movingly, often humorously, and with sturdy common sense.”
A story of a family on relief and the effects of the WPA and other New Deal programs. Social Work Today gave The Triumph of Willie Pond this strong endorsement: “to say every single social worker in the United States ought to read it is to do it injustice….” According to Time magazine, Slade’s mother wrote her after reading the book, “Caroline, wherever in the world did you hear such language?”
In this novel, Job Mann and his wife, an elderly couple, find themselves slammed to the bottom of the social heap by the Great Crash and the Depression and struggle to cope with the “world of hate, whores, idiots, stinking tenements and the loathed ‘Welfares'”, as Time’s review put it.
Margaret was probably Slade’s best-known and -selling novel. It revisits the story of Sterile Sun, telling the story of a sixteen year-old girl who becomes a prostitute to help out her family and runs into problems with gangs and juvenile justice.
This book also deals with prostitution, but from the viewpoint of a madame. In Rabinowitz’s words, it “offers a history of government, legal, journalistic, welfare, and economic investments in prostitution.”
Slade’s husband, John Slade, was an attorney for Saratoga County and a professor of law at Skidmore College. The two were active supporters of the arts and she served as the first president of the foundation that built and ran the famous Yaddo writers’ colony. She died in Saratoga Springs in 1975.
“Somewhere on the bookshelf between forgotten and neglected, between the tragic and the strange, stands the reputation of the American writer Harold L. Humes,” writes Celia McGee an article in the 13 January 2007 edition of the New York Times:
The Third Man of the postwar Paris expatriate crowd — he was a co-founder of The Paris Review in 1953, with Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton — Doc Humes, as he was known, went on to produce two novels in the late 1950s that placed him at the head of a new generation of writers to watch. But in the â€™60s he succumbed to a mental illness that left him paranoid and peripatetic. Yet to those who remember him, he remained so brilliant that even in madness he dazzled, delighted, educated and touched.
Now â€œDoc,â€ a documentary by an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (one of Mr. Humesâ€™s daughters) and fresh awareness among several publishers is raising hopes that Mr. Humesâ€™s long out-of-print novels will finally resurface.
If availability of his books is any measure of a writer’s neglect, Humes is currently up in the top ranks. Neither of his two novels are available (even used) on Amazon, and a search of AddAll.com today produced a sum total of two copies each of The Underground City and Men Die.
A talented young first novelist named H. L. (for Harold Louis) Humes last year produced an almost classic example of the ambitious book that tries to say too much. The Underground City was at once a war novel, a treatise on right and wrong, an indictment of the human condition. Its 755 pages were too many and too tiring. Now, in less than one-quarter the wordage. Author Humes, 33, has produced a new book that gives off more significance than his first could even suggest….
Author Humes does his work in flashbacks, not the smooth ones of a Marquand, but brusque revelations carved out like sections of a monument to doom. Unfortunately, he also chooses to interpolate interior monologues, which prove only that he has not read James Joyce well enough. But these form a minor irritant compared to the book’s merits — clean writing, crisp description, and a surprisingly accurate sense of the bitter relationships, mostly unspoken, between the enlisted Negroes and their commander. Author Humes is no optimist. Every page of Men Die implies an underlying sense of doom for mankind; yet every page is also immensely readable.
Immy Humes has also set up a website, The Doc Humes Institute, to promote Humes and her documentary. You can also read a short sketch of Humes’ life and work at Wikipedia.