The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Other Comments
· Find Out More
· Locate a Copy


Cover of the first U.S. edition of 'The Moonflower Vine'

To his daughters as they grew up, Matthew Soames was God and the weather. He was omnipotent and he was everywhere — at home, at school, at church. There was no place they could go where the dominating spirit was not that of their father. And, like rain or shine, his moods conditioned all they did.

With other people around, he was pleasant as could be, full of laughter and witticisms and conversation marvelous to hear. Ladies often said to them, “Your father is just the nicest man!” The girls could hardly help observing that he turned his sunny side to his public and clouded up at home. There, he was often preoccupied and short-spoken, indifferent to his children except to command or reprove. “Daughter,” he called each of them indiscriminantly; it was a little more authoritative than the given name, which might not occur to him at the moment anyway.

“Papa’s nicer to other people than he is to us,” Leonie once said.

“Yes, sometimes he is, honey,” said her mother. “But he’s got to be. Your Papa’s an important man in the community. That’s the way he’s got to act.”

His importance might have been a comfort to the girls if it hadn’t been such a nuisance. There were so many things they were not allowed to do “because it wouldn’t look well.” And they couldn’t get out of his sight and do them, because he was everywhere. For the most part, they resigned themselves to the situation and did as Papa said. The purpose in life, he said, was to work. “Laborare est orare,” he said; and work meant to study your lessons and help Mama.

They had many good times in between. Relatives came often to visit. On the farm they could play in the woods and go fishing. When they moved to town they had girl chums and Sunday School parties. They had no toys to speak of (one doll, handed down from one to the other); but living as they did a good deal out-of-doors, they didn’t need such props. They played with what they had or found or made up and enjoyed themselves hugely. But very early they understood that playing was somewhat suspect, allowed only through indulgence, a trivial pastime soon outgrown, and only about twice removed from sin. Pleasure was only once removed. The girls grew up before they realized that pleasure was not an ugly word. In their father’s vocabulary it meant joyrides, dancing, card games, cigarettes, and other things to dreadful to define.

Editor’s Comments

I read The Moonflower Vine after coming across Jane Smiley’s discussion of it in her Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. It wasn’t so much what Smiley had to say about it as that it was essentially the only genuinely little-known novel she saw fit to include in her list of 100 great novels. In there amongst Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, and Ulysses was this book with a completely unfamiliar title and by completely unfamiliar author. To see a neglected book rate such high-profile coverage alone made it worth a try.

Cover of the first U.S. paperback edition of 'The Moonflower Vine'I can’t say that The Moonflower Vine would have stood much chance of a second look from me had it not come with such a sterling recommendation. Its marketing, back when it was picked as a Literary Guild selection and condensed in a Readers Digest collection, was definitely aimed at a feminine audience, and its first paperback edition featured a small picture of a big, strong, dark-haired man embracing a delicate young woman — the sort of image that’s become the cliche of gauzy romantic novels.

As Bo Diddley sang, though, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. There’s barely a lick of romance in the whole of The Moonflower Vine. Carleton grew up on a Missouri farm perhaps not too unlike that described in her novel, and no farm family that survives a hard winter or a bad harvest has much romanticism left in its veins. The pragmatism of farm life is multiplied by the stern morality of the Midwest Methodist, with its clear-cut sense of right and wrong (and none of the Southern Baptist’s taste for a little melodramatic back-sliding).

The Moonflower Vine is a multi-dimensional tale of the lives of Matthew Soames, his wife, Callie, and their four daughters — Jessica, Leonie, Mathy, and Mary Jo. Mary Jo is probably closest in profile to Carleton herself. The youngest of the girls, she is roughly the same age as Carleton and, like her, left rural Missouri for a career in the world of television in New York. She narrates the introductory section of the book, which takes place one summer Sunday when the daughters (with the exception of Mathy, who dies before the age of twenty) have come back to the family farm for a visit. This section is gentle, lightly comic, and bucolic in its description of rustic pleasures such as skinny-dipping in the creek.

The rest of the book, however, is related in the third person. Starting with Jessica, it deals in turn with each of the other members of the family — Matthew, who struggles throughout his career as a teacher and principal of a small town school with a lust for bright young women in his classes; Mathy, the family rebel, who elopes with a barnstorming pilot; Leonie, the dutiful daughter, who never quite manages to find her right place in the world; and finally, Callie, the mother, whose brief moment of adultery mirrors her husband’s own private sin.

Sin is a constant presence in the book. Everyone in the family, with the possible exception of Mary Jo, commits one or more sins, in their own eyes or those of the community, that prevents any form of love expressed in the book from being completely unequivocal. Matthew never fully forgives Mathy for quitting school and running off with one of the local renegades, nor Jessica for marrying a drifter Matthew takes on briefly as a hired hand. The Soames are a God-fearing family, stalwart members of the Methodist Church, very much Old Testament Christians.

At the same time, though, progress makes its own changes in their lives. While Matthew and Callie refuse to install indoor plumbing, planes, trains, and automobiles all bring the outside world a little closer to their doorstep. Jessica and her new groom catch a train for his family home in southern Missouri — genuine hillbilly country — and though he dies less than a year later, she remains with his people thereafter. Ed, one of Matthew’s old students, returns to town with an old biplane and proceeds to sweep daughter Mathy off her feet, only to kill her a year or two afterwards in a crash landing. Some time later, Leonie takes a trip to Kansas City, meets a somewhat reformed Ed, and eventually decides to marry him.

Though The Moonflower Vine is full of lush descriptions of the trees, birds, flowers, and plants that fill the Soames’ world, it’s very much a Midwestern, rather than Southern, novel. The comedy and tragedy are always moderated with a spare sense of realism. Missouri is, after all, the “Show Me” state — that skepticism prevents any of the characters from leaping headlong into any of their passions for more than a moment or two. Or, rather, it makes them look before leaping, if leap they do.

As the reviews of The Moonflower Vine on demonstrate, this novel, though long out of print, continues to hold a fond place in the hearts of readers who’ve discovered it. Carleton never wrote another book, though she did publish over 100 others through the Lightning Tree, a small press she founded with her husband, Jene Lyon, after she left the television business and moved to New Mexico. She died there in 1999.

Other Comments

· Jane Smiley included The Moonflower Vine among the classics she read (or reread) and then discussed in her 2005 book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and wrote of it:

This novel may be the most obscure contemporary novel on our list, but those who have read it, if the customer reviews at Earth’s Biggest Bookstore™ are any guide, are very loyal to it. Jetta Carleton wrote only this novel, which appears to be autobiographical, at least in part, but Carleton’s style is so dense and precise and her method of imagining the inner lives of each character so daring that she seems to have been unconstrained by fears either of remembering things wrongly or of offending her relatives….

Carleton mostly avoids the perils of this material, which, baldly summarized, sounds scandalous and best-sellerish, a Peyton Place of the Midwest, by depicting the southern Missouri landscape of the family farm in exceptional detail. The farm is small but much beloved, full of fields and grasses, trees and shrubs, rocks and flowers that present a seasonal drama to the members of the family. All admire and appreciate their natural surroundings, sometimes in spite of themselves. Since most of the novel takes place in the summer, when the family is settled on the farm, the characters frequently suffer from the heat, which has the effect of making the scenery palpable and especially sensual.

The five characters are a convincing family in several ways. They resemble one another but are ill-assorted, as members of families often are. Their contrasts to one another are exaggerated by proximity. Matthew loves Callie and she is essential to his sense of his identity and self-confidence, but her lack of interest in intellectual things (she can’t read, though she pretends sometimes she can) means that he can’t share things with her that are important and satisfying to him. Callie is sexy but submissive, and hardly ever dares to challenge Matthew, or even ask anything of him. She recognizes, though, that he had been the best bet of all the young men she might have chosen, and in the end he is a good husband even though he hasn’t shown her the tenderness she might have liked. Carleton excels at depicting the personalities of the girls, who often don’t understand one another at all, and would never, they think, make the choices that the others have made, or even have similar relationships to their parents. And yet there is familial loyalty and attachment, mostly arising out of a shared sense of the enjoyment of the farm and each other.

To my mind, this is a novel characteristic of its time, the 1950s, because it completely avoids all political themes. To read it you would never know that black people existed in southern Missouri, that the area was still a hotbed of post–Civil War resentments, that the Cold War was raging, and that World War II had taken place. The novel exists in a timeless world of seasons and of girls coming of age, love their greatest concern, with earning a living teaching school or giving music lessons a distant second. The Soames family thinks only of religion, love, nature, and sometimes music. They are American innocents in spite of their lustiness, quite untainted by the compromises of American history. The novel is neither liberal nor conservative — more, perhaps, tribal, in the sense that while the characters do make authentic connections, these connections are only within their own family rather than with anyone outside (except for Jessica, who moves away). In addition, the world is repeatedly redeemed, not by human action but by natural renewal, as symbolized by the nightly flowering of the moonflower vine (a relative of the morning glory). In the end, none of the characters comes to an understanding of Christianity or Christian precepts — doctrines of fundamentalist Protestant religion don’t seem to fit what they have learned — nor do they embrace their sexuality (though they seem to learn that they can’t get rid of it), but they do come to an understanding of the nature and purpose of forgiveness, and each character achieves a feeling that happiness, even fleeting happiness, is to be recognized and cherished. Several American novels on our list — The House of the Seven Gables, The Awakening, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Moonflower Vine — gain considerable dramatic tension from secrets that the characters are required to keep to maintain respectability in the towns where they live. The conflict between who a character feels herself or himself to be and what is acceptable to friends and colleagues is as constant a theme in American novels as, say, a character’s relationship to the state is in German novels. In exploring the romantic secrets of each member of a single family, Carleton offers something of a catalog of ideas on the subject of secret desires — The Moonflower Vine could have been a scandalous novel. But by presenting each character’s desire as a moral dilemma for that character, and especially by consistently depicting the bonds of love that eventually hold the family together, she succeeds in arousing both empathy and sympathy in the reader. At the same time that she portrays the abnormality of her family, she demonstrates that abnormality is always more complex than it appears on the surface.

· H. C. Gardiner, America, 2 February 1963

The amazing thing about the people who come so alive in this novel — it is called a novel, but despite the author’s statement that it is mostly fiction one cannot escape the feeling that it is all recaptured by a loving memory — is the fact that they had so much fun, uder circumstances that seemed to promise anything but fun…. Perhaps the second most remarkable aspect of the book is that this sense of serenity is achieved without sliding into Pollyanish sentiment.

· M. Moriarty, Best Sellers, 1 February 1963

Whether or not it will be a critical success, The Moonflower Vine is a well done picture of a more innocent, simpler era, when sin was sin and duty was duty and God in His heaven was acknowledged and worshipped.

· Barbara Fielding,, 2003

Jetta Carleton’s autobiographical novel captures the mood and times of midwestern rural life and brings it to life. From the idyllic, heartwarming beginnings springs dark and hidden truths; truths only the reader will see and know. The gentle revelations of the secrets, fears and heartaches that drive these wonderful and endearing characters is storytelling at its best.

Find Out More

· Rosina Lippi, who writes under the nom de plume Sara Donati, on reading The Moonflower Vine:

I first read this book in German when I was living in Austria. I loved it so much I tracked down the original English, and ever since I’ve been re-reading it on a regular basis. Whenever I see a copy in a used bookstore I buy it to give away. This is the story of a farm family in Missouri, set in the early part of the last century. Each section is told from the perspective of a different family member. This is a beautifully written, carefully constructed story that I have never tired of over the years.

· A page on the Lightning Tree Press, the small press Jetta Carleton set up with her husband in New Mexico in 1973

Locate a Copy

The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962

This Slavery, by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

Chris Lynch writes to recommend the 1925 novel This Slavery by the British writer Ethel Carnie Holdsworth.

In Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory, Bridget Fowler writes of This Slavery:

It centres on women workers in a Lancashire textile mill. Their experience is conveyed through the story of two sisters: Hester, who enters a loveless marriage to a mill master, and Rachel, who becomes a strike leader. At the climax, as the workers starve in a bitter strike, Hester unexpectedly retails news gained confidentially from another employer; thus, despite her own death, she helps the strike succeed. In this novel, it is a woman, Rachel, who criticises the economistic narrowness of many trade unionists, and Rachel who reads Capital and dreams. Less lyrical but more compelling than her dreams are the novel’s small realist details, of women’s tiredness, for example, or of hunger: “We seem to do nothing but talk and think about grub…. Our bodies get in the way. We’re a set of pigs kept grovelling in the ground.” Or again, in ironical reflections on workers’ endurance: “To starve quietly, unobtrusively and without demonstration, is perhaps the greatest art civilisation has forced on the masses.”

Chris adds, “I have been collecting her books for a couple of years now (a very difficult task as they are almost impossible to find). I plan to contact publishers to see if any of them would be interested in reprinting this remarkable book.” A quick check through the obvious sources (,, and produced a sum total of two books by Carnie-Holdsworth, neither of them This Slavery.

Chris has written an article on Ethel Carnie Holdsworth on Wikipedia. Two others articles on her life and work, one by Dr. Kathleen Bell and one by Nicola Wilson can be found on, a site about the history of the cotton milling industry in Blackburn, England, once known as the weaving capitol of the world.

He also mentions that Trent Editions will republish her last novel, All on Her Own (1929) in 2007.

Three Recommendations from Chris Kearin

Chris Kearin writes to suggest a few neglected books he’s discovered:

· Flying to Nowhere, by John Fuller

Photo of John FullerA very short novel that got lost in the shuffle when first published because it had the misfortune to appear at roughly the same time as Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a much longer, louder, and easier to read book with which it has some superficial things in common (monks, murder, Middle Ages). Fuller is the British poet, not to be confused with the American writer of the same name. The book begins with an amazingly vivid description of an unsuccessful attempt to land a horse on a rocky island from a small boat, and the writing remains at the same level throughout, even as the story gets stranger and stranger.

· The useful plants of the island of Guam, or, to give its full title, Contributions from the United States National Herbarium Vol. IX: The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam; with an Introductory Account of the Physical Features and Natural History of the Island, of the Character and History of its People, and of their Agriculture, by William Edwin Safford

Kearin writes about this book on his “Dreamers Rise” blog. There, he quotes the botanist Edgar Anderson, who wrote of Useful Plants:

Under this modest title is hidden one of the world’s most fascinating volumes. The author, who apparently came as close to knowing everything about everything as is possible in modern times, was professionally both a botanist in the United States Department of Agriculture and a lieutenant in the United States Navy. In this latter capacity he served for a year as assistant governor of Guam. In somewhat over four hundred pages he not only takes up all the native and crop plants of any importance, but also touches on such subjects as the history of pirates in the Pacific, how floating seeds led to the discovery of ocean currents, the grammar of the native language, the actual anatomical means by which stinging plants attain their devilish ends, and the aspect of the various kinds of tropical vegetation on the island, each of these digressions being developed with finicky regard for accuracy and appropriately embellished with authoritative footnotes.

Oliver Sacks also discovered this odd classic, and wrote of it in his The Island of the Colorblind:

I had thought, from the title, that it was going to be a narrow, rather technical book on rice and yams, though I hoped it would have some interesting drawings of cycads as well. But its title was deceptively modest, for it seemed to contain, in its four hundred densely packed pages, a detailed account not only of the plants, the animals, the geology of Guam, but a deeply sympathetic account of Chamorro life and culture, from their foods, their crafts, their
boats, their houses, to their language, their myths and rituals, their philosophical and religious belief.

All in all, it sounds like one of the few things the Government Printing Office has published you’d care to take to a desert island. Most of Safford’s other publications were articles for scientific journals. Among them is the intriguingly titled, “The Potato of Romance and Reality,” from the Journal of Heredity, which can be downloaded for Oxford Journals’ outrageous single-article price of $23.

· Los autonautas de la cosmopista (o, Un viaje atemporal París-Marsella), by Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlap

A travel journal, done in mock-heroic style, of a six-week journey along the autoroute from Paris to Marseilles. Unfortunately it’s never been translated, but I did post a sample here.

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

I. The General Is Older Than the Capital

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World of the Thibaults, by Roger Martin du Gard

Cover from first U.S. edition of 'The Thibaults'Reader Chris Leggette recommends Roger Martin du Gard’s family saga, Les Thibault, a series of seven novels published in the U.S. in two volumes: The Thibaults and Summer 1914, and then in a two-volume set, The World of the Thibaults. Clifton Fadiman included it in his compilation, Reading I’ve Liked, but as you can see from his New Yorker review below, the work held second candle in his eyes to Jules Romains’ Men of Good Will. Contemporary reviewers such as Mary McCarthy and Malcolm Cowley also had mixed feelings about The World of the Thibaults — ironically, feelings not dissimilar to those expressed by other reviewers by the time Romains reached the end of his own saga.

A few years ago, Timothy Crouse, best known for his comic account of the press coverage of Nixon’s second presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus, helped translate and revive Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort, a massive novel Martin deu Gard left unfinished at his death. Its release in 2000 led John Weightman to write in The New York Review of Books,

The 1930s now seem so far away that many members of the younger generation outside France, and even in France, may never have come across the works of Roger Martin du Gard. Yet, in his day, he was famous enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but even that international accolade is no guarantee of survival. Witness the case of René-François Sully-Prudhomme, the very first winner in 1901, who is now no more than a name in the reference books. But Iremember how eagerly we read Martin du Gard’s novels before the war. Now, having looked at them again, together with this unfinished, posthumous volume, which has taken so long to appear in English, I feel that they have a permanent quality. They may seem rather staid and old-fashioned compared to the overpowering intellectual and emotional fluency of Proust, but they have the merit of defining a certain kind of average Frenchness — that is, bourgeois anti-bourgeoisism — which existed strongly at the time, although it may have evaporated to some extent since then, just as Englishness is no longer what it was in those days.

Other Views on The World of the Thibaults

· Andre Gide, letter to Roger Martin du Gard, 17 March 1936

I do not want … the weekly mail to leave tomorrow without telling you of the immense joy, the profound satisfaction I felt after the first reading [of Summer 1914, the seventh volume of Les Thibault]. It was a difficult contest; you have won….

Dear friend, I believe that this book is destined to create a stir, to have a considerable success. Everything is said in it that needed to be said, with a perfect honesty in its presentation–so that even the most stubborn reader’s deepest convictions will be shaken…. Yes, I believe that this book has a considerable power of persuasion aside from its literary merits. But it is as a man of letters that I want to speak to you, and I can find nothing to say but praise. Some chapters are tours de force of skill and precision. You have written nothing better.

· Mary McCarthy, The New Republic, 26 April 1939

The machinery of the plot works with extreme awkwardness. It is, an a sense, a novel about time, yet the author’s only notion of conveying time’s passage is, after each gap of several years, to have two characters tell each other the events of the interim….

But The World of the Thibaults is not simply the study of a French family. Martin du Gard has taken Tolstoy for a model and, with this family for a center, has attempted to show a society as a whole. Thus the work contains, besides the usual elements of a novel, generous trial samples of modern science, modern literature, modern art, practical politics, religion, war, socialism and pacifism. The difficulty is, however, that these topics have not really been woven into the novel, but merely added to it. The result is not so much a novel of history as a historical grab-bag.

For all its encyclopedic qualities, The World of the Thibaults is not an important book. It is, however, a genuine literary curiosty. Industry and seriousness have been called in to substitute for talent, and the result is a work whose learned obtuseness is, so far as I know, unequaled in fiction.

· Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic, 10 March 1941

With glazed eyes and swollen lids, I have just finished The World of the Thibaults in the complete English translation — both volumes and all the 1,900 pages. It isn’t fair to blame Roger Martin du Gard, a kindly man and a conscientious writer, for the dull headache that comes from reading too much. Yet I wonder whether this business of writing oversize novels hasn’t been carried much too far, since Marcel Proust first set the fashion. Is there any human subject that can’t be treated in a hundred or at most two hundred tliousand words, instead of spinning the story out to nearly a million? Is there any reason for believing that a novel published in eleven books — as this one was in France — is eleven times or even twice as good as a novel in one reasonably large volume with a beginning, a middle and an end, and not too many extraneous incidents?

Isn’t it possible that giantism in fiction is quite as unhealthy a symptom as giantism in business or architecture or armies? The least one can say is that the author who writes an inordinately long novel is like the orator who delivers an inordinately long speech; he is disregarding the capacity for attention of his audience. Either the book must be leisurely sampled over a period of .weeks, in which case the reader is likely to have forgotten the beginning before reaching the end; or else it must be read as a reviewer’s chore, hour after hour and day after day, in which case it leaves one with aching eyes and perhaps a blurred picture of the author’s intentions. And the author, too, is running a risk. Any man who sets out to write a 2,000-page novel is betting against fate and human experience that he can remain unchanged until the book is finished….

Summer 1914 is the work for which Martin du Gard will be remembered and for which he deserved to receive the Nobel Prize. In the easy-running translation by Stuart Gilbert, it can be enjoyed almost as much as in the author’s pedestrian French. Yet it would have been better, I think, if it had been written quite independently, without regard to the family affairs of the Thibaults and the Fontanins. Standing alone, without seven other books as an introduction and without an epilogue, it would be even more impressive. It could then be read for itself, and with clearer eyes.

· Clifton Fadiman, The New Yorker, 1941

In 1939 there was published in this country The World of the Thibaults a book containing rather less than half of his Thibault series. Now, bearing the title, Summer 1914, the remainder is available in another book. The entire series, under the general heading, “The World of the Thibaults,” thus appears in two thick volumes, equivalent to eleven in the original French. Those who have not read “The Thibaults” may find “Summer 1914” somewhat puzzling. It is advisable to tackle the whole job or not tackle it at all. That means a total of 1,879 pages, but they are 1,879 pages that offer you a solid, almost tangible experience. They are pages for grown-ups….

In “The Thibaults” the emphasis was all on individuals and their relation to society; in Summer 1914 society itself almost ursurps the canvas. For me, there is a certain loss of power and originality….

But when du Gard concentrates he approaches magnificence: in his study of the Fontanin family, in his agonizingly perceptive account of the love between Anne and Antoine, in his heartbreaking record of the slow decay of the mind and body of Antoine. As a whole, The World of the Thibaults is unquestionably an impressive work. That world is now dead, its final hours having lasted from 1918 to 1939…. Someone had to write its epitaph, and for that epitaph to be clear it was necessary to go back to the roots of the Thibault world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was du Gard’s task, to which he has now devoted two decades of his life. The task, one presenting almost insuperable difficulties, has been presented with honor…. You may not read him with absorption; you will read him with respect.

· Time magazine, 24 February 1941

In 1937 when Martin du Gard’s award was announced, the question arose why — if the Nobel committee wanted to pick a long, social French novel — it did not crown Jules Romains’ longer, as yet unfinished Men of Good Will. The question is still valid. Both works cover the same period, both are fraught with the desire of idealists to stop the war, both are written with objectivity approaching self-effacement. The general impression left by Men of Good Will is rich, vascular, forthright; of Les Thibault nervous, sinewy, tangled. Men of Good Will chronicles a whole society, Les Thibault a family and its immediate connections. Romains cut into French life at scores of levels, pulled out hundreds of characters. They are alive, but they are polished as flawlessly as marble. Some are almost too pat to his purpose.

Martin du Gard’s people have the puzzling surfaces of real people whom he has studied closely but not entirely understood. At times their motivations stretch thin to the vanishing point, and their behavior seems perverse and arbitrary. But in some ways they are even more alive than Romains’ people. Doubtless Romains’ book is a greater work of art; but Les Thibault may be the better novel.

· Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays

Perhaps, in Martin du Gard’s eyes, the only guilty person is the one who refuses life or condemns people. The key words, the final secrets, are not in man’s possession. But man nevertheless keeps the power to judge and to absolve. Here lies the profound secret of art, which always makes it useless as propaganda or hatred…. Like any authentic creator, Martin du Gard forgives all his characters. The true artist, although his life may consist mostly of struggles, has no enemy.

· David Tylden-Wright, The Image of France: Studies in Contemporary French Literature, 1957

When in 1937 Roger Martin du Gard was awarded the Nobel Prize for Summer 1914, the seventh part of The Thibaults, it seemed a fitting reward to mark not only the completion of a mammoth and magnificent achievement but also a life or remarkably disinterested devotion to literature…. He has never attempted or wished to be an exceptional writer in the sense of shunning the duller, more ordinary side of life. Rather the reverse. his aim, it has always seemed, has been to reflect life itself, with its tedium, its limitations and its complexity, not raised on the pedestal of a particular point of view but life in the round, in the rough, as it appears to, and affects, ordinary people such as, for example, the Thibaults.

· Masterplots, Revised Second Edition

The eight-part novel cycle The World of the Thibaults was inspired by the author’s desire to emulate for his own time the accomplishment of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In fact, the work’s style and pessimism is closer to Roger Martin du Gard’s countryman Gustave Flaubert than to the Russian author. Although the historical background of the action in the novel is of interest, it is the powerful depiction of human relationships that constitutes the book’s chief merit.

In many respects, the most influential character in the vast novel is old Monsieur Thibault, the patriarch of the Thibault family. A complete hypocrite, he announces to the world that his conscience is clear, yet he is concerned only with his own convenience and peace. Cloaking his craving for power and authority under a guise of fervent religiosity and philanthropy, he actually has no sense of either religion or generosity. He possesses no love for his sons, demanding only that they be completely docile. Any contradiction or sign of individuality throws him into a rage. For all of his big gestures, he is a petty man. Everyone automatically hides feelings from him, for one never can tell what his reaction might be. He forces his family into hypocrisy. By avoiding all introspection, Monsieur Thibault unknowingly condemns himself to a life of petty pride and cruelty, a life so alone that he must find his only consolation in public honors and the “knowledge” that he is a “good man.” As he grows older, however, the fact of approaching death terrifies him increasingly, and he desperately seeks some kind of immortality, as if he subconsciously realizes how futile his busy life actually has been.

The volumes of the series are crowded with fascinating, well-drawn secondary characters. These include Monsieur Chasle, the middle-aged secretary of Monsieur Thibault, who is suddenly revealed to have his own life, his own preoccupations, fears, and miseries. The reader becomes aware of many other lives lurking in the background, and beyond them still others. In the volume entitled The Springtime of Life, the adult Daniel and Jacques experience the bohemian life of Paris, encountering characters such as Mother JuJu, the retired prostitute, and many colorful girls of the streets, as well as the rich Jew Ludwigson, who sells Daniel’s pictures. Earlier, in a powerful scene at young Jenny’s sickbed, the Rasputin-like pastor Gregory chants and prays and condemns with equal fury and somehow saves the girl’s life….

The graphic realism of the sickbed and death scenes, and, in the seventh volume, Summer 1914, the dramatic buildup of the war, as the European nations are swept relentlessly to destruction, are impressive achievements. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that as the focus of the novel expands, the author never loses sight of the individuals who make up the world. For this vast, panoramic survey of society and the meaning of life, as well as for his earlier novel of the Dreyfus affair and atheism, Jean Barois (1913), Martin du Gard was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1937.

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Constructions, by Michael Frayn

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  1. For as much of the time as possible, we shut ourselves up in our notations and refuse to come out. It’s when we are forced to observe and think afresh that the discrepancy between this simplicity and that complexity overwhelms us.
  2. By our inmost animal nature we are readers. We read the world around us continuously, obsessively, necessarily. Reading our notations is a late specialization of that skill.
  3. Our reading of the world and our mastery of notations are intimately linked. We read the world in the way that we read a notation — we make sense of it, we place constructions upon it. We see in the way that we speak, by means of selection and simplification. I should like to end up by saying (gnomically, metaphorically) that we read the world by developing from it a kind of notation of itself. You see your hand by seeing it as a hand. You see the branches of the tree against the blueness of the sky by seeing that the branches of the tree are against the blueness of the sky. I say to you (in all the relative simplicity of the language notation), “The leaves on the tree are shaking in the wind,” and, given a context, you take the sense of this (directly — you don’t have to form a mental picture to understand what I say). There is an unremarked parallel between what you do here and what you do when you look at the tree yourself, in all the immeasurable complexity of the natural world, and (without formulating any thought in words) take the sense that its laves are shaking in the wind.

  4. We are significance-seeking organisms.
    We seek out significance from our environment as we seek out food. We crave meaning as we crave warmth.
    If we didn’t find significance and meaning we shouldn’t find food or warmth, either.

  5. We look at the taciturn, inscrutable universe, and cry, “Speak to me!”

Editor’s Comments

  1. The complexity of the universe is beyond expression in any possible notation.

    Lift up your eyes. Not even what you see before you can ever be fully expressed.

    Close your eyes. Not even what you see now.

This is the first of the 309 statements — most just a few sentences long, none more than a few paragraphs — that comprise Constructions. Published just a year after Sweet Dreams, Constructions was practically guaranteed to vanish with barely a trace soon after its few copies hit the book stores. Works of philosophy written by philosophers go almost unnoticed outside a few academic circles, and works of philosophy written by non-philosophers rarely even qualify for that, unless they’re a once a generation fluke like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (published, coincidentally, within weeks of Constructions). The problem is that such a work isn’t “serious” enough in the eyes of the philosophy professionals, but it’s too serious for the reading public. Combine these drawbacks with a completely unsexy cover (nothing but text!) and an obscure publishing house, and neglect is assured.

Cover of the first edition of 'Constructions'I must admit that I only special-ordered my copy of Constructions, back in the late 1970s when Wildwood House still had a few copies in stock, in hopes that it might have something of the flavor of Sweet Dreams. To that extent, I was confirming a view of the reading public Frayn himself offered a few decades later:

The only advice that I could think of giving to a young writer is to write the same thing over and over again, changing things very slightly and going on delivering it until people accept it. Very simply, people want reliability and continuity in a writer. If you buy cornflakes you want cornflakes.

Well, Constructions is most definitely NOT the cornflakes of Sweet Dreams, at least not at first glance. And so, after thumbing through a few pages, I stuck it into the bookcase. And aside from a dozen transfers to and from moving boxes, there it remained for the next 25 years.

It was after reading Ray Monk’s wonderful biography of Wittgenstein that I finally gave Constructions another try. I knew I’d read something similar to Wittgenstein’s precisely numbered and aphoristic philosophical statements, and some digging into the unpacked book boxes soon produced it. The pages might have been a bit weathered, like aged newsprint, but my copy was just as crisp and undiscovered as it was upon delivery.

It will not serve Constructions very well with professional philosophers to describe it as a poor man’s substitute for Wittgenstein, but in my case, that’s what it was. I couldn’t get past 3 point something in Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Yet I think Frayn’s opening construction above is not that far removed from Wittgenstein’s attempt “to draw a limit to thought — or rather, not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts….” I also have a feeling Wittgenstein would not disagree with Frayn’s answer to the question, “Is there an order in the universe?”: “There are orders. And disorders” [#233].

Like Wittgenstein, Frayn sees language as the key with which both we unlock the world and lock off the world that falls outside language:

  1. You can translate out of the German, or out of the Aramaic. But only into another language! Not into the world of which the language treats!
    Moving from one myth to another is in some ways a little like translating between languages. A particular language has its own idioms, its own voice; a topography which favours certain ways of speaking, and makes others awkward.

These differences ensure there is always a certain amount of miscommunication and confusion inherent in any exchange between people of different tongues. This tendency towards miscommunication is one of Frayn’s favorite themes, going back to his earliest novels (The Tin Men and The Russian Interpreter). “Even if lions could speak, we couldn’t understand them,” Wittgenstein once wrote. For Frayn, one doesn’t have to leave our own species to encounter this problem.

Construction #248 offers an illustration of this, one he would later develop into one of the major themes of his play, “The Benefactors”:

The people who move us from myth to myth are like the reformers who hoped to cure all social ills by taking people out of the slums, which were the context of their diseases and crimes, and installing them in new, disease- and crime-free housing estates. It was a terrible blow to discover that these estates in their turn developed a characteristic pattern of social disorder.

“What is your aim in philosophy? To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle,” Wittgenstein wrote in #309 (another coincidence) of his Philosophical Investigations. Frayn is skeptical of mankind’s ability to escape the fly-bottle. Our fascination with the truth that lies hidden at the heart of things is, in his view, one of the handicaps that guarantees our continued captivity:

  1. … It’s true that in life people sometimes do surprise us at such moments [of stress and crisis], by revealing flaws or virtues we had not known about before….
    … But in most cases the truth that is revealed about us by our behavior in a crisis is just this: the truth about our behavior in a crisis.

Which leads him to this droll, quite un-Wittgenstein-ian parable:

  1. The secret police arrest us all. I, who have been a well-mannered and amusing guest at your dinner parties these past ten years, betray you as soon as they show me the electrodes. That bore Puling refuses, heroically.
    If ever we all get out again, don’t make the mistake of inviting him to your dinner parties instead of me.

To Frayn, the fly-bottle is what makes us human, rather than something else. We cannot get outside it:

  1. What would we be like if we put all our roles off, and emerged from behind them? We smile and stretch, reborn, untrammelled: Now we are playing the role of one who has put his roles off.

Frayn is nothing if not an elegant writer. Elegant in the sense that the term is used in mathematics: balanced, spare, aesthetically pleasing. Take the efficiency with which he encapsulates these paradoxes:

  1. Our complexity is such that we can understand many complex things. But not our own complexity!

  2. A capacious suitcase. We can get everything we want in it: clothes, books, a folding table, a bed, a bicycle…. This suitcase is infinitely flexible! The only thing we can’t get in is the suitcase itself.

I suppose that a professional philosopher could easily demonstrate that most of Frayn’s constructions are derivatives — and low-quality ones — of statements made by Wittgenstein and other thinkers from Pascal to A.J. Ayer. So I feel I am in no position to justify the merits of Constructions as philosophy. Recent scientific research does suggest that there is some truth to Frayn’s statement that “We read the world in the way that we read a notation” than he may have suspected. Mark Changizi and other scientists, as reported in The American Naturalist, found that “… visual signs have been culturally selected to match the kinds of conglomeration of contours found in natural scenes because that is what we have evolved to be good at visually processing.” In other words, it appears our notations themselves derive from the way we read the world.

But Constructions couldn’t make the grade as “serious” philosophy in 1974, so it probably stands little better chance of making it on this basis today. It may not help us know how to think or what to think, but it certainly does stimulate us to think.

“[T]he glory of writing is its dependence upon the world — the necessity it puts us in of coming back again and again to confront the complexity of what lies before our eyes” [#308]. And to that extent, this slight sliver volume, long out of print, qualifies as a glorious book. A dip into just a few of its pages always serves to remind me of the complexity what lies before my eyes; my own limitations in grasping it — but also my infinite opportunities to try to. Having finally worked through its unnumbered pages, I find I turn to it often to remind myself of the never-ending paradox of trying to understand the world around me.

Thirty-two years after Constructions, Frayn published another foray into the world of philosophy. At four times the length of Constructions, The Human Touch has already managed to attract more reviews and cross the Atlantic, with a U.S. edition coming out in early 2007, but this is certainly due to the growth in Frayn’s reputation since 1974.

Other Comments

· Jonathan Raban, “Is God a Novelist,” Sunday Times, 3 November 1974

These 309 numbered homilies, reveries, and speculations make nods of acknowledgement to Wittgenstein and Pascal, but they are actually the secret marginalia of a novelist who understands how the world works because he has created worlds too.

· Philip Toynbee, The Observer, 20 October 1974

Constructions is a fascinating and endlessly thought-provoking little book of a kind which is so difficult to categorize that it might almost be described as unique. It is poetical; it is philosophical (yet almost anti-philosophizing!); and it is a genuine contribution to psychology…. This is not only an unusually cheerful book; it is also a witty one.

· Jonathan Bennett, Times Literary Supplement, 20 June 1975

It is a philosophical treatise, a wrestle with a set of identifiably philosophical problems, and sometimes the method of sober, prose argument is used in it. More often, though, it works with aphorisms, jokes, metaphors, analogies, questions: the final effect of the work is enlightenment, which is comparable with what linear argument can produce; but the means of its production are more like poetry than prose and there is also something special about what is produced. For example, when Mr. Frayn remarks that “A man dominates his environment by establishing a unifying principle — himself,” and compares this with “a tank laying its own tracks across the wilderness,” something is achieved, for me anyway, which lies outside the reach of the prosaic means of academic philosphy.

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Constructions, by Michael Frayn
London: Wildwood House, 1974

A Talk about Neglected Books

Source: Syracuse University Library News

On Friday, December 1, 2006, Nicholas Birns will give a talk entitled “When Neglected Books Are Revived: The Cases of William Godwin and Dawn Powell” at the E. S. Bird Library at Syracuse University.

Using William Godwin’s 1793 novel Caleb Williams and the novels of the 20th-century American novelist Dawn Powell as test cases, this talk will explore what it means for a book to be lost and to be revived, the different ways that revived books are received in academia and in the general literary culture, and the nature of revivals themselves as cultural phenomena. The talk will close by drawing lessons from these cases for considering “revivals of neglected books.”

Birns is on the faculty of Eugene Lang College, The New School, in New York City.

Men of Good Will, by Jules Romains

27 books published in 14 volumes in English between 1932 and 1946

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Editor’s Comments

Cover of the first U.S. volume of 'Men of Good Will'One of the longest novels ever written, Men of Good Will seemed to some, at least, to be one of the greatest creative works of the twentieth century. Clifton Fadiman was perhaps its most enthusiastic critic in the U.S., but he stopped reviewing the series well before its last volume, so we have no record of how well Romains’ art sustained his enthusiasm until the end.

Of the 14 English volumes of the work, only Verdun has held its head up against the changing tides of criticism and readership, coming back into print within the last ten years as one of the titles in the Prion Lost Treasures series. For the rest, the consensus today is that Romains (in the words of one bibliographer) “went too many rounds with Tolstoy and Marcel Proust.” Still, Romains’ efforts deserve more than entry stub he’s currently earned on Wikipedia.

Jules RomainsFor my own part, I have to admit that I’ve cracked The Sixth of October and Verdun a few times without getting past the third chapter. Details there are galore. Whether there is a narrative energy to pull a reader through them is another matter. But it would be unjustly neglectful on my own part to put this website together and fail to give Men of Good Will a spot that gathers together more words about this magnum opus than currently appear anywhere else on the Internet.

Other Comments

• from Captain Nicholas, a novel by Hugh Walpole, 1934

He had been brought up, like every intellectual young man of his time, on Proust, and now he had been reading the four volumes of M. Jules Romains’ endless novel. The fourth volume in its cheap French paper was lying beside his bed now. That was exactly what his life seemed to him at the moment. Bits and pieces. He had never supposed that he could write, but now it occurred to him that he could write a very good novel indeed about himself in this present manner. Very easy. No wonder so many of his friends were writing novels! Not of course that he could be as clever as M. Romains, but he need not worry about arrangement or form.

• Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic, 29 January 1940 (review of Verdun)

Cover of the first U.S. volume of 'Verdun'It is true that I haven’t read every one of its 4,256 pages, having sometimes been overcome with yawns in the middle of Jerphanion’s arch and soulful letters to his fellow student Jallez. On the other hand, I have read every word of Vols. I, II, III, IV (in French and English), VIII, and the greater part of Vols. V, VI, and VII. The eight volumes
stand before me as I write — 612 cubic inches of reading matter, fully indexed, with more than half again as much to follow. Yet I can’t convince myself that this is a work
that belongs somewhere between the “Comedie Humaine” and “Remembrance of Things Past.” I can’t convince myself that it ranks much above ordinary novels in any quality except sheer size.

Of course its size in itself is a real achievement, and one for which I didn’t give Romains proper credit when I wrote about the novel some years ago. I doubt that there are a
dozen novelists in the world today who could plan such a gargantuan work, then patiently carry out the plan, at the rate of approximately five hundred pages a year. I doubt that there are half a dozen novelists who could give such a complete picture of their nation; Men of Good Will is almost an encyclopedia of modern French life, from aristocrats, financiers, commanding generals and Cabinet ministers down to slum rats, murderers and pimps.

• Jack Ferry, from The Ubyssey, the student newspaper of the University of British Columbia, 1942

To most of you the name of Clifton Fadiman signifies the program “Information Please”. He is much more to me. Fadiman is responsible for introducing me to one of the great experiences of my life, and certainly the greatest experience I have had in literature. For that I love him. Because to me a thing may be good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, but still desirable if it is a memorable experience. You see, he introduced me to Jules Romains’ Men of Good Will.

It all started last year with one of those Christmas books, which in this case was Fadiman’s Reading I’ve Liked. Halfway through it I came to the statement: “Jules Romains is the greatest of collective novelists, and to my mind one of the greatest of living novelists. His Men of Good Will is the most gigantic unified effort in the whole world’s literature.” This was a challenge. But it took this to cinch it for me: “Romain endeavors in Men of Good Will to portray not characters, but ‘life in the twentieth century, our own life as modern men.’ Obviously he must choose a terrain: it is France from 1908 to, one may presume, the present, or very close to it. He is writing, he says, one single novel, and its plot has been drafted in advance.”

Cover of the first U.S. volume of 'Escape in Passion'Once I returned to Varsity after Christmas I lost no time in starting upon volume one. In this book alone I met about sixty characters, most of whom appeared throughout the series. On and on I went. I paused for the Easter exams; and then while I sought volume four, missing at UBC, at the Public Library. Through most of the summer 1 read volume after volume. Each day, clutching my book, I passed the guard at that west coast aircraft factory. I think he thought I was smuggling blueprints. Each volume encompasses two books of the original French version. I read through The Sitxth of October, Passion’s Pilgrims, The Proud and the Meek, The Depths and the Heights, and so on. I followed two young college students through the problems of early manhood. I saw the birth of socialism in France. I saw the automobile-oil combines emerge. I learned a system for writing poetry. I met a man who could stop his heart action. I learned how it felt when a child was born—from the point of view of the baby. I saw a young man search for a faith. I stepped into the inner sanctums of Freemasons and Roman Catholics. I watched four crooks float a bond issue that ruined a million simple Frenchmen. I saw the Great War come, and learned why Verdum (like Stalingrad) could hold — one of the most magnificent passages ever written. I challenge anyone to deny it. And now — I’ve finished the ten volumes completed to date. Over 8,000 pages. There is no question about it “being worth it” In those pages so it seemed, I learned as much as I had during all of the past eighteen years.

Yes, parts of it were dull — just like parts of a summer sunset are dull. Here’s a suggestion: If you want to read about the most important things that have happened since 1900 without discussing dates, and treaties, and agreements, and economic trends, and social trends as such, and still digest all these things — then give this great work a try.

• Denis Saurat, Modern French Literature, 1870-1940, 1946

Romains’ poetic gift is at the bottom of all that is successful in his immense production, but it is obscured and may be unnoticed under the mass of his writing. In the novel his truly amazing effort in Men of Good Will, a series of twenty-seven volumes, relegates to the second rank, as far as quantity in one novel goes, even Balzac himself, who does not connect his pieces so well, or Zola, whose artificiality in construction is too obvious nowadays.

Yet is Jules Romains’ series the really great this is the description of the battle of Verdun in two volumes which are truly an epic presentation of war. The description of the superhuman silence that descended on the front before the world grashed in the great German attack will have a permanent place in literature; it is an achievement of imagination rendered possible by the absence of the writer from the field of battle, which permits the deployment into genius of his capacity for being there in spirit.

Two or three volumes on Quinette raise the detective novel to a height which perhaps that kind of writing does not deserve, and enrich it by the annexation of Gide’s “gratuitous crime.” The description of the mentality and intrigues of professional literary men rivals Lost Illusions of Balzac (not the best Balzac, it is true). Every type of reader will find something in this extraordinary series.

Time magazine, 2 December 1946

Put out more flags; this is the end.

Jules Romains’ colossal super-novel, Men of Good Will, has at last ground to a wordy stop, after 14 volumes (the original French runs to 27), some 7,500 pages, and about 1,000 characters.

The most grandiose literary project of a generation, introduced to the U.S. public more than a dozen years ago, Men of Good Will has been admired from a safe distance by many, praised to the skies by a few, actually read in its entirety by still fewer. It stands as a monument to the almost incredible industry and endurance of Novelist Romains and his readers. A vast, inchoate panorama, as broad as all Europe and 25 years long, its net effect is more nearly that of a giant notebook than of a novel.

Many of the individual chapters are subtly, brilliantly managed; here & there (as in Volume VIII, entitled Verdun) they blend into a more or less related whole. But ordinarily Author Romains moves his characters about by whim or wind, endows his chance encounters, political musings, philosophic sermons, fancy seductions with no more apparent interrelation than that of news stories in the daily press.

Author Romains once explained that the grand strategy of Men of Good Will was to “reflect a whole generation.” That it does, as faithfully, as arbitrarily and almost as indiscriminately as a mirror set up in a public square.

Vercors, Les Lettres Francaise, 30 August 1972

Men of Good Will is an extraordinary work, an extraordinary novel. It is not flawless — how could it have been? Pierre Daix said that after its twelfth volume, after the pinnacle of Verdun, it seems more or less to have taken a turn for the worse. Perhaps this is true — but not all that true. If the last volumes gave people at the time an impression of decline, I believe it was in part because these volumes were published a year apart, as if they were separate novels; thus, everyone expected what is generally expected of the latest novel by an author, something different from his preceding novel, be it a deepening or a revelation. But in this novel of twenty-seven volumes, since each book was the equivalent of a chapter, it was not intended to bring something different….

I decided to reread Men of Good Will, to reread this immense novel at one stretch from one end to the other — without being sure I would not stop on the way, especially toward the end, because I remembered my disappointment, during the war and afterward, in reading the last volumes.

This time I was not disappointed…. To be sure, the same shortcomings are there. While Romains is perhaps without equal in depicting male friendship, he is much less at ease in depicting love. The dialogue is dry and even a little awkward, both too sugary and too intellectual….

What had formerly seemed to me to be a rather haphazard structure now appeared a very rigorous design, and one executed by a master. And what a language, what rich expression and vocabulary! The style is perhaps not beautiful, not “elegant.” But it is better than beautiful. It is rich and full, with a precision and an apprpropriateness that have rarely been equaled and never surpassed.

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Below is the complete list of English volumes of Men of Good Will. Alfred A. Knopf published the series in 14 volumes, each, with the exception of the final one, incorporating two books as originally published in French. The volume titles link to listings of used copies available for purchase through

Volume 1: Men of Good Will

Book 1. The Sixth of October

Book 2. Quinette’s Crime

Volume 2: Passion’s Pilgrims

Book 3. Childhood’s Loves

Book 4. Eros in Paris

Volume 3: The Proud and the Meek

Book 5. The Proud

Book 6. The Meek

Volume 4: The World from Below

Book 7. The Lonely

Book 8. Provincial Interlude

Volume 5: The Earth Trembles

Book 9. Flood Warning

Book 10. The Powers That Be

Volume 6: The Depths and the Heights

Book 11. To the Gutter

Book 12. To the Stars

Volume 7: Death of a World

Book 13. Mission to Rome

Book 14. The Black Flag

Volume 8: Verdun

Book 15. The Prelude

Book 16. The Battle

Volume 9: Aftermath

Book 17. Vorge Against Quinette

Book 18. The Sweets of Life

Volume 10: The New Day

Book 19. The Promise of Dawn

Book 20. The World is Your Adventure

Volume 11: Work and Play

Book 21. Mountain Days

Book 22. Work and Play

Volume 12: The Wind is Rising

Book 23. The Gathering of Gangs

Book 24. Offered in Evidence

Volume 13: Escape in Passion

Book 25. The Magic Carpet

Book 26. Françoise

Volume 14: The Seventh of October

Book 27. The Seventh of October

Messiah: A Neglected Book by Gore Vidal

In a review of Gore Vidal’s new memoir, Point to Point Navigation, in the New York Review of Books Larry McMurtry drops his nominee for unjust neglect:

One reason I wouldn’t mind taking my near-complete holdings of Gore Vidal away to a far place is that there maybe I could just enjoy reading the writer and not always be having to ponder the Personality. There’s not much wrong with the Personality: he’s usually on the right side, and eloquently so. But the best of the writing is much more telling than the Personality—or any Personality, is likely to be. I refer particularly to Julian, to Homage to Daniel Shays, and to the excellent Messiah, a book that’s not remotely had its due.

Messiah deals with the rise of the next great religion of Western civilization, and the collapse and destruction of Christianity. It takes the form of the memoirs of Eugene Luther, a former apostle of Cavism. Founded by one John Cave, a California Undertaker, Cavism holds that it is a good thing to die–a holy thing, in fact, preferable to living. After the experience of the Jonestown massacre, David Koresh, and the Heaven’s Gate cult, Vidal’s distopia seems less fantastic than it did when the book was first published in 1954.

Oh, yes, and note the sly jokes: John Cave (J. C.) and Eugene Luther (Vidal’s full name is Eugene Luther Gore Vidal).

What’s fantastic is to imagine Myra Breckenridge or Duluth written by Luther Vidal.

The Visions of Nicholas Solon, by Monroe Engel

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'The Affairs of Nicholas Solon'Monroe Engel has been a novelist, critic, editor, and teacher for the last 50 years and I picked one of his novels at random to see what kind of work such a multi-talented writer could produce. The Visions of Nicholas Solon (retitled The Affairs of Nicholas Solon for its paperback release to match its suggestive cover) tells the story of a college instructor in his mid-thirties and his struggle to find happiness.

Let’s take a look at this poor guy’s lot: he’s managed to hold a paying job on the faculty of a small Eastern university without the benefit of any graduate degree purely through selecting a subject — Sanskrit — so rare that the usual prerequisites have been dispensed with. He’s married to an attractive younger woman who’s provided him with a house courtesy of her late father. He’s had a few affairs with the wives of other faculty members over the years prior to his marriage, and he may or may not be the father of a child by one of them. His father is ill as the story opens and dies soon afterwards, apparently at peace with the world in his last days. One of his best friends, something of a drifter, shows up, hangs around for a while, gets into a great funk, and eventually commits suicide. One of his old lovers leaves her abusive husband and decides to move to France to make a new start.

Overall, not the most uplifting of occurrences, but not that worse than befalls plenty of people in the course of a couple of years in mid-life. Yet throughout the book Solon wanders around in as if in a haze, not sure what to do, looking for some great revelation that will show him the way ahead. It never arrives, and in the end, he shuffles offstage as dull and clueless as he entered. I wanted to smack him for the self-absorbed ingrate he is and to kick myself for having wasted a couple of days reading about him.

For once, I wish I had read the reviews before giving this book a try:

· Booklist, 15 February 1959

A mature novel; the detached air of its major character limits is appeal, however.

· Samuel L. Mott, Library Journal, 15 March 1959

The book is written in the first person, and there are excellent introspective passages when Nicholes vainly tries to solve his confusion and hopelessness. But the author’s attempt to show how a group of completely lost, unhappy people slide deeper ito despair with drunken deaths and broken marriages, and drag Nicholas with them, fails to arouse either sympathy or disgust. Unfortunately, the story of these people … leaves the reader wondering if they were worth writing about at all.

· Robert Phelps, New York Herald Tribune, 19 April 1959

At least a half dozen of his marginal characters are so sharply realized that I wished Mr. Engel had written a novel about any one of them, instead of his rather too static narrator…. [I]n spite of these virtues, there is something missing — a vision, a focus, a selected pattern — which makes the books seem more like haphazard parts than a decisive whole.

· New Yorker, 28 March 1959

Mr. Engel writes in a slow, blunt, sour way…. An unbelievably lugubrious book.

“An unbelievably lugubrious book.” That about sums it up.

Perhaps Monroe Engel’s other novels are more deserving of another look, but I cannot recommend The Visions of Nicholas Solon to anyone — ever.

The Visions of Nicholas Solon, by Monroe Engel
New York: Sagamore Books, 1959

John Baker recommends The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Cover of early UK edition of 'The Hole in the Wall'

Novelist John Baker puts in a plug for this site in his own blog.

He also recommends a neglected book not yet listed here: Arthur Morrison’s The Hole in the Wall. Morrison, a novelist and short-story writer, is most often remembered for a series featuring the detective Martin Hewitt, but before that, he wrote several grim and violent books about life in the London slums. Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago are still in print, and you can find one of his Martin Hewitt collections at Project Gutenberg.



JFK’s Favorite Books

From Mrs. Kennedy, by Barbara Leaming:

Jackie, starved for conversation about books and ideas, was captivated when, early on, Jack gave her two of his favorite books as a way of explaining to her who he really was. None of the young men touted by her mother had ever done anything like that. One of these books was John Buchan’s Pilgrim’s Way (Memory Hold the Door in the U.K.), from which Jack had derived the credo that public life is “the worthiest ambition,” politics “the greatest and the most honorable adventure.” The other was Lord David Cecil’s The Young Melbourne, set in a world of complex and fascinating political men, the Whig aristocrats of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who moved constantly and determinedly between episodes of high political seriousness and those of intense pleasure.

Three Recommendations from Patrick Kurp

In his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp gives a nice plug for this site and offers three recommendations of his own:

The Pleasure of Ruins, by Rose Macaulay

A wide-ranging travel book, in which Macaulay considers ruins from Tintern Abbey in England to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Normandy Revisited, by A.J. Liebling

Liebling’s war reporting on DDay through the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944, a day he called “the happiest in my life.”

The Old Forest, by Peter Taylor

A 1986 PEN/Faulkner Award winner, this collection of stories by an author thought by some to be the finest American short story writer of the 20th century, tells of life in the South in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Voyage of Forgotten Men, by Frank Thiess

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Cover of the first U.S. edition of 'The Voyage of Forgotten Men'

The clock of world history showed October 14, 1904.

In order to celebrate the historic moment, the Czar had torn himself away from Tsarskoe Selo and from the cradle of his infant son, and had come to Libau to bid his fleet farewell. He was accompanied by a strange-looking, ascetic man, with clever eyes in a hard, cold, merciless face. The words that came from his thin lips were in strange contrast to his forbidding face; they were gentle and pious. He was one of the most powerful men in the empire, the Czar’s trusted adviser and the most hated man in all of Russian: Pobiedonostzeff, Chief Procurate of the Holy Synod. He had arrived to pray for the success of the expedition, and to assist the Czar, as supreme head of the church, in bestowing God’s blessings upon it.

There were flags in every window. People crowded the streets leading to the water front, climbed upon lantern poles, strained against the ropes. Galloping Cossacks cleared a path for exalted visitors, policemen shouted, women fainted, salutes were fired from the ships in the harbor and gaily-colored flags and pennants flew from every masthead.

It was an overcast, gray October day. The brassy strains of military bands cut sharply through the cold autumn air. The men who were lined up on board the ships to receive the Czar’s blessing stood motionless, filled with a numbing, speechless sorrow. The harbor was crowded with steam pinnaces and launches carrying relatives who were trying to get a last glimpse of their loved ones. But the blue-jackets who stood at attention high up on the armor-clad decks of the gray hulls avoided looking down at their wives and fathers and children. They did not wish to open up their hearts which they had sealed against further pain. They knew that they were going to their death. They wanted no tears, they did not wish to go again through the grief of parting. Life and hope were left behind. Thus they set ut — the men whom Russia had defeated.

At last the hour approached for which the whole world had been waiting. In every church throughout Russia prayers were offered up for the success of the expedition. The bells in Libau began to toll; and the emaciated ascetic in the black robes with the gold chain lifted his white claw-like hands to the forbidding sky to invoke the Lord’s blessing and protection upon this armada which was to bring defeat upon the unbelievers.

And beside him stood Czar Nicholas II, a pale, handsome man. His lips moved but no one could understand the words.

And finally a last greeting rumbled over the water as the guns fired their parting salute. Anchor chains rattled, hawsers were loosened and the screws began to turn. The bridges of the ships were lined with officers standing at salute, their eyes staring toward the land, toward the teeming masses of people, the cranes and houses and sheds and churches, and at the white face of the Czar who stood motionless, his hand raised to his cap, watching his fleet sail to make this dream come true. His figure was growing smaller and smaller, and became a tiny speck as the squadron moved out to sea.

Editor’s Comments

John Lukacs’ comment about The Voyage of Forgotten Men (titled Tsushima in the original German, led me to locate a copy and see how it compared with some of the other “nonfiction novels” he mentioned, including In Cold Blood and Ragtime. I must admit that I at first doubted Lukacs’ identification of the book as a novel. It reads as colorful history recounted by an omniscient narrator and has a bibliography of sources at the end. Nowhere in the U.S. edition is it called a novel, and the reviews of some U.S. critics at the time of its publication suggest that many readers of the English translation believed it was a work of history.

But the German edition clearly states right there in the title: Tsushima: Der Roman eines Seekrieges (The Novel of a Sea Battle). Knowing that this is a novel and not a strict work of history, one can accept more easily those aspects of the book that critics such as Lincoln Colcord complained about. For Thiess is a passionate writer who displays openly his loyalties and dislikes. The Czarist state is “lazy, corrupt, indolent”; the members of the growing revolutionary movements are “microbes,” “a malignant growth in the body of Russia.” His omniscience allows him to describe unrecorded scenes and conversations. He knows the thoughts of the leading figures and can even take a God’s eye view of the battle:

The truly terrifying character of a naval engagement lies in the fact that it is a clash of machine against machine. An airman flying high above the battle area would see only a seemingly calm procession of little ships, following one behind the other in accurately spaced distance, and emitting white puffs of smoke and darker clouds from belching funnels…. But he would not be able to see what is going on deep down in the bellies of the ships.

There the stokers are shoveling mountains of coal into the glowing furnaces, working as fast as they can — and yet they might be working thus on any peaceful day in May…. Fortunately they do not know what is going on above them. They cannot see the number of wounded carried to crowded sick-bays and improvised dressing stations.

Thiess begins his story with the onset of the Russo-Japanese War, the siege of Port Arthur and the entrapment and destruction of much of the Russian First Pacific Squadron. By a combination of general underestimation of Japanese military and naval strength and skills and a circle of advisers of dubious integrity, Czar Nicholas II rejects the obvious option of a negotiated settlement with Japan. Instead, he decides to assemble a Second Pacific Squadron, rushing new ships through the last stages of constructions and hastily patching up long-obsolete old ones, and to sent it on a twenty thousand mile voyage from the Baltic, down around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, and up past the Philippines and into the Sea of Japan. There, his naval experts tell him, the superior military abilities of the Russian fleet will wipe out the Japanese force and restore Russian control over Korea and Manchuria.

It was a plan gigantic as the country in which it originated, exhilarating in its fantastic, utopian appeal. Whether it could be carried through no one could tell. There were immense obstacles in the way of its achievement. Many naval experts throughout the world considered the whole enterprise an unparalleled piece of lunacy.

In reality, despite its ambitions, Russia was a minor naval power with a force as riddled with inadequacies and corruptions as every other element of the Czarist regime. Few officers, let along sailors, had the experience of a long ocean voyage. The ships were masses of imperfections: armor too thin, drafts too deep, guns and radios too short of range. Their shells had little penetrating power, their torpedoes failed, and their gunners had precious little experience with live firing. Anything but the most rudimentary battle tactics was beyond the limited skills of the crews.

And, Thiess adds, “Then there was the food and supply problem for a fleet of some forty ships which represented a floating city of ten thousand inhabitants. Would it be possible to take along sufficient ammunition, in addition to the other huge stores which were required for a twenty-thousand-mil trip without bases? And lastly, where was the leader for such a gigantic venture?”

With this, in walks the hero of the story, as told by Thiess. From the moment he is given command, Admiral Zinovii Rozhestvensky finds he has to fight two battles. Before he can take on Admiral Togo and his fleet in the Pacific, Rozhestvensky must first overcome the politics and corruption within the Russian government and the limitations of his officers, crews, and ships. Just to muster up an adequate force was challenge enough, but he had also to lead that force on an epic voyage despite the lack of any logistics infrastructure to sustain the fleet.

When Rozhestvensky does manage to assemble and prepare a fleet, two or three key ships are forced to drop back for repairs within the first 24 hours of sailing. Thanks to the many holes in Russia’s patchwork set of alliances, he has to avoid more ports than not. Despite an international incident over an accident off the coast of England, constant breakdowns and repairs, and severe weather, the expedition gets as far as the tiny port of Nosi Be in Madagascar before things fall apart.

There, to the existing supply problems is added an unraveling of the arrangements for coal refueling. As the fleet festers in the tropical port, the situation tips from the difficult into the absurd. The scene resembles something from a novel by Garcia-Marquez:

As the days lengthened into weeks, and the weeks into a month, disease and decay began to attack the ships themselves. These armor-clad giants had been the last reality in the African nightmare, the last tangible link with Russia. And now they themselves became afflicted with tropical sores. Sea moss grew on the hulls, and barnacles, algae and a slimy underwater flora clung like parasites to the bottoms and sides of the ships. On the deck, too, alien creatures had taken possession, increasing with tropical fecundity, and turning the warships into an ill-kept menagerie. The officers had brought animals of every description on board to while away their time, but soon these animals became the real masters of the ships. Screeching monkeys scurried up the masts, swung from the tackle and jumped about in the rigging. Multi-colored parrots perched on the rails, croaking and furiously beating their wings when anyone tried to approach them. Shiny lizards crawled out of the gun barrels and sat on the armored turrets.

After weeks of delay, a series of coaling rendezvouses are set up and the fleet resumes its journey. It evades a Japanese trap as it passes through the narrow straits around Singapore, endures a daily round of expulsions from the French Indochina port of Cam Ranh Bay, and finally takes on its last stores of coal before steaming up the Chinese coast towards the Japanese fleet. Waiting in a line ranged around the island of Tsushima between Korea and Japan, the Japanese — repaired, reinforced, and ready for the fight — have virtually all factors in their favor. Defeat, Rozhestvensky and his crews know, is inevitable.

Yet, as Thiess describes in a riveting account of the battle, the Russians fare better than the Japanese — or they — expect. For a moment early on, before his fleet’s inexperience with battle manouevres leads to a fatal error, it even looks possible that some Rozhestvensky’s squadron might reach Vladivostok. In the end, however, the combination of superior forces and Russian mistakes results in the almost complete destruction of the squadron. Even the torpedo boats are chased down and destroyed or scuttle themselves to avoid capture.

As Thiess relates the story, the remaining command ship surrenders while Rozhestvensky lies aboard, unconscious. Imprisoned in a Japanese hospital, he is finally released after the completion of the Portsmouth peace conference, at which Russia agrees to terms no better than it might have achieved before the Second Pacific Squadron even set out. Rozhestvensky returns to St. Petersburg via the Trans-Siberian railway:

In Tula the train was again stopped by workers and soldiers who had heard that Rozhestvensky was on board and wanted to see him. A voice, a nameless voice, cried out from the throng: “Tell us, Zinovii Petrovich, was there any treason in this?” Rohestvensky called back in a firm voice: “No, there was not treason. We simply were not strong enough, and God did not send us luck.”

Again there was a deathly silence, and once more an unknown voice shouted: “Look at him! Here is one man who has sacrificed himself for our country!” … They were grateful to the one man in high position who had not betrayed them as the rest had done.

While Thiess’ characterization of Rozhestvensky never tips into hagiography, it’s clear that one reason he called this a novel instead of a history is that he deliberately develops the view of Rozhestvensky as the protagonist. Aside from a few arch-villains within the Russian political elite and military, most other figures in the book are enigmas. The men of the squadron are treated as a collective character — the simple, trusting, but lazy serf who proves, in the final test, to have reserves of resolution and sacrifice to outlast most opponents. Written before World War Two, The Voyage of Forgotten Men foreshadows the kind of suffering and resilience seen through four years to fighting on the Eastern Front.

The Voyage of Forgotten Men is perhaps a more subjective account than current tastes appreciate, but there’s no denying the dramatic worth of the story. It’s a gripping tale — even with the ultimate fate of the fleet known from the very beginning of the book, Thiess manages to achieve a remarkable degree of narrative tension — enough to lead one reader reviewing a recent account of the Battle of Tsushima to write, “Without doubt, the best book on this subject is one written by a German between the world wars, Frank Thiess….”

Other Comments

Lincoln Colcord, Books, 7 November 1937

The present work, denying once more the human aspects and going far beyond the question of exoneration, attempts at this late date to build Admiral Rozhestvensky up into a hero, a great naval commander, a strategist of superlative ability, the one-eyed public servant in a welter of bureaucratic confusion and national disaster. At times the author grows almost lyrical; faults of character are tossed aside with perfect ease, or turned into virtues by a swift rationalization; facts are cheerfully twisted or evaded. At other times he indulges in sheer fiction, quoting the admiral and others as if he had been present at the scene. The result is a curious hodge-podge of truth and falsehood, and all concerned with a matter so far removed from the present problems and relations of humanity that one can only wonder at it.

Hanson Baldwin, New York Times, 5 December 1937

This book has a peculiar topical timeliness in view of the undeclared war in China…. [It] helps to make the present intelligible, and it again pays homage skillfully to events that will never die. But although it describes a great epic, it is itself far from epic quality…. Nevertheless, The Voyage of Forgotten Men is a brave though hopeless tale, well worth the reading.

Time, 1 November 1937

Solidly dramatized history of the Russian navy’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, with background emphasis on the Tsarist corruption which led to the fleet’s annihilation at the battle of Tsushima after its epic 20,000-mi. voyage under command of much-maligned Admiral Rozhestvensky, whom Author Thiess attempts to vindicate.

John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past

… the protean manifestations of this kind of “semi-documentary” or “novelized history” or “documentary novel” or “nonfiction novel” (none of these terms is really satisfactory) is itself the strongest evidence that such a tendency is indeed in the making; and that others may come to create a more perfect model of a genre that may be the genre of the near future, perhaps eventually dominating all forms of narrative literature.

Here is a very random sample of these “new kinds of novels: Tsushima by Frank Thiess …
The Horrors of Love by Jean Dutourd….

What do these books very bad, perhaps only two of them very good (Tsushima and The Horrors of Love) — have in common?

… they represent attempts to construct or even to break through to a new genre — something of which some of their authors are more aware than are others.

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The Voyage of Forgotten Men, Frank Thiess
Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1937

Capitol Hill, by Harvey Fergusson

Frontispiece of Borzoi Pocket Books edition of 'Capitol Hill'
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The folding room was a long narrow compartment in the basement of the House Office Building, with rough walls and a cement floor, provided with long tables of unpainted lumber and high stools. It looked more like a factory than an office. Its atmosphere was dank, and the small high windows up against the ceiling gave so little light that electricity was kept burning all the time. Here the printed speeches of congressmen were folded, placed in envelopes, and sacked for mailing to their constituents.

The amount of this printed oratory was a thing to appall. Speeches bound into bales were piled to the very ceiling. Other bales were always being hauled in on hand trucks, which went back loaded with tons of speeches folded, sacked, and ready for shipment. At the long tables sat rows of men in their shirt sleeves, folding speeches and putting them into envelopes with swift deft movements. They were the very lowest grades of patronage employees — the minor faithful ones, rewarded with these positions at seventy-five dollars a month for work at the polls, for marching in political processions and whooping and clapping at political meetings and conventions. Here in the very bowels of government they toiled, stirring futilely and incessantly, like colon-bacilli, among its profuse excretions.

Mr. Folard, superintendent of the folding room, to whom Ralph reported for duty, was a man whose politeness, discretion and equability of temper should have won him some higher reward in the game of politics where those virtues are so important. A stout man with a large, concealing grey moustache, he resembled nothing so much as a country undertaker. He always wore black clothes and a black derby hat, which he seemed never to remove. It was a favorite pleasantry of the folding room to speculate as to whether he slept in it. He moved about silently on rubber heels, and when speaking to an employee always laid a hand upon his shoulder and addressed him in a low confidential tone as “my boy.” Ralph learned that Mr. Folard had been appointed to his position many years ago under a Democratic administration, and had held it throughout the long Republican regime by reason of his diplomatic bearing toward the Republican congressmen. Any one of them might demand his head at any moment, so that this position could be given to a deserving Republican. Mr. Folard had a large family to feed and had developed his manner of extreme politeness can care in self-defense. He seemed to feel that any slight jar of movement or utterance on his part might precipitate a political explosion which would blow him out of his berth.

Editor’s Comments

Although Harvey Fergusson certainly qualifies as a neglected writer, what lasting reputation he has is based largely on his historic novels of life in New Mexico, particularly Wolf Song, which some consider the finest “mountain man” novel written. Before devoting himself full-time to creative writing, though, Fergusson worked through the years of the Taft and Wilson administrations as a newspaperman in Washington, D.C. , and his second novel, Capitol Hill, draws heavily upon those experiences.

Capitol Hill tells the story of the rise of Ralph Dolan, and his mastery of the success system of insider Washington politics. Finding himself near-broke after getting rolled by a prostitute on his first night in Washington, he decides to stick around a bit, if only to rebuild his bankroll. Ralph’s sex life is just one example of Fergusson’s remarkably (for its time) frank and world-wise account — among other things, he depicts the evolution of illicit sex in D.C., as various reforms usher the trade along from whore-houses to hourly hotels to discreet private apartments.

Rung by rung, he works his way up the ladder of success, learning the peculiar logic of reward within the political system. After stints as a bus-boy and bill collector, he finally wins a spot in the very basement of government: the Congressional folding room described above. From there, he moves on to become the secretary of an idealistic and ineffective Texas congressman. Ralph plays to the congressman’s vision of pushing a minor bit of populist legislation through the House, but his own instincts are both purely political and utterly lacking in ideology.

Ralph’s approach is studiously pragmatic: find his master’s weakness, and exploit it. He quickly learns to “follow the money,” as Woodward and Bernstein put it. From the populist he ascends to the office of another representative, this one a self-made millionaire interested mostly in climbing the social ladder. Ralph learns how to use legislation to achieve a wholly selfish effect:

The bill was introduced and widely noticed in the press. Most of the papers ridiculed it, and all of the butchers assailed it. Mr. Rauschuld had none of the big packers in his district, so he was not at all fazed. He produced his authority and his figures in reply, thus getting a second allowance of publicity, and fairly overwhelming his enemies, while the measure went to slumber with many of its fellows in the files of the document room.

Unfortunately for Ralph’s aspirations, though, a romance with the congressman’s typist gets him fired. An old room-mate from the YMCA gets him a job as a street reporter on a small Washington daily. Here he covers the “many minor events which were of little news value, but still required the presence of a reporter.” The work does little to further his career until he spots an untapped opportunity. Selling the editor on a weekly automotive section, he trades a cut in salary for a percentage on advertising sales and quickly wins the accounts of the major Washington dealers. “Although both his salary and his prospects for advancement were good,” Fergusson writes, Ralph is unsatisfied with this progress: “The thing that interested him in Washington was the government, and the opportunities it afforded for easy advancement in wealth and social prestige.”

Ralph fits precisely into one of the two stereotypes Fergusson draws of reporters:

The allure of newspaper work lies in the fact that is requires no preliminary training, and offers quick and easy advancement to a certain point. There are two easily distinguishable types who enter it, expecting to leap from that point to a foothold in some other occupation. One of these is the ambitious young adventurer who uses the newspapers as away to useful acquaintances and information, and eventually graduates into politics or business by way of a job as press agent or secretary. The other type is a man with an aptitude for words and an aspiration toward one of the literary arts. These fare much harder.

Fergusson, we assume, was one of the few of the latter type who, “by terrible toil, do evolve into novelists or playwrights,” and not one of those “cynical men” who “get drunk about once a week.”

Ralph uses his vantage point as a reporter to map out his own way ahead. “In general,” he concludes, “the way to advancement in this, as in most lines of endeavor, was to win the friendship of older men who had already succeeded and to serve them faithfully. If this formula sounds simple and old-fashioned, a glance at the career of Dick Cheney shows it’s still put to good use almost a century later. He uses connections among the Washington press corps to win a Capitol Hill beat with a minor Midwestern paper and continues to expand his circle of contacts: “The senators and congressmen with whom he came in daily contact knew him as a polite and accommodating young man, who was perfectly willing to do a favor and who wanted to get ahead.”

Over the next few years, Ralph hitches his wagon to a series of successful older men: a star reporter, a political operator, an honorary “colonel” full of grand ideas for the Red Cross as America edges closer to entry into World War One. By the war’s end, he manages to gain for himself the spot of head of an industry lobby known as the National Commercial Association.

He reflects with satisfaction at his progress:

Life was sweet to him, it was infinitely kind to him. He loved things — concrete, tangible things — money, women, good food, and drink and tobacco, cars and houses. And he knew how to get things. His life was a simple, greedy gathering up of things he very much wanted. All of the world as he knew it seemed to be organized for the very purpose of giving him things. What was Washington but a great crowd of men and women struggling for love and money and security? Most of them were weak and stupid and did not get much. He was strong and clever and got a great deal. That was all of life as he knew it.

Yet, as he takes the podium to deliver his first speech as leader of his association, he falls for his own publicity:

He saw himself in a new light, discovered in himself a new power. He was a brave young knight going forth to save the Holy Grail of property from the infidels and barbarians of Bolshevism…. It came upon him suddenly, as inspiration comes to a prophet, that he was an important man — perhaps, — even (Oh, sweet and daring thought!) — a Great Man!

Throughout the book, Fergusson contrasts Ralph’s advancement with that of Henry Lambert, his old room-mate from the YMCA. Lambert is one of the second type of journalist defined by Fergusson, the literary type. Despite his ability to write easily and well and rise in the newspaper business, Henry ultimately values the work as little and spends much of the book frustrated and unhappy. Only at the end, as he describes the novel he’s begun to write, does he begin to find some satisfaction and purpose: “It’s a full-length portrait of Democracy in action — of this magnificent explosion of misdirected human energy which is our capital.” His book has no hero, he announces, “But it has a central character. And the central character is going to be you, Ralph, or at least a man like you….”

One might imagine, for a moment, that Fergusson here crosses over into the territory of experimental fiction, as with the very writing of Capitol Hill, he was to abandon journalism for fiction. However, as several of the excerpts above illustrate, Capitol Hill suffers from some of the most common traits of early novels: most notably the tendency to tell instead of show. Ironically, the strengths of the book owe more, in my opinion, to Fergusson’s past as a reporter than to his future as a novelist. His main characters are more stereotypes than fully-fleshed personalities. From his years as a newspaperman, however, Fergusson is able to create the gallery of minor portraits and observations about places, manners, and morals that make Capitol Hill a picture of Washington life still worth reading today.

Other Comments

Time magazine, 5 May 1923

A rapid, interesting story, revealing, with satire and veracity, the hidden, unacknowledged mechanics of our governmental machine—centered about a typically American character not much dealt with in recent fiction, the vivacious modern buccaneer who neither saves his pennies nor makes any genuine contribution to the world, but is enormously successful nevertheless.

H. L. Mencken

The first novel of Washington life that attempts to describe genuinely typical Washingtonians and the essential Washington.

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Capitol Hill: A Novel of Washington Life, by Harvey Fergusson
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923

Sleuthing in the Stacks, by Rudolph Altrocchi

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Sleuthing in the Stacks'
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Excerpt, from “Lust and Leprosy”

Here, then, is the plot [of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s The Crusade of the Innocent (La crociata degli Innocenti)].

The dramatis personnae are five, with names sonorous and pregnant with symbolical significance: Odimondo (Hate-the-World), a young man; Novella (New-Girl), his passive adorer; Gaietta (the Cheerful One), his infant sister; The Mother, anonymous genitrix of Odimondo and Gaietta; Vanna la Vampa (Johanna-the-Blaze or, shall we say, the Vamp), the contaminated, but ever-pure-at-heart enchantress; a mysterious Pilgrim, plus a Celestial Chorus and White Voices. Even in the list of characters one must make allowances for poetic imagery.

Act I. Place: A dismal swamp, in which rises (geological license) a huge rock full of cavernous recesses; at right, a chuch (architectural license); in a “breath of gold” — which is the miasma rising from the dismal swamp — are heard the noises of innumerable birds, the dirge of snipes “which whimper like juvenile gnats” (insectile license), and the twitter of “divine buzzards” (ornithological license). Time: That melancholy, crepuscular hour, you know, Saturday before Palm Sunday, 1212.

New-Girl is doomfully sitting in the swamp by a cattle-trough which, as always in Italy, is a Roman sarcophagus. (Why a watering-trough in the midst of water? But don’t ask embarassing questions.) Enters Hate-the-World, carrying a horribly heavy little bundle of olive sprigs. The bundle is heavy, as New-Girl soon discovers by thrusting into it her hand, which collides with an icy little foot, because it contains the corpse of the Cheerful One. For Hate-the-World has just cut the throat of his infant sister, fortunately before the rising of the curtain….

Act II. Dewy sunrise, though the “bluish darkness is as silent as at the bottom of the sea.” The mysterious Pilgrim, emerging from the thick timber, approaches the doomful tower and instinctively makes for Johanna, the still much-lepered Vamp….

Act III. Front stage: One of the many boat loads of mystic infants sailing on their voyage to the Holy Land. They are packed “as a herd doomed to slaughter,” and though tortured by hunger, seasickness, and vermin, they are full of heroic fortitude and still singing…. Hate-the-World, who happens, for no reason at all, to be on deck too, has been lashed to the mainmast by the jealous sailors for casting amorous glances at the still beautiful, though pure, ex-leprous enchantress….

Act IV. Two of the infant-laden vessels are wrecked on the rocky shore of a deserted island. The shore, the decks, the sea as far as naked eye can penetrate, everything is bestrewn with innumerable defunct babes. Hate-the-World is again carrying the heavy corpse of his infant sister, the Cheerful One. “It seems,” says the uncertain author, “that in his delirium he has sacrificed her once more.” He was pure again and now he is again guilty, so, according to this subtle symbolism, he must again carry the heavy burden, and Sister must again have that wicked wound in her intermittently molested jugular vein….

… [D’Annunzio] must have been convinced, judging from his words, that this play was full of high emotion. Emotion without restraint, and that is the trouble, without that artistic restraint which Dante called “il fren dell’arte,” and Babbitt “the inner check.” D’Annunzio was far more interested in another kind of check.

Editor’s Comments

Sleuthing in the Stacks collects seven essays by Rudolph Altrocchi, a professor of Italian and long-time member of the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. Altrocchi describes them as accounts of literary detection, but literary archaeology might be more accurate, for he consistently uncovers layer after layer of precedents behind each piece of “original” work he examines.

Despite Altrocchi’s considerable expertise and serious studies, in no way does he attempt to make any profound claims for this book:

The research scholar who has lots of fun in his bookish hunting also wishes to share this fun. Although he does his happy hunting, he sleuthing, alone, he wants to share his game….

Some might say that in this time of global war [the book was published in 1943] literary research acquires, by comparison, a petty significance. That may well be so. But it also acquires the value of “escape.” The author hopes that this book may be a jolly, bookish escape to readers as it was to him.

“A jolly, bookish escape” is the perfect description of Sleuthing in the Stacks. In each essay, Altrocchi starts with a particular text, usually obscure. In “Handwriting in Search of an Author,” it’s a small collection of poems by one Monsignor Giovanni della Casa, a patrician member of the Florentive clergy from the mid-16th century. The book is filled with tiny marginal notes that the bookseller speculates belonged to a much-better-known poet, Torquato Tasso. He graciously loans the book to Altrocchi, who proceeds to unravel its provenance and then, the rightful source of the notes.

“Now somebody might ask: Why question the authenticity of it at all? Why go to so much trouble?,” Altrocchi admits. But forged handwriting, he explains, is so common that it’s riskier than not to assume authorship without a thorough investigation. His own follows two lines: the handwriting itself, and the content of the notes themselves.

His suspicion was fed by the fact that one Mariano Alberti, a captain in the Papal Guard, had been convicted of forging Tasso’s handwriting in the 19th century. Altrocchi locates the suspect book in the inventory of Alberti’s belongings included in the record of his trial “magnificent folio volumes (oh the grandeur of those Papal days).” Not satisfied, though, he then carefully matches up the notes against those in an authoritative compilation of Della Casa’s works, meticulously commentated, amounting to an “oppressive total of 2018 pages.” He finds that 75 per cent of the notes attributed to Tasso match those written between 1707 and 1728 by one Sertorio Quattromani. The last nail (literally) in the coffin is provided by a chemical analysis, which finds the aged, reddish ink isn’t ink at all, but hydrated iron oxide — the water Vatican authorities found filled with rusting nails in a glass in Alberti’s apartment.

This gloss makes “Handwriting in Search of an Author” sound far too pedantic. Altrocchi lightens every step along the way to his conclusion with wry asides and gentle judgments on all parties. There are no great villains or saints in his world, and after resoundingly demonstrating Alberti’s guilt in forging the annotations, he passes the mildest of sentences: “May his rascally soul and his clever, extremely clever hand rest in peace.”

The other pieces in Sleuthing in the Stacks take similarly esoteric subjects for entertaining rides. In “Lust and Leprosy,” excerpted above, he deconstructs a truly awful bit of kitsch by the Italian poet and proto-fascist, D’Annunzio, and traces its roots in a variety of Catholic miracle plays. In “Where there’s no Will, there’s a Way,” he recalls a play he once wrote with a fellow alumnus in hopes of winning a prize offered by the Harvard Dramatic Club. The play won no prize and was promptly forgotten. But Altrocchi proceeds to unravel the long literary tradition behind its principle dramatic event, in which an heir conspires to gain the rights to his just-deceased father’s estate. He convinces a neighbor who resembles the father to take to the recently-vacated death bed, recite a last will and testament, and then play out a convincing death scene. Altrocchi’s source is none other than Dante’s Inferno, where among the Maleboge (“Evil Pockets”) in the eighth circle of Hell he spots one Gianni Schicchi, who impersonated a rich man and dictated a false will in his own favor. From that source, however, he traces a wealth of derivations, adaptations, and reinventions, concluding:

Wherefore I stopped this line of sleuthing, which make me now stop my discussion. But haven’t I proved how much jollity can come out of Dante’s Hell and from a corpse?

Upon this sleuth, who now feels qualified for the exalted title of “third grade digger” or perennial (through seven centuries) literary undertaker, may the forgiveness come of the reader … (oh no, there is no reader left).

If you Google Altrocchi’s name, you’ll find he’s best remembered on the Internet for his essay, “Ancestors of Tarzan,” which appears in Sleuthing in the Stacks. In it, he uncovers dozens of accounts, reaching all the way from antiquity to contemporary “factual” accounts of jungle life, in which one or more of the essential elements — the abandoned child, the nuturing she-beast (gorilla, wolf, dog, etc.), and the mastery of survival skills and eventual rediscovery — are blended. The ur-story behind Tarzan, he writes,

… survived not because of casual animal foster-mothers, but by virtue of its essential humanity. Young maidens who succumb to passion; secret fruit of their transgression exposed and saved by miracle, surviving through coincidence and adventure for heroic accomplishments in history or philosophy — this is of the very tissue of life, at all times and in all places, and therefore also of literature.

Sleuthing in the Stacks is certainly the “jolly, bookish escape” Altrocchi hoped for. But as each essay proves in its own special way, it’s also a sly and subtle revelation of the depth, breadth, and intricacy of the web of connections that can be found beneath the surface of just about every work of literature, whether great or small, authentic or forged.


· J. T. Frederick, Book Week, 16 July 1944

Prof. Altrocchi writes so frankly of his hobbies, with so much humor and pleasant personal detail that there is much enjoyable reading in Sleuthing in the Stacks even for the person who knows little or nothing about the field of the researches described.

· Robert Altick, New York Times, 23 July 1944

To the unsympathetic bystander these discursive essays might almost represent the reductio ad absurdum of literary source-investigation, but they are nevertheless fun to read. It can never be sufficiently deplored that so few academic men can deliberately write unacademically and get away with it. Professor Altrocchi is carried away in his zeal to be companionable.

· E. L. Tinker, Saturday Review, 26 August 1944

The book is full of unlimited scholarly research, and an acute reasoning worthy of Dr. Holmes. It is often very interesting in its breadth of learning with its varied and recondite facts….

Find Out More

  • Wikipedia entry on Rudolph Altrocchi
  • You can find a brief biography of Altrocchi at “Guide to the Rudolph Altrocchi Papers” from the University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center.

  • After a long and distinguished career as a neurologist, Altrocchi’s son Paul Hemenway Altrocchi published his own work about a murky figure from literary history. In this case, his novel, Most Greatly Lived, he recounts the life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, often claimed as the true author of Shakespeare’s works.

Locate a Copy

Thanks to an enthusiastic boost from San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Joseph Henry Jackson, Sleuthing in the Stacks sold far better than most academic books when it was first printed in 1943. Although it was reprinted in 1968 by the small Kennikat Press, there are still dozens of copies of the original available for as little as $5 from online dealers.

Sleuthing in the Stacks, Rudolph Altrocchi
Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 1943

Richard Yates on Fellow Neglected Writers

Source: An Interview with Richard Yates by DeWitt Henry and Geoffrey Clark, Ploughshares, Winter 1972

Here, in an interview from 1972, Richard Yates, who was one of America’s better-known neglected writers during much of his career, nominates some candidates of his own for overdue recognition:

Q: Who among your contemporaries do you feel have been seriously neglected? What about the work of Edward Lewis Wallant?

A: A fine writer; and yes, seriously neglected today, though he was by no means overlooked or unappreciated when his books first came out. Wallant worked with tremendous energy and tremendous speed. He didn’t even start writing until he was over thirty; then he managed to produce four novels in five years before he died very suddenly of a stroke at the age of thirty-six, ten years ago. He and I were pretty good friends, though we used to argue a lot about working methods: I thought he ought to take more time over his books; he’d disagree. It was almost as if he knew he didn’t have much time. If he’d lived, God only knows how much good work he might have accomplished by now. Anyway, the four books are there, and I do believe they’ll last. [Editor’s note: Wallant’s four novels are The Pawnbroker, The Tennants of Moonbloom, reissued in 2003 by New York Review Classics, The Human Season, and The Children at the Gate.]

Q: What about the novels of Brian Moore?

A: Another very fine writer, also seriously neglected, though he’s very much alive today and still going strong. I just don’t understand why he hasn’t yet won a wider audience. Every good writer I know admires his work. I’ve always thought Judith Hearne is a masterpiece, and An Answer from Limbo comes pretty close. Even in his lesser books there are always fine things — great scenes, fine characterizations. And he’s such a steady producer, a real professional. He’s never yet allowed more than three years to go by without getting out a new book since he began, back in the Fifties.

Q: What about Evan S. Connell?

A: All I’ve read of his work so far is Mrs. Bridge, which I thought was beautiful, and a number of excellent short stories, but I know he’s produced a large body of fiction that’s much admired by people whose judgment I trust; so yes, sure, he too deserves to be much better known. Another excellent, underrated writer is Thomas Williams — or has he become well-established by now? If not, he ought to be. [Williams is best known for his 1975 National Book Award-winning novel, The Hair of Harold Roux

Q: Who do you consider some other good, neglected writers?

A: Read the four spendid books by Gina Berriault, if you can find them, and if you want to discover an absolutely first-class talent who has somehow been left almost entirely out of the mainstream. She hasn’t quit writing yet, either, and I hope she never will.

And read almost anything by R.V. Cassill, a brilliant and enormously productive man who’s been turning out novels and stories for twenty-five years or more, all the while building and sustaining a large influence on other writers as a teacher and critic. Oh, he’s always been well-known in what I guess you’d call literary circles, but he had to wait a long, long time before his most recent novel, Doctor Cobb’s Game, did bring him some widespread readership at last.

And George Garrett. I haven’t read very much of his work, but that’s at least partly because there’s so very much of it – and he too has remained largely unknown except among other writers. I guess his latest book [Latest in 1973, that is: The Death of the Fox, his long and ornate novel about Sir Walter Ralegh], like Cassill’s, did make something of a public splash at last, but that too was long overdue.

And Seymour Epstein — ever heard of him? I have read all of his work to date — five novels and a book of stories, all expertly crafted and immensely readable – yet he too seems to have been largely ignored so far.

But hell, this list could go on and on. This country’s loaded with good, badly neglected writers. Fred Chappell. Calvin Kentfield. Herbert Wilner. Helen Hudson. Edward Hoagland. George Cuomo. Arthur J. Roth — those are only a few.

My God, if I’d produced as much good work as most of those people, with as little reward, I’d really feel qualified to rant and rail against the Literary Establishment.

Three Cities, by Sholem Asch

Book One. Chapter I. The Capital

Cover of 1983 Carroll and Graf reissue of 'Three Cities'
From the Warsaw Station a long trail of little one-horse sledges lined with straw was slowly making its way through the soft, watery slush of the Vosnessensky Prospect towards Issakievsky Square. The sledges straggled in several long, apparently endless processions. The sheepskin coats of the drivers, some of whom had clouts tied round their feet with pieces of string, while others wore felt boots, were steaming like the flanks of their spirited black horses. Men and beasts breathed heavily as they struggled through the dirty gray gutters flowing along the ice-covered bridges in the dark thick fog which, rising from the canals, was gradually enveloping the whole of Petersburg.

Now and then a light troika flew through the slow-moving lines of sledges. The swift horses splashed the drivers from head to foot with the mud that flew from their hoofs, and gave them something to swear at. The drivers took liberal advantage of the opportunity; when they were not pelting each other with free samples from their stores of abuse, they addressed their horses, bestowing on them at one moment the tenderest terms of endearment and the next cursing them to the tenth generation with the most fluent oaths.

These little one-horse sledges were conveying the riches of the south into the capital of the Czar. The plains of Champagne sent their choicest vintages, of which Petersburg consumed more than all the rest of the world. Closed wagons bearing roses, carnations and violets were brought from the Riviera to the metropolis of Nicholas the Second; crates of the earliest fruits from the forcing houses; exquisite perfumes, soaps, and other cosmetic accessories from France’s best factories; rare jewels; cooling mineral waters: in short, the finest and most expensive luxuries that Europe possessed came in prodigious abundance to the Warsaw Station and thence to the capital. From the Warsaw Station the riches of the whole world streamed into Petersburg; the other railway stations of the city received and distributed the wealth of Russia itself.

In a narrow side-street off the Vosnessensky Prospect, through which the one-horse sledges were now lugging their crates and baskets of wine, fruits and flowers, stood an old and spacious building. It dated from the time of Alexander I and was built in the typical Petersburg Empire style. The yellow-washed facade had two entrances which were guarded day and night by liveried doorkeepers. The front of the gigantic building, which was so long as to be almost uncanny, stretched nearly to the end of the street. The side, which faced on another cross-street, was almost as long. Yet there were only three families lodged in this huge structure. The whole of the ground floor was reserved for a general’s widow, to whom the house belonged. The first floor was rented by a rich land-proprietor, and the top floor–that was occupied by the advocate, Solomon Ossipovich Halperin.

The corridor that led to the reception-rooms of the celebrated advocate had been packed with clients ever since three in the afternoon. It was a corridor such as was often to be seen in Petersburg, well lighted and heated, with long rows of sofas covered with red plush, and large Empire mirrors on the walls. It was pleasant to wait in that corridor, and clients who had secured admittance by bribing the attendants waited there until four o’clock, so that, when the advocate’s reception-rooms in front were thrown open, they might be among the first to enter.

And when the tall doors opened, the great rooms soon swarmed with human beings–peasants, land-proprietors, Jews. From every province of the Russian Empire came a stream of litigants; people who had been wronged, who were oppressed by the Czar’s officials, goaded by the pitiless laws, persecuted by judges and attorneys, tortured by the petty ill-will of local authorities–they all sought refuge in the capital and there appealed for justice to the supreme court or the highest State officials. Petersburg, the seat of the Czars and their officers, mistress of a hundred million human beings and tens of thousands of people drawn from the remotest corners in the whole breadth of Russia, pilgrims to this European Mecca in search of justice, safety and protection, concessions and privileges; for all affairs concerning the boundlessly great and rich empire of Russia were decided in Petersburg alone. And quite a respectable proportion of the pilgrims filled the corridors and the official and private reception-rooms of the advocate Halperin. For, though a Jew, Halperin was celebrated far and wide in Russia for his acuteness, his eloquence (he was counted one of Russia’s best orators) and his influential connections.

Editor’s Comment

I struggled with Three Cities for months. It looks, at first glance, to be a terrific story: the epic saga set in St. Peterburg, Warsaw, and Moscow in the years before and during the Russian Revolution. It has a cast of thousands, or at least hundreds, from millionaire railroad tycoons to homeless beggars, from Hassidic Jews to anti-semitic Russian noblemen. There are love affairs, jealousies, greedy schemes, worker’s strikes, famines, troika rides on moonlit nights.

And Asch has the capacity, even when filtered through double translation (from Yiddish to German to English) of producing passages remarkably vivid color and characterization. Every few pages, there are wonderful sketches in which he takes best advantage of the freedom of a long and complicated novel, taking time to inventory the residents of a Warsaw tenement or to lead us through the thoughts of a Russian estate owner on his way to his mistress in Moscow. For these passages, the novel rises to great heights of accomplishment.

Unfortunately, in between, the reader is subjected to endless and repetitive dialogues about the meaning of life and the value of life and whether the meaning of life has any purpose and whether a purposeful life has any value and whether the value of purpose is…. If you’re starting to doze off at this point, you’re not alone. After one too many of these discussions, you simply gives and skip on to the next descriptive passage.

The problem is with the protagonist. After putting so much energy into scene-setting, philosophical dialogues, and sketches of peripheral characters, Asch seems to have none left for his lead character, Zachary Mirkin. Mirkin is a young lawyer, left motherless at a young age, who discovers in his teens that he is a Jew. His father, a powerful industrialist, has worked hard to distance himself from his Jewish roots. The narrative follows Mirkin as he grows disenchanted with the materialism of Czarist St. Petersburg, seeks a mission in the ghettos of Warsaw and Lodz, joins a revolutionary movement, ends up in the midst of the Bolshevist take-over in Moscow, then finally abandons the revolution and returns to Warsaw. All around Mirkin Asch colors in a rich setting of places, smells, sounds, and people. Mirkin himself, however, is a void:

In this building filled with unfettered energy, Comrade Mirkin walked about with hesitating steps like a sleep-walker, as if he were in a dream. Everything seemed to him real and unreal at the same time, clear and yet indistinct; he knew what has happening round him, and again did not seem to know.

This comes on page 626, when the Bolshevisks and Whites are battling in the streets of Moscow. Meanwhile, our hero is wandering around in a fog, which is where he’s been since being introduced on page 18. And there are still 230 pages left to go! One academic has argued that most critics fail to understand the real character of Zachary Mirkin, the brooding protagonist of Asch’s novel. His struggle shows us, so the writer claims, that the hardest path in life is that of sticking to one’s beliefs. But Zachary spends virtually the whole novel wondering what he really believes. A good bitch-slapping is what the boy needs, and by the end, the reader is ready to give him one.

I’ve never thought much of Reader’s Digest condensed, but in the case of Three Cities, the approach has its merits. Chuck the soul-seeking and the clueless protagonist and preserve the scenery and supporting players, and you have the makings of a rich and satisfying read.

Locate a Copy

Three Cities, by Sholem Asch
Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1933

Sightings: Neglected Books in Scotland

We spent the last couple of weeks in Scotland — a few days in Edinburgh and a week or so in the Highlands. Although not part of the agenda, neglected books cropped up on several occasions.

In a small bookshop near Edinburgh University, I found a few titles new to me:

The Seizure of Power, by Czeslaw Milosz

The Nobel Prize-winning poet’s first novel, about the Soviet-orchestrated establishment of a Communist government in Poland at the end of World War Two.

My Sinful Earth, by William Gerhardie

A copy from the 1947 “Uniform Edition” of Gerhardie’s works. One could hardly consider Gerhardie neglected in 1947 if he had a uniform edition of his works being published. However, among neglected authors Gerhardie is one of the hardiest perennials, coming back into critical bloom (and print) every decade or so. In an essay collected in Power of Delight, John Bayley writes that:

[Evelyn Waugh’s] favorite William Gerhardie novel was to be Jazz and Jasper. This almost forgotten work appeared in 1927, two years earlier than Vile Bodies. Its author wanted to call it Doom, a title not adopted until the 1974 edition. In 1947 it made a brief appearance as My Sinful Earth, and the 1928 American edition was called Eve’s Apples [in fact, it was Eva’s Apples — Ed.], the American publisher having decided, no doubt wisely, that the word “jazz” had been “worn threadbare” in crossing the Atlantic.

The Tragedy of the Korosko, by Arthur Conan Doyle

A short novel about the capture and rescue of a group of Western tourists by Muslim extremists. A remarkably contemporary book, reissued in 2003 as a Hesperus Classic.

The Life of Samuel Belet, C.F. Ramuz

An autobiographical novel. Ramuz is considered by many the greatest Swiss writer of the 20th century. His best-known book in English is When the Mountain Fell, which was a Book-of-the-Month club selection in 1947. Time magazine wrote of the novel, “U.S. readers will get here what few other recent books have given them — a genuine literary experience.”

Then, in the bookcase of the small house we rented in the Highlands, I came across a few more. Amongst the best-selling thrillers and romances one usually sees in such holiday rentals, I found some unexpected titles:

Assassins, by Nicholas Mosley

An early novel by this great English experimental writer, about the abduction of a diplomat’s daughter in the midst of a crucial summit meeting.

The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross

A collection of mostly autobiographical short stories by an Estonian writer recommended by Doris Lessing and others.

So Many Loves, by Leo Walmsley

The autobiography of a novelist best known for his books about life on the north Yorkshire coast. From the excerpts I read, it seemed a lively and entertaining tale, ranging from his apprenticeship on a fishing boat to travels through Africa.

The Ballad and the Source, by Rosamond Lehmann

In this 1944 novel, Lehmann tells the story of Sibyl Jardine — her unhappy marriage, her flight from it, her life as a single mother, and the descent of her daughter into mental illness.

The Office, by Nathan Asch

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Other Comments
· Reviews
· Locate a Copy


Title page of the first U.K. edition of 'The Office'

They were six in the crowd. There had been many more before; the entire office. But some of these had stopped being a crowd earlier and began to think for themselves; and, frightened, left the office, and took up their thoughts. But these six that remained, stayed in the crowd, and from then on until late evening, when they were all drunk, and had no thoughts even as a crowd, these six acted together, did things together. When one suggested something to do, they all grasped his suggestion eagerly, and all acted upon it.

There was Bill, who had been the head of the trading room. An older and more intelligent fellow, who should have known better but didn’t. A man with a wife and a child. A man with a future before him. A man who, when he knew where he was going, was as unbent as a steel knife, but when he was broken looked like this same steel knife snapped in two: lost and useless, and good for nothing in the world. A man who should have had somebody to guide him, but who didn’t, and just by a lucky chance had gone as far as he had.

Then there was Blackbird. A braggart. A stupid little fellow. Was always talking about what he had done. Whatever anybody ever talked about had already happened to him. He knew everything. Anyway, he said he did. Contradicted himself in every other word. Shrewd, too. But in a little way. Never had the sense to be large in little ways and clever in big. Anyway, he couldn’t be big. Couldn’t if he had tried to. He was little in everything. And in this little way he was mean.

Ferrari was a wop. Even a God damned wop. With his slick, black hair and long nose. If you didn’t know him you’d say you wouldn’t have liked to meet him at night. He looked like that: tall, and beaky, and not to be trusted. But he was the best telephone clerk on Wall Street. Everybody said that. A holy wonder, this fellow. You couldn’t beat him. And fast! Fast as hell! If he weren’t a God damned wop he’d get somewhere. But you wouldn’t trust him if you’d meet him.

And then there was Eddie: Eddie Drucker. A good fellow. Damned nice fellow. A peach of a guy, a white man. Only a little bit too good. That’s why he wouldn’t go far. He couldn’t. He’d take off his hat, shoes, and underwear and give them to the first person that asked him for them. And he was a bit dumb too. Kind of slow and big. And he wouldn’t have kept this job long if the others hadn’t helped him.

And Charlie. You couldn’t keep a straight face when Charlie was around. They said he could almost make Zuckor laugh. Always cracking jokes and playing tricks, and singing, and raising hell generally. He’d make a funeral laugh.

And finally Phil Johnson. Never say much. Never talk. He’d work like hell, and you wouldn’t know it. Now Ferrari, when he worked, you’d see the feathers flying. Everything with gestures. Stage work. But not Phil Johnson. He was almost as fast as Ferrari, but you’d think he did nothing at all. He didn’t belong in this crowd. He was out of place in it. He should have gone home, and stayed in his little room, and smoked his pipe. That’s what a Swede does. But somehow of other he got into this crowd, and stayed in it, and he was almost as much part of it as Charlie or Eddie.

These six played poker, shot craps, and wanted to fight. And then when they had nothing else to do, they stayed still, slightly out of breath, looking around them.

Then Charlie said:

“Let’s go uptown.”

They said all right. They had been paid off, and their pockets were full with the two weeks’ pay. And they were ready to spend that money. The day before they would not have done it. The day before each one would have said: “This much for rent, this for the grocery bills, and this for the movies.” One or two might have gone into a saloon and bought a drink of whiskey. That would have been all. But this money that they received now, that was all they would get until the next job. And they didn’t think about the next job. They didn’t give a damn what would happen tomorrow. They were a crowd. And they were willing and ready and were going to spend every cent of their money this same evening. They were all going to be broke that night. Tomorrow they would all have to go to the savings bank, or to their relatives, or borrow from their friends, or just go hungry. But they didn’t care about that. They were a crowd.

So they all picked up their hats, and were walking out. And they saw Zuckor. And Charlie being the first wanted to play a joke on Zuckor. He wasn’t afraid of him any more. Like a little boy who on the last day of school tells his teacher to go to hell, wanting to revenge himself for all the wrongs the teacher had committed toward him, Charlie wanted to pay back to Zuckor, to get even with him. So this is what he did: he bowed before Zuckor, tipped his hat, and said:

“Good night, Mr. Zuckor.”

And Blackbird who followed him, also tipped his hat, and said:

“Good night, Mr. Zuckor.”

And Eddie, Phil Johnson, Bill, and Ferrari all did the same: they all tipped their hats to Zuckor and said:

“Good night, Mr. Zuckor.”

This was the worst insult they could think up to show Zuckor what they really thought about him. To show him that before, when they had greeted him, they had never really wanted to. That they had had to do it. Had been forced to. Their job had depended upon their saying, each morning, “Good morning, Mr. Zuckor,” and each evening, “Good night, Mr. Zuckor.” That they had never meant it. That they had never wanted him to have a good morning or a good night. Because he had always been mean and small to them and had wanted to persecute them. Because they had been in his power. He could have made them suffer, go through the agony of being jobless, of not knowing what they would do tomorrow, where their next meal would come from. And he had taken advantage of that, a mean advantage over them, being stronger than they were. So they said to him, “Good night, Mr. Zuckor,” and of all the ways they could have thought up to hurt him, this was the worst way.

They felt that as they were going down the elevator, and they were astonished that they could have thought up such a fine insult. It was more than they could have done had they really thought about it. They didn’t remember who had said it first, but they were glad that they had said it, and even proud of their own cleverness. And thinking of their cleverness made them quiet, not boisterous, as they went down, and as they took a taxi for uptown. They were quiet and dignified, self-conscious of their own cleverness.

Editor’s Comments

The Office is a Wall Street brokerage. In the first three brief chapters of the novel–“Wall Street,” “The Voice of the Office,” and “The Office,” Asch uses a series of impressionistic techniques to sketch his context:

  • “Wall Street”:
    • New York — downtown — streets — buildings — firms
    • buy — sell — exchange — beg — borrow — steal — cheat — give — take — donate — endow — deceive — lie — sympathize — pity — love
  • “The Voice of the Office”:
    • hey Glymmer I see where Federal Tel went up to par I guess we can let go a few Jacobs get the market on Federal Tel
    • zing-ing-ing-ng-g-g
    • Mex fours five to a quarter Mexican Irrigation thirty-two to six Mex large five to fifty
  • “The Office”
    • The office consists of three rooms: one large, one small, and a third cut into smaller cubicles.
    • The office gives its employees a living; they work in it and in return they receive pay, for which they buy food, clothing, shelter, amusements, pay the doctor, the undertaker, pay taxes.

… and then one day the office failed …

So Asch titles the second, longer part of the book. Why does the office fail? Asch offers no explanation. The cause is of no special interest. The fact is, the office fails, and suddenly, everyone who works there is out of a job.

Asch’s attention focuses on the immediate impact of the failure, on the thoughts and actions of a cross-section of the people who worked there, from the principal partner to the switchboard operator and the clerks depicted above, in the first few hours after they’re told.

Whatever the cause, the failure comes as a sudden and unexpected shock to almost everyone. In an instant, a fundamental element of each person’s life is wiped out, and the blow sends each reeling. For the clerks, the impact is visceral: they wonder “where their next meal would come from.” One walks down the street, confident in his ability to land another position the next day, until the sight of a vagrant leads him to consider what little separates him, now jobless and with little more than his final pay to his name, from the vagrant’s lot:

He would come in after having long looked for work, looked everywhere and had not been able to find it. Everywhere he came they would look at him and say or only think: “You’re a bum, see? It’s no use giving you work. You’d quit after the first pay-day. You don’t want a job, you only want a meal.” And they’d say, “No, nothing today.”

Another returns home resigned that the loss of her income now dooms her to become a dependent — literally. Without a job of her own, the only alternative she can see is to marry a man she neither loves nor respects:

She was to go home and stay with Jim Denby. She was made for such as he. For men with warm, moist palms, and warm, moist faces, and warm, moist looks. For men who do not take but beg. For sixty dollars a week, and a book-keeper’s household, and a book-keeper’s children, and a book-keeper’s life. Oh, hell!

For others higher up the management chain, the economic impact is multiplied by the social stigma of failure. The principal partner, Glymmer, brought in for his name more than his resources, is a former Treasurer of the United States. A career politician brought up through the ranks by machine politics, he now realizes how little substance stands behind his resume. He has no wealth of his own: he has always lived off his salary. He has no real business acumen to offer, and now that his own firm has failed, his name is only a liability. He is trapped like an animal, and Asch does a stunning job of showing the range of instinctive reactions he experiences as he ride home quietly in the back of his chauffeured limousine.

In his panic, Glymmer latches onto his wife as the source of all his troubles, and he begins to fantasize about how to best humiliate her with the bad news. “You know, we are ruined,” he plans to announce that night at dinner, in front of guests, shattering her world. But something even more fundamental than money and prestige brings Glymmer back to reality:

He had taken the cigar out of his pocket, and was chewing on it, as he always did when he was satisfied with something.

Then, little by little, a look of fright came into his face. His jaw tightened, the cigar fell out of his mouth, and he trembled.

He, he, he, that’s what he would do? That’s what he was doing? Who was he? How could he? Who …

Perhaps I’m reading too much into such a short passage, but I think this is one of several places in The Office where Asch shows a remarkable talent for bringing out depths in his characters with the slightest and subtlest of strokes. Although much of The Office brings to mind the works of his contemporary, John Dos Passos, particularly U.S.A. and Manhattan Transfer, Asch is far more successful in creating three-dimensional characters.

In a few cases, the failure opens an opportunity. One junior partner decides to take his chance as an aspiring writer. Another, the “brains” behind the firm, merely see it as another challenge to be overcome through charm and persuasion:

All around him men trying to get ahead. Men forging ahead. Using all of their wits, all of their powers. Building. Building. Creating new things. Selling. Buying. Exchanging.

And so was he. So was he. He was trying to build too. He also was working.

What if it failed? Other things fail. A man may be down, but he’s never out. And he wasn’t even down. Wasn’t he waiting for the two men to join him for the conference? Wasn’t he going to build a new office? Start things again?

Not all opportunities are taken. Second, skeptical thoughts come and undermine the first optimistic speculations about possibilities and bold choices. In one case — Miss James, the switchboard operator (a wonderfully effective sketch by Asch) — emotions run the full gamut from shock and anger to resignation and disinterest before she even puts on her hat and leaves the office.

Asch wrote The Office in 1925, when business failures were not unknown, but rare. When the Depression hit a few years later, the same experience would be repeated a thousand-fold, but as far as I’m aware, no writer succeeded so well in describing it. FDR’s New Deal introduced a network of social services that provides something of a buffer between the loss of a job and basic survival, but even now, I suspect people would feel many of the same emotions Asch portrays in the first few hours after getting the news. Certain works of literature manage to stay in print because they capture so well something — the death of a child, the loss of faith — many people experience. On this basis alone, The Office deserves to be brought back into print — and kept there.

Other Comments

• from Conversations with Malcolm Cowley, edited by Thomas Daniel Young, University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

Nathan was the son of Sholem Asch, who was an enormously popular Yiddish novelist; all of his books were translated into English and many of them were bestsellers. Nathan started out quite young with a novel called The Office, which received very good reviews here. Didn’t have much sales, most first novels don’t have, but for some surprising reason it sold better in Germany during the Weimar Republic. Then he wrote a second novel that was disappointing to me, called Love in Chartres, and a third novel called Pay-Day, which was more or less suppressed on moral grounds. That was the best of his novels. Pay-Day was also the day of the Sacco-Vanzetti execution, so he worked that into the novel. After that he wrote a book called The Road, about traveling over America by bus, and he wrote a novel about this area, called The Valley. That ended his publishing career. During the war he was a sergeant in the Air Force, really in their public relations, a P.R. non-commissioned officer. Not having to do it, he nevertheless flew a large number, a dozen or more, of bombing flights over Germany, and he wrote letters that were extraordinary. I used to get them. He came back and lived in Mill Valley and wrote, and nothing he wrote was published. Each of his manuscripts would have been accepted if it had been a new book by a new author, but his bad record in the bookstores frightened publishers, and they wouldn’t take his other novels. Then he started to work on memoirs…. He wrote an extraordinary memoir of his father, Sholem Asch, which he gave to Commentary and Podhoretz printed it, after cutting the heart out of it. Then he died of lung cancer. I think he was almost a paradigm of the failed author, but he had loads of talent. He was in Paris with Josie Herbst, another author whom they are making efforts to rescue from obscurity, and John Herman and also Hemingway, who was the great star of Paris in those days….


· Boston Transcript, 14 November 1925

It is powerfully written. It is swift, relentless. It is New York as people generally conceive New York. It is human nature under the grinding wheels of economic disaster.

· New Republic, 16 December 1915

The opening chapter is a sensational accumulation of words. The second chapter carries the method into conversation, and is sensationally effective.

· New York Times, 11 October 1925

A Wall Street office of “bucketshop” brokers is evoked by Nathan Asch in sharp, staccato phrases, almost in isolated words. His portrait is completed in less than twenty pages, yet the atmosphere, the nervous tension, the incessant telephoning, the relentless outpouring of tickertape, aimless, meaningless interjections of conversation, and a vague, submerged suggestion of human presences are fully indicated.

“And then one day the office failed.” Thereupon Mr. Asch pursues twenty of the office help, from porter to President, as they wander home or resort to pallid, unimaginative, disheartened efforts at amusement….

His selections are amazingly apposite. He varies his pace and adjusts it unerringly and precisely to the mood he wants to convey. It might be called expressionism in fiction, yet it is not a blind and rigid application of a technical principle. It is fluid and plastic and enormously fresh and stimulating. The effect amply justifies the form.

• Time magazine, 9 November 1925

Some staccato words are ripped out. There is The Office: tape, shares, toil, sex, money. The office fails and you go home with the various people whose lives centre in it. A stenographer has to forget the junior partner and marry her boyfriend. The stupid figurehead of the firm trembles, tells his wife. Clerks curse, get other jobs. The junior partner brandishes his cane, plans to run away and be a heman; slinks to his father instead. The crooked partner plans another office. Author Asch seems to know his Wall Street and hate it thoroughly. Striking as an experiment, his book never gets beyond its starting point.

Locate a Copy

The Office, by Nathan Asch
New York: Harcourt,Brace, 1925

Jonathan Yardley: “… my own list of unjustly overlooked and underrated writers …”

Source: “‘Woman Within’: An Unlikely Rebel of the Privileged South,” Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post, 29 November 2003, available online at

Reading through the individual articles in Washington Post Book Editor Jonathan Yardley’s excellent series on neglected and revisited classics, Second Readings, I came across the following quote worth highlighting here:

The court of literary opinion is no more fair or just than the court of public opinion. Writers of limited gifts and accomplishments (Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck) are overpraised and over-rewarded, while others of great gifts and singular accomplishments (William Humphrey, Dawn Powell, Jerome Charyn) are ignored or misunderstood. This of course is true in other endeavors, but somehow it seems especially unjust that writing, the best of which is supposed to stand the ages, so often produces such small recognition for those who do it so well.

My own list of unjustly overlooked and underrated writers is long; it includes, in addition to those mentioned above, John P. Marquand, Thomas Savage, Roxana Robinson, Harold Frederic, Elizabeth Spencer, John Oliver Killens and, at or very near the top, Ellen Glasgow.

A few expository notes on these writers:

  • Marquand is one of the more oft-mentioned underrated writers, and his works appear on a number of lists on this site. In fact, I’ve been toying with the idea of devoting a separate website to his works.
  • A New York Times reviewer once wrote of Thomas Savage: “The best-seller lists make it clear that American readers are powerfully fond of the familiar and the accessible — and if there were justice (or better taste) in the literary marketplace, surely one or another of Thomas Savage’s dozen novels would have been topping those lists for the past 30-odd years.” His 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog, was included in Roger Sale’s “Neglected Recent American Novels” article in The American Scholar. Unfortunately for Savage, he’s taken as his subject the American West, which has often been a kiss of death for critical recognition and sales. Annie Proulx, whose “Brokeback Mountain” avoided the same fate, wrote the introduction to the 2001 Bay Back Books reissue of The Power of the Dog. Even readers who got to the point of picking up the book, though, had to get past this opening sentence:

    Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed.

  • Roxana Robinson is a biographer, novelist, and short story writer. The youngster of this group, illustrated by the fact that she’s got her own website and domain name.
  • Harold Frederic was a contemporary of Twain and Howells. The texts of three of his novels — The Damnation of Theron Ware, In the Valley, and The Market-Place, can be found at Project Gutenberg.
  • Elizabeth Spencer is known for her novella, Light in the Piazza, but her critical reputation is best reflected in her extensive oeuvre of short stories. And it turns out she also has her own website.
  • John Oliver Killens was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Of his 1963 novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder, Yardley once wrote that it was “one of the few distinguished novels about World War II.”
  • Ellen Glasgow’s recognition improved, along with that of a number of other women writers such as Kate Chopin, when the eddies of the feminist waves hit the academic and publishing worlds, and all her major works are back in print. Yardley’s article moved me to order a copy of A Woman Within.

Underappreciated Literature: from WNYC’s “Leonard Lopate Show”


During July and August 2006, WNYC’s “Leonard Lopate Show” devotes time to a series of features on “authors that are little-known in America, authors that mysteriously fell out of fashion, and authors who never gained wide recognition in the first place.” Authors discussed include:

The programs can be heard or downloaded in MP3 format at the link above.

Antoine Bloyé, by Paul Nizan

· Excerpt
· Introduction by Richard Elman
· Other Comments
· Locate a Copy


Cover of Monthly Review Press reissue of 'Antoine Bloyé'Antoine left with two stretchers, their bearers silent. They went on foot. In the depot at night you have to watch where you put your feet. The ground is full of traps and pitfalls, switch heads, ditches, and engines under steam, a tiny wisp of smoke coming from their stacks. Antoine was thinking. He did not take such deaths very easily. People said, “Accident at work.” And they tried to make you believe that work is a field of honor, while the company provides the widow with a pension, a niggardly pension, it parts with its pennies like a miser, it thinks that death is always overpaid; later it hires the sons of the dead and all is said.

Nothing is said. Every morning Antoine still saw on his arm the scar made by the explosion of a water gauge when he was an engineer. It dated from yesterday, this severing of a radial artery. He was “off the foot plate” too short a time not to feel close to men who die on their job from the blows of their profession. Engineers, people who give orders from afar, administrators, die in their beds more frequently than do the men of the train crews, firemen, conductors. General staffs rarely fall on the fighting line. How does one get reconciled to these things? Already there were so many stretchers in his memory, smashed chests, figures mangled like charred wool. He knew the life of the men who run the trains, their joys, their work, their code of honor, and their death, and now he was going to announce the final episode. It was a boss’s mission, the bosses announce the deaths and injuries. The bosses send messages of condolence. The bosses sometimes experience the uncomfortable feeling of guilt.

The stretcher bearers and Antoine arrived before the engineer’s house and then before that of the fireman. Antoine climbed their dark stairs, stifling his breath and muffling his tread as though to wake each new-made widow as late as possible, to delay the moment when he had at last to face the cries, the stammering of a woman blinded by the pepper of pain, befuddled by the coils of sleep. It was nevertheless necessary to knock and await the woman’s cough, the shuffling of her slippers, her fumbling with the latch. The door opened and all the warmth and security of the rooms evaporated. He entered the quiet semi-darkness as a thief, as a demon. And he spoke at first of wounds; he said, “We have brought him home.”

Then of severe wounds, then at last — and the wife had understood from the beginning — of death.

“Be brave, madame. It is a fatal accident.”

It left an unforgettable impression on his memory — the hastily lighted lamps, the plates on the oilcloth beside the wine bottle, the rigid bodies heavily borne to beds still warm from the women’s bodies, a dazed child standing in a corner, the widow’s wrath.

“You take away our men from us, you bring them back in pulp. Company of murderers!”

That night, Antoine discovered death. A certain death that he could not forgive himself.

To lay out the driver’s body on the bed, he had taken it in his arms. What terrible weight a dead man is. Besides the seventy-five or eighty kilos of his flesh, bones, and blood and all his fluids there is the weight of death itself, as though all the years the man had lived had suddenly accumulated in his body, weighing it down, coagulating like lead grown cold. A wounded man still knows how to make himself light; he has the magic warmth of his breathing, of his blood circulation, but this dead man was as rigid and motionless as marble. This dead man no longer looked like a man. Only his clothes were like all other clothes. Antoine held him tight, he embraced this body fraternally. Living men do not clasp each other thus, their bodies do not come into contact save through their hands. Embraces are decently reserved to love; men scarcely venture to touch each other. So it needed death for him to embrace this man.

Antoine could do nothing for him save stretch him out, and the weight of the dead man drew him toward the bed. He felt like saying to him, “Come on, old boy, help yourself a bit.”

He wanted to ask for forgiveness as though he had killed him with his own hands.

Introduction by Richard Elman

From the 1973 Monthly Review Press edition of Antoine Bloyé:

Paul Nizan never reached middle age. He died in 1940, aged thirty-five, with the French army at Dunkirk. He wrote six complete books: the novels Antoine Bloyé, La Conspiration [English title The Conspiracy, and Le Cheval de troie (translated in England as The Trojan Horse); two polemics, Les Chiens de garde (American edition, The Watchdogs) and Aden Arabie; and Chronique de Septembre. He had been a philosophy student of the idealist academician Leon Brunschvig at the Ecole Normale, a writer for L’Humanité and Le Soir, a Communist who broke with the party over the Hitler-Stalin pact. According to his former schoolmate Jean-Paul Sartre, he enjoyed the company of women. Nizan’s was a short though not an ordinary life and Antoine Bloyé is a major novel of such great intensity and compassion that its strength is still available to us. It is one of the truly great Marxist novels I know of, a work that incorporates the imagination of Marx to treat of the alienation of ordinary men from their fellow and their work, yet does so without once becoming scolding, combative, or sneering. It’s a thirties book that has not become time-locked.

This edition of Antoine Bloyé uses a translation that was published in the Soviet Union in 1935. Edmund Stevens, then Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, found a way to make hard, clear, intelligent English out of Nizan’s precise thoughtful French with its meditative echoes of Pascal. Published only a year before the Great Purges of Stalin, it must have had the force of novelty in party-hack Moscow literary circles. Nizan had been a Communist but, in literary matters, never a Sovietist. His literary inclinations were gravely modernist and French, and English publication of a novel such as this in the Soviet Union had to be something of an anomaly, explained perhaps by the fact that it was issued by the Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R..

… The power of this artist, she [Tilly Olsen] observed, had only once been expressed — in Antoine Bloyé, a book which she said had been important to her life. Tilly’s gift of mind was shortly thereafter followed by Nizan’s text.

The feelings aroused by my first encounter with Nizan’s funereal moral fiction remain with me even know, like a hurt one cannot forget. Tilly spoke of Bloyé in the reverential way that one reserves for masterpieces, although, as with any true masterpiece of this century, its language and feelings are understated, and much of the force of Nizan’s work derives from his ability to transform an ordinary life into a drama of suffering without redemption, of failure without pathos.

Antoine Bloyé’s terrible death in life was to manage his existence so that, in fact, he had never lived. Sartre tells us Nizan was obsessed by his father. All his life the man had cheated himself. He had led a life that denied his own humanity, his feelings. But within this parable of the career of the railway functionary is the choice each of us confronts, almost daily: to remain vivid and in touch with one’s experiences, to grow, to be one with one’s comrades, brothers, friends, and lovers; or to withdraw into oneself and bitterly await death, to suffer the slow, wasting passing of the timid, the intimidated, the encapsulated, the bourgeois whose life is wrapped “in cotton wool” (to use Nizan’s phrase), those whose selves have been shrunken into the deals they have made with their own lives. It is this constant test of humanity which Bloyé so plainly fails….

Antoine Bloyé is a child of the working class, a locomotive engineer who seeks to better himself by becoming petty bourgeois. He joins the bosses: he marries his boss’s daughter. At moments throughout his life, he is seized by a certain dull anger and regret. For he has given up everything in his life that was vivid for certain smug assurances. As Nizan puts it, “All his work only served to hide his essential unemployment…. There were times when he would have liked to quit the life he was leading and become someone new, a foreign someone who would be more like his real self….”

Time and again Nizan wants us to see Bloyé’s defeat as our contemporary defeat. It is the sort of life, Nizan tells us, that one could sum up in two brief obituary paragraphs in one of the provincial papers; that is just what he refuses to do. He treats Bloyé’s promise and vividness and yearnings empathically. He is able to make us accept, like breathing, the subtle social and political corruption of youthful spirit, that cruel banalization through marriage and getting on that our culture imposes on so many men as their rite of passage. He forces us to know this nobody — but never abstractly, as Camus might do, or with Sartre’s contempt. Bloyé is an authentic man set loose on a course of death, who lives in a world of schedules and trains, of honest accomplishments, domesticities, and occasional celebrations. He seeks to improve himself. He becomes declassed. He becomes a traitor. He dies alone, with only a wife to look after him, their pretense at love and sharing long a waste. His education has been to be selfish. He has been encouraged only to be isolated, greedy, and resentful, a mere atom, or monad. His oppression is the cultural — finally political — oppression directed against so many males; because they have been told they must get on, they must choke themselves emotionally….

… He wrote a book that is as current as the slogans of the best of our young people. It is a Marxist book: not only, or simply, because it sometimes incorporates into its analysis the language of Marxist economics as diction and metaphor with which to dramatize Bloyé’s betrayal; nor because its central event is a workaday life, its action the precise way in which the illusion of well-being is manipulated to imprison most of us and, in turn, to make us exploit our wives, our so-called friends, our mistresses, our children; but also because, as in most of Marx’s finest work, its instincts are poetic, its seeming prosiness is about a way of feeling that is materialist; and its expression is by psychological insight.

Other Comments

Karl Miller, New York Review of Books, 15 November 1973

There are those rare novels — Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep is one — for which the label of masterpiece always seems slightly beside the point. Both Antoine Bloyé
and Call It Sleep suffered the similar fate of being lost literary classics that had to wait a generation or so after their publication before being restored to their rightful literary place. Antoine Bloyé, although of an entirely different literary tradition than Call It Sleep, has the same obsessive, wounding power.

Chicago Daily News

Its revival is a gift to modern literature. No one writes this way any more: Nizan tells a story that can be read on many levels and is expressed with a classic use of language. Antoine Bloyé is in the tradition of the great novels … it concerns a man, a class and a society…. This is a profound book, profoundly moving and profoundly sad. It makes the reader examine himself; it causes him to look again at the world he lives in, at the life he has chosen…. It is not a long book, but it is beautiful, satisfying and unforgettable…. This masterpiece will spur many readers to fill their lives, to search for the secret….

James Atlas, The Nation, 22 October 1973

Now, what distinguishes Paul Nizan’s Antoine Bloyé from the work of his fellow writers in France is the manner in which it illustrates the character of dialectical materialism–from the inside–without sacrificing the aesthetic possibilities of realism….

… It is a matter of real importance, then, that we have this translation of his best novel, not only, because Antoine Bloyé is a brilliant example of modern European literature but because it can serve to refine our awareness of the life and work of a significant literary figure….

What makes Nizan,s chronicle of a wasted life so vivid is the author,s awareness of Bloyés human possibilities. Writing from within the mind of an “ordinary” man, he was able to depict the circumstances, emotions and desires, the consciousness of which is necessarily diminished in those whom labor has robbed of the abillty to reflect. School, sexual adventures, marriage into a bourgeois family, the death in early childhood of a daughter; the birth of a son, promotions, vacations: these are mere events, and their qualities as lived experience he buried beneath obligation and blind will. Nizan tells us that Antoine Bloyé wasn’t “meditative,” that “events rolled past without his taking notice.” But the texture of Nizan’s prose, viscous and laden with sensation, imitates the world through which Bloyé moves. While his own life is crushed, “caught like an insect in this quivering web of railway lines,” the richness of the natural world surrounds him like a penumbra of unrealized hope. And that is what is most remarkable about Nizan’s achievement. Despite Antoine Bloyés docility, he sees, through the lens of Nizan’s sensibility, the world’s possibilities: the heaviness and indolence of Sunday, summer evenings on the waterfront, the memories of childhood whose atmosphere settled over the dinner table on visits to his parents’ home.

Locate a Copy

Antoine Bloyé, by Paul Nizan
Translated by Edmund Stevens
First English publication: Moscow: Co-operative Publishing Society Of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R., 1935
Reissued: New York, Monthly Review Press, 1973

Eland Books added to Publishers page

Just added to the Publishers page:

Eland Books, on the web at

Owned and run by travel writers John Hatt, Rose Baring, and Barnaby Rogerson, Eland “specializes in keeping the classics of travel literature in print.” Although its list has well under a hundred titles, Eland easily takes the first place award when it comes to bringing long-lost travel books of particular excellence back to print. And the quality and diversity of its titles is remarkable: Norman Lewis’ A Dragon Apparent, excerpted here; Leonard Woolf’s novel of Sri Lanka, The Village in the Jungle; and the intriguingly-titled A Cure for Serpents, Alberto di Pirajno’s memoir of life in Ethiopia and Libya (during the periods of Mussolini-led colonisation).

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


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

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

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


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

Doris Lessing added to Sources

In Time Bites, a 2004 collection of book reviews and essays — her first published collection of criticism — Doris Lessing discusses a good number of neglected books: by my count,easily a third of the titles covered qualify.

A list of these books and excerpts from her comments can now be found at the following new Sources page:

Doris Lessing

Lessing has often been a champion for lesser-known writers and their works. If one were to cull through the rest of Lessing’s criticism, I’m sure several dozen more titles could be collected.


Thomas Pynchon’s Favorite Neglected Book


From the Modern Word website, a section devoted to the novelist Thomas Pynchon reprints his contribution to the December 1965 issue of Holiday magazine. Asked to name his favorite neglected book, Pynchon wrote of Oakley Hall’s novel, Warlock:

Tombstone, Arizona, during the 1880’s is, in ways, our national Camelot: a never-never land where American virtues are embodied in the Earps, and the opposite evils in the Clanton gang; where the confrontation at the OK corral takes on some of the dry purity of the Arthurian joust. Oakley Hall, in his very fine novel Warlock (Viking) has restored to the myth of Tombstone its full, mortal, blooded humanity. Wyatt Earp is transmogrified into a gunfighter named Blaisdell who, partly because of his blown-up image in the Wild West magazines of the day, believes he is a hero. He is summoned to the embattled town of Warlock by a committee of nervous citizens expressly to be a hero, but finds that he cannot, at last, live up to his image; that there is a flaw not only in him, but also, we feel, in the entire set of assumptions that have allowed the image to exist…. It is the deep sensitivity to abysses that makes Warlock one of our best American novels.

Note: Warlock has been reissued as part of the NYRB Classics series.

Great underappreciated authors, from The Magnificent Octopus


As part of her literary blog, A Box of Books, Ella asked a number of fellow bookfiends a series of questions about their reading and writing experiences. One of these questions was,

Who’s your favorite underappreciated author, and what makes them great?

Blogger Isabella Kratynski compiled a list of the various responses at her Magnificent Octopus site. Among the names mentioned are the well-known — but perhaps underappreciated (Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy), and the obscure (MeÅ¡a Selimović, Adele Wiseman).

Underrated Writers, from the Syntax of Things


Bloggers Jeff Bryant and Trevor Jackson asked other literary bloggers nominate contemporary writers “who aren’t receiving the attention they should.” Each blogger was asked submit up to five names. The complete list, compiled at the link above, includes 55 different writers. Remarkably, very few of the nominations overlapped. The result is a diverse survey of some of today’s neglected writers and their best works.

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Six ways from Sunday,” the girl said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boy!” the man called out.

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


• Commentary magazine, November 1955

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find a copy

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

Lost Classics: Reader Suggestions

Source: Lost Classics Submissions

As part of its publicity for the first release of Lost Classics in 2001, Random House Canada ran a contest in which readers were invited to submit their own suggested lost classics. Over eighty readers participated. Carol Ann Westbrook won with her nomination of Pamela Brown’s A Swish of the Curtain, a tale about a group of young English children create their own theatre. “I took this book out of the library so often that when it was completely worn out, the librarian gave it to me,” she writes. Other suggestions include Henry Kriesel’s novel, The Rich Man, which I notice Red Deer Press plans to reissue in September 2006, and Joseph Kinsey Howard’s history of the Métis people of Canada and Louis Riel’s attempts to found an independent nation inside Canada.

Winds of Morning, by H. L. Davis

• Excerpt
• Editor’s Comments
• Reviews
• Find Out More
• Locate a Copy


Clallum Jake was a Columbia River Indian by residence, though he was heavier-built and more dignified than river Indians generally were. He lived most of the year on an Indian allotment sand spit that stuck out into the Columbia a few miles above the mouth of the Camas River, where he operated a seining ground during the salmon run, with the help of four or five squaws of varying ages and uniform homeliness. He was a hard-working old buck, and usually hung up from ten to a dozen tons of salmon in a season. He was also a sharp trader. Instead of selling his salmon to the cannery at some starveout price, he preferred to home-dry and peddle it to the upper-country Indians for such raw material as deer hides and the pelts of winter-killed sheep, which his squaws tanned and converted into genuine Indian-beaded buckskin gloves, moccasins, belts and handbags. Knickknacks of that kind found a ready and profitable sale at tourist stores and curio shops around the country, besides supplying the squaws with something to do so they wouldn’t be tempted to start fighting among themselves.

Nobody knew anything precise about the relationship subsisting between Clallum Jake and his squaws. Some public-spirited people in town had tried to find out about it from the squaws a few times, but the squaws knew only a few words of English, all brief and forceful, so the investigation had never got far. Clallum Jake had escaped it himself, being too dignified in appearance to be questioned about his domestic eccentricities by a set of town busybodies who might not have stood up very well under any searching inquiry into theirs. He could understand English moderately well when there was anything in it for him, though he usually professed ignorance of it to be on the safe side. He had no language of his own, or none that anybody could pin him down to, having wandered into the plateau country in the early days from somewhere down on the Coast, where all the native languages were different. In his trading with other Indians, he relied partly on his squaws and partly on a scattering of English mixed with Chinook jargon, the simplified mixture of mispronounced French, Indian, Russian and Eskimo that had once been the universal trade lingo among the western tribes all the way from the Bering Straits to the California line.

One Coast Indian trait that had stayed with him was clumsiness with horses. In spite of the fifty-odd years he had been riding, he still rode like a shirttail full of rocks, but with an air of weighty deliberation that made it look as if he was doing it in fulfillment of some plan too deep and far-ranging to let the general public in on.

Editor’s Comments

Thirty years ago, the University of Chicago Press quietly released a collection of three pieces of short fiction by a retired professor of English, Norman MacLean. Purely through word-of-mouth, A River Runs Through It became a best-seller and nearly won the Pulitzer Prize. More than anything, it was MacLean’s remarkable voice — spare, ironic, experienced but never claiming to be wise, with a soft-spoken good humor — that distinguished the book from anything else published in a good number of years before it. You had the sense that there was nothing the least bit fake in this book — as well as the sense that in waiting so long to tell his stories, MacLean was able (to turn Pascal’s quote around) to make them as short as possible.

I was often reminded of A River Runs Through It while reading Winds of Morning. The two books are set in roughly the same time and place — the Northwestern U.S. in the 1920s. Aside from that, they don’t share much else in common, at least on the surface. The stories are quite different. Winds is a little bit about unraveling the truth behind a murder, more about a young man and an old man herding some horses to a new pasture, and mostly about people and a place in the midst of changing from one era to another. What really reminded me of A River was the voice of Amos Clarke, H.L. Davis’ narrator.

The book is Amos’s recollection, told from a distance of thirty years or so, of one particular experience from his time as a sheriff’s deputy, back when he was barely twenty. Out delivering a summons, he stumbles onto a shooting that looks to be accidental. A ranch hand, Busick, has killed an old Indian, and Amos dutifully takes him into custody. Although it’s an open-and-shut case of manslaughter, Busick gets off — mostly through the collusion of a jury of local businessmen who’d rather have him working and paying off loans that stewing away in prison. Busick gives up his rights to a small patch of grazing land, however, and this sets off the main story in the book.

The sheriff instructs Amos to round up Busick’s horses and lead them up to public pasture with the help on an old man, Hendricks, left to look after them. Hendricks was an early homesteader in the area who built up a healthy estate, but who left under a cloud of rumors after one of his daughters accused him of molesting her. The big story percolating in the background as Amos and Hendricks head north with the horses is the hunt for a murderer. A wealthy rancher married to one of Hendricks’ daughters has been shot dead as he stood in the doorway of his house. In the sheriff’s mind, though, Amos’ job has nothing to do with that.

As it turns out, however, Amos and Hendricks find themselves getting closer, rather than further, from this murder. They stumble across a few threads that Amos’ curiosity and Hendricks’ knowledge of the area and the people in its enable them to follow and, ultimately, solve the case. But this is not the real story in Winds of Morning.

Though horses and wagons are still the main ways of getting around for most people, railroads, cars, and trucks are also regular fixtures. The first wave of homesteaders has receded, leaving a few successful big ranchers and businessmen, more struggling farmers and hired hands, and a lot of abandoned places. Power has shifted, subtly and permanently, from the hands of the rugged individualists like Hendricks to those with money and influence. Although still a wild and beautiful but potentially dangerous land, this West is full of signs that life is changing. Literally, in this passage:

There were some printed signs, mostly faded and weatherbeaten, scattered among the stumps. An old one proclaimed the area to be a part of the Prickettsville municipal water district, and carried a caution against trespassing that didn’t appear to have had much effect, since it was shot full of holes. A newer one from the government printing office stated that the territory thereto adjacent had been stocked with poisoned bait against predatory animals, and advised against permitting sheep does to run loose on it, which, since the buzzards always ate all government poisoned bait and scattered it over half the sheep ranches in the country before the predatory animals got near it, was a way of insuring that there would be enough to go around among the sheep dogs, and they could all poison themselves right at home instead of having to walk miles out into the timber to do it There were smaller signs of varying ages forbidding hunting, fishing, camping, or building fires without a suitable permit, cutting trees or pulling wild flowers, or picking huckleberries except in duly posted and assigned areas and under properly authorized supervision. None of them were supposed to mean anything till summer. They were put up to draw city vacationists, to whom such things gave a pleasantly excited feeling of being the objects of somebody’s attention.

Clarke suspects the change he sees going on aren’t for the better. At one point, he muses:

In old Hendricks’ younger days, there had been more value set on people. Nature had been the enemy then, and people had to stand together against it. Now all its wickedness and menace had been taken away; the thing to be feared now was people, and nature figured mostly as a safe and reassuring refuge against their underhandedness and skullduggery.

But Davis refuses to settle for a simple polemic against progress. This is not the Wild West of good guys versus bad guys, white hats versus black. From the very first scene, it’s clear that Amos is more inclined to try to understand than to judge the people he encounters, and he finds Hendricks shares much the same disposition. “A man can’t tell what’s layin’ around inside of him. There’s too many corners, and things reach out from ’em sometimes that you’d thought was all dead and buried.”

In part, this is because Hendricks is struggling with his own demons. Though innocent of his daughter’s charge of rape, he still took off and lost himself somewhere for a few years before returning to the Columbia River valley. He had his own sin he was trying to escape. One hard winter when most homesteaders were losing whole herds, he had taken up with an Indian squaw for the sole purpose of getting the use of some sheltered pasture, and he kept up the arrangement until he no longer needed the help.

“I couldn’t see how it hurt anybody much,” he tells Amos.

“You can’t tell what will hurt people sometimes,” Amos responds.

“I was out to pile up money in them days,” Hendricks reflects. “Gittin’ ahead in the world was what we called it. nobody ever figured out what they was gittin’ ahead of, I guess. There’s more things than that for a man to git ahead in, anyway. It’s took me a hell of a long time to fin it out….”

Though the pair spend much of the book piecing together the truth about the murder, this is never viewed as a matter of justice or punishment. The culprit, it turns out, is a young Mexican boy traveling with them. His motivation proves to have been his own misguided sense of justice, and they agree to let things rest at that.

“You can’t make up for what you’ve done,” Hendricks tells Amos. “When you do it, it stands against you. You pay for it, no matter what you do afterwards. Good and bad don’t cancel each other out. It don’t lighten a twenty-pound load on one end of a pole to hang twenty-one pounds on the other end. The pole’s got to carry ’em both.”

I hesitate to call this a Western for grown-ups, because that usually just means the sexual element isn’t completely repressed. But Winds of Morning is certainly written from a more mature and morally, economically, even ecologically realistic perspective than just about anything I’ve ever come across that had the label “Western” applied to it. Several dozen characters pass across the stage in the course of the book, and not one gets less than a fully-rounded treatment.

Even the landscape gets a fully-rounded treatment — and what book could qualify as a Western without plenty of landscape:

The river had changed color a little; it was not blackish, as it had been when we looked at it from the hillside, and not roily, as lowland rivers always were after a hard rain, but milky green, like snow water that has thawed too fast for the air to separate from it. The current was swift, but it held to its ordinary level as if the torrents of rain flooding into it had all been beneath its notice.

And, of course, there have to be horses. Amos and Hendricks have both spent their lives caring for, and relying on, their horses. The horses have come to command a certain amount of respect:

It was useless trying to ride the horses down such a place; they had enough work merely to keep their feet under them and keep going, so we dismounted and followed along behind. Halfway down, the slope steepened so we could hardly stand up on it, but the horses by then had discovered how to manage it without wearing themselves out. Instead of trying to walk with the rocks moving and shifting underfoot, they merely started a patch sliding, set back, and coasted on it till it stopped, and then moved on and started another one to coast on. Not many animals are smarter than a range horses, when he is left free to figure things out for himself.

There’s a limit to this respect, though. In fact, we find that horses may have formed a bit too much of Amos’ perspective:

Horses and women. Leave either of them alone with only a man to depend on for company, and they could develop an intelligence so quick and sensitive that it was uncanny to be around. Herd them back with others of their species, and they dropped instantly to a depth of dull pettiness and mental squalor that made a man wonder how he could ever have credited them with intelligence at all….

Personally, I haven’t met many women who’d say that being left alone with a man raises the net IQ. And though Davis tosses a romance in to top Winds of Morning off, it’s the weakness element in the novel, and the most expendable. Men, horses, landscapes, and weather are already enough to make this a rich, intelligent, and thorough enjoyable piece of writing.

A Book-of-the-Month Club selection at the time it was first published, Winds of Morning sold well, but vanished after one paperback run. The Greenwood Press reissued it for academic libraries in 1972 and a small Western press, Comstock Book Distributors, reissued it in hardback in 1996, but these editions are harder to find that the original Morrow release. Fortunately, there are plenty of used copies to be found on Amazon for as little as 99 cents, so there is no excuse for letting this terrific book gather dust. Heck, I’ll even offer to buy your copy if you’re not satisfied after reading it.


Manas Journal, 13 February 1952:

Once in a while — once in a very great while we find the temerity to comment upon what is commonly called the “artistic value” of a novel or drama. Having so long championed the view that ideas and ideals are always the Real, and that even the most impassioned recounting of experiences is valueless unless it points a way toward realization of an ideal, a reviewer cannot help but feel a bit of a turncoat if he first stakes out claims for a piece of writing chiefly because he warms to the way it is written. Yet H. L. Davis’ Winds of Morning tempts such extravagance, despite the fact that it is a Book of the Month selection and that BoM reviewers have praised it for much the same reasons.

Davis does have a marked sort of idealism, however, even though it is not addressed to any particular social or psychological problem. It is felt, for instance, in attitudes toward the creatures of nature and the beautiful land which supports them. It is present in the form of compassion and understanding when the subject is crime and criminals, and it emerges most of all in the respect shown for those who are courageously independent. Perhaps good writing always does something of this nature, if it is really good writing, at all.

Winds of Morning is not, in the usual meaning of the word, an “exciting” book. Being so well done it needs none of those emotional injections which often are made to reinforce the efforts of even skillful writers to convey a point of view or an interpretation of experience. Instead, without in the least giving the impression of trying, Mr. Davis helps the reader to feel that each moment of common, everyday life may hold a further awakening of the mind.

Time magazine, 7 January 1952

The story begins with a young deputy sheriff who is sent out to herd an old hoss-wrangler and his strays through the wheat country and into open territory. On the trip, by a series of stumbling inadvertencies, he runs down a murder story and falls in love. He chews over old times and old ways in dozens of small passages of talk with the oldtimer, and with himself. He also takes a deep breath of the wilderness around him, and the reader breathes it with him.

“The noise of a late-lingering flock of wild geese going out to its day’s feeding in the wheat fields woke me the next morning,” Davis may write, with a mildness that is really intensely restrained affection. “The sky was already beginning to fill with light, and there were a few cold yellow sun streaks on the high ridges…”

Such passages give Davis’ prose, and his story too, a quality of imminence—as though at any moment they might break out in crashing event. They never do. The action of the book, though now and again it holds some excitement, has no importance; it rises quietly out of the big land, and sinks quietly back into it. The natural world, in fact, is the only real character in Winds of Morning; the people in the book appear chiefly as traits of that character. Ordinarily, this would be a fatal flaw. The measure of Novelist Davis’ success is that he will almost certainly make a great many readers decide that his favorite country deserves the affectionate priority he gives it.

Find Out More

Locate a Copy

Winds of Morning, by H. L. Davis
New York: William Morrow & Company, 1952

Neglected book mentioned in Mental Floss magazine

In his article, “Judging a Book By Its Cover: 12 Book Designers Who Changed the Publishing Industry Forever,” in the May/June 2006 issue of Mental Floss magazine, Jason Tselentis recognizes a neglected book by Zelda Popkin, whose Time Off for Murder was recommended by Fay Blake in Writer’s Choice.

Tselentis singles out Popkin’s No Crime for a Lady not for its content but for its cover by designer Gerald Gregg. Of Gregg’s work, Tselentis writes,

When designer Chip Kidd cited many 1940s and 1950s paperbacks as influences to his work, he was no doubt referring to those of Dell Publishing. Founded in 1921 by a 27-year-old named George Delacourte, Dell gained success thanks to its racy and alluring paperback covers…. Having airbrushed hundreds of these using secretaries and cartographers as models, Gregg called his style, “a cominbation of graphic design and stylized realism.”

…. Usually scandalous, his covers resembled the film noir of that time period. Popkin’s mystery stories starred Mary Carner, one of the first female private eyes in detective novels; her character is rumored to have been the inspiration for Angela Lansbury’s character Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote.”

After the accident, from The Descent, by Fritz Peters

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

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

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

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

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


Manas Journal, 29 December 1954

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

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

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

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

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

Find out more

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

New List added to Sources: Robert Nedelkoff

A new list of neglected books added to Sources: Robert Nedelkoff.

Archivist Robert Nedelkoff, who’s written on neglected books for McSweeney’s and other magazines offered an even dozen recommendations to the Editor not long after this site opened.

Among these is Operators And Things by Barbara O’Brien, of which he writes,

When I came across an Ace paperback edition of this book, published in the early 1960s, I at first thought I was reading one of Philip K. Dick’s greatest achievements. It opens with a solemn introduction by a psychiatrist explaining that this is the story of a young woman who not only has managed to cure herself of schizophrenia, but has written well of the experience. The next chapter reads like a breezy magazine article about mental illness. Then we’re plunged into the story: a woman, apparently in her late 20s, wakes up to find three people standing by her bed: an old man, a boy, and a weird-looking, long-haired man. She is a “Thing,” an automaton, like most everyone else on earth. The old man has been her “Operator” – one of the handful of people who “own” and control everyone else on earth. He is handing her over to the control of the long-haired man, who has decided a) to make her aware of her status as a Thing and b) to have her walk away from her job and get on a Greyhound bus – the only way to go for a smart Operator, because the drivers are all Operators themselves and are contractually obligated not to interfere with the chattelship of Things. Then the book gets really unpredictable….

Valancourt Books added to Publishers

Just added to the Publishers page:

The Valancourt Books,

Founded by James D. Jenkins, Valancourt Books is named after the hero of The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe’s classic Gothic novel, and specializes in quality reprints of rare 18th and 19th century literature. It has launched three series:

  • Gothic Classics, which “exhumes great novels from the 18th and 19th centuries and endeavours to make them accessible to a new generation of readers.” “We strive,” writes the publisher, “to select the most important and entertaining books, and to reprint them in the most attractive and affordable editions possible. Each volume is newly designed, with stylish cover art, and each includes a new introduction and notes to put the work in context for 21st century readers.”

  • Irish Classics, which kicked off with a reissue of Bram Stoker’s The Snake’s Pass (1890), “Stoker’s first novel and his only book set in his native Ireland.” According to the publisher, “Future volumes in the series will feature works by Charles Maturin, Regina Maria Roche, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and others.”

  • Valancourt Classics, “which reprints the truly great books of the 18th and 19th centuries which for whatever reason have fallen out of print or been otherwise forgotten by the literary establishment. Each book in this series features an in depth introduction and extensive notes and appendices for modern readers, students, and scholars.” The first two books in this series are Ann Radcliffe’s Gaston de Blondeville (1826) and The Magic Ring (1825) by Baron de la Motte Fouqué.

Hear Susan Sontag talk about lost and forgotten masterpieces


From the great Santa Monica public radio station, KCRW, sound files from the “Bookworm” show of Thursday, 14 February 2002. The late critic and novelist Susan Sontag talks about the discovery of lost and forgotten masterpieces, in particular, on Summer in Baden Baden by Leonid Tsypkin (New Directions) about an odd vacation in the life of Fyodor Dostoevski. She also discusses Artemisia by Anna Banti (University of Nebraska Press); Fateless by Imre Kertesz (Northwestern University Press); and A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

“Lost Classics,” from the Hartford Advocate

“Lost Classics: In a culture where people barely read, it would be an exaggeration to say that writers are overrated. Still, some writers get more credit than they deserve, most get less.”
by Alan Bisbort
Source:The Hartford Advocate, 15 April 2004

“For whatever reasons, many great writers like Gissing have largely been lost to us today. Most are ‘known’ in the sense that they occasionally show up on a syllabus. And yet, most people who consider themselves ‘cultured’ will go through life unbothered by the fact that they’ve never read anything by Ivan Turgenev, Emile Zola, Willa Cather, George Eliot, Nathaniel West (Day of the Locusts should be required reading), Stephen Crane (he wrote more than Red Badge of Courage ), Theodore Dreiser (read Jennie Gerhardt and weep), James Baldwin (rage keeps him timeless), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road , set in Connecticut, is Cheever with a knockout punch), V.S. Pritchett (the best modern essayist on literature), Dwight Macdonald ( In the American Grain is one of the great works of criticism), Randall Jarrell (for his essays, like “Sad Heart at the Supermarket”), Joseph Mitchell ( Joe Gould’s Secret is a nonfiction Great Gatsby ), A.J. Liebling (food, wars, con men … what more could you want?), and Robert Graves (known for his Claudius novels, but Good-Bye to All That is among the great war memoirs).”

Bisboort goes on to write, “The following books and authors are those I’ve been most guilty over the years of obsessing over, purchasing extra copies for friends, on whom I force them”:

Jernigan, by David Gates

“… Gates’ Jernigan is one of the most fully realized ‘anti-heroes’ (remember them?) ever captured between covers. His life falling apart, his relationship with his son unraveling, Jernigan drives north into a New England winter. It’s the strangest pilgrimage since Kerouac…”

Cell 2455 Death Row, Caryl Chessman

“In the 12 years between his sentencing and his execution, Chessman lived and tirelessly labored on Death Row at San Quentin Prison, shaping one of the most remarkable bodies of work in American legal history…. Chessman was not just a good writer; he was a good thinker whose clarity of mind and ability to bring his thoughts directly to the page….”

Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler

“A masterful polemic disguised as a novel, whose theme was never more pertinent than now, with much of the world emulating the control tactics of the Soviet state that Koestler so intimately knew.”

Journey to Nowhere, Shiva Naipaul

“As a writer, Shiva was the equal of his Nobel Prize-winning older brother, V.S. In this riveting book, Shiva probes the Jim Jones “Guyana tragedy,” sparing no one, widening the target to include California consciousness-raising. He does it with a withering humor that is just this side of suppressed rage….”

Editor’s note

Carroll and Graf recently announced that it was reissuing Cell 2455 Death Row in Fall 2006, with a new introduction by Joseph Longseth.

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

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


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

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

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

Reviews and Comments

Book World, August 1951

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

Frederic Morton, New York Herald Tribune, 26 August 1951

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

Robert Pick, Saturday Review of Literature, 22 September 1951

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

Richard Plant, New York Times, 26 August 1951

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

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

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

    “Rediscover some of the underappreciated children’s classics of the past,” by Karen MacPherson

    Source: “Rediscover some of the underappreciated children’s classics of the past,” by Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Tuesday, May 30, 2000

    “Every once in a while, however, it’s good to take a step back and rediscover some of the underappreciated classics of the past. It’s a bit like finding buried treasure. Two such treasures are Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright (Dell, $4.50) and Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16). Thimble Summer won a Newbery Medal, the most prestigious children’s book award, while Meet the Austins successfully challenged a publishing taboo.”

    Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol

    UW librarian translates classic Slovenian novel

    from University Week, Vol. 22, No. 8, Thursday, November 18, 2004 :

    It’s a novel about the founder of a sect of assassins driven by an extreme interpretation of Islam. His fanatical followers, who have a cult-like attachment to their leader, are trained to become “live daggers” in a holy war, and are promised an afterlife in paradise as a reward for their martyrdom.

    The location of this tale? Eleventh century Persia. And the novel itself, a fictionalized account of a real historical personage (sometimes called the world’s first political terrorist), was written in 1938 by Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol. Now, thanks to the work of a UW librarian, the novel, titled Alamut, is available in English for the first time.

    Michael Biggins, Slavic and East European librarian and affiliate professor of Slavic languages and literatures, spent the last 18 months translating the nearly-forgotten novel that in the past 20 years has been recognized as a classic in Slovene literature….

    Bartol’s work was written as Slovenia saw the rise of totalitarianism in three of its neighbors, Italy, Germany and Russia. “The novel,” Biggins says, “is sui generis, unlike anything else published in Slovenia up to that time. It is an exploration, in novel form, of the nature of totalitarianism, and the ways that political power can manipulate the public’s consciousness,” and, he said, “resonates with 20th and 21st century experience in many ways.”

    The main character is portrayed as sympathetic, a well-read man with great humor and intelligence. “The novel doesn’t supply any ready answers or snap refutations of totalitarianism,” Biggins says. “In fact, the trappings of totalitarianism are portrayed as quite appealing.”

    Even after examining the novel at the microscopic level of a translator, Biggins still finds it “delightful. It is well crafted, and being that close to it was a pleasure.”

    The publisher is Seattle’s Scala House. The publisher’s representative walked into Biggins’ office one day looking for the Slavic Studies librarian, to see if Biggins knew a suitable translator. Biggins, who has many book-length translations to his credit as well as numerous poems and short stories, jumped at the opportunity. “I’d known about Alamut for at least 15 years. It had become a cult classic in Yugoslavia in the 1980s.”

    Note: You can find out more about Alamut at the Scala House Press website:


    First published sixty years ago, Alamut is a literary classic by Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol, a deftly researched and presented historical novel about one of the world’s first political terrorists, 11th century Ismaili leader Hasan ibn Sabbah, whose machinations with drugs and carnal pleasures deceived his followers into believing that he would deliver them to a paradise in the afterlife, so that they would destroy themselves in suicide missions for him. Flawlessly translated into English (and also published in eighteen other languages), Alamut portrays even the most Machiavellian individuals as human – ruthless or murderous, but also subject to human virtues, vices, and tragedies. An afterword by Michael Biggins offering context on the author’s life, the juxtaposition of his writing to the rise of dictatorial conquest that would erupt into World War II, and the medly of reactions to its publication, both in the author’s native Slovenia and worldwide, round out this superb masterpiece. An absolute must-have for East European literature shelves, and quite simply a thoroughly compelling novel cover to cover.

    Midwest Book Review

    This novel is loosely based on the life of 11th-century Ismailite Hasan ibn Sabbah, whom some credit with masterminding the idea of suicide missions and whose very name, by some accounts, has given rise to the word “assassin.”

    Before tackling this novel, Bartol engaged in a decade of research. He offers interesting insights into the origins of the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam, and — writing as he was during the ascension of totalitarianism in Europe — he also conveys broader meditations on the nature of fanaticism.

    For all of its provocative ideas and sometimes eerily prescient incidents, “Alamut” is also successful simply as an entertaining yarn.

    Bartol devises a shifting collage of passions, adventure and sacrifice. The book’s exotic settings are sumptuously described, and the characters are charismatic and complex — despite the fervent aims of some of them to subscribe to single-minded devotion.

    The Seattle Times

    Locate a copy

    Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol
    Seattle: Scala House Press, 2004

    The Great American Novel, by Clyde Brion Davis


    In my year as a newspaper reporter I have interviewed several other prominent men, but they were as chaff blown in the wind. Probably the most famous of these was Admiral George Dewey, hero of Manila Bay.

    Admiral Dewey was here to make a speech and I interviewed him at Hotel Lafayette. He is scarcely taller than I, but quite bulky. He seemed pompous and imperious. I did not like him.

    I tried to talk to him about the destruction of the Spanish fleet in the Philippines.

    “Everybody knows about that,” he blurted. “Happened eight years ago. Every school child knows all about it. Silly to write anything more.

    “What the papers need to print is that Admiral Dewey says we need a bigger navy. Write that. Write that Admiral Dewey says we need more ships and more men. We’re rich and we can afford it.”

    I said, “Admiral, don’t you think we have a pretty good navy now?”

    He twisted one prong of his big white mustache and glared at me. When he is thinking about something else Admiral Dewey is a rather placid and comfortable-looking man. But he fancies himself as a fierce old sea dog. So he looked fierce at me and growled, “Pretty good! Fellow, I’ll have you understand the United States has got the best navy in the world.”

    “Well,” I asked, “why, then, do we need a bigger navy?”

    He shook his head in disgust. “We’ve got to have a still bigger navy because we’re the richest nation on earth. The whole world is healous of us. And we’ve got to keep them afraid. But one of our American ships is equal to two of most nations’. Take our enlisted men. They’re all young Americans. You know what that means?”

    “Well,” I said, “I suppose–”

    He interrupted me. He hadn’t asked the question to find out what I thought. He wasn’t a bit interested in what I thought about anything. He made that quite plain.

    “It means,” he said, “that if all the offiers in the fleet were killed the enlisted men could fight the ships and do it successfully. The United States navy takes only the cream of the nation’s youth.”

    He looked me up and down pointedly. “The navy will take no skinny, undersized men. A man lacking in bodily vigor is usually lacking in mental vigor. The navy wants only those young men who may work up to command. A man has got to be well-nigh perfect physically before he even gets by the recruiting officer.”

    Of course I was there to meet a great man and to get an interview, but it seemed to me he was making a deliberate attempt to affront me because of my physical limitations. So I looked him up and down pointedly also. And I said, “I presume, Admiral, that must be a rather recent ruling?”

    My sarcasm was lost. “Not at all,” he said, “not at all. That ruling has been a tradition with the United States navy. It used to be iron men and wooden ships. Now it is steel men and steel ships.”


    Great American Novel is the journal of a newspaper reporter and editor over the course of nearly 40 years. Early on, he falls in love with a girl in his neighborhood, but through a silly misunderstanding, comes to think she has spurned him and takes off for another town in spite.

    He never does reunite with her. He ends up marrying and having children, but continues throughout his years to fantasize about the love that might have been. In the end, he learns that she has died, having married after–probably–giving up hope for his return.

    Davis tries to make an ironic point about his protagonist living the Great American Novel through all the years that he kept meaning to sit down and write one. And he does manage to convey a pretty vivid account of American life from the 1900s to the late 1930s. But there isn’t much beef to the Homer, his lead character, so perhaps Davis’ joke is on us as much as on the protagonist.


    Time, June 6, 1938:

    A solemn sap, scrawny, cartoon-faced Homer Zigler was a 23-year-old, $1-a-week cub reporter on a Buffalo newspaper when he decided to become a novelist. But first, said Homer, “to the purpose of preparing myself for that career,” he would keep a journal. “The Great American Novel—” is the journal—a satire that starts off by tagging after Ring Lardner, turns off on an oily road marked Irony-&-Pity, skids into caricature, and comes to a happy halt as the June choice of the Book-of-the-Month Club—as did Author Davis’ first novel, The Anointed, a bare ten months ago.

    Homer’s dogging muse is his blonde sweetheart, Fran, who “is sure I shall become a novelist of the Irving Bacheller type—which is exactly the goal at which I am aiming.” When the next best-seller type appears, he aims at it (“I can learn much of style from David Grayson,” he writes). In 1936, 30 years later, his aim is still waving around, but he hasn’t fired a shot. He just goes on filling his journal with fatuous, trite, sentimental, philistine, ingenuous, graphic practice notes: about newspaper jobs in Cleveland, San Francisco, Denver, everything from news happenings to a synopsis of his novel (a stupendous family chronicle from Jeremiah I to Jeremiah IV), from election returns to querulous data on his wife’s raising the baby on candy, from denunciations of automobiles and airplanes to pompous credos favoring Democracy. Typical of his talent is his alibi for hanging around his Kansas City landlady’s daughter: “When a man denies himself all feminine companionship,” reflects Homer, “he is likely to warp his cosmos.”

    The really important entries in Homer’s journal, recurring about once a week, are his dreams of his old sweetheart Fran. These dreams start soon after he runs away from Buffalo, jealous because she talked to another boy. Homer believes his visions are mystic bulletins telling in exact detail what happens to her; he is, of course, 100% wrong. When, in one of them, Fran’s clothesline breaks, Homer writes severely: “I should think Clark [her dream husband] could at least put up a wire clothesline for her.”

    Toward the last third of the journal, when Homer is in his 40s, he begins reading Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, Hemingway, confesses that his “whole attitude toward literature is undergoing a renascence.” When, despite his sobered new outlook, he continues right up to his sudden end to be almost as dumb as ever, most readers will call his story a libel on even the most fatuous of would-be novelists.

    Locate a copy

    The Great American Novel, by Clyde Brion Davis
    New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1938

    The Bottom of the Harbor, Joseph Mitchell


    from “The Rivermen”:
    There are six or seven large factories in Shadyside and six or seven small ones. The Aluminum Company factory is by far the largest, and there is something odd about it. It is made up of a group of connecting buildings arranged in a U, with the prongs of the U pointed toward the river, and inside the U, covering a couple of acres, is an old cemetery. This is the Edgewater Cemetery.
    Most of the old families in Edgewater have plots in it, and some still have room in their plots and continue to bury there. The land on which Edgewater is situated and the land for some distance along the river above and below it was settled in the seventeenth century by Dutch and Huguenot farmers. Their names are on the older gravestones in the cemetery–Bourdetts and Vreelands and Bogerts and Van Zandts and Wandells and Dyckmans and Westervelts and Demarests. According to tradition, the Bourdette family came in the sixteen-thirties–1638 is the date that is usually specified–and was the first one there; the name is now spelled Burdette or Burdett. Some of the families came over from Manhattan and some from down around Hoboken. They grew grain on the slopes, and planted orchards in the shelter of the Palisades. In the spring, during the shad and sturgeon runs, they fished, and took a large part of their catch to the city. The section was hard to get to, except by water, and it was rural and secluded for a long time. In the early eighteen-hundreds, some bluestone quarries were opened, and new people, most of whom were English, began to come in a settle down and intermarry with the old farming and fishing families. They were followed by Germas, and then by Irish straight from Ireland. Building stones and paving blocks and curbing for New York City were cut in the quarries and carried to the city on barges–paving blocks from Edgewater are still in place, under layers of asphalt, on many downtown streets. Some of the new people worked in the quarries, some worked on the barges, some opened blacksmith shops and made and repaired gear for the quarries and the barges, some opened boatyards, and some opened stores. The names of dozens of families who were connected with these enterprises in one way of another are on gravestones in the newer part of the cemetery; Allison, Annett, Carlock, Cox, Egg, Forsyth, Gaul, Goetchius, Hawes, Hewitt, Jenkins, Stevens, Truax, and Winterburn are a few. Some of these families died out, some moved away, and some are still flourishing. The enterprises themselves disappeared during the first two decades of this century; they were succeeded by the Shadyside factories.

    The land surrounding the Edgewater Cemetery was once part of a farm owned by the Vreeland family, and the Aluminum Company bought this land from descendants of a Winterburn who married a Vreeland. As a condition of the sale, the company had to agree to provide perpetual access to the cemetery.
    To reach it, funerals go through the truck gate of the factory and across a freight yard and up a cement ramp. It is a lush old cemetery, and peaceful, even though the throb of machinery can be felt in every corner of it. A part-time caretaker does a good deal of gardening in it, and he likes bright colors. For borders, he uses the same gay plants that are used in flower beds at race tracks and seaside hotels–cannas, blue hydrangeas, scarlet sage, and cockscomb. Old men and old women come in the spring, with hoes and rakes, and clean off their family plots and plant old-fashioned flowers on them. Hollyhocks are widespread. Asparagus has been planted here and there, for its feathery, ferny sprays. One woman plants sunflowers. Coarse, knotty, densely tangled rosebushes grow on several plots, hiding graves and gravestones. The roses that they produce are small and fragile and extraordinarily fragrant, and have waxy red hips almost as big as crab apples. Once, walking through the cemetery, I stopped and talked with an old woman who was down on her knees in her family plot, setting out some bulbs at the foot of a grave, and she remarked on the age of the rosebushes. “I believe some of the ones in here now were in here when I was a young woman, and I am past eighty,” she said. “My mother–this is her grave–used to say there were rosebushes just like these all over this section when she was a girl. Along the riverbank, beside the roads, in people’s yards, on fences, in waste places. And she said her mother–that’s her grave over there–told her she had heard from her mother that all of them were descended from one bush that some poor uprooted woman who came to this country back in the Dutch times potted up and brought along with her. There used to be a great many more in the cemetery than there are now–they overran everything–and every time my mother visited the cemetery she would stand and look at them and kind of laugh. She thought they were a nuisance. All the same, for some reason of her own, she admired them, and enjoyed looking at them. ‘I know why they do so well in here,’ she’d say. ‘They’ve got good strong roots that go right down into the graves.'”

    Comments–from A Reader’s Delight, by Noel Perrin

    “Mitchell [was] a North Carolinian who became a New Yorker. He went straight from the University of North Carolina to a New York newspaper [The New York Herald Tribune–ed.]. First a reporter, he quickly turned into a feature writer, and then he became an essayist, the best in the city. [He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1938 and remained with the magazine until his death in 1996, although his last piece for the magazine was published in 1965–ed.]. Some think he was … the best in the country. Others, more temperate, put him in a tie for first with John McPhee.

    Before he ceased to publish, Mitchell brought out five books. At least two of them are masterpieces: McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon and The Bottom of Harbor. I love them both, but I love The Bottom of the Harbor more. I’ve reread it every three or four years for twenty-five years, and my opinion of it is still climbing.

    The book contains six long essays, all connected with the waterfront. One–the only one some lesser person might have written–is abouut rats: the three varieties that inhabit New York, spread plagues, come and go on ships. That piece is merely brilliant reporting.

    The other five are a kind of writing for which there is no name. Each tells a story, and is dramatic; each is both wildly funny and so sad you can hardly bear it; each tells its story so much in the words of its characters that it feels like a kind of apotheosis of oral history. Finally, like the Icelandic sagas, each combines a fierce joy in the physicality of living with a stoical awareness that all things physical end in death, usually preceded by years of diminishment. One winds up admiring Mitchell’s characters (all real people), loving them, all but weeping for them, maybe hoping to live as gallantly.

    … Mitchell, who has a genius for finding real-life metaphors, tells you early on about an old graveyard in the lower part of the town. It’s quite a large one, and it’s still in use. It is entirely surrounded, however, by a modern factory–a huge one, belonging to the Aluminum Company of America. The cemetery forms a two-acre garden in the middle. Funerals go in an out through the factory gate, as do people visiting graves or people who simply want to picnic in the beautiful old graveyard. That was part of the agreement when the company bought part of what was once the Vreeland farm.

    Not only that, there are rosebushes in there, descended from a rosebush that came from Holland in the 1630s. Or so, at least, Mitchell hears from an old woman whom he meets (and naturally gets to know) while she is gardening in the graveyard.

    Mitchell himself could be called a gardener in a graveyard, if that didn’t make him sound much more lugubrious and much less fun to read than he actually is. … I do know that Mitchell has the gift of making roses bloom in the darkest and most unexpected places.”

    Locate a copy

    The Bottom of the Harbor, by Joseph Mitchell
    Boston: Little, Brown, 1959

    The Evolution Man, by Roy Lewis

    · Excerpt
    · Editor’s Comments
    · Other Comments
    · Find Out More
    · Locate a Copy


    The entire horde, we saw with relief, was at home and sitting round the fire, which was, however, spitting, sizzling and crackling in a most extraordinary manner. Every now and then an aunt arose, stuck a green stick into the embers and drew it forth again with a chunk of burning material on the end.

    “Why, that’s a shoulder of horse,” gasped Oswald.

    “And that’s a loin of antelope,” I replied. We took the last mile at a run, and, with our mates hotfoot behind us, burst into the family circle.

    “Welcome home, my dears,” shouted Father, starting up.

    “Just in time for dinner,” cried Mother, and there were tears of joy on her dear, soot-streaked face. Then there was such a shouting, hugging, sniffing, embracing and laughing. “Clementina? Oswald is a lucky man!” “And who is Miss Bright Eyes? Griselda? Just what Ernest needs, my dear!” “Petronella? but her figure is superb–who’s have thought our Alexander could get a girl like that to look at him!” “And Honoria? Well, well, how nice–and what is this you have brought us? A lovely big rock? But how thoughtful of you, dear, to bring us anything,” and so on, until I made my voice heard.

    “Mother! Why on earth are you using good meat for firewood?”

    “Oh, Ernest, I quite forgot my joint in all the excitement; I’m afraid it will be dreadfully overdone–” and she hastily disengaged herself from the mêlée and pulled a great, smoking hunk of antelope from the fire.

    “Oh, dear,” she said, inspecting it. “This side is burnt to cinders.”

    “Never mind, my love,” said Father. “You know I like a bit of crackling. I’ll take the outside with pleasure.”

    “But what are you talking about?” I implored them.

    “Talking about? Cooking, of course!”

    “What’s cooking?” I inquired patiently.

    “The dinner,” said Father. “Oh, of course, now I come to think of it, your mother hadn’t invented it before you boys went away. Cooking, my sons, is–well–is a way of preparing game before you eat it; it’s an entirely novel method of reducing–er–ligaments and muscles to a more friable form for mastication–and–er–”

    He frowned, and then a happy smile broke on his face. “But after all, why am I trying to explain it? The proof of the roast is in the eating. Just try some and see.”

    My brothers and our mates were crowding round the strange, aromatic piece of meat which Mother now proffered to us. The girls who had already shied at the fire, backed timidly away; but Oswald boldly seized the joint, raised it to his muzzle, sank his teeth into it and tore away a piece. Immediately his face went crimson; he spluttered, choked, gasped, swallowed violently, dropped the joint (which Mother neatly caught) and writhed in agony; water ran out of his eyes and he madly pawed his mouth and throat.

    “Oh, sorry, Oswald,” said Father. “Of course, you didn’t know. I ought to have mentioned it’s hot.”

    Editor’s Comments

    The Evolution Man is one of my favorite things in the world: a superbly well-crafted joke. A well-crafted joke wastes not a word, yet usually manages to encompass some fundamental flip of logic, twist of phrase, or shift of perspective, such as:

    Two atoms are walking along when one cries out, “I’ve lost an electron!”

    The other atom asks, “Are you sure?”

    “Yes, I’m positive.”

    In The Evolution Man, Roy Lewis tells the story of “the greatest ape-man of the Pleistocene era”–at least, in the view of his family. Now, when most novelists approach the problem of writing a modern novel set in prehistory, they quickly have to confront a rather ugly practical fact: how do you write about something that took place before there was such a thing as writing? And how on Earth do you write dialogue when, as far as we know, it was all a matter of grunts and shrieks?

    The default answer seems to be to create some crude subset of modern English loosely related to what the Indians speak in Hollywood westerns: “Antelope run from great noise. White man carry big fire stick.”

    Lewis dispensed with such artificial devices. To him, the tale of prehistoric man could only be told in his own tongue. The fact that it turned out to be purest Oxbridge English was simply a lucky accident:

    We were often hard put to it to keep up the supply of fuel for a big fire, even though a good edge on quartzite will cut through a four-inch bough of cedar in ten minutes; it was the elephants and mammoths who kept us warm with their thoughtful habit of tearing up trees to test the strength of their tusks and trunks. Elephas antiquus was even more given to this than is the modern type, for he was still hard at it evolving, and there is nothing that an evolving animal worries about more than how his teeth are getting along.

    That prehistoric man also grasped concepts such as the measurement of time and distance, the classification of species, and evolution also goes a long way towards eliminating many of the discomfiting aspects of having to understand the situation of beings related to us through only genetics and deeply-buried instinctive psychology.

    Thus, instead of fumbling around at several removes from the characters, we are blessed with an eloquent and perceptive narrator–Ernest. A likable chap just on the cusp of manhood, Ernest is one of a band of ape-men and -women struggling to survive near the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in the days when “the great ice-cap was still advancing.”

    Ernest’s father, Edward, is the head of the band, and it is Edward’s ambitions that fuel the central conflict of the novel. Edward and his brother, Vanya, carry on a running argument: “Each went his own way, firmly convinced that the other was tragically mistaken about the direction in which the anthropoid species was evolving….”

    The argument escalates suddenly when Vanya drops out of the trees to confront Edward’s latest discovery: fire.

    “You’ve done it now, Edward,” he rumbled. “I might have gueesed this would happen sooner or later, but I suppose I thought there was a limit even to your folly. But of course I was wrong! I’ve only got to turn my back on you for an hour and I find you up to some freshy idiocy. And now this! Edward, if ever I warned you before, if ever I begged you, as your elder brother, to think again before you continued on your catastrophic course, to amend your life before it involved you and yours in irretrievable disaster, let me say now, with tenfold emphasis: Stop!”

    Edward himself is skeptical of Vanya’s premonitions: “I mean, is this really the turning point? I thought it might be, but it’s hard to be quite sure. Certainly a turning point in the ascent of man, but is it the?”

    For Vanya, however, fire is the first step down a slippery slope that can only lead to mass destruction: “This could end anywhere. It affects everybody. Even me. You might burn down the forest with it.”

    Control of technology, it turns out, has been an issue for quite some time. Fire proves a lovely innovation, enabling the family to wrest a cozy cave from a band of bears, but it takes quite some effort at first. Each time the fire goes out, Edward has to hike up to the top of the nearest volcano to light a new torch and convey the flame, stage by stage, back to the cave.

    The family is happy to enjoy the comfort and safety of the cave and fire, but Edward is ever restless. He sees only one direction in which to move: forward. He is ever mindful of the evolutionary imperative:

    “The secret of modern industry lies in the intelligent utilization of by-products,” he would remark frowning, and then in a bound he would seize some infant crawling on all fours, smack it savagely, stand it upright, and upbraid my sisters: “When will you realize that at two they should be toddlers? I tell you we must train out this instinctual tendency to revert to quadrupedal locomotion. Unless that is lost all is lost! Our hands, our brains, everything! We started walking upright back in the Miocene, and if you think I am going to tolerate the destruction of millions of years of progress by a parcel of idle wenches, you are mistaken. Keep that child on his hind legs, miss, or I’ll take a stick to your behind, see if I don’t.”

    This zeal for progress eventually leads Edward to gather his older sons, including Oswald, and lead them away from the cave. After a trek of many days, he brings them to a halt, announcing to the boys, “It is time you found mates and started families of your own for the sake of the species; and that is why I have brought you here. Not twenty miles to the south there is another horde…”

    The boys protest: “People always mate with their sisters,” one cries. “It’s the done thing.”

    “Not any more,” responds Edward. “Exogamy begins right here.”

    Edward sets his sons in search of mates, at the threat of a run-through with his trusty spear. Off they head, each chasing an ape-girl over hill and dale, until they encounter “one of the very greatest discoveries of the Middle Pleistocene”: love.

    Cheerfully mated, the brothers head back to the camp with their women, and in the scene excerpted above, find the family yet further evolved through the invention of cooking. Eating cooked meat brings unexpected benefits, including healthier teeth, better digestion–and leisure.

    The family masters group hunting, and celebrates its new members with a great feast of elephant, antelope, and bison, sauced with berries, blood, and aepyornis eggs. Edward rises to offer an after-dinner speech brimming with hubris: “To every other species we cry: Beware! Either you shall be our slaves or you shall disappear from the surface of the earth. We will be master here; we will outfight, outthink, outmanoeuvre, outpropagate and outevolve you! That is our policy and there is no other.”

    “Yes there is,” Vanya retorts. “Back to the trees.”

    As ever, pride goeth before the fall. A few days later, Edward and one of his sons discover the magical combination of flint and lodestone. They make their own fire, and run back to the family bursting with pride: “We’ve done it! Hurrah! Hurrah! We’ve done it!”

    Unfortunately, Edward lacks the foresight to envision the cautions of Smokey the Bear. Vanya’s direst predictions come true, and the family finds itself on a forced migration in search of new hunting grounds. Perfectly wonderful new grounds it does eventually find, but these, inconveniently, already have occupants. This leads to the dilemma: to share the secret of fire or not?

    Edward the booster’s reaction can be expected, but how the family resolves the dilemma is not. And therein lies the great twist in this joke. Progress, it turns out, is not inevitable. (I would leave it at that, but the title of the French translation of The Evolution Man telegraphs the punchline: Pourquoi j’ai mangé mon père).

    Despite his hand in Edward’s demise, Ernest does note, with respect, “that in his passing he helped to shape the basic social institutions of parricide and patriphagy which give continuity both to the community and to the individual.”

    Plato’s parable of the cave may predate The Evolution Man by a few thousand years–but Roy Lewis’ version is inifinitely funnier.

    Note: The Evolution Man was recommended on Crooked Timber’s “A different book list.”

    Other Comments

    · Review of The Evolution Man by novelist David Louis Edelman:

    While Roy Lewis’s The Evolution Man is filled with Cro-Magnon humor, the book has much more simmering in its prehistoric pot than gags about stone tablet typewriters. Beneath its mammoth-skin covering, the book wrestles with the very idea of technology and how far humanity should take it, from the point of view of a culture where turning back to all fours was a tangible possibility.

    · Terry Pratchett on The Evolution Man, from “Close Encounters: Eminent writers, editors and critics choose some favorite works of fantasy and science fiction”, The Washington Post, Sunday, 7 April 2002:

    I first read The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis (in and out of print all the time — a Web search is advised!) in 1960. It contains no starships, no robots, no computers, none of the things that some mainstream critics think sf is about — but it is the hardest of hard-core science fiction, the very essence. It’s also the funniest book I have ever read, and it showed me what could be done. It concerns a few hectic years in the life of a family of Pleistocene humanoids. They’ve learned to walk upright and now they’re ready for the big stuff — fire, cookery, music, arts and the remarkable discovery that you shouldn’t mate with your sister. Because it’s too easy, says Father, the visionary horde leader. You can’t get a head of water without damming the stream. In order to progress humanity must create inhibitions, frustrations and complexes, and drive itself out of an animal Eden. To rise, we must screw ourselves up. Nonsense, says his apelike brother Uncle Vanya. Get back to the trees, it’ll all end in tears! And so the debate rages under the prehistoric sky until, one day, someone invents the bow and arrow. . . . And we know what happened next. The debate continues. But never has it been put so well as in this insightful book.

    Find Out More

    Locate a Copy

    The Evolution Man, by Roy Lewis
    London: Penguin Books, 1963

    First published as What We Did to Father
    London: Hutchinson, 1960

    Also published as Once Upon an Ice Age
    London: Terra Nova Books, 1979

    House of All Nations, by Christina Stead


    The only political shadows were the first great Japanese attack on Manchuria and the terrifying rise of Hitlerism in the May, 1932, elections. All those who had been depending on German Social-Democracy, and on a return to liberalism or monarchy financed by Germany’s creditor states, were bitterly disappointed; at this moment the wing of terror spread its shadow over Europe, and the governing classes, in despair since 1929, began to see that Fascism was not simply an expedient to be used on a lackadaisical southern people, but a real salvation for their property. At this time the socialist friends of Alphendery began to tremble; the wisest predicted a hundred years of domination. Jules even became captious and cruel and couldn’t bear Alphendery to mention socialism or to wish the comfort of it all….

    “If the stock exchange is abolished,” said Jules, “men like me will always set up a black bourse: it will come back. What you dream of are opium-den dreams, and besides you’re wasting time … You can make money … That’s what I want you to do … none of yur communist friends has ever made money, and so what brains have they? Forget them. You’re working for me!”

    Alphendery laughed with contempt. “Jules, don’t worry. You’ve got time. There are plenty of tricks they can and will pull yet: every measure designed not for economic recovery but to put up the market, as if that were the first reality of economics, not merely the mercury of the middle classes…. This is the period of effrontery of capitalism and you think right, Jules, you’ve got the general line!”

    “Yes,” said Jules, cooling. “I know it won’t last long, and I won’t last long; my three sons will be engineers, don’t fret! This is the day of the short-play heroes. No more Rhodes and houses of Rothschild!”

    Comments from Michael Upchurch’s essay in Rereadings, edited by Anne Fadiman

    “It was an odd sensation, more than two decades after first encountering House of All Nations, to look again at a book that had shaped me in such serious and absurd ways, for it unerringly revealed how much one can’t know, or can’t remember, about one’s own reading and writing.

    “In House of All Nations, it is this very lack of judgment that in collusion with her giddy, caustic humor, allows Stead to probe so deeply. The book may feel like an indictment, but it’s not an indictment of particular characters–it’s an indictment of a society in economic anarchy that is heading inexorably toward war. Her characters, as they see it, are just making the best of a bad hand….

    “A second reading confirms how well assembled the book is, how deftly Stead juggles her vast cast and her many narrative strands, and how clearly she keeps a subplot’s pivotal details before the reader over a stretch of five hundred pages or more. A second reading also reveals a vein of the book that somehow escaped my notice the first time around, or else had faded from memory: the finely shaded and loving tribute it pays to European and Levantine Jewry. … More than half the main characters in House are Jewish, and they compose a rich mosaic of personalities and types–some rascally, some generous, some observers of their faith, others ebulliently cynical.

    “Everywhere there is a sense that an intrinsic part of European character is being squeezed into an impossible corner. Stead had no way of imagining the particulars of the death-camp horrors in store. Yet she, like her characters, sensed something awful, just over the horizon, with a conviction approaching clairvoyance….

    “Clearly, House of All Nations does plenty of things I’ll never be able to do. For a start, it catches me up passionately in a subject matter that, on the surface, I have no interest in as a reader and no talent for as a writer. (Surely this is one definition of a great book.) It shows me that in the right hands, even the most unpromising topics–wheat shipments, letters of credit–can give rise to fictional wizardry.

    “For the longest time, I have to admit, the book misled me. It was a holy grail, a talisman, a reference point, and I embraced it the same way I’ve stepped aboard the wrong train, eager to begin my journey but headed in the wrong direction. I remain in awe of House of All Nations, knowing I’m not likely to pull off anything like it.

    “But after all, there’s no need; it’s already been done.”

    Locate a copy

    House of All Nations, by Christina Stead
    First published New York: The Viking Press, 1938

    Publishers of Neglected Books

    Angel Classics

    Angel Classics was started in 1982 by Antony Wood, an editor and translator from Russian and German, who “felt passionately that much good literature of the past, especially foreign literature, tended to be passed over by publishers in favour of what was more modern and usually less lasting, and that a high proportion of published translations were poor or outdated.” Angel Classic’s short list includes the majority of the works of the German novelists Theodor Fontane and Theodor Storm now available in English.

    Black Squirrel Books

    A special imprint from Kent State University Press, Black Squirrel Books is devoted to “reprints of valuable studies of Ohio and its people, including historical writings, literary studies, biographies, and literature.” Which in and of itself wouldn’t rate a mention here were it not for the fact that the series includes two reissues from the once-legendary tough-guy writer, Jim Tully, who wrote trailer-trash fiction well before trailer parks were invented, and who gave Hemingway and other artistes the space to experiment with brutality, violence, and bare-boned sexuality with gutsy novels like Laughter in Hell and Circus Parade.

    Canongate Books

    This mainstream UK publisher also keeps a good chunk of what it calls the Scottish canon in print with its Canongate Classics.

    Capuchin Classics

    A fine UK press “reviving great works of fiction which have been unjustly forgotten or neglected.” Among their reissues are such worthy long-lost works as Eric Linklater’s comedy, Juan in America and Tom Stacey’s elegaic The Man Who Knew Everything. You can also find Capuchin’s blog online at

    Crippen and Landru

    A small press based in Norfolk, Virginia, whose Lost Classics series showcases outstanding collections of short detective fiction from the past.

    Eland Books

    Owned and run by travel writers John Hatt, Rose Baring, and Barnaby Rogerson, Eland “specializes in keeping the classics of travel literature in print.” Although its list has well under a hundred titles, Eland easily takes the first place award when it comes to bringing long-lost travel books of particular excellence back to print.

    Faber Finds

    Debuting June 2008, Faber Finds is the most ambitious venture into republication of neglected classics since the launch of NYRB Classics. Starting with 100 titles chosen by Faber’s editors and authors such as Wendy Cope, Jan Morris, Andrew Motion and Brian Friel, the series promises to carry out with even more titles, inviting readers to submit their own nominees by emailing them at [email protected].

    1500 Books

    Founded by two veterans of the publishing business, Eileen Bertelli and Gavin Caruthers, 1500 Books’ list is devoted to the art of the memoir: “We believe memoirs—when it’s a good story, well told—can be some of the most compelling reading you will ever experience.” Their star release so far is the reissue of Lucy Norton’s three-volume 1967 English translation of one of the juiciest memoirs ever written, that of King Louis XIV’s advisor, the Duc de Saint Simon: 1691-1709: Presented to the King; 1710-1715: The Bastards Triumphant; and 1715-1723: Fatal Weakness.

    Graywolf Press

    A strong independent press based in the Pacific Northwest, Graywolf published a series of “rediscoveries” between 1996 and 2002.

    Hesperus Press

    Independent publishers specialising in new translations of European works, contemporary British, American and European literary fiction, and lesser-known classics. As Lyn put it in her I Prefer Reading blog, “Hesperus Press books are also beautiful. They’re all around 100pp long, the cover photos are gorgeous, the paper is creamy & I love the French flaps (I think that’s what they’re called) that make the book a little sturdier than a paperback but not as heavy as a hardback.” As of March 2010, however, their website had been “under construction” for months.

    Mercury House

    Mercury House, a Literary Arts Project, is a nonprofit press based in San Francisco that’s released a number of titles in its “Neglected Literary Classics” series, including George Sand’s Horace, The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson (nom de plume of Ethel Richardson), and Fantastic Tales, the first English translation of stories by I.U. Tarchetti, who was known as the Italian Edgar Allan Poe.

    The Neversink Library, from Melville House Publishing

    Named after a ship in Melville’s early novel, White-Jacket, the Neversink Library, according to the series’ webpage, “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored. They are issued in handsome, well-designed editions at reasonable prices in hopes of their passing from one reader to another – and further enriching our culture.”

    NYRB Classics

    An outstanding series of reissues from NYRB Books, the publishing arm of the New York Review of Books. Unknown Masterpieces, one of the Sources for this site, collects introductory essays from some of its first three-dozen titles. In 2003, the press initiated a parallel series of children’s classics, bringing back long-out-of-print titles by Esther Averill, Eleanor Farjeon, and others.

    Northwestern University Press’ European Classics series

    A remarkable series of novels and short story collections by European authors from the last 200 years, including a number of forgotten prizewinners such as Nobel Prize winning authors Grazia Deledda and Ivan Bunin and Eastern European authors such as Karel Capek, Bohumil Hrabal, Ilf and Petrov, and Leonid Dobychin.

    The Overlook Press

    Launched in 1971 by Peter Mayer as a home for distinguished books that had been “overlooked” by larger houses, Overlook has brought back a number of neglected classics, including most of the novels of Joseph Roth and the “Freddy the Pig” series of childrens’ book by Walter R. Brooks. In particular, its Tusk Ivory series features books the editors at Overlook feel have continuing value, books usually dropped by other publishers because of “the realities of the marketplace,” and includes a number of titles listed on this site.

    Paul Dry Books

    This Philadelphia-based small press has reissued a number well-loved neglected classics, including John Collier’s His Monkey Wife and Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget

    Permanent Press

    Home of the Second Chance Press, whose catalog of reissues is one of the Sources for this site.

    Persephone Books

    Founded by Nicola Beauman, the author of A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39, Persephone prints mainly forgotten fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women. In the words of the publisher’s website, “The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial. The books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget.”

    SUNY Press

    The State University of New York (SUNY) Press, among its many recent, mostly academic, releases, has published a number of little-known or forgotten titles, particularly in its Women Writers in Translation series, which so far has brought out some titles in English translation for the first time, such as The Ravine, by Nivaria Tejera, a gripping novel depicting a child’s experience of the Spanish Civil War.

    Tam Tam Books

    Tam Tam Books “specializes in 20th Century international literature and is devoted to the purpose of reprinting lost masterpieces and presenting them to a large English speaking audience.” Their catalog so far includes works by Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian, and Guy Debord.

    Traviata Books

    With a small but growing catalog, Traviata Books specialises in “republishing works, mainly from the 19th century, which have been unjustly forgotten – either completely, or because their authors are now remembered for only a small part of their output.” Their titles include The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade and the intriguing Quits! by Jemima Montgomery, Baroness Tautphoeus.

    University of Michigan Press

    In what is probably the shortest (so far) series of reissues, the U of M Press began its Sweetwater Fiction: Reintroductions in 2004 under the editorship of Charles Baxter and Keith Taylor. So far, the series has all of three titles: Castle Nowhere, by Constance Fenimore Woolson; A Frieze of Girls by Allan Seager; and Sherwood Anderson’s memoir, A Story Teller’s Story.

    University of Nebraska Press

    This fine unversity press supports neglected books on several fronts. First, it has long kept the works of the native Nebraskan and fine novelist Wright Morris in print. And second, its Bison Frontiers of Imagination has reissued over 50 titles of pioneering — and often long-unavailable — works of early speculative and science fiction.

    Valancourt Books

    A small publisher based in Chicago, Valancourt Books has launched three series reissuing rare works from the 18th and 19th centuries: Gothic Classics, reviving some of the lesser-known works from the great period of the Gothic novel; Irish Classics, reprinting neglected Irish novels; and Valancourt Classics, highlighting some of the rarest works, including the ultra-rare The Forest of Valancourt by Peter Middleton Darling, of which the only known copy (prior to its reissue) was held by the Bodleian Library.

    Virago Modern Classics

    For over a decade now, the Virago Press has been bringing a rich series of the works of 20th century English and American women writers back into print.

    Westholme Publishing

    A small publisher whose diverse catalog includes several reissues of long-neglected books, including William Bradford Huie’s The Execution of Private Slovik and Ladislas Farago’s tribute to his homeland, Strictly from Hungary.

    Whisky Priest Books

    Whisky Priest Books is the personal experiment in print-on-demand publishing by J. R. S. Morrison, whose Caustic Cover Critic blog celebrates the best (and castigates the worst) in today’s book cover designers. Morrison started Whisky Priest to provide “out-of-copyright books I want copies of, and which, with any luck, other people might want to read as well.” And unlike the majority of print-on-demand publishers who suck content out of Project Gutenberg and other sites and slap it into covers about as inspired as cans of generic food, Morrison puts real thought into his covers (such as for Arnold Gyde’s Contemptible).

    Other Sites about Neglected Books

    BBC Radio 4: Neglected Classics, from the Open Book series

    In 2009, BBC Radio 4’s asked ten contemporary British novelists to recommend “the books that they felt most deserved to be re-read and reinstated onto our bookshelves.” Listeners were then asked to vote for the one they most wanted to hear dramatized on Radio 4. The winner was The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, which was chosen by Michael Morpurgo. You can hear the writers explain their choices, and also hear excerpts from each book.

    British Women Novelists, 1910s-1960s: The ‘middle-brows’

    Lesley Hall’s site commemorating (in the words of Rupert Croft-Cooke), “that generation of women in literature who had earned for themselves the term woman novelist, or simply novelist, as distinct from ‘lady-novelist’ or ‘authoress'”: writers such as E.M. Delafield, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison, and Rose Macaulay, many of whose names and titles appear on this site’s lists.

    Brooks Peters [This site is no longer active. Sigh.]

    Author Brooks Peters has a knack for looking into the past and pulling out fascinating lives and stories, and regularly features well-written and illustrated pieces on neglected writers. Check his “Scribes” category in particular for hours of good reading on such characters as Beverley Nichols, George Baxt, and Theodora Keough.

    The Diary Junction

    Maintained by Paul Lyons, The Diary Junction is a wonderful resource, containing listings for over 500 diarists–from the famous (Anne Frank, Samuel Pepys) to the obscure (Kim Malthe-Bruun, a member of the Danish resistance in World War Two; Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of an 18th century Canadian administrator). Lyons also keeps up an active blog noting the publication of new diaries and other diary-related events.

    Dr Tony Shaw

    Devoted to “Mainly the Obscure, and/or mainly ‘Outsider’ and/or Experimental Literature,” Dr. Tony Shaw’s blog brings to light a number of writers unfamiliar even to me–Lionel Britton, an innovative British playwright and novelist of the 1930s; Martha Haines Butt, a young Virginian ante bellum novelist; and Stanley Middleton (perhaps not entirely obscure, but certainly underappreciated).


    My commonplace book.

    Faber Finds: The Place for Lost Books

    The blog of the Faber Finds series of print-on-demand reissues–a series that easily holds second place in the race to bring neglected books back into print (the first being, of course, the amazing New York Review Classics series).

    Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations

    A site of nothing but book lists, with dozens of categories and suggestions from the high (Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates) and the low (readers like you and me).

    Forgotten Classics

    Spun off from an occasional column in Time Out (London) magazine, the Forgotten Classics blog, started in April 2006, is devoted to “books that seem to be undeservedly forgotten, from John Galsworthy to Rose Macaulay, from Amos Tutuola to DH Lawrence, from W. Somerset Maugham to Fanny Burney.”

    How Jack London Changed My Life

    There are lots of book blogs full of reviews of the blogger’s regular diet of reading, but few with as consistent and high a portion devoted to lesser-known and out of print books as Phillip Routh’s. He’s succinct, blunt and refreshingly candid–one of the few people who’ll publicly admit to putting down a book he finds unworthy of his time (and probably ours, too).

    Lost Books

    Conceived by SF and fantasy author Orson Scott Card, Terry Nolan, and D.D. Shade, Lost Books is devoted to speculative fiction: “An ‘official’ Lost Book is one that is out of print and forgotten or back in print and forgotten. It can be a book written for young adults that is relatively unknown in mainstream speculative fiction…. one that was overlooked by the Hugo and Nebula ballots…. Or ignored by the general readership.” The site features reviews of such titles as George Stewart’s Earth Abides, Keith Roberts’ Pavane, and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.

    Lost Books, from Tablet magazine

    A series started in June 2011. Each entry examines “one lost book and the story behind it.” Among the writers covered in the early entries are Stefan Zweig, Israel Zangwill, Elsa Morante, and Sam Astrachan. The essays so far have been well-written and revealing, and I look forward to many more.

    The Lost Books Club

    Taking as its mission “To help preserve, introduce, and pass on to future generations, America’s cultural heritage by making available to the public hard-to-find, unavailable, out-of-print, or otherwise forgotten cultural works, particularly literary works,” the Lost Books Club is an offshot of The Stone Reader, Mark Moskowitz’s 2002 documentary about his quest to find out what happened to Dow Mossman, whose 1972 novel, The Stones of Summer attracted Moskowitz’s interest 25 years after its first publication.

    The Lost Club

    Advertising itself as a “Journal of Literary Archaeology,” the Lost Club’s website hasn’t been updated since 2003, but it’s still a valuable resource for its archive of articles on such neglected authors as Peter Vansittart, M.P. Shiel, Baron Corvo (Frederick Rolfe), and James Branch Cabell.

    The Modern Novel

    Devoted to “the world-wide literary novel since approximately the beginning of the twentieth century, arranged by nationality,” this site, maintained by an anonymous reader who vows, “I have no academic connections whatsoever and do not have nor ever have had any connection with the book industry, so I am not selling anything, and the only axe I have to grind is my own idiosyncratic taste.” And a prodigious knowledge of 20th century novels, everything from Abkhazia to Zimbabwe. Includes his own list of neglected books and authors. Like Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review, this is a reader to put the rest of us to shame. We are not worthy … but we are fortunate.

    Moorish Girl’s Unappreciated Books Archive

    Since late 2004, Laila Lalami, author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, has been “asking readers, writers, editors, critics, librarians, or booksellers to weigh in on a book they loved, but which has remained underappreciated.” Almost every week, contributors ranging from veteran best-sellers (Scott Turow) to simple reading enthusiasts recommend and comment upon one of their favorite neglected books.

    Open Letters Monthly

    Founded in early 2007, Open Letters Monthly is an online magazine of book reviews and criticism that consistently presents some of the most interesting and thoughtful writing on the web. Among its regular features is “Absent Friends,” a series of essays on neglected writers and books from the near and distant past. Written by Steve Donoghue, whose own SteveReads blog covers everything from Marvel Comics to Tudor poetry, “Absent Friends” is equally eclectic: from Gerald of Wales, a 12th century cleric, to the fine Civil War historian, Bruce Catton.

    Overlooked Gems of Science Fiction & Fantasy

    This page, part of Eric Walker’s Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works site, lists over 200 works of science fiction and fantasy that have fallen out of print or slipped under the critical radar.

    Postmodern Mystery

    One of several literary sites created by Ted Gioia, Postmodern Mystery is devoted to those “literary daredevils have found endless satisfaction in tinkering with the time-honored formulas of detective fiction. Their efforts transform populist fiction into high art.” Most of the writers and books covered here are well-known (Eco, Pynchon, Borges), but there are a few that will be new to almost everyone: Philip MacDonald’s The Rynox Murder, for example, and Norman N. Holland’s Death in a Delphi Seminar.


    Novelist/economist Guy Fraser-Sampson’s literary blog, which regularly features reviews of works by unjustly neglected novelists such as George Meredith and Richard Aldington.

    Reading California Fiction

    Don Napoli has created a wonderful site devoted to his admirable quest of reading his way through the archives of fiction set in California. He shares his rediscovery of some undeservedly neglected books such as Robert Carson’s The Revels are Ended and some other books you’ll be glad Don read … so that you never have to.

    Redeeming Qualities

    Started in 2007, this blog focuses on long-forgotten popular novels and children’s books from such authors as Ruth Fielding, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mary Johnston–the Danielle Steel and Meg Cabots of their days. “… [T]here are a lot of books that have been forgotten,” the blog’s author, Melody, notes. “And most of them probably weren’t very good, but I bet a lot of them were fun.” If you’re a fan of the lesser-known contents of Project Gutenberg, Melody’s an excellent guide to help you sift the wheat from the chaff.

    The Second Pass

    Started in early 2009, the Second Pass is a laudable review that recognizes that sometimes critical views are better formed a few months after the ink on the publisher’s press release has dried. One of its features, The Backlist looks back quite a bit farther and focuses on “older, sometimes unfairly neglected books.”

    Second Readings

    Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley’s occasional series in which he reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past, ranging from Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars to Laurie Colwin’s novel, Happy All the Time.

    Slightly Foxed

    Eclectic, elegant and entertaining, Slightly Foxed unearths books of lasting interest, old and new, all of them in print. Each issue contains 96 pages of personal recommendations from contributors who write with passion and wit.

    Ten Overlooked Odd Speculative Fiction Classics

    In fact, forty OOSFCs, with lists and comments each by the great English SF and fantasy author Michael Moorcock and fans Scott Cupp, Rick Klaw, and Eric Walker. Their selections include everything from Longfellow’s much-belittled “The Song of Hiawatha,” which Moorcock lauds as a work of “high-class imaginative fiction,” to Don Webb’s Uncle Ovid’s Exercise Book. Few of the titles fit with conventional notions about science fiction, and each list will undoubtedly introduce readers to some books and authors they’ve never heard of before.

    Unusual Literature

    Steven K. Baum’s collection of titles and links to other book lists he categorizes as “unusual literature,” which he defines as “stuff I like that’s a little or a lot different than most of the stuff you’ll find down at the local Books’R’Us.”

    Vintage Hardboiled Reads

    August West’s blog focuses on thrillers, mysteries, westerns, and other tough guy novels, mostly in paperbacks with lurid covers, mostly from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. Like Don Napoli’s Reading California Fiction, it’s a well-presented, well-written site whose entries manage to treat each book intelligently with a concision I envy.

    Washington Independent Review of Books

    In addition to running book reviews, The Independent also has a features section which runs original essays and guest blogs as well as author interviews in various formats (audio, video and print). Some of the features, such as a retrospective of a decade’s worth of MacArthur Genius grant winners, offer a chance to note books that have fallen out of the limelight.

    Why I Really Like This Book

    This site is run by Kate Macdonald, an English lecturer at Ghent University and “a lifelong browser in second-hand bookshops.” “Each week,” she writes, “I post a new podcast on a forgotten book that I think deserves new readers. The podcasts last for about 10 minutes, and appear in the feed first thing on a Friday.” The podcasts so far have covered such books as Vern Sneider’s Tea House of the August Moon and an obscure 1941 novella by Colette, Julie de Carneilhan.

    Writers No One Reads

    The collective effort of three Tumblr members, this blog regularly brings back from obscurity writers from the near and distant past, with a definite emphasis on European novelists, and notes that “No one reads” them. One hopes that this blog will help prove its own statements untrue.

    Zeno’s Picks

    Bob Rosenberg, the owner of Zeno’s Books, an online shop specializing in first editions and rare books, is an inveterate reader who’s as likely to reach back decades for an obscure title as to cover something still in print. Although not all his posts are about neglected books, I’d say that at least two in five are, which isn’t too bad an average by my standards.

    Fables in Slang, by George Ade


    The Fable of the Caddy Who Hurt His Head While Thinking

    One Day a Caddy sat in the Long Grass near the Ninth Hole and wondered if he had a Soul. His Number was 27, and he almost had forgotten his Real Name.

    As he sat and Meditated, two Players passed him. They were going the Long Round, and the Frenzy was upon them.

    They followed the Gutta Percha Balls with the intent swiftness of trained Bird Dogs, and each talked feverishly of Brassy Lies, and getting past the Bunker, and Lofting to the Green, and Slicing into the Bramble–each telling his own Game to the Ambient Air, and ignoring what the other Fellow had to say.

    As they did the St. Andrews Full Swing for eighty Yards apiece and they Followed Through with the usual Explanations of how it Happened, the Caddy looked at them and Reflected that they were much inferior to his Father.

    His Father was too Serious a Man to get out in Mardi Gras Clothes and hammer a Ball from one Red Flag to another.

    His Father worked in a Lumber Yard.

    He was a Earnest Citizen, who seldom Smiled, and he knew all about the Silver Question and how J. Pierpont Morgan done up a Free People on the Bond Issue.

    The Caddy wondered why it was that his Father, a really Great Man, had to shove Lumber all day and could seldom get one Dollar to rub against another, while these superficial Johnnies who played Golf all the Time had Money to Throw at the Birds. The more he Thought the more his Head ached.

    MORAL: Don’t try to Account for Anything.


    from Reader’s Delight, by Noel Perrin:

    There was no way I could talk about George Ade without beginning by quoting him. He is irresistably quotable. And not just to casual reviewers, but to Serious Novelists. For example, when Theodore Dreiser was writing Sister Carrie, he wanted to describe the traveling salesman that Carrie meets on the way to Chicago in terms that would make instantly clear how deft the fellow was at picking up girls. It was the work of a moment to lift about a page from Ade’s “Fable of the Two Mandolin Players and the Willing Performer” and insert it in his text as if written by him. (He did remove most of the capital letters. Sister Carrie is written in normal orthography, and the passage would have been Extremely Conspicuous if he had not.)

    I don’t blame Dreiser for a second, and I understand why he was so hurt when he was accuseed of plagiarism. What he said in substance was that no one ever had described a fast operator so well, and no one ever would describe one so well, so it made every kind of sense to use these marvelous words, and he was simply paying George Ade the sincerest of compliments. Besides, they were both from Indiana….

    George Ade was a famous man from a few days after Fables in Slang was published until around 1920. Rich, too. He made so much money that he bought up most of his native county in Indiana to have for a hobby–and that was just one way of spending it.

    Then he gradually dropped into obscurity–though as late as 1927, some of the fables were being syndicated as a comic strip. There are two reasons, I think. One is that success spoiled him. He published ten volumes of fables in all, and the second five aren’t nearly as good as the first five….

    The other is that his vein is a very narrow one. The best hundred or so of his fables are nearly flawless–and they would be even without the capitals, just as e.e. cummings would still be a good poet with them. But in any other form of writing he was just a competent if remarkably prolific writer….

    It is irresistable to quote George Ade. If there were more room, I would probably quote the entire fable of the Stuffer family, prosperous farm folk who move to town and attempt to continue eating in the heroic style to which they had been accustomed–and since it is one of Ade’s longest fables as well as one of his funniest, I would wind up seriously unbalancing this book. Instead I’ll merely urge you to find out what happened to the New York Person who had them trembling in Fostoria, Ohio. It’s not what a complacent eastener might suppose. There is a Turnabout of the most satisfying sort. Ade was good at that.

    For More Information

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    Fables in Slang, by George Ade
    New York. Duffield & Company, 1899

    Proud Destiny, by Lion Feuchtwanger


    The Theatre francais advertised the first public performance of The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro by Monsieur de Beaumarchias. Admission free. The cost would be met by the King.

    This announcement was greeted with astonishment, laughter, exultation. That Beaumarchais shuld produce his famous comedy, which the King had vetoed, on this crazy day and at the King’s expense was a master-stroke, and the performance was looked forward to with far greater excitement than was the royal procession through the streets of Paris.

    The management of the Theatre francais had its hands full. The people of Paris had been invited, the people of Paris would come, the people of Paris were numerous. No more than an infinitesimal proportion of the thousands who would clamour for admission could find accomodation in the theatre, and thousands of others were asking for tickets–aristocrats, courtiers, relatives of the actors, writers and critics. It was decided to reserve a quarter of the seats for these distinguished applicants and to throw the remaining eight hundred places open to the populace.

    When the doors were opened at five o’clock there was a wild scrambling in which men and women struggled with one another and many were trampled underfoot. The well-schooled police of Paris had the utmost difficulty in preventing women and children from being crushed to death.

    At last all had taken their seats, shouting, lamenting, laughing. Then the guests of honour made their entrance. According to an ancient tradition, at these free performances the best seats were reserved for the ladies of the halles and the coal-heavers. As guests of honour they arrived, as was only fitting, after all the rest of the audience was assembled. The attendants cleared a path, and the other spectators greeted them with cheers as they were escorted to their seats, the coal-heavers to the King’s box, the fishwives to that of the Queen.

    Never thad the Theatre francais seen such a queerly assorted audience for a premiere. Side by side sat ladies of the Court and glove-stitchers, fermiers generals and chair-menders, duchesses and women from the halles. Academicians and butchers’ assistants, in short, the people of Paris. The actors were in a fever of excitement and most of them were already regretting their rashness. Monsieur de Beaumarchais’ comedy had not been written for such an audience. This was not Athens, and it was hardly to be expected that the salted wit of Figaro would be appreciated by this motley gathering.

    The three thuds were heard and the curtains parted. The audience blew their noses, cleared their throats, and went on chattering for a time. Figaro-Preville had to start three times, until eventually, after cries of “Hush! Hush!” and “Really, Madame, don’t you think you might finish your conversation at home?” the spectators setteled down to listen in silence. There was some perfunctory clapping after a moment or two, and a voice asked, “What did he say? I didn’t understand,” while others shouted, “Repeat! Repeat!” but the audience was evidently in a good humour.

    Gradually the people began to grasp who these gentlemen and ladies on the stage were and what they wanted and what it was all about, that was to say that this aristocrat wanted to sleep with the bride of this nice fellow who, by the way, was one of their own class. That was nothing unusual and not much to bother about, but the aristocratwas particularly arrogant, and Figaro, who was one of themselves, was particularly engaging and had his good brains, and it was amusing and heartwarming how he told the aristocrat off. It became evident in the first half-hour that Pierre, with his sure sense of the theatre, had written a comedy which could stand the test of any audience.


    Proud Destiny was German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger’s first work written after his rescue from occupied France by American journalist Varian Fry. The German title of the book was Waffen fur Amerika, or Arms for America, and its subject is the effort of supporters of the American revolution–first the playwright Pierre de Beaumarchais and later the American envoy Benjamin Franklin–to convince King Louis XVI of France to fund arms and other supplies to the revolutionaries.

    The line from an absolute monarch to a group of revolutionaries could never, willingly, be a straight one, and it takes Feuchtwanger nearly 600 pages to get from Beaumarchais’ first audience with the King to Louis’ commitment of millions of francs to the colonial cause. Along the way come many twists, turns, and diversions through the many personalities and competing interests in the French court and society.

    Some, such as Franklin’s struggle to restrain his jealous and combative co-envoy, Arthur Lee, or Beaumarchais’ maneuvers to avoid his creditors, can get a bit tedious, but Feuchtwanger manages to keep the reader’s interest with superb episodes of characterization such as the visit to Paris by the Austrian Emperor Joseph, Queen Marie Antoinette’s older brother.

    Proud Destiny suffered from over-selling when it first came out. Picked up as a Book-of-the-Month Club featured title, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies, which is why you can find dozens of copies for under three bucks at and eBay. Time‘s reviewer complained that “the novel smells faintly of the Hollywood atmosphere in which it was composed. The period sets are painstaking, the main characters are photogenic.”

    Feuchtwanger himself said that the real hero of the novel was “that invisible guide of history: progress.” Although he’d started work on the book before leaving France, he felt it was only in the freedom of America that his characterization of Franklin could ring true. Critically, Proud Destiny is considered one of Feuchtwanger’s lesser works, but it’s a rich and entertaining read. The book certainly holds up now much better than many other best-sellers from 1947. Even Time admitted that “the reader can savor from one large dish a thousand tidbits of 18th Century custom & morality that he would otherwise have to root for in the garden of biography and memoirs.”

    Locate a copy

    Proud Destiny, by Lion Feuchtwanger
    New York: The Viking Press, 1947

    Working with Roosevelt, by Samuel Rosenman

    Working with Roosevelt, by Samuel Rosenman
    New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952


    If a visitor, familiar with the appearance of the Cabinet Room on an ordinary day, were to have looked into it, say about midnight of February 21, 1942, he would have been quite startled.

    All the lights were burning. But there were black curtains pulled across the windows now; we were at war, and it was blackout time. The shining surface of the large table was hardly visible, for it was covered from one end to the other with papers, books, telegrams, letters. At one end of the table was a large tray; on it were a big thermos pitcher of coffe, two piles of sandwiches covered by a damp napkin, a large number of bottles of beer, Coca-Cola, ginger ale, and plain charged water, some cups and saucers and large glasses, a bowl of cracked ice, and a bottle of whisky.

    Seated around the table were three men. They were all in their shirt sleeves and were obviously tired, for the had been working all day on a speech. They had just said good night to the President in his study in the White House, and then walked over to the Cabinet Room to do some more work on the speech. The tray of food and drinks had come over from the pantry of the White House at the direction of the President.

    Robert E. Sherwood poured himself a whisky and soda; Harry Hopkins helped himself to a cup of black coffee and a sandwich; I took a bottle of Coke and two sandwiches. I phoned upstairs to the four stenographers who had been asked to report for duty at 11:00 PM to work with us….

    Whatever the speech, the general pattern of our collaboration was always the same. When Bob had finished, he would silently pass to me what he had written; and Harry and I would read it together. We might say, “OK” or “fine” and clip it in the right place; or we might say “try again–that’s too complicated or too oratorical for the Boss”; or we might suggest a few changes here and there. The same thing would happen with what I had dictated to Grace, and with what Harry had written.

    The inserts the President himself had dictated got the same close scrutiny. We changed his language and often cut out whole sentences. Where there was some dissent among us, we made a note to talk to the President about it the next day.

    There was no pride of authorship; there was no carping criticism of each other. We were all trying to do the same thing–give as simple and forceful expression as possible to the thoughts and purposes and objectives that the President had in mind. Whatever language and whoever’s language did it best was the language we wanted.

    “Here is a suggestion from Berle which is OK and one from Marshall which is a peach,” I said that evening, passing them around. By common consent, they went into the next draft, each marked as an insert clipped to the right sheet.

    After a few pages of the carbon copy of draft five were corrected and added to in this way, I pushed a button in the table near the Presiden’ts chair. It was a bell connected with the messenger room. A messenger came in and took the pages to the girls upstairs to make six copies. This draft would be number six. From then on we sent the new draft up page by page, so that almost as soon as we were finished they could sent it down retyped, and we could immediately begin working all over again on the seventh draft–polishing, correcting, adding, deleting.


    When the US invaded Iraq, I was moved to reread Working with Roosevelt, Samuel Rosenman’s memoir of his years as FDR’s speechwriter. It’s a terrific book that’s pretty much been out of print since it was first published in 1952 or so. Rosenman essentially takes the reader through FDR’s career from 1928 on by, using key speeches that he worked on as milestones.

    What I recalled from first reading it, and was particularly struck by in contrast with Bush’s rhetoric the second time around, was how sensitive FDR was to the mood and temperament of the public. He wasn’t a guy who made his decisions by polling, as Clinton was sometimes accused of doing. His genius was in understanding when and how to move the country forward on an issue and when to back off and let people figure things out. Faced with a decision like invading Iraq, FDR would certainly have taken a much longer-range perspective and put a lot more work into building a case that had public and coalition support that would last more than 90 days.

    Rosenman also shows throughout the book how positive and sympathetic FDR was on a public and private level. He could have his fits of pique, but he certainly wouldn’t have engaged in the kind of “Either you’re with us or you’re against us” crap we’ve had to endure from the Bush administration. When, as in the famous “Martin, Barton, and Fish” speech, he did choose to strike back at his opponents, he did so with humor, not vindictiveness.

    I’ve read a number of Roosevelt biographies, as well as first-hand accounts from people like his secretary, Grace Tully, Harold Ickes, Frances Perkins, and even the head of his Secret Service detail, but Rosenman’s is by far the most illuminating when it comes to capturing how FDR balanced the public and private worlds of the presidency. I find it interesting that several Republican presidential speechwriters (including Peggy Noonan and Stephen Hess) single out Rosenman’s book as “a classic,” “wonderful,” and “one of my favorites.” President Carter himself is reported to have read and appreciated it–although, in his case, he certainly failed to learn from FDR’s example.


    This is, in fact, basically not a partisan but a technical book. It is a detailed and authoritative account of how the public utterances of a President of the United States are put together. … The particular value of the Rosenman account is that it deals with a President who was conspicuously successful in his employment of the method. It is all the better because it carefully describes the errors, as well as the triumphs. The book admits that Roosevelt made mistakes, and points them out. Indeed, it goes further–it admits that Samuel Rosenman made mistakes, and points them out, too. This makes it admirable as a textbook for aspiring politicians.

    G.W. Johnson, New York Herald Tribune Book Review

    An engrossing study of the late President in one of his less familiar roles–that of man of letters.Judge Rosenman, who helped write a great many of Mr. Rossevelt’s speeches from the time of his gubernatorial campaign in 1928 until his death, believes that the President was more of less propelled into authorship by the fact that in the very early thirties “there were few boks and no national precedents for the philosophy or legislation that came to be known as the New Deal. He had to write his own books in the form of speeches and messages, and then create the precedents himself to carry them out.” In his survey of this twofold creative process, which of necessity grew more and more complex as Mr. Roosevelt’s burdens multiplied, Judge Rosenman–an admiring but by no means purblind biographer–conveys an excellent idea of the development of both the content of and the philosophy behind most of Roosevelt’s major addresses, and analyzes, as far as possible, the literary contributions made by the President’s collaborators. Although Judge Rosenman gives full credit to these assistants (especially to Stanley High and Robert Sherwood) for their labors, he makes it abundantly clear that in his opinion they merely added graces notes to compositions that were the President’s own.

    New Yorker, 31 May 1952

    Locate a copy

    Working with Roosevelt, by Samuel Rosenman
    New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952

    Strange Conquest, by Alfred Neumann


    They pushed through the roadblock and ran along the houses in two columns without losing a single man. They received fire, but it was irregular, inaccurate, and seemingly hesitant. Two men were lost at the next roadblock and here it became apparent that the enemy took poor aim, fired too high, and couldn’t face a frontal attack, especially when the attackers yelled. The Falange got through.

    But then there was yelling behind them in their own tongue, terrible in its agony. Now they knew that one of the two who had gone down before the roadblock had not been dead, but would be soon. They wanted to go back.

    “Keep going!” roared Kewen, brandishing his pistol.

    They got a few paces further, then drew fire from every window, and behind them the road block closed like a cattle gate.

    “Keep going!” Kewen yelled, and they snarled at him like angry dogs. He dropped his pistol, stunned by their mutiny.

    They crawled into the two nearest houses on their right and left and, roaring with rage, cleaned them of five snipers each. They cleaned them out with their bayonets.

    They didn’t budge from those holes. Five of them now lay outside, between the two houses, and two lay back by the roadblock. That made seven. Jonny Felice lay in the outskirts of the town. That made eight. In Tola under the rattling coconuts lay Crocker. That made nine.

    Achilles Kewen was still around. He popped back and forth between the two houses, made speeches, insulted the troops, wasted his luxuriant stock of Kentucky curses on them. They didn”t budge from their holes. Every time he skipped across the street, he was fired on, and finally it got too much for him, or he lost his head. He planted himself in the middle of the street and yelled: “You yellow bastards! You yellow bastards!” He yelled it only twice. Then he ripped his mouth wide open as for a huge laugh, and only when he pitched forward did anyone see the hole in his forehead. Now there were ten gone.


    This is one of the few books discussed on this site whose publisher seems to have deliberately set out to keep it neglected. First published in German in 1949 as Der Pakt, it was translated by Ransom Taylor and published by Hutchinson in 1950 as Look Upon This Man. Unable to find a major publisher in the U.S. for the book, Alfred Neumann settled for its release by the fledgling paperback publisher, Ballantine Books. Ballantine sat on the book for several years, at a loss for how to market this fictional account of William Walker’s invasion and takeover of Nicaragua in 1855, decided to treat it as a Western. That any serious reader ever discovered the book after that was close to miraculous, and any fan of Westerns would have given up after finding it had nothing to do with sheriffs and cowboys.

    Neumann himself faded from critical and popular attention even before the book was published. Once considered an equal of Arnold Zweig and Hermann Broch, Neumann saw his star peak in the late 1920s. His medieval tale of courtly intrigue, The Devil, was a best-seller in the U.S. and Ernst Lubitsch directed an Oscar-nominated film of his play, “The Patriot”.

    Within a few years, however, he found himself worse off than when he started. His magnum opus, a trilogy about the life of Napoleon III, was panned by most critics as overwritten and tedious. His books were among the first to be banned by the Nazis, who also pressured Mussolini to force Neumann to leave Italy, where he had settled in the 1920s. Like Brecht, Mann, and other less famous German writers, he eventually found refuge in Hollywood, where he got occasional work as a screenwriter. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Story for “None Shall Escape” and his novel, The Six of Them, the earliest account of the White Rose resistance movement in Germany, was well received. But Neumann had little luck finding work or publishers from then on, and he died in 1952, a self-exile in Switzerland like Mann.

    Influenced by Laurence Greene’s 1937 biography of Walker, The Filibuster, Neumann wrote Der Pakt quickly, hoping to regain his former popularity with German readers. While the novel failed to win more than passable sales, its narrative and style clearly benefits from Neumann’s haste. In contrast to his rather verbose historical novels of the late 1920s and 1930s, in Strange Conquest Neumann’s writing is lean, fast-moving, and, at points, almost telegraphic in its brevity.

    Yet he manages to squeeze an almost panoramic view of Walker’s career into less than 200 pages. Much of the novel is related in vignettes of three to five pages, most of them dramatic set-pieces like the retreat of Walker and his 36 men from their abortive attempt to form an abolitionist republic in Baja and Sonora, Mexico in 1853, or the destruction of Granada as Walker’s rule in Nicaragua collapses. Walker himself remains something of an enigma, yet Neumann manages to suggest how the appeal of power ultimately led Walker to turn from abolitionist to dictator, even reinstating slavery in an attempt to maintain his power.

    Neumann also sketches in a wide cast of supporting players, from his officers–an idealistic socialite from San Francisco, a gambler of murky French origin, a Prussian baron–to the scoundrels and saintly figures he encounters in Nicaragua. One might go so far as to argue than Strange Conquest prefigures the magical realist style of later Latin American novelists such as Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, and Vargas Llosa. Take the author’s name and date of publication off Strange Conquest and it could easily be taken as the work of one of their contemporaries. Whatever the case, it certainly deserves a better fate than to be lost forever in mouldering stacks of Westerns in a few scattered bookstores in the U.S..

    In Print?

    Strange Conquest, by Alfred Neumann
    New York: Ballantine Books, 1954

    The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien

    · Excerpt
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    “Atomics is a very intricate theorem and can be worked out with algebra but you would want to take it by degrees because you might spend the whole night proving a bit of it with rulers and cosines and similar other instruments and then at the wind-up not believe what you had proved at all. If that happened you would have to go back over it till you got a place where you could believe your own facts and figures as delineated from Hall and Knight’s Algebra and then go on again from that particular place till you had the whole thing properly believed and not have bits of it half-believed or a doubt in your head hurting you like when you lose the stud of your shirt in bed.”

    “Very true,” I said.

    “Consequently and consequentially,” he continued, “you can safely infer that you are made of atoms yourself and so is your fob pocket and the tail of your shirt and the instrument you use for taking the leavings out of the crook of your hollow tooth. Do you happen to know what takes place when you strike a bar of iron with a good coal hammer or with a blunt instrument?”


    “When the wallop falls, the atoms are bashed away down to the bottom of the bar and compressed and crowded there like eggs under a good clucker. After a while in the course of time they swim around and get back at last to where they were. But if you keep hitting the bar long enough and hard enough they do not get a chance to do this and what happens?”

    “That is a hard question.”

    “Ask a blacksmith for the true answer and he will tell you that the bar will dissipate itself away by degrees if you persevere with the hard wallops. Some of the atoms of the bar will go into the hammer and the other half into the table or the stone or the particular article that is underneath the bottom of the bar.”

    “That is well-known,” I agreed.

    “The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.”

    I let go a gasp of astonishment that made a sound in the air like a bad puncture.

    “And you would be flabbergasted at the number of bicycles that are half-human almost half-man, half-partaking of humanity.”

    Editor’s Comments

    The works of Flann O’Brien are not neglected at all–at least in Ireland. All of his books can be found on the shelves of any major Dublin bookstore, as can a number of compilations and critical volumes. Flann was a pen-name of Brian O’Nolan; under another, Myles na Gopaleen, he was for years a popular comic columnist for The Irish Times. A drinker himself and a resident of Dublin all his adult life, O’Nolan/O’Brien would likely win a popularity contest over that expat James Joyce any day of the week.

    Outside of Ireland, however, his works surface intermittently and with few witnesses, rather like the Loch Ness Monster. Some of it is understandable. His best-regarded novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, is perhaps too full of talk and Guinness not to seem a bit like a wound-up Irish drunk to more Puritanical minds.

    There’s no good excuse for The Third Policeman not being a fixed feature of undergraduate courses on the modern English novel. It’s got plenty enough symbolism and message to make it teachable, and you can’t argue that going to Hell isn’t a serious enough subject for the book to hold its own with any other English novel since the 1920s.

    What’s more, it’s also a hell (no pun intended) of a lot of fun. First off, you have the talk, which starts with the narrator’s own recounting of his tale. As Myles na Gopaleen, O’Nolan/O’Brien wrote his column in English, Irish, Latin, and sometimes a mixture of all three or a new language of his own resembling none. He would offer, as a didactic exercise, elucidations on words from the Gaelic:

    Cur, g. curtha and cuirthe, m.
    Act of putting, sending, sowing, raining discussing, burying, vomiting, hammering into the ground, throwing through the air, rejecting, shooting, the setting or clamp in a rick of turf, selling,addressing, the crown of cast iron buttons which have been made bright by contact with cliff faces, the stench of congealing badgers suet, the luminence of glue-lice, a noise made in a house by an unauthorised person, a heron’s boil, a leprachauns denture, a sheep biscuit, the act of inflating hare’s offal with a bicycle pump….

    Another recurring feature was the “Catechism of Cliche,” which poked fun at the language of the very newspaper that printed him:

    “What can one do with fierce resistance, especially in Russia ?”
    “Offer it.”
    ” But if one puts fierce resistance, in what direction does one put it ?”

    ” Up.”

    This was a writer who could go on a word bender for days longer than just about any other word drunk except Joyce. His newspaper columnist side could never let himself stray too far away from the point of keeping the reader entertained. So while we witness a brutal murder and gradually realize, along with the narrator, that what makes Hell Hell is that there is, in the words of Satre’s play, no exit, there are also plenty of superbly odd and funny moments. O’Brien/O’Nolan admitted it himself in a letter to William Saroyan: “When you are writing about the world of the dead–and the damned–where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.”

    Many of these come in the form of comments on the subject of one or another theory of a nineteenth century scientist (or sorts) named de Selby. Night, for example, he conceived of as “an accretion of ‘black air'”–i.e., volcanic ash. The noise of a hammer striking an object came from the bursting of “atmosphere balls” (air being composed of millions of such balls). There are too many choice de Selby theories not to quote at least one:

    Human existence de Selby has defined a “a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief,” a conception which he is thought to have arrived at from examining some old cinematograph films which belonged probably to his nephew. From this premise he discounts the reality or truth of any progression or serialism in life, denies that time can pass as such in the accepted sense and attributes to hallucinations the commonly experienced sensation of progression as, for instance, in journeying from one place to another or even “living.” If one is resting at A, he explains, and desires to rest in a distant place B, one can only do so by resting for infinitely brief intervals in innumerable intermediate places….

    … Whatever about the soundness of de Selby’s theories, there is ample evidence that they were honestly held and that several attempts were made to put them into practice. During his stay in England, he happened at one time to be living in Bath and found it necessary to go from there to Folkestone on pressing business. His method of doing so was far from conventional. Instead of going to the railway station and inquiring about trains, he shut himself up in a room in his lodgings with a supply of picture postcards of the areas which would be traverse on such a journey, together with an elaborate arrangement of clocks and barometric instruments and a device for regulating the gaslight in conformity with the changing light of the outside day. What happened in the room or how precisely the clocks and other machines were manipulated will never be known. It seems that he emerged after a lapse of seven hours convinced that he was in Folkestone and possibly that he had evolved a formula for travellers which would be extremely distasteful to railway and shipping companies.

    There is more than sublime silliness going on here, though. Note that almost parenthetical “or even ‘living’.” This is precisely what the narrator, in effect discovers to be his situation. Although he has a succession of experiences, he finds in the end that his sense of being alive is genuinely only a hallucination. Hell has no exit, which means he is doomed to keep walking around in circles, repeating the same bizarre experiences, but each time in some subtly different way. The narrator and Divney meet again right at the end and find themselves walking into a police station. The same enormous policeman greets them and with the last line of the book brings them around for another lap:

    “Is it about a bicycle?” he asked.


    Howard Moss, The New Yorker, 28 September 1968

    Starting out as a realistic novel, The Third Policeman rapidly changes into a book of magical deeds and transformations. Divney and the narrator kil a rich old man, Phillip Mathers, in order to get their hands on a black box containing three thousand pounds. The narrator is finishing off Mathers with a spade when Divney disappears, taking the black box with him; he returns, empty-handed, a few moments later. He eludes the narrator’s questions about its whereabouts for months, then finally leads him to Mathers’ house, where the box has been hidden under the floorboards. Divney remains outside, and the narrator enters the house, but when he reaches in under the floorboards to get the box it slips out of his hands. (We learn later that Divney has sustituted explosives for the pounds.) Immediately, the narrator becomes aware of Mathers’ presence in the room–a ghost, the narrator thinks, though, unknown to him and the reader, he is now a ghost himself….

    Complicity in Mathers’ murder leads the narrator to a kind of Hell dominated by a surrealistic police barracks–one-dimensional from one point of view, three-dimensional from another–the governing center of a countryside populated by people who are in part bicycles. An exchange of atoms between a cyclist and his machine produces various percentages of man-bike or bike-man, and it is one of the chief tasks of the policemen to keep track of the percentages from moment to moment….

    The Third Policeman is a comic but sinister invention: on the one hand, a regional farce in which a criminal struggles with an entrenched rural bureaucracy, and, on the other, a mysterious allegory of universal pitfalls. It is a metaphysical comedy in which tricky camerawork and fleet ballet maneuvers of style bear the stamp of a technical master who has an occasional Irish weakness for blarney. Wit sometimes descends into whimsey. Completely original, it paradoxically brings to mind, as so many less original works do not, the world and tone of other writers, and of Joyce and Finnegans Wakes in particular. (A one-legged man who first tries to murder the narrator and then befriends him is named Finnucane.) Though O’Brien’s book makes no claim to the grandeur and sweep of Joyce’s epic, its hero is dead, Joyce’s asleep. Both books are circular in construction, slyly erudite in a similar fashion, and depend for a good deal of their force and comedy on linguistic invention. The outsize, cardboard caricatures of the three policemen suggest Kafka’s “assistants” in managing simultaneously to appear both innocent and forbidding, and their cryptic dialogue owes more than a little to Alice in Wonderland.

    O’Brien belongs to a school of fiction more interested in archetype than in character and in metamorphosis than in action. His puppetlike figures do not suffer as individuals in any ordinary sense; they suffer for everyone in some general amusement park of the soul while confronting their unexpected fates. In O’Brien’s Hell, guilt is a moral implication, not a matter of psychological anguish, and intimidation is the major terror, not humiliation. O’Brien mines and transforms; he takes the weather of other writers and creates a climate of his own. The Third Policeman, written in Ireland in 1940 and published here a year after the author’s death, is both sui generis and the product of a literary convention. And for no reason one can definitely point to, it is as strangely emotionally affecting as it is funny.

    Charles Foran in Lost Classics

    I believe it is a novel charged with the same weird energy as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Both deal with the aftermath of a bomb. In Pynchon, the consequence is social derangement; all changed utterly by humanity having bitten into the apple of mass destruction. In The Third Policeman, the consequence is a narrator transported from his own familiar but deeply strange world into a parallel one that is strange but deeply familiar. O’Brien invest slapstick and lowbrow comedy–a blowhard cop, gags with bicycles and dogs–with overtones of menace. Tall tales turn swiftly dark; the “crack,” as the Irish call good banter, starts to crack up. Where we are is Ireland, the book infers–pace Marlowe’s Faustus on hell–and must ever be.

    The Third Policeman is about how our subconscious propels us where our conscious selves wisely refuse to go. It is definitely a parable. It definitely heads down a narrow and dark thematic road. But the novel is also a first draft by an author who shows signs of being disconcerted, perhaps even scared, by what he is creating. (The use of footnotes, supposedly to mock academic pomposity, is a clear hedge.) When I read the book as a graduate student in Dublin I thought it an amazing piece of writing. Few agreed with me. When I did my thesis on the novel, I kept finding more and more there: layers and fears, dares and cop-outs. I couldn’t believe so few scholars took the work seriously. In the end, I doubt I convinced many to reconsider.

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    The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien
    London: Macgibbon & Kee, 1967

    The Lake, by George Moore


    He turned into the woods and walked aimlessly, trying to escape from his thoughts, and to do so he admired the pattern of the leaves, the flight of the birds, and he stopped by the old stones that may have been Druid altars; and he came back an hour after, walking slowly through the hazel-stems, thinking that the law of change is the law of life. At that moment the cormorants were coming down the glittering lake to their roost. With a flutter of wings they perched on the old castle, and his mind continued to formulate arguments, and the last always seemed the best.

    At half past seven he was thinking that life is gained by escaping from the past rather than by trying to retain it; he had begun to feel more and more sure that tradition is but dead flesh which we must cut off if we would live. . . . But just at this spot, an hour ago, he had acquiesced in the belief that if a priest continued to administer the Sacraments faith would return to him; and no doubt the Sacraments would bring about some sort of religious stupor, but not that sensible, passionate faith which he had once possessed, and which did not meet with the approval of his superiors at Maynooth. He had said that in flying from the monotony of tradition he would find only another monotony, and a worse on–that of adventure; and no doubt the journalist’s life is made up of fugitive interests. But every man has, or should have, an intimate life as well as an external life; and in losing interest in religion he had lost the intimate life which the priesthood had once given him. The Mass was a mere Latin formula, and the vestments and the chalice, the Host itself, a sort of fetishism–that is to say, a symbolism from which life had departed, shells retaining hardly a murmur of the ancient ecstacy. It was therefore his fate to go in quest of–what? Not of adventure. He liked better to think that his quest was the personal life–that intimate exaltation that comes to him who has striven to be himself, and nothing but himself. The life he was going to might lead him even to a new faith. Religious forms arise and die. The Catholic Church had come to the end of its thread; the spool seemed pretty well empty, and he sat down so that he might think better what the new faith might be. What would be its first principle? he asked himself, and, not finding any answer to this question, he began to think of his life in American. He would begin as a mere recorder of passing events. But why should he assume that he would not rise higher? And if he remained to the end of his day a humble reporter, he would still have the supreme satisfaction of knowing that he had not resigned himself body and soul to the life of the pool, to a frog-like acquiescence in the stagnant pool.


    I picked up The Lake inspired by Kay Boyle’s comments about it in Writer’s Choice:

    The Lake, which I first found in Paris in 1923 among the tattered second-hand books on one of the stalls along the Seine, gave me the courage then, and through the years, at least to attempt to live and to take action without moral or physical fear. The young Irish priest, whose story this book is, spoke to all my uncertainties, and I came to see his love story not only as metaphor for his country’s long political and religious conflict, but metaphor as well for the condition of all mankind.

    A powerful claim to make. The Lake tells the story of Father Oliver Gogarty, who has spent his whole life around the large Irish lake of the title. Coming to the priesthood at first from a sense of mission, as he comes into his thirties he finds himself in great distress over his treatment of the woman who was his organist and choirmistress.

    Rumors begin to spread around the small rural parish about the woman–that she has been meeting an unknown man, that she is pregnant with his child. Father Oliver confronts her and she admits it. Mistaking his jealousy for righteous indignation, he condemns her at the next mass, and she is forced to leave the parish.

    Within a few months, he begins to regret his actions and becomes distraught over the thought of her plight as an unwed mother. Eventually, a priest in London writes to say that she has given the child to be raised by a farm couple and is making her way giving music lessons. The priest chides Father Oliver that his “responsibility is not merely local, and does not end as soon as the woman has passed the boundary of his parish.”

    The woman, Nora Glynn, is clearly strong and independent, and when Father Oliver writes to beg her forgiveness, she is far more ready to move on than he. He first tries to entice her back to the parish with the offer of a job teaching music at a nearby convent and girls’ school, then stoops to telling her that she must save him from an eternal damnation for allowing her soul to be lost.

    Nora finds a job as secretary to an agnostic writer working on a book about the historical roots of Christianity, and travels with him around Europe and the Middle East conducting research. Father Oliver continues to torture himself over her situation, long past the point where it’s clear she no longer needs or cares about his anxious attention.

    In the end, Father Oliver realizes that his feelings for Nora were intimate, not religious, and with that, he comes to accept that he must let her go. But this realization also forces him to confront his reasons for staying in the priesthood, serving a parish he’s known since childhood. He has to decide if he will stay in hopes of someday recovering his faith, or go and risk taking his chances in a larger world without the familiarity and structures of the priesthood and the lake he’s lived beside every day of his life. I leave it to the reader to learn what he decides.

    Most of The Lake is told through the thoughts of Father Oliver, along with the letters he exchanges with Nora and Father O’Grady, the priest in London. Moore is particularly effective in capturing the changing features of the landscape around the lake, the woods and fields that Father Oliver often walks among to escape from his parishioners. He sees not only the life of the plants and animals around the lake, but also its history–the Welsh castles, an abandoned abbey, a mill town passed over by the Industrial Revolution.

    The result is a highly effective balance between the exterior and interior worlds, which keeps The Lake from becoming morbidly introverted. The love story is really just the mechanism through which Moore brings about Father Oliver’s awakening, and he never tries to make it anything else. Even though The Lake was written over a hundred years ago, it’s a remarkably fresh and alert narrative, very much to be recommended to any fan of Irish literature. W.B. Yeats considered it, along with A Drama in Muslin, one of Moore’s two masterpieces.

    Although Amazon lists The Lake as out of print, it is still available from Colin Smyth Publishers, Ltd. in the U.K..

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    The Lake, by George Moore
    First published 1905

    Sweet Dreams, Michael Frayn


    There’s always a bad moment, Howard knows, after the porter’s unlocked your room, switched everything on, drawn the curtains, and gone away with a huge tip because you had only a folder of fresh banknotes in your pocket, when you sit down helplessly and think, well, here we are, this is it, I’ve arrived. Now what? Shall I go down and eat in the hotel restaurant, or shall I go out? And if you’re not careful you sit there blankly in the one armchair, with the curtains drawn and your bag on the stand, until it’s too late to do anything.

    But just before this moment arrives, as soon as the door closes on the porter, Howard notices the writing-table, and all the little giveaways which the management has arranged under the lamp–books of matches, a long-stemmed rose in water, writing-paper, and picture postcards of the hotel. The postcards absorb him at once. They show (for instance) guests dining in the hotel’s famous Oak Room, with the celebrated choice of 142 dishes from all over the world, to the accompaniment of a three-piece Mariachi band. If you tilt the card back and forth a little, the picture appears to move. The hands of the Mariachi players strum their guitars. The forks of the diners flash from plate to mouth and back. Sommeliers reach discreetly forward to refill glasses. The waiters’ spoons dig up down up down in the great trifle on the world-famous dessert trolley. Gentlemen’s jaws chomp, ladies’ smiles flash. A couple in one corner kiss discreetly over the brandy.

    Howard tilts the card back and forth until he has seen the couple in the corner leave, and the manager quietly coping with a customer who refuses to pay the bill, then puts it carefully into his pocket to save for his children, who love this kind of toy. He puts four books of matches into his pocket as well. These are for his wife, who smokes. For himself he will take a handful of the pencils they always leave out for you … But here he makes a surprising discovery. At the top of the blotter, where the pencils should be, is a pencil-case. It’s made of red plastic, and there’s something familiar about it which he can’t quite identify; something about the feel of its grained texture, and of the shiny red popper button on the flap … He pulls it open. There’s something even more familiar still about the contrast between the grained texture on the outside, and the red smoothness of the inside.

    Then for some reason, he smells it–and at once he knows. It’s his first pencil-case, that he had for his sixth birthday. For nearly thirty years it’s been lost. And now it’s been lovingly found again by the management of the hotel to welcome him. It has its new smell still–the perfect red plastic smell, the smell of writing numbers in arithmetic books ruled in squares; the smell it had before it got mixed up in the dust and Plasticine and tangled electric flex in the toy-drawer.


    There are very few books I’ve ever read a second time. For me, the bigger problem is what not to read. There is only one book, however, I’ve read a third, fourth, and, recently, fifth time: Michael Frayn’s Sweet Dreams.

    Frayn’s name is considerably better known now than when I first read the book in the late 1970s. At the time, the US paperback edition I bought compared him to Vonnegut, guaranteed bait for a geeky undergrad like me. In reality, Frayn’s writing is not that much like Vonnegut’s, but by the time I’d reached the fourth page, I no longer cared.

    Sweet Dreams opens as the protagonist, Howard Baker, a thirty-something Englishman, is sitting at a stop light. A dozen different thoughts flash through his head while he waits to proceed onto what he thinks is Hornsey Lane. But when he puts the car into gear and accelerates, he finds it’s not Hornsey Lane: “It’s a ten-lane expressway, on a warm mid-summer evening, with the sky clearing after a day of rain.”

    The highway approaches a great metropolis. Neon signs flash against the pale sunset and the black clouds in the north. “He recognises some of them–the Pan-Am symbol, Dagens Nyheter, the Seven Names of God.” Over the car radio, St Juliana of Norwich tells him, “And all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

    The city proves to be a marvelous place, the best of all cities blended into one. He checks into a wonderful hotel, where the porter shows him that he can fly–if he wants to. Frayn’s limpid prose–and if any writing deserves that adjective, it’s the writing in Sweet Dreams–is perfect for capturing this heavenly place. Take this description below of Howard’s first night’s sleep in the city.

    He goes to sleep with the feeling that things are going to go right for him in this town.

    And enjoys a perfect night’s sleep–deep, clear, and refreshing, like gliding down through sunlit water on a hot day; such a perfect night’s sleep that he is entirely unconscious of how much he is enjoying it, or of its depth, clarity, and refreshingness, or its resemblance to gliding through sunlit water on a hot day; so perfect that from time to time he half wakes, just enough to become conscious of how unconscious of everything he is.

    As you may have guessed by now, Howard has, in fact, gone to heaven, even though he never quite realizes the fact. Heaven turns out to have all the same problems Howard ran into on Earth. Still, Howard has such sincerity and wonder that these problems seem somehow new, fresh, and full of possibilities, not difficulties.

    I think that spirit is what brings me back to Sweet Dreams. Frayn achieves such a delicate balance between innocence and cynicism that he leaves you optimistic, light-hearted, but not naïve. The tone of this book is comic but not boisterous; satirical but not biting; affectionate but not cloying. It’s one of the most perfectly realized books I’ve ever read–and perhaps the only book I’ll read a sixth time.

    Frayn himself once remarked on the book,

    Sweet Dreams is an ironic examination of the illogicality of the idea of heaven. I feel the same way about the idea of an ideal society on earth–they all fall to pieces logically. You can improve society piecemeal, of course, but I think the awful thing about changing anything is how many other changes that one change must necessitate. You can’t make one thing better without making other things worse…. Sweet Dreams is the best book, and the prose there is as good as I’ll ever write. But I don’t like what it reveals about me.

    Sweet Dreams was long out of print, but it seems to be back on the shelves again thanks to the success of Frayn’s Spies. Anthony Burgess put it on his list of the best 99 English novels since 1939, and it deserves to be kept in print and widely read from now on.


    Margaret Drabble, New York Times Book Review, 13 January 1974

    Frayn has a most unusual talent. His books see, so deceptively simple, but they linger in the mind for years, and can be re-read with the greatest pleasure. “Sweet Dreams” is no exception. … The novel is a satire on modern fashions–clothes, houses, jobs, attitudes, beliefs–but it’s more than that. It’s an account of growing older, it’s a comment on the nature of man. … The accuracy of Frayn’s observation is dazzling; in a few words, he creates a man, a room, a dinner party. What he does, he does precisely. … Most satirists and writers of Utopias dislike people profoundly, but Frayn’s work is informed with the most beautiful goodwill.

    New Yorker, 14 January 1974

    Frayn, as he must be to carry off this sort of thing, is an impeccable writer. He is not a science fictionist but a moralist, and his novel is a kind of Candide–a vividly contemporary Candide, full of the most serious high comedy and the most enormous belly laughs

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    Sweet Dreams, by Michael Frayn
    London: Comstock, 1973

    Frank Harris, by Hugh Kingsmill

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    To keep the Fortnightly subdued and reassuring in tone was comparatively easy. But to lower himself to the temperature necessary to the comfort of his guests in Park Lane taxed Harris sorely. Yet, with a Royal Duke at his table, some measure of restraint was obligatory.

    Once, he writes, he gave a lunch with the old Duke of Cambridge on his right and Russell Lowell, the American Ambassador, on his left; and the guests included Beerbohm Tree and Willie Grenfell (now Lord Desborough), John Burns, the firebrand agitator, the poet George Wyndham, and Alfred Russel Wallace–all listening spellbound to the humour and eloquence of Oscar Wilde.

    The authenticity of this list of guests is corroborated by Sir Sidney Low, in an obituary notice in the Observer. Harris, Sir Sidney writes, had at this time a charming little house in Park Lane, where he entertained a great many of the people best worth knowing. Calling one afternoon on Mrs. Harris, Sir Sidney found a Royal Duke taking tea with her. “Peers, politicians, poets came to the Park Lane luncheons and dinner-parties. Oscar Wilde would toss up scintillating epigrams, countered by the host with fiery thrusts of savage criticism and biting satire.”

    It looked just then, Sir Sidney Low says, as if Frank Harris were to be one of Fortune’s favourites. The Conservative party-managers had their eye on him, and people were saying that he might do anything.

    But his old uneasiness ran strongly below the surface. He felt restless, out of the picture he had framed so expensively with his wife’s money. The unobtrusive self-assurance of his new acquaintances exasperated him; he noticed with surprise that among these gentle-folk the untitled were as sure of themselves as the titled. What was the secret of their complacency? It couldn’t be brains! He had more brains in his big toe that the lot of them in their united skulls. And what under the mask of polished manners, did they really think of him? If he was good enough to know now, why hadn’t he been good enough to know earlier? Or was it the husband of their own set, the editor of the Fortnightly, the coming man in politics?

    Lunching in the house in Park Lane with the Duke of Cambridge, and a half dozen people of good position, taught him, he says, that he would always be an outside, alien to them in imagination and sympathy. And yet, he adds, in a sentence which perhaps throws more light on his handicaps as a social climber than on his assets, he had certain advantages: “I had had an English education and knew how to dress, my table manners, too, were English of the best.”

    Editor’s Comments

    If he hadn’t worked so strenuously on his own notoriety, culminating in his long-winded but often fascinating autobiography, My Life and Loves, Frank Harris would be long forgotten by now. And even the autobiography is more often remembered for its pornographic than its literary merits. So why bother reading an account of his life?

    I had utterly no interest in Frank Harris before reading this book. Neither did I know anything about Hugh Kingsmill. I bought Frank Harris solely on the basis of its mention by Michael Holroyd. So I think I can fairly say that I approached this book with no preconceptions, asking only that it proves its own merits. Having devoured it in an afternoon, I will argue that these are considerable. This is one of the most striking examples of the art of biography I’ve ever read.

    This is not a conventional life. Kingsmill first came to know Harris as a youthful admirer, remained in close contact with him as part of the London literary world of the early decades of the twentieth century. He lost that contact when Harris fled to France to avoid prosecution for bankruptcy and fraud, then visited him again years later, when Harris was in elegant but unmistakable decline on the French Riviera.

    Although Kingsmill does recount the essential facts–which, in the case of a pathological liar like Harris, was no simple feat–of Harris’ life, what makes this book worth reading is its remarkable power as a study of a deeply flawed yet powerful character.

    When Kingsmill first wrote the book, in the 1930s, Harris’ literary reputation still had a few remnants intact, and his notoriety as a pornographer was peaking. The scandal value of the book no doubt guaranteed healthy sales, and many of the literary figures whose careers Harris influenced in one way or another–including Shaw and H.G. Wells–were still active. Harris’ defenders could still be found, even if they were subdued in public fora.

    What credibility Harris might have had at the time is calmly and completely destroyed by Kingsmill. His ammunition is simply Harris’ own words and deeds. As Kingsmill demonstrates so effectively, there was never any need to mount a vendetta against Harris–he was his own worst enemy. His accuracy derives from the clarity of a youthful admirer become middle-aged realist. For the first third of the book, Kingsmill shows how Harris haphazardly, but relentlessly, constructed a career as a man of letters–and politics, in aspiration at least–of materials of dubious origin.

    Harris’ ascent is a striking illustration of the momentum a forceful personality can generate from the slightest of talents. On the strength of a few stories and articles and a great many boastful stories loudly related, Harris managed to gain the editorship of a series of weekly magazines. At a time when newpapers and weeklies were the predominant mass medium, this put him in a position of great influence, and he cultivated the aura of power and insight people naturally associated with an editor of an influential journal.

    This aura was about the only thing Harris ever successfully cultivated. As Kingsmill shows, to call Harris a creative talent would be overstretching the truth. He was not so much a writer as a producer of words. His chief creative concern was the building–and propping up–of his own facade. For nearly everything else, his was a destructive energy.

    He ran newspapers and magazines from solid reputation and financial standing into near-ruin. In the words of an old Bob and Ray routine, he firmly believed he could build himself up by knocking other people down. Although he supported rising talents, like Wells, he also attacked and denigrated others. What might at the time have seemed critical judgment seems more like random choice in retrospect. None of this kept Harris from maintaining a high opinion of his own talents: “I am, really, a great writer” he once remarked. “[M]y only difficulty is in finding great readers.”

    If Harris genuinely deserves to remembered for anything of literary consequence today, it is for The Man Shakespeare, which, at the time, saved the Bard’s reputation from reverent mummification. “To many of the ‘professors,’ as Harris always calls his colleagues in Shakespearean criticism,” Kingsmill writes, “Shakespeare was a substitute for experience…. Harris, hastily scanning a play between an afternoon in the city and an evening with a girl, had none of this cloistered diffidence.” Despite the book’s undeniable vitality, however, Kingsmill finds it very much a reflection of its author:

    To bring order into this chaos is impossible. It is the hasty impressionistic criticism of a man with no coherent outlook on like, who writes as the passing mood prompts, alternating without any uneasiness between envious depreciation and melting worship.

    Nonetheless, The Man Shakespeare gave Harris some legitimate status as a critic, and he relished the band of young admirers–Kingsmill among them–attracted by his status and celebrity. “He talked always,” one of them later said, “as if he held the key to Life–with a big L. As if only with his help could one pass into the kingdom of experience.”

    What delight Harris must have taken in holding court. Any listener–suitably in awe–would do. As Kingsmill recalls of his many strolls with Harris, “During these walks I seemed rather to be overhearing a soliloquoy than lending my attention to talk directly addressed to me.” Whether this was a reflection of Harris himself or of the image he wanted others to have of him is hard to tell. Harris believed “a deep bass voice and a ruthless disregard of everyone’s feelings” were “the two main attributes of a man of action.”

    Eventually, Harris ran out of fools to underwrite his wrecking of magazines and fled–to France, then to America, then back to France. He managed to beg, borrow, charm, or steal sufficient funds to maintain a semblance of gentility. His final attempt to regain his audience and substantial profits, if not his respectability, with his long-winded and scandalous memoirs, was undermined by a proliferation of pirated editions.

    Though he provides ample evidence to justify one, Kingsmill refuses, however, to make this book a hatchet job. Instead, this is first and foremost a study in character. If all Kingsmill did was to reveal the flimsiness of the props with which Harris bolstered his public facade, this book would be as forgettable as its subject. It is the sensitivity with which Kingsmill traces Harris’s personality that make this such a remarkable book. Harris’ energy may often have been misdirected, but the intensity of that energy is undeniable. Harris may had little reason for holding himself to be something more than he was, particularly after his flight from England, yet Kingsmill recognizes what tremendous willpower it must have taken Harris to maintain that facade when its artifice was so obvious.

    Harris never did as much damage to others as he did to himself. In the end, Harris comes to seem rather like another minor figure Kingsmill mentions, “one of those men who owe their reputation among their contemporaries to what they might have achieved, and who would perhaps have had less reputation had they done more to earn one.” Yet, as Kingsmill shows so persuasively, it was also solely by his own efforts that Harris earned what reputation he had, and Harris kept up those efforts long after the point when lesser men would have crumbled.

    Frank Harris deserves a prominent place, on an admittedly short shelf, alongside Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception and Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret as a classic portrait of the pathos and pathology of a constructed reputation. It wouldn’t be an entirely unjust ending if we came to remember Frank Harris because he happened to have been the subject of Hugh Kingsmill’s book.

    Other Comments

    Horace Gregory, Books, 18 September 1932

    Mr. Kingsmill’s biography of Frank Harris is not the first, nor will it be the last, for the Frank Harris legend shows signs of growth and possibly immortality, yet I believe that he has written the perfect story of Harris’ life. Something of the fascination that Harris must have had is reproduced in Mr. Kingsmill’s version. From the very start one catches the excitement, the vicarious adventure of knowing Harris and knowing him a shade too well.

    Joseph Wood Krutch, Nation, 2 November 1932

    It is possible that more facts will be brought to light if anyone cares enough to search for them, but it is not likely that we shall get a more convincing portrait of the picturesque and exasperating scoundrel who remains strangely pathetic despite his manifold sins.

    Alexander Armstrong’s review of Frank Harris from the Frank Harris page at

    The great virtue of this book is its consistent humanity, both towards Harris itself and those whose lives he touched. It is this quality, as well as its readability, that have made this one of my long-term favourite works; indeed it was this book more than any other that set me on the path which has led to the creation of these pages.

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    Frank Harris, by Hugh Kingsmill
    London: Jonathan Cape, 1932

    Other Ranks, by W. V. Tilsley

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    Close on now —must be. they’d be getting tea ready at home. Had they his field card yet? Fulshaw’s eyes were brilliant with excitement. The first birthday he’d missed at home. They’d send him some of the cake in his next parcel. Must stick near Jack. One up the spout … make sure his safety catch was off. What an uproar. Good job they didn’t know at home exactly what was happening.

    The burden of shells lifted, the absence of racket stinging his ear-drums. He heard a whistle, a way off. Fulshaw swept his arm upwards, climbing the parapet. “Come on, lads!”

    Bradshaw experienced a moment of indecision. Should he jump over the parapet first, risking getting marked down, or hesitate till the others climbed out? Jerry’s machine-guns would rake the parapet; many got pipped in the head in the act of climbing out. Like that film. He found himself on top, enormously magnified and exposed, and joined in the cramped forward walk of the irregularly formed line. Two others between him and Jack. Better leave it at that. When would that empty feeling in the stomach go? He felt afraid to look in front, and kept his eyes down. They saucered with wonder at seeing a sun-baked face peering up at him from one shell-hole. It smelt. He saw another; a green-white face pressed into the side of the hole, the remainder a limp, ragged bundle of khaki. Some other battalion had been over the same ground.

    He raised his eyes slowly over the dry pot-holed surface of No Man’s Land; saw in front what might have been an indistinct row of heads and shoulders, some distance away. Impossible to go straight. Some holes had things to avoid in them. They plodded blindly over the innumerable gougings towards the crackling machine-guns and rifle-fire. The impetuous Fulshaw fell first, in Bradshaw’s path. The little private bent down on one knee, forgetting the order that nobody had to stop with wounded. His officer waved him on, groaning; other hand to groin. Bradshaw had a desire to stay.

    “Shall I get the stretcher-bearers, sir?”

    The officer’s face grew drawn with pain.

    “No, no! Carry on!”

    Bradshaw looked round and espied a dud shell. He pulled it up, surprised by its weight, and set it upright on its base near the officer.

    “Just to mark the spot, sir. I’ll tell the stretcher-bearers where you are as soon as I see them.”

    He passed on, a dozen yards behind the thin, extended line. They looked pathetically ineffective. As he caught up, the back of Corporal Dawkins’ head fell out; upraised arms sagged to earth. Bradshaw slipped in beside Driver without a word. Dawkins killed. He was post corporal at Bouzincourt–handed Bradshaw his mail.

    They were men in front there. Germans. Patches of green further behind; unshelled fields. Sergeant Todd called out,

    “Don’t bunch up, there …”

    Bradshaw saw a wide gap on his right, moved right to lessen it. The next man closed towards him, the unaccountably dropped flat. He crouched lower, an attitude that gave a false impression of grimness and determination — men ready to strike. They were merely trying to minimise their bodily targets.

    The spasmodic crackling rippled, then sharply cracked in its sweeping arc. Above it Bradshaw head a choking sob. Somebody fell. The sergeant staggered but kept on. Another sob. Wounds … exhaustion? He didn’t know. But he no longer wondered why men walked to attack, even in broad daylight. The ground was abominably loose and uneven. No real surface. A series of craters and holes, with nothing to walk on but the loose rims.

    The line thinned mysteriously; became little bunches of twos and threes. They stumbled on exhaustingly, throats dry. He looked up again. No mistaking them this time; less than a hundred yards away. He prayed for something to happen before he got that far. Chick was right, then? The Germans were safe in their dugouts whilst the ground was writhing under our barrage; ready to nip up when it lifted and catch us coming across?

    No shells came to aid them now. They were targets. Sweating gunners would be saying:

    “Well, if the bloody infantry don’t do something after that lot, that God we’ve got a Navy!”

    The last seventy-five yards might well have been seventy-five miles. They would never get there. Every decent-sized shell-hole clung to Bradshaw’s feet, saying, “Get down to it, you fool. Get down to it! Pretend you’re wounded!” Driver was still there, to the left and slightly ahead. He wanted to draw nearer, but felt that, closer, one or the other would be hit. He knew that the slightest swerve or stumble could put him either in the direct track of a bullet or out of its line of flight. To the end of his days the picture of those stumbling men would remain with him; floundering into shell-holes; climbing out. Faltering, dropping, reeling on. Bent figures stumbling forward with distressful gasps; falling, often remaining down.

    Fifty years from the German trench the struggling remnant expended its last ounces of diminishing energy. It gathered, too scattered and demoralised to go farther, into two huge craters, like the sheep that soldiers are.

    Their first attack, a washout.


    I first stumbled across Other Ranks while taking Prof. Don Emerson’s course on the First World War at the University of Washington. I was in the habit of roaming the stacks of Suzzallo Library, particularly the long aisles of old fiction that sat in a neglected corner of the fifth floor. As a break from studying, I would browse the shelves, inspecting titles that seemed interesting. Even then, I hoped to find lost treasures among those forgotten books.

    I recognized the title phrase, used to described the enlisted men in the British Army, from the course, but I didn’t recognize Tilsley’s name. I did, however, know Edmund Blunden, who’d written the Introduction. Blunden’s Undertones of War was one of the memoirs on our reading list. His name suggested this might be something worth reading, so I checked Other Ranks out and read it over the next weekend.

    I had already become fascinated by the breakdown in class structures that resulted from the meatgrinder of trench warfare, but I found Other Ranks unique among the remarkable British memoirs of the Western Front. Blunden’s own book, along with Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality, Siegfried Sasson’s trilogy, and other well-regarded first-hand accounts, were all from the perspective of educated, upper-class officers. Until oral histories of ordinary soldiers began to be published in the 1960s, hardly any corresponding accounts could be found to speak for them.

    For that alone, Other Ranks would be worth remembering. But this is more than just an authentic memoir of the life and deaths of men in the front line: it is a powerful piece of prose. Tilsley’s style is careful, economical. Nothing is overstated. His sentences are often short, almost telegraphic. The poetry is between the lines.

    Although written as a novel, Other Ranks opens with a brief disclaimer: “None of the characters in this chronicle is fictitious.” We can assume, then, that Dick Bradshaw, from whose viewpoint the story is told, represents Tilsley. If so, then Other Ranks is all the more remarkable for its success in portraying the evolution of Bradshaw’s outlook from naive draftee to seasoned veteran.

    In the very first paragraph, Bradshaw imagines “an inspection, when some great general would stand before him and say: ‘Fight for England–you? Run away, boy, and come back when you’re a man!” Still too young to shave, Bradshaw is a quiet, respectful lad, probably from the family of a clerk or shopkeeper. He and his buddy, Jack, watch guardedly as the older men in their company of Lancastershire draftees indulge their vices: drinking, gambling, smoking, whoring–and, most of all, boasting. Both fear being shown up as unfit to be soldiers.

    The book opens as Bradshaw’s “C” Company leaves the depot at Etaples and heads for their first engagement at the front: a late and futile attack in the Battle of the Somme. The excerpt above describes climactic moment of going over the top, the infantry assault across No Man’s Land, a tactic that claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties in the course of the war and almost never succeeded.

    Over the next fourteen months, “C” Company carries on, alternating between stints in the front line and carrying out tedious chores at bases “down the line.” As Tilsley writes, “down the line,” “up the line,” and “in the trenches” “were elastic phrases. To the infantry, Poperinghe [ten miles from the front] was down the line; to non-combatant units, up.”

    The unit experiences the miserable and perilous lot of what was known as the P.B.I.: the Poor Bloody Infantry. A wounded Highlander Bradshaw encounters near the end sums up their unenviable lot:

    And of all the lousy jobs in this bloodstained war is anybody so mucked about as the P.B.I.? You exist like a pig for weeks on end, grovelling and nosing and snivelling for rations. Your constitution is steadily undermined month after month by insufficient grub. Your body is lousy and dirty, and covered with disgusting sores. The hair on you is a nesting and breeding-place for chats and crabs, and has to be shaved off. You’re unclean; degraded. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry from the R.E.s [Royal Engineers] can muck you about. You have the most dangerous, tedious, monotonous, and thankless job of all, and you get less pay than anybody else.

    Though he proves a worthy soldier and earns promotions to corporal and sergeant, Bradshaw loses any illusions he had about the war and his leaders. He goes from thinking of “great generals” who will size him up to referring to virtually everyone above the rank of subaltern as “The older men who use, and misuse, us….” As he writes in his diary at the close of the book,

    So now, after nearly two years in the army and fourteen months overseas, I am returning as a wounded Tommy who has done his bit. The irony of it! I came here with a duty before me–to kill Germans. For months I received instructions on how to drive home into my adversaries’ bodies the long pointed blade of steel recently discarded. There has never been blood upon its surface; only a little mud and dust. Hardly more potent has been my rifle–and both have been carried many wearisome miles. My service has been a washout; undistinguished. Yet I have seen many dead men and boys–so many that the sight ceased to shock. Not normal dead, but cruel mutilations that were never on God’s earth meant to be.

    Published in 1931, Other Ranks was late and lost in the wave of war memoirs and novels. The Times Literary Supplement gave it a brief, polite review. Never released in the U.S., it soon vanished. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory missed it, as did other studies of war literature by Bernard Bergonzi and Samuel Hynes. Aside from a rare copy that pops up now and again for hundreds of dollars, it sits collecting dust on the shelves of scholarly libraries like the one where I found it. If I could choose only one book from this site to be reissued and rediscovered, this would be it. Not only in recognition of its exceptional balance of honesty and discretion, but in tribute to the sacrifice of a generation of Other Ranks.

    Other Comments

    · Times Literary Supplement, 16 April 1931

    Mr. Blunden remarks that Mr. Tilsley “misses nothing.” He has, indeed, a very keen eye. Like most “other ranks” who have written of their experiences in the War, he had had an upbringing and an education superior to that of his fellows. He was one of those who believed that the Army could not make soldiers of his kind, and admits that when he saw a German raiding party approaching he forgot in his excitement to take off his safety-catch. Perhaps for this reason he displays at times a pessimism regarding the respective qualities of British and German troops which is at war with his pride in the 55th Division…. Mr. Tisley’s description of an attack on the Somme is as vivid as anything of the sort that has been written.

    Locate a copy

    Other Ranks, by W.V. Tilsley
    London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1931

    Dust jacket image courtesy of Great War Dust Jackets:

    Moorish Girl’s Unappreciated Books Archive

    Moorish Girl’s Unappreciated Books Archive

    Since late 2004, Laila Lalami, author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, has been “asking readers, writers, editors, critics, librarians, or booksellers to weigh in on a book they loved, but which has remained underappreciated.” Almost every week, contributors ranging from veteran best-sellers (Scott Turow) to simple reading enthusiasts recommend and comment upon one of their favorite neglected books.

    Solitary Confinement, by Christopher Burney


    I soon learned that variety is not the spice, but the very stuff of life. We need the constant ebb and flow of wavelets of sensation, thought, perception, action, and emotion, lapping on the shore of our consciousness, now here, now there, keeping even our isolation in the ocean of reality, so that we neither encroach nor are encroached upon. If our minds are thus like islands, they are of many shapes, some long and straight, others narrow and bent, impervious to the sea and belching from deep unapproachable cones the unversial warmth which lies beneath us all. We are narrow men, twisted men, smooth and nicely rounded men, and poets; but whatever we are, we have our shape, and we preserve it best in the experience of many things.

    If the reach of experience is suddenly confined, and we are left with only a little food for thought and feeling, we are apt to take the few objects that offer themselves and ask a whole catalogue of often absurd questions about them. Does it work? How? What made it and of what? And, in parallel, when and where did I last see something like it and what else does it remind me of? Andif we are dissatisfied at the time, we repeat the series in the optative mood, making each imperfection in what we have to had evoke a wish or an ideal. So we set in train a wonderful flow of combinations and associations in our minds, the length and complexity of which soon obscure its humble starting point.

    The objects in my cell were few and bare; I have enumerated them all in the last chapter, except the gamelle, or mess-tin, and spoon with which we ate our soup. There was neither comfort nor company in any of them, but they served a brief term of slavery to the orgy of speculation to which confinement drove me. My bed, for example, could be measured and roughly classified with school beds or army beds, according to appearance and excepting the peculiarity of its being hinged to the wall. Yet it was a bed with a pronounced difference from any other. The broad lattice-work of iron laths, which took the place of springs, was unique and almost supernatural in its torment. If I lay on my back, at least one vertebra was wedged in a sharp corner; if I lay on my side, a hip or shoulder-blade or elbow found itself pressed against an edge; and if I lay on my stomach, my nostrils were filled with straw-dust. Yet this bed retained a quality of bedness which summoned all my associations with all the beds I had ever known. In it my fears, joys, sorrows and relief were those of bed, not to be found in haystacks or ditches or on the floor, but common to every bed from canopy to canvas.

    When I had done with the bed, which was too simple to intrigue me long, I felt the blankets, estimated their warmth, examined the precise mechanics of the window, the discomfort of the toilet (perversely, for its very presence was an unexpected luxury), computed the length and breadth, the orientation and elevation of the cell.

    There was also some decoration to be seen, for my predecessors had evidently been better equipped than I. There were smears of oilpaint on the walls and a great deal of pencil work, raning from signatures and salutations to lewd sketches derived from interrupted love-lives. Some had also counted the days, but the longest line of pencil marks was fifty-six, so either their patience or their imprisonment had been short. The first case would have been natural and the second desirable, for it the physical nature of this cell was only to be described by understatement, its spirit or atmosphere defied all words.

    The adjectives which sprang to mind were those which might properly be used of stagnant pools, although the place was dry and not obscure; there was an obscenity in this calculated degradation of a human dwelling-place which chilled the heart as no fungoid squalor could. There was no filth, generally no vermin: only the diabolic essence of perversion and the smugly spruce technology of a stockyard.


    Solitary Confinement is Christopher Burney’s account of the 526 days he spent in Fresnes prison, outside Paris, after being captured by the Germans as a suspected spy in 1942. Contrary to what you might expect, though, this is not a Wooden Horse/Escape from Colditz book of British derring-do and ingenuity. Escape was never a serious consideration for Burney, something he chides himself for rather late in the narrative.

    Instead, he fully expected something worse than solitary confinement, and even pictured the firing squad he’d face if his real identity as a spy were found out. What makes Solitary Confinement stand out among war and prison memoirs is that Burney focuses, to the exclusion of almost all extraneous details, on the mental and emotional experience of his long stretch in solitary.

    With no distraction but a mid-day serving of watery soup and a chunk of bread, and with only a small patch of sky to see through the high window in his cell, Burney had to devise ways to fill the hours between waking and sleeping. He slowly ran through old memories, recalling walks taken and meals eaten. He rehearsed and perfected alibis to tell his interrogators–that he was an escaped prisoner of war, that he was a special operations officer–that could avoid implicating the French members of his support network.

    And he spent a great deal of time remembering bits of the Bible and other religious teachings from his youth, and puzzling over their meaning. The notions of the two extremes of good and evil, in particular, troubled him, for he found it difficult to resolve the notion that evil opposed good, that evil resulted from the sins committed by men, with his immediate experience. Had the information he gave in his interrogations led to the arrest and execution of members of the French resistance, they would, through no fault of their own, come to suffer for his sin of confessing.

    At the same time, he also struggled to understand what it meant if God is love:

    I did not hate my enemies. I would do what I could to furstrate their schemes against me, but I would not be savage with them. If the Toad [one of the more brutal prison guards] would go back to Germany and leave my door open, he could go in peace; I would try to neutralize his unpleasantness, but I would not harry him to hell. But the Toad and love seemed to be incompatible terms. It would be easy enough to couple them in church, especially in the general proposition, an exhortation given in peculiarly suitable circumstances where outright refutation or even doubt would be unlikely. For in those peaceable surroundings the vision of enmity recedes. But does the vision of love advance? Do we know what we are talking about?

    Left to explore these thoughts, Burney eventually comes to decide that he must “replace this old polar system of value–the good of every kind faced with its evil opposite–by a scale which would all be positive degrees of good”:

    There is no critical mark to the right of which is Good and to the left Evil,” he decides. “Life is not a gloomy and impossible grey, as moralists would have it, to be sorted into black and white: all its aspects form a spectrum, of which the greater part is hidden to a single pair of eyes, but all which originates from a single source. To suppose that there are contrary principles of light and darkness, or good and evil, is as presumptuous as to deny the existence of infrared light on the grounds of its invisibility.

    When it becomes clear that he will be moved to collective confinement in a camp in Germany, Burney admits that, “I was reluctant to leave.” His time in solitary has, in a way, been an opportunity:

    I knew that so many months of solitude, though I had allowed them to torment me at times, had been in a sense an exercise in liberty. For, by absolving me from the need either to consider practical problems of living or to maintain the many unquestioned assumptions which cannot conveniently be abandoned in social life, I had been free to drop the spectables of the near-sighted and to scan the horizon of existence. And I believed that I had seen something there. But it was only a glimpse, a remote and tenuous apprehension of what lay behind the variety and activity of life, and I was afraid toturn my attention back to my immediate surroundings.

    To go from abrupt capture and interrogation by the Gestapo to this revelation is a remarkable journey. Frank Kermode was moved to write of Burney, “The courage and the intellectual integrity of this writer are far beyond what most of us would expect of ourselves….” The author’s interior journey, as it were, comes to overshadow even the drama of his physical adventures. And his sensitive, thoughtful, yet always self-deprecating account makes Solitary Confinement a truly exceptional book. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called it “certainly of classic quality. . . . a wonderful little book,” and it’s among the most memorable I’ve come across in the course of editing this site.


    This is a beautiful, simple, and moving book. To my mind it deals with a question more important than even the war and intrigue, which are its setting–how a man may find and build his own self.

    Rollo May, New York Times, 1 March 1953

    This is a story of great courage and steadfastness, and it is all the more impressive as proof that men of integrity can stand on their own under the greatest pressures without creeping to the shelter of superstitions and orthodoxies. It is as powerful a justification of intellectual freedom and of the intellectual as one could wish to have.

    Anthony West, New Yorker, 11 April 1953

    Locate a copy

    Solitary Confinement, by Christopher Burney
    London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1952

    View of Dawn in the Tropics, by Guillermo Cabrera Infante


    The comandante gave him a story to read. In it a man would go into the bathroom and spend hours locked inside it. The wife worried about what her husband was doing in the bathroom for such a long time. One day she decided to find out. She climbed out the window and walked along the narrow ledge that went around the house. She slid up to the bathroom window and looked in. What she saw stunned her: her husband was sitting on the toilet and had a revolver in his hand with the barrel in his mouth. From time to time he took the barrel of the gun out of his mouth to lick it slowly like a lollipop.

    He read the story and gave it back to its author without further comment or perhaps with an offhand comment. What makes the story particularly moving is the fact that its author, the comandante, committed suicide seven years later by shooting himself in the head. So as not to wake his wife, he wrapped the gun in a towel.


    Best known for his masterpiece, Three Trapped Tigers, Cabrera Infante described View of Dawn in the Tropics as “a personal statement of the strategies of history.” This short book, barely 140 pages long, comprises approximately 100 vignettes drawn from the history of Cuba. Cabrera Infante’s approach is similar to Eduardo Galeano’s magnum opus Memory of Fire, but distilled to a piercing intensity.

    The theme of virtually all of the vignettes is violence. The violence of the first Spanish masters against the natives, the violence of slave rebellions, the violence of colonial wars, the violence of coups and counter-coups, the violence of Castro’s revolution, and the violence of its repressions. Many of the vignettes end in death.

    Violence, Cabrera Infante seems to suggest, is endemic to the presence of humans on the island. Whether repressive or liberating, the violence continues, in contrast to the qualities of the island itself:

    And it will always be there. As someone once said, that long, sad, unfortunate island will be there after the last Indian and after the last Spaniard and after the last African and after the last American and after the last of the Cubans, surviving all disasters, eternally washed over by the Gulf Stream: beautiful and green, undying, eternal.

    Writing from his chosen exile in London, Cabrera Infante seems to draw some hope from this perspective. If violence is the legacy of humans on Cuba, it’s a legacy that will last only as long as there is human memory. As he writes in one vignette (quoted in entirety): “In what other country of the world is there a province named Matanzas, meaning, ‘Slaughter’?”

    Locate a copy

    View of Dawn in the Tropics, by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
    New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978
    First published in Spain in 1974 as Vista del Amanecer en el Tropico

    The Wet Flanders Plain, by Henry Williamson


    The Salient Now — and Then
    Flatness of green fields, no tall trees anywhere, clusters of red-tield, red-bricked farms and houses, and a dim village-line on the far horizon, only very slightly higher, it seems, than the green flatness everywhere–that is the Salient to-day. Yet for years these few square miles were shapeless as the ingredients of a Christmas pudding while being stirred. Not even worms were left after the bombardments–all blasted to shreds, with the bricks of ruins, stumps of trees, and metalling of roads. We used to say it could never be reclaimed: that in fifty years it would be the same dreadful morass.

    Mankind suffered over a million casualties within the dish, double-rimmed with inner and outer “ridges,” of the Salient. It had the outline of a skull, the teeth trying to crack Ypres–so the Germans, with grim humour, drew it during the War. A fit man can easily walk round the skull’s outline in a day; but in ’17, could he have walked without human interference, he would ahve dropped, exhausted, before he had floundered a hundredth part of the way, and been drowned with his face under the thin top mud. The bombardments broke the bekes, or brooks, draining this land, which was once covered by the sea; and the pudding became porridge, a-swim with icy water.

    The only way over the morass was by the wooden tracks that serpentined over the mud–baulks of teak and beech laid side by side, looking like the sloughs, cast by monsters of the primeval slime. Always at night the tracks glowed and glared with fire and smoke and dreadful crashes; sections would rise splintered into the air, wagons, horses, mules with them; the mud bordering the tracks was piled with old broken and swelled things. The young German gunner cadets were trained in night-firing on these tracks, which were visible along their ribbed and winding lengths by day. Now if you would recall 1917 to your memory, you must stay away from this fine agricultural district.

    The Genius of the Salient
    Near St. Julien, opposite Triangle Farm, at a place called Vancouver, stands the most beautiful thing in the Salient. People call it the Canadian Memorial, but for me it is the memorial for all the soliders in the War. It faces towards Ypres, not towards a vanquiched enemy, as do so many of the war memorials to be seen in France to-day, such as the Gallic cock crowing triumphantly on a broken cannon at Roclincourt, or the caribou roaring eastwards from Beaumont Hamel, or the defiant artisan-soldier standing firm and fierce at Lens.

    Do the dead feel cock-crowing triumph over the dead? The crowing is for the industrial magnates, the Lens or the Ruhr mine-owners, not for the poor unknowing working-men who fell in the Great Horror, and became part of it.

    No; the colossal head and shoulders of the soldier with reversed arms emerging from the tall stone column has the gravity and strength of grief coming from full knowledge of old wrongs done to men by men. It mourns; but it mourns for all mankind. We are silent before it, as we are before the stone figures of the Greeks. The thoughtless one-sided babble about national righteousness or wrongess, the cliches of jingo patriotism, the abstract virtues parasitic on the human spirit, fade before the colossal figure of the common soldier by the warside.

    The genius of Man rises out of the stone, and our tears fall before it.


    The Wet Flanders Plain is truly an exceptional book. Of the many–and good–books written about the First World War, this is the only one I know of in which a soldier returns to the scene of his battles–or at least, until Michael Kernan’s The Violet Dots came along over fifty years later. Considering the enormous number of men who served on the Western Front between 1914-1918, and the depth to which the experience shocked and wounded many of them, it seems odd that there aren’t more like it.

    But after reading The Wet Flanders Plain, the absence becomes understandable. Returning to the scene of their worst traumas is hardly something that would have been undertaken lightly. Williamson returns to the area of the Western Front in hopes of ridding himself of what he calls his “wraiths”: the memories of the many young men he served with and killed or saw killed in his time at the Front. As he describes in the moving introduction, “Apologia Pro Mea Vita,” these wraiths haunt him even ten years after the War, and drive him to seek refuge in the belfry of his village church, where only the deafening tolling of the bells can drown out the rush and noise of his memories and nightmares.

    The fact that Williamson survived the War is in itself miraculous. Arriving in France in the fall of 1914 with the first wave of volunteers that followed the Regulars, he served on the Ypres Salient and the Somme throughout much of the next four years. The numbers of fellow soldiers he saw killed and wounded would certainly have left any with at least a few “wraiths” to haunt his dreams and memories.

    In 1928, Williamson and another unnamed veteran journeyed back to Flanders and Northern France to revisit the places they served. Much of The Wet Flanders Plain comes from the diary he kept during the trip. They travelled on the cheap, staying in estaminets and eating at workers’ cafes, and expenses are a constant concern throughout the book.

    As the excerpt above describes, they find, to their surprise, that the land has been quick to recover the calm and order it knew before the War. The sodden battlefields are all productive farmland, and birdsong–unknown during the War–can be heard everywhere. Williamson–best known as a nature writer–notes a dozen different types of song birds, and remarks on the similarities between the natural environment here and at home in England.

    What remains from the War are the man-made scars: mostly German machine gun emplacements, so well-built and extensive that now sledgehammers are having to do the work millions of British shells failed at. And there are new scars as well: the many orderly cemeteries for the War dead. Even for the German dead, although these, he observes, are given cast-off bits of land, out of sight and begrudged.

    The local people show little nostalgia for the soldiers who overwhelmed their land for four years. The money the battlefield tourists bring is accepted, but not as recompense for their losses. Instead, their interest seems in restoring the way life was before the war, when small matters of money, property, and neighborhood jealousies were the main concerns of everyday life.

    In summary, what Williamson finds is that energies of both nature and man are devoted to recovery, not carrying on the conflict.

    The dug-outs of Y ravine had subsided, the dry-rotted timbers broke with a touch; the pistons and mainshaft and cylinders of the aeroplane rusted in the grasses–I remembered the charred framework on the ridge above Station Road–with rifle barrels and holed helmets and burst minenwerfer cases. Those dreaded oil-drums of the minnies! Rust and mildew and long tangled grass and frogs. The Ancre flowed in its chalky bed, swift and cold as before, gathering its green duckweed into a heaving coat as of mail, and drowning the white flowers of water crow’s-foot. Only one thing of all our work remained–the wooden military bridge over Mill Causeway. “Out work?” a voice seemed to say, a voice of the wan star. “What you seek is lost for ever in ancient sunlight, which arises again as Truth.” The voice wandered thinner than memory, and was gone with the star under the horizon.

    With the exception of the Canadian memorial described above, the cemeteries and statues seem more designed to reassure the living than to commemorate the dead. The memories of Williamson and other veterans are the truest memorials. In the end, Williamson finds “the wraiths were fled,” and himself “filled with longing for my home.” His journey has allowed him to move forward, at last, to “the new part of myself, overlaying the wraith of that lost for ever.”


    Herschel Brickell, New York Herald Tribune, 1 December 1929

    One of the best written of all the books on the war. It is slight in size and unpretentious, but worth putting aside to read again when the next storm threatens.

    Frances Bartlett, Boston Transcript, 30 November 1929

    Among the books of today marking the recrudescence of a general interest in stories of the Great War–also the growth of an abhorrence of all wars, and the determination to avoid them by every honorable means–Mr. Williamson’s is uniquely notable. It is epic in prose; elegaic for the most part, yet in certain of its nuances possessing a delicately lovely pastoral quality.

    F.L. Robbins, Outlook, 27 November 1929

    Unheralded by fanfare of advertisement, The Wet Flanders Plain emerges from the mass of War books as the most beautiful and the most terrible. Henry Williamson, the English prose writer and nature mystic, had revisited the scenes of his War years, and in a diary weaves the past and present into a series of scenes, pure and strange and deeply stirring.

    Harold King, Saturday Review of Literature, 21 December 1929

    The book is a series of vignettes, done with that delicate skill of which Mr. Williamson is master. It is deep and tender and moving, and will probably rank with the few really great books of the war.

    Locate a copy

    The Wet Flanders Plain, by Henry Williamson
    London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1929

    Dust jacket image courtesy of Great War Dust Jackets:

    Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman


    David watched the door close: gently, smoothly, as though drawn by a magnet, the steel door drew closer to its steel frame. Finally they became one.

    High up, behind a rectangular metal grating in the wall, David saw something stir. It looked like a grey rat, but he realized it was a fan beginning to turn. He sensed a faint, rather sweet smell.

    The shuffling quietened down; all you could hear were occasional screams, groans and barely audible words. Speech was no longer of any use to people, nor was action; action is directed towards the future and there no longer was any future. When David moved his head and neck, it didn’t make Sofya Levinson want to turn and see what he was looking at.

    Her eyes–which had read Homer, Izvestia, Huckleberry Finn and Mayne Reid, that had looked at good people and bad people, that had seen the geese in the green meadows of Kursk, the stars above the observatory at Pulkovo, the glitter of surgical steel, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, tomatoes and turnips in the bins at market, the blue water of Issyk-Kul–her eyes were no longer of any use to her. If someone had blinded her, she would have felt no sense of loss.

    She was still breathing, but breathing was hard work and she was running out of strength. The bells ringing in her head became deafening; she wanted to concentrate on one last thought, but was unable to articulate this thought. She stood there–mute, blind, her eyes still open.

    The boy’s movements filled her with pity. Her feelings towards him were so simple that she no longer needed words and eyes. The half-dead boy was still breathing, but the air he took in only drove life away. He could see people settling onto the ground; he could see mouths that were toothless and mouths with white teeth and gold teeth; he could see a thing stream of blood flowing from a nostril. He could see eyes peering through the glass; Roze’s inquisitive eyes had momentarily met David’s. He still needed his voice–he would have asked Aunt Sonya about those wolf-like eyes. He still even needed thought. He had taken only a few steps in the world. He had seen the prints of children’s bare heels on hot, dusty earth, his mother lived in Moscow, the moon looked down and people’s eyes looked up at it from below, a teapot without its head, where there was milk in the morning and frogs he could get to dance by holding their front feet–this world still preoccupied him.

    All this time David was being clasped by strong warm hands. He didn’t feel his eyes go dark, his heart become empty, his mind grow dull and blind. He had been killed; he longer existed.

    Sofya Levinton felt the boy’s body subside in her hands. Once again she had falled behind him. In mine-shafts where the air becomes poisoned, it is always the little creatures, the bird and mice, that die first. This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.

    “I’ve become a mother,” she thought.

    That was her last thought.

    Her heart, though, still had life in it; it still beat, still ached, still felt pity for the dead and the living. Sofya Levinton felt a wave of nausea. She was hugging David to her life a doll. Now she too was dead, she too was a doll.


    If War and Peace had never been written, it might have been easier for Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate to win an audience. To compare Life with War is so obvious and instinctive it’s almost an autonomic reflex. They’re both big, thick novels about Russia at war with enormous casts of characters, real and fictional.

    The comparison does Life and Fate a disservice on two counts. First, any reader put off by the bulk or subject of War and Peace would hardly think twice of giving Life and Fate a try. And second, although Life is a superb novel, it is not quite on the level of what is arguably one of the pinnacles of the novel as an art form.

    Still, the comparison is inescapable. Like War and Peace, Life and Fate is a tapestry, with numerous narrative threads, many of them dealing with members of an extended family: Alexandra Shaposhnikova, her three daughters–Lyudmila, Yevgenia, and Marusya–and her son Dmitry. There is Viktor Shtrum, Lyudmila’s second husband, is an ambitious physicist who encounters an early version the post-war campaign against Jewish intellecturals but is saved by Stalin’s deus ex machina intervention. Yevgenia struggles with the deprivations of home front life, falls in love with a maverick Army officer who leads a crucial tank assault at Stalingrad, and puts herself at risk by sending a parcel to her ex-husband, a commissar fallen from favor, in Lyubyanka Prison. Dmitry’s son Seryozha fights in the ruins of Stalingrad, part of a small group of soldiers isolated and holding out in house 6/1.

    But the cast ranges far wider than just the Shaposhnikovs. Stalin, General Paulus, the German commander at Stalingrad, and Adolf Eichmann all make appearances. Robert Chandler’s excellent English translation provides a seven-page list of characters at the end of the book. The categories alone give an indication of the scope and diversity of Life and Fate:

    • The Shaposhnikov Family and Their Circle
    • Viktor’s colleagues
    • Viktor’s circle in Kazan
    • In the German concentration camp
    • In the Russian labour camp
    • On the journey to the gas chamber
    • In the Lubyanka prison
    • In Kuibyshev
    • At Stalingrad power station
    • Getmanov’s circle in Ufa
    • Members of a Fighter Squadron of the Russian Air Force
    • Novikov’s Tank corps
    • Officers of the Soviet Army in Stalingrad
    • Soldiers in House 6/1
    • In the Kalmyk Steppe
    • Officers of the German Army in Stalingrad

    Despite this scale, the action in this novel is on a small, intimate level. A young girl fantasizes about her lover. The tank commander, Novikov, removed from his post for diverting ever so slightly from the official plan, waits in a room to be questioned and probably beaten. Viktor Shtrum bickers with his wife and agonises over minor incidents of office politics. Lyudmila fights to make her way by tram to see her wounded son. Krymov, the commissar, listens to his interrogator chat on the phone about cottage cheese and a dinner invitation “as though the creature sitting next to the investigator were not a man, but some quadruped.”

    Grossman’s capacity for getting inside the minds of his characters is not limited to the Russians:

    … The brain of the forty-year-old accountant, Naum Rozenberg, was still engaged in its usual work. He was walking down the road and counting: 110 the day before yesterday, 61 today, 612 during the five days before–altogether that made 783 … A pity he hadn’t kept separate totals for men, women and children … Women burn more easily. An experienced brenner arranges the bodies so that the bony old men who make a lot of ash are lying next to the women. Any minute now they’d be ordered to turn off the road; these people–the people they’d been digging up from pits and dragging out with great hooks on the end of ropes–had received the same order only a year ago. An experienced brenner could look at a mound and immediately estimate how many bodies there were inside–50, 100, 200, 600, 1000 … Scharfuhrer Elf insisted that the bodies should be referred to as items–100 items, 200 items–but Rozenberg called them people: a man who had been killed, a child who had been put to death, an old man who had been put to death. He used these words only to himself–otherwise the Scharfuhrer would have emptied nine grams of metal into him….

    One of the most moving of these small stories is that of Anna Semyonova, Viktor’s mother, who, like Grossman’s own mother, is trapped in the town of Berdichev with thousands of other Jews when the Germans sweep through the Ukraine. Grossman’s mother was shot and buried in a mass grave outside the town. After months of captivity in a ghetto, Anna is packed onto a cattle car and transported to Auschwitz. Along the way, she befriends an orphaned boy, David, and, in the excerpt above, they are herded into the chambers and gassed.

    Before leaving the ghetto, however, she composes a letter to Viktor, knowing she will never see him again:

    They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren’t going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bak honey-cakes and goose-necks–this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear forever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won’t be here, we will have vanished–just as the Aztecs once vanished.

    This letter is easily one of the finest works in the literature of the Holocaust. The filmmaker Frederic Wiseman was so affected by this chapter that he adapted it into a play, “Last Letter,” which he filmed in 2003.

    Life and Fate also reflects Grossman’s own development, his disillusionment with the Soviet state and his acceptance of his Jewish roots. Born in Berdichev in 1905, Grossman was raised as a secular Russian. Educated as a chemist, he started writing while still attending Moscow State University. After working for a few years in the Donbass mining region, he switched professions.

    By the time Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman was a member of the Writer’s Union and a popular journalist. He spent much of the war as a frontline reporter for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, including during the battle for Stalingrad, which forms the centerpiece of Life and Fate. He also witnessed the liberation of Treblinka and other concentration camps, and wrote some of the earliest coverage of the extermination of the Jews to be published anywhere.

    The strength of Life and Fate’s depiction of combat, destruction, and its effects on soldiers and civilians stems directly from his wartime reporting, which has been collected and published in A Writer at War. The collection was edited by Luba Vinogradova and Anthony Beevor, who openly acknowledges his debt to Grossman for much of the descriptive power of his own account of the battle, Stalingrad.

    During the war, Grossman wrote a great deal of propagandist material proclaiming the victory of the liberating Soviet state over the fascist Germans. In the novel The People Immortal, a realistic account of the demoralisation and panic of Soviet troops before the onslaught of the Wermacht in 1941 turns into a socialist fantasy in which a heroic commissar organises a successful counter-attack that routs the enemy. The Germans, “accustomed to victory for seven hundred days, could not and would not understand that on this seven hundred and first day defeat had come to them.” The soldiers celebrate not only their victory, but also the courage and leadership of their commissar: “The Commissar was in front, the Commissar was with us!”

    In fact, Grossman’s loss of idealism began before that, starting with the mistaken arrest of his wife, Olga Guber, during the purges of 1937-1938. In Life and Fate, the war is portrayed as a contest between two equally ruthless states, two forms of totalitarianism differing only in ideology and technique. What heroism there was to be found was only as isolated, individual acts.

    In the latter stages of the war, Grossman, Ilya Ehrenburg, and others compiled documentation of the Nazi persecution of the Jews–and instances of Jewish resistance–in The Black Book. The Soviet authorities refused to publish it, however, and Grossman watched Stalin turn to persecuting Jews himself in the late 1940s.

    Grossman condensed many of these experiences into Life and Fate, which he worked on through much of the 1950s. The purges, the persecution of Jewish scientists and engineers, the Holocaust, the battles, Stalin’s manipulation of all aspects of Soviet life all come to play in the novel. It developed into a very unfavorable and unapologetic account of the state’s power and corruption. It was all too realistic to pass as socialist realism. When Grossman submitted the novel for publication, a Politburo member told him it was unpublishable and would remain so for the next 200 years. As Vladimir Voinovich later pointed out, the most telling part of that remark was the certainty that the book’s merit would easily survive that long.

    Grossman died without seeing Life and Fate in print–believing, in fact, that every copy in existence had been confiscated. Fortunately, his friend, the poet Semyon Lipkin, was able to photograph the manuscript, and passed a copy to Andrei Sakharov, who in turn provided it to Voinovich, who smuggled it to Switzerland in 1980.

    Although the book was highly praised when first released, its bulk and grim subject put most potential readers off, and it soon passed out of print. Harvill Press reissued it in 1985 and 2003, and New York Review Books announced it would be released as part of its Classics series in May 2006.

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    Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler
    New York: Harper and Row, 1980

    David Hume, by J. Y. T. Greig

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    His duties as Librarian cannot have been very onerous. He did the necessary jobs, or some of them: he ordered new books, and now and then took a turn behind the issue desk. But he probably considered that a salary of £40 a year measured the services he ought to render; and after less than three years, having fallen foul of the Curators, he declined to pocket even the £40, handing the whole sum over to the blind poet, Blacklock, and installing him, despite his blindness, as assistant.

    He already had at least one assistant, Watty Goodall, whom he had taken over from the previous Librarian. What precisely Watty did, and who paid him for it, are alike mysteries I cannot solve. The Faculty allowed him £5 a year. But that would scarcely buy his drinks. For Watty, so the legend goes, could seldom be discovered sober. Nevertheless he wrote the first defence of Mary Stuart, and so started that interminable controversy on the question of the Casket Letters and the murder at the Kirk o’ Field.

    One day David came upon the drunken Watty in the library, fast asleep, his head resting on his table; and he crept up to him and shouted in his ear: “Queen Mary was a whore.”

    Watty started up, half awake (or whole drunk), seized David by the throat and nearly throttled him, shouting: “Ye’re a bawdy Presbyterian minister, wha’s come to murder the reputation o’ a sainted queen. Ye’re a’ the same, you Presbyterians. Your predecessors told a wheen lies aboot her to that bitch Elizabeth, and helped to murder her; and noo …”

    David, before he died, was called many names; but this, one fancies, was the only time that “Presbyterian” and “minister” were hurled at him.

    Editor’s Comments

    When I started assembling the initial set of lists for this site, I googled a number of phrases such as “lost masterpiece,” “forgotten classic,” and “neglected work” in hopes of finding a few relevant needles in the Internet’s haystack. The last phrase led me to Adam Potkay’s selected bibliography on David Hume, which had the following to say about J.Y.T. Greig’s biography of Hume: “A literate, witty, and unjustly neglected work. As an instructive contrast to Mossner’s serene and saintly Hume, Greig offers us a more feisty and pugnacious character.” “Literate, witty, and unjustly neglected”–it sounded like a perfect candidate.

    A little more searching revealed that the book won the 1931 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography. That cinched it. I located a copy on AddAll and ordered it.

    From the very first page, it’s quite apparent that this is a style of biography no longer written. Today, it is taken for granted that a serious biography demands the writer don an impersonal, objective voice. The word “I” shall not appear outside of quoted material. Greig, on the other hand, often inserts himself into the text. He does so out of candor, not vanity.

    At times, it is to admit gaps in his own research or knowledge: “But why February, not September or October, as the date for signing [the Matriculation Book of Edinburgh College, which Hume attended]? I have no idea.” In other cases, it’s to mark his opinions with an honest copyright:

    A noisy, primitive, confused and very casual mode of education, we should deem it now. It had little system and still less equipment. The teacher kept is going by a deal of flogging, cruelty and hard driving of his often half-starved and shivering pupils; he assumed, as his religion taught him, that a boy is naturally wicked and must therefore be dragooned to virtue. But with all its faults of theory and practice it had certain admirable qualities: it was homely, human, un-mechanical; it treated boys as persons, not as units in a system. I cannot lay my hand upon my heart and swear I think our present methods overwhelmingly superior.

    Greig also recognizes that his readership might include both serious students of philosophy and amateurs simply interested in a good tale of a noteworthy life. Thus, he advises at the very start: “Readers who do not take an interest in philosophy as such will be well advised to skip the first chapter. The biography of David Hume opens with the second.”

    Indeed, Greig manages to craft an account that is just as full and diverse as Hume’s life itself. As Hume spent much of his life jousting with the conservative side of the Scottish Kirk (church), Greig takes care to help the reader understand the church, “its discipline, its forms of worship, and its doctrines” in a remarkable set-piece early in the book. He describes a typical Sunday for the Hume family in precise detail, concluding,

    So ends the holy Sabbath. It has been a day devoid of beauty, liberty and joy. The kirk, twice visited, was bare, ugly, mean, dirty and dilapidated; no instrument of music has been heard in it; the singing has been half-hearted and lugubrious; no liturgy, composed with loving care by men sensitive to the cadences of speech, has charmed the ear; the unwritten sermons and extempore addresses to the Deity have lacked every grace except vigour. Every moment of the day had been controlled, every free movement of the children’s minds and bodies checked and thwarted: to run, hop, whistle, sing, laugh, throw a stone, cut a stick, or even walk a hundred years except to kirk and back again–these have been repressed as sins…. Need we wonder at the bitterness with which David Hume afterwards assailed Puritan and Presbyterian “enthusiasts?”

    Greig gives the church a healthy number of knocks for its strident practices and positions, but he acknowledges its suitability for the majority of its followers. Reviewing the reformist trends that began to emerge in the mid-1700s, he writes,

    The Moderates of the XVIIIth century, like their successors, the would-be Moderates of the XXth, offered a religion that was cool, respectable and decked out to look extremely rational. But it did not give the Scotsman what he wanted. In Scotland, those who want religion want it hot, and those who do not want it hot do not want religion. The absurd but quite effective compromises of the English are abhorrent to the Scottish mind.

    By now, it should be clear that Greig’s opinions offer some of the finest fare in the book. Hume turned Scotland on its ear with his hearty disbelief, and confounded many with his affectionate embrace of the outcast. In much the same way, Greig injects a measure of humor into his accounts of many of the controversies of the time:

    … the Select Society, momentarily off its head, published a scheme to suppress the Scots dialect and accent, and to teach Scotsmen how to speak like Cockneys or like Oxford dons. Happily the Scots people overwhelmed the whole affair with ridicule.
       As Hume’s biographer, I am happy to report that he escaped participating in this folly, being in London at the time. Otherwise he might, I fear, have shown himself as crazy as his friends.

    Greig is also willing to take Hume himself to task on occasion. His harshest criticism deals with Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. In his original manuscript, Hume deftly dispenses with those who would personify God:

    It is an absurdity to believe that the Deity has human passions, and one of the lowest of human passions, a restless appetite for applause. It is an inconsistency to believe that, since the Deity has this human passion, he has not others also; and, in particular a disregard to the opinions of creatures so much inferior.

    After talking it over with his friends Adam Smith and Gilbert Elliott, though, Hume had second thoughts and altered the text to end, in Greig’s words, “on a note of sham piety.” “That, at least,” he continues, “is my conjecture; and if I am right, it represents the weakest action of his whole career.”

    Hume’s composure in the face of his imminent death (apparently from cancer of the colon) has been written of eloquently by James Boswell and Adam Smith. Boswell was so unsettled by Hume’s calm declaration of his disbelief in immortality that he had to console himself with a wench afterward. Greig, however, offers an interesting psychological take on Hume’s attitude towards his death:

    The equanimity and fortitude with which David Hume faced death, when he saw it imminent, is worthy of all praise. But the supposition that his philosophical indifference was attained suddenly, and with private struggles, is improbable and needless. David may have been a brave man–as I think he was–but was not more exempt than Dr Johnson from instinctive fears common to the whole human race. He conquered his instinctive fear of death. All honour to him. But he did not do it in a week or month; and the symptoms of his quiet struggles with himself in the few years before 1776 is that he attempted to persuade himself that nothing was amiss with him.

    Greig edited the first comprehensive edition of Hume’s letters, and his text is speckled with excerpts of these and those of many of Hume’s contemporaries. It’s a mark of Greig’s accomplishment, though, that even these nuggets from the greatest of all letter-writing centuries often come as unwelcome interruptions from the flow of his own lively and irreverent prose. Rarely have a subject and a biographer complemented each other so well.

    Other Comments

    Wallace Brockway, Bookman, November 1932

    Hume’s present biographer, who obviously admits humanity as a sufficient reason for the reconciliation of such disparate qualities and attributes, leaves a splendid, all-dimensional portrait of the great materialist.

    The Christian Science Monitor, 24 December 1932

    Mr. Greig’s work is excellent in almost every respect; it is learned without ostentation, and lively without being facetious.

    Percy Hutchinson, New York Times, 8 January 1933

    An excellent life…. The Scotsman, Hume, is vividly set forth in his many sturdy qualities; and as the biographer has the keenest appreciation of Hume’s dry, frequently mordant Scotch wit, the biography is at times also lively in the extreme.

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    David Hume, by J.Y.T. Greig
    London: Jonathan Cape, 1931

    High Water, by Richard Bissell


    When you are out on the boats you think a lot about things that are over on the land, things you never bother to think about at all when you are there. The girl problem, for one thing, becomes something you live with, and think about, and talk about. Oh man, the millions of hours that have been spent since the Egyptians or somebody invented boats, by men and boys sitting around on deck and in messrooms and bunkrooms and engine rooms talking about girls. There are a lot of topics covered but it will come around to girls almost every time, especially amongst the deck hands and wipers and other younger generation; a whole lot of your older men have had enough of the subject and some to spare, and would a whole lot rather talk about squirrel hunting.

    We were sitting around the messroom in all that water up above Cape au Gris someplace. It was midnight. The boys going off watch were setting there thinking about whether to peel an orange or go to bed. The boys coming on watch were yawning and stretching and pouring coffee and blowing on it.

    On the After Watch, which works twelve to six, and which I now had since Casey made the changeover, for deck hands I had Zero and Arkansaw and Swede. Zero was nothing. He was just a guy someplace between twenty-five and fifty in a pair of dirty pants and a denim jacket. He ate and slept and got up and followed the boys around and did his work all right but hardly ever said a word. He probably had less personality, so to speak, than any deck hand on the whole upper river. I don’t know what he looked like.

    Arkansaw on the other hand was a boy with plenty of noise. He had opinions, facts, stories, jokes, reminiscences, and when he run out of any of these just to freak the silence he would whistle or play the harmonica to raise the dead. He used to tell funny stories about Arkansaw, but we will spare the reader by not listing any of them here. Frankly I can’t get too much humor out of these hillbilly comics, but some people simply dote on it. Arkansaw wore bib overalls and a railroad engineer’s style shop cap of blue with large white polka dots on it. He would kind of lose some of the worst of his accent after forty or fifty days on the boat; then he would come back from ten-day vacation down home and it would be so thick again you couldn’t understand him at all for two or three days until it had wore off a little. He was the type that calls his wife “waaf” and an egg an “aig” and all that crap. To us Northern boys he sounded like he had been listening to too damn many hillbilly radio programs and was just putting it on. I still think Southern people could talk like normal human beings if they wanted to, but they think it is cute to talk like that. Arkansaw also had a clasp knife with a spring blade that he was supposed to of killed somebody with down in Helena. All I can say is, I’ve been to Helena quite a bit on the oil tows, and he could kill two or three dozen in that town and it couldn’t help but be an improvement.

    The other one on my watch was the Swede. He was what the name indicates–a Swede. You no doubt know the rest. He came from the outskirts of Two Harbors Minnesota and all his folks were Great Lakes people. He was a Great Lakeser too and went out on the ore boats when he was only a kid, but to get him to tell about it was an honest chore as he had about as much gift of gab as the average telephone pole and conversation was like drawing teeth with a pair of pliers. The Swede was a big lunkhead like all Swedes in other words, and also like all Swedes he had boats and the water built into him alongside of his blood vessels. And although a lunkhead, he was a good old lunkhead, “loyal and true,” and he would work until he dropped. He was always wanting me to come up to Two Harbors. He was going to take me deer hunting and all that and I had a notion I would go sometime.

    Well, that was my watch–Zero, Arkansaw, and the Swede.

    Comments–by Elmore Leonard from Rediscoveries II:

    I told Bob Nally at lunch in Cape Girardeau that Richard Bissell had influenced my style more than any other writer with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. It’s a fact that I learned to write studying Hemingway, inspired and encouraged by a style that appeared easy to imitate….

    About the time I realized Hemingway’s views of life in general and mine weren’t compatible I discovered Richard Bissell and heaved a great sigh of relief. Look–his work said–you can keep it simple, be specific, sound authentic, even ungrammatical if you want, and not act as though your words are cut in stone.

    But I discussed Bissell in Cape Girardeau from some gray memory that his work had changed my thinking about writing, giving the idea that I could adapt his style to my sound and within a million words or so have a style of my own.

    It wasn’t until I got home and began rereading Bissell that I realized what a profound effect his work has had on mine: not in themes or settings but in the development of the attitude we seem to share about people’ the idea of the author getting down in there with his people, because he likes them, and letting them tell the story. Bissell showed me you could write a book without it looking as if it was written.

    … Bissell’s skill in bringing the reader onto that towboat and into the messroom and out on the barges is the book’s strength. But it’s also a good story that builds with the rising water, dangers faced and Duke falling in love with a girl they rescue from the rook of a flooded fishing camp. It’s high adventure told low-key, not the least bit plotty, with Bissell maintaining his riverman’s tone throughout. High Water was published more than fifty years ago but I swear it holds up. A few of the odd expressions might be dated, but for the most part the sound is regional rather than recently archaic.

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    High Water, by Richard Bissell
    Boston: Little, Brown, 1954

    Guard of Honor, by James Gould Cozzens

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    Colonel Ross did not have the facts on whatever other troubles Colonel Woodman had or thought he had; but he knew all about this episode of the AT-7–perhaps more than Woody thought. It was really all you needed to know. A routine order had gone from Washington to Fort Worth and from Fort Worth to Sellers Field; give an AT-7 to General Beal. Understandably, Colonel Woodman didn’t like giving away planes; but anyone not obsessed with a persecution complex need only look at a map to figure it out. The finger was put on Sellers Field because it was the point nearest Ocanara to which AT-7’s were then being delivered. Moreover, Sellers Field, as Woody so loudly protested, was not scheduled to be, and was not, ready to use all its planes. Still, standard operating procedure would be to query the order. Fort Worth grasped, at least as well as Colonel Woodman did, that basic principle of military management: always have on hand more of everything than you can ever conceivably need. If Colonel Woodman in the normal way queried Fort Worth, Fort Worth could be counted on to query Washington.

    What Woody did was compose and immediately fire off a TWX message to the Chief of Air Staff. Naturally, he had known and flown with this officer back in his comical bastard days. Woody now said that every AT-7 he had or could lay his hands on was absolutely indispensable to the Sellers Field program. Giving one to General Beal was quite out of the question. He made an oblique but unmistakable reference to those fancies of his about his superiors at Fort Worth. He made another, incoherent but no doubt intelligible enough, to the duplication of effort, waste, and working at cross-purposes bound to result when exempt organizations under the Chief of Air Staff, like AFORAD, supposed to do God Knows What, were given the inside track on everything.

    At the Headquarters of the Army Air Forces the second summer of the war was a nervous time. They still put up those signs about doing the difficult at once and requiring only a little longer to do the impossible. Nearly every day they were forced to make momentous decisions. On their minds they had thousands of planes and hundreds of thousands of men and billions of dollars. Their gigantic machine, which, as they kept saying, had to run while it was being built, gave them frightening moments and bad thoughts to lie awake at night with.

    Now, then, toward the end of the usual exhausting day, came a long and stupid message which, if it were going anywhere, should have gone to Fort Worth. It fretted them about one training plane. It lectured them on what was indispensable to Sellers Field (the AAF had so many fields that you could not find one man who knew all the names). It informed them that the Training Command was not run properly and that the project at Ocanara was a poort idea.

    Enemies of Woody’s, a “hostile clique” trying to do-him-in, would have asked nothing better than a chance to make these attitudes and opinions of Colonel Woodman’s known at AAF Headquarters. Woody made them known himself, in black and white, over his signature. Colonel Ross could not help thinking that the evidence showed, if anything, that there were “certain parties” at Headquarters who were still ready, for old times’ sake, to cover for Woody, to try and keep him out of trouble. An angry man (so Colonel Woodman thought a little wire-pulling could determine Air Staff decisions, did he?) might have walked across the hall, laid the message before the CG/AAF and watched the roof blow off. Even a mildly annoyed man might have supplied Fort Worth with an information copy and left Woody to explain. Instead Woody got a personal reply at Sellers Field. He was peremptorily ordered to make available at once one of the first ten subject articles delivered to him. He was curtly reminded that direct communication between Headquarters Sellers Field and Headquarters Army Air Forces was under no repeat no circumstances authorized.

    Of course, Colonel Woodman had done irreparable damage to any remaining chances he might have had for advancement, or an important command. Still, there was such a thing as the good of the service; and Woody, making it certain that he had no future, might be promoting that.


    from A Reader’s Delight, by Noel Perrin:

    Any generation is apt to know two classes of books: the current one favored by the Establishment and the classics selected by professors.

    Guard of Honor is a classic (I think) but it is a hard one to put into an American literature course. Why? Because Cozzens was not a romantic. Most American writers, from Cooper, Poe, and Hawthorne onward, have been, and nearly all the novels in our canon are romances. This has advantages for teachers and students both. It’s handy for teachers, because there is usually more to say in class about something rich in symbols and hung with cloudy portent. It is wonderful for students, because practically everyone is–and should be–a romantic at eighteen or nineteen or twenty. Clear-eyed realism comes later….

    Either way, it is hard to assign books to twenty-year-olds that there is little chance they can really appreciate until they are about thirty-five, and that is another reason Guard of Honor doesnot occupy its rightful place. Hardly anyone read it in college.

    Its rightful place is as one of the greatest social novels ever written in American. It’s not just a slice of life, but a whole rounded pie. The action takes place at Ocanara Army Air Field in Florida over a three-day period in 1943. There are about twenty thousand men and women stationed at Ocanara and its satellite bases, and Cozzens seems to understand every single one of them. He has the kind of authority as author that supposedly went out with Balzac and George Eliot….

    Guard of Honor is more than an account of the complex workings of a large air force base–and, by extension, of a country at war. It is two other things as well. For the reader, it is a living one’s way into the military mind. The two characters through whose eyes we most often look have both fairly recently been civilians, and with them we encounter the blundering idiocy of career officers, the well-known absurdity of army regulations. But from here (which is a point at which Catch-22 stops) we go on to understand and even to accept. Not that the military mind is right, but that there are right things about it–and more important, that there are comprehensible reasons why it is as it is.

    The second thing is closely related to the first. Guard of Honor makes a continuing judgement of all its characters in terms of their maturity, or capacity for achieving it. That is, the characters are divided into children and adults–a division in which Cozzens can take advantage of the military slang of that period: a commanding officer being the Old Man, a pilot a fly-boy, and so on. Some of the children are gray haired, notably Colonel Mowbray, second in command at Ocanara. Some of the adults, such as Stanley Willis, are barely out of their teens. At first the two main observers think that all the career military people are children, and one of the book’s movements is toward their discovery that there are adults who went to West Point, or have been twenty years a noncom.

    Editor’s Comments

    Years ago, I read a profile of then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher in the Stanford University alumni magazine. In it, a fellow alumnus recalled something Christopher said to him when the two were serving on a corporate board of directors. The board was considering an ambitious but risky move for the company, and during a break, the alumnus asked Christopher his opinion of it. “The little boy in me really wants to do this,” Christopher replied.

    At the time I first read that, it sounded pretty silly. Christopher had always struck me as a bit of a dandy. Only much later did I come to understand Christopher’s meaning: the move in question was tempting, exciting, immediately gratifying–and utterly impractical. This is the kind of sense that Perrin identifies as one of the signal merits of Guard of Honor. Colonel Woodman’s teletype message to Washington is the act of child. Cozzens’ shift from Woodman’s indignant passion to the wider perspective of the headquarters in the heat of war-making is the sense of an adult: the ability to look upon a situation from other angles and grasp the complexities that prevent most decisions in life from being simple.

    I first read Guard of Honor soon after receiving my commission in the Air Force, and then read it again months before retiring with twenty-five years’ service. I can vouch for the truth in Perrin’s comment about books we can’t appreciate until we’re thirty-five or older. The first time I read Guard of Honor, I thought it was a good story, if a bit lead-footed. But then, I was young and full of ideas and confidence and sure that I would fix some things that were seriously wrong with this stodgy service I was joining.

    I did, I think, though far fewer than I expected. Almost nothing, I soon discovered, and more slowly, came to understand, was as simple and straight-forward as it seemed on the surface. That was not, as I first expected, because this was a bureaucratic monstrosity that thrived on inertia, but because the very nature of a large organization is complex. The quick and clear decisions of a child almost never achieved their intended effects.

    This was not because the system tended to inaction, but because genuinely successful action required two apparently contradictory qualities: the ability to make clear and quick decisions and the dedication to follow them up through all the tedious and conflicting secondary, tertiary, and unexpected effects. The decisions were often the easiest part, and I saw more than a few instances where officers made the childish mistake of confusing the act of making a decision with the task of carrying it out. No two people in any organization are precisely aligned in motivation, perspective, and ability. Getting hundreds or thousands to achieve some coherent result involves so many interactions and moments of conflict or cooperation that no simplistic account could ever come close to capturing its reality. Twenty-five years later, when I reread Guard of Honor, I found Cozzens’ insight into the nature of a large organization so subtle and complete that at some points, I wanted to break into applause.

    There are plenty of novels about love and family passions and adventure, but there are very, very few worthwhile novels about the world in which many of us spent much of our adult lives: the world of work in organizations. Not labor or business or power, all of which have been treated, often in simplistic ways, in more than a few books, but the multi-dimensional world of work where we are one of hundreds or thousands, each with our own responsibilities, pressures, motivations, constraints, and prejudices.

    It might seem odd, at first, that something that has occupied such a large place in so many lives in the last century has been so rarely been the subject for a novelist. But writers are often in a bad position to take on such a subject. Novel-writing is usually a solitary task. A full-time job with some measure of management responsibility allows little time for it. Louis Auchincloss, Wallace Stevens, and Charles Ives are among the rare cases of the active man of business with time and energy left over to create.

    Cozzens had the advantage of being brought into the Army Air Force’s headquarters by its commander, General Henry A. “Hap” Arnold, in the midst of World War Two. Although he spent his time of various publicity projects that never went anywhere, he had the chance to travel around the service and to see it in all its scale and complexity.

    While his contributions to the Army Air Force’s mission were negligible, Cozzens had the rare opportunity to survey this organization of over a million men and women with a novelist’s eye. As Matthew Bruccoli writes in the introduction to A Time of War, a collection of Cozzens’ diaries and memos from his time in the Air Force, he was “a highly intelligent, keenly observant, civilian-in-uniform granted temporary access to the highest command levels.”

    This experience enabled Cozzens to step beyond the one-dimensional view typically taken by novelists depicting military life. In a letter written after the war, Cozzens remarked,

    … I know that any writer, caught by the mil. ser. is expected, as soon as he gets shut of it to fearlessly expose the corruption and inefficiency, and not to shrink from getting square with any high placed lugs who had him at temporary disadvantage. It is awkward to have to say that, after seeing about all there was to see in the AAF, I am for, rather than against, the mil. ser.

    This could be sheer ignorance; but of course I don’t think so. During many months in Washington one of my jobs, sordid but interesting, was to prepare a daily burn-this-report diesting information supplied me confidentially by all the AC/AS offices on what was going wrong. I think it was unlikely that any one person in the Air Force was more fully and regularly advised of the scandals, misadventures, and dirty deals which here and there enlivened the record. On reflection, none of it seems to me important compared to the remarkable work of a remarkable number of able and devoted men.

    In Guard of Honor, he took this raw material and shaped it into a masterpiece. Perrin’s essay refers to it as “the Best American Novel about World War Two” (as has biographer Edmund Morris). I think it’s even better than that. I would argue that Guard of Honor is the best novel written so far about life and work in an organization. And for that, it deserves much greater recognition.


    · Time magazine, 25 October 1948

    Most so-called serious novelists have an ax to grind, a true bill to find, a point of view that they want to uphold regardless of how many opposing points of view they may have to howl down or ignore in the process. James Gould Cozzens is like his fellows in this respect–with one admirable difference. The point he insists on making is that the world if far too wrapped up in different points of view for any one of them to be entirely true, that “the Nature of Things abhors a drawn line and loves a hodgepodge.”

    … In Guard of Honor he not only shows again his fine descriptive talents but boldly tangles with two of the toughest subjects of his day–the nature of war, and racial intolerance. Guard of Honor is a big, fat book–much bigger than Sinclair Lewis’ Kingsblood Royal or Laura Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement–bigger, and far better.

    · New Yorker, 9 October 1948 (review by Brendan Gill)

    Despite its size, then, Guard of Honor is compact and stringently disciplined, with Cozzens hitting his stride in the first sentence of the first chapter (“Through the late afternoon they flew southeast, going home to Ocanara at about two hundred miles an hour”), and ending, without a word too many, as neatly and pregnantly as a sonnet. A war novel courageously concerned not with the field of battle but with a segment of the Zone of Interior–a sprawling, newly activated Army Air Force installation in central Florida–it provides, in that formidably unsympathetic setting, the conventional “everything” that a big novel is expected to provide, from reflections on the metaphysical bases of right conduct to the question, teasingly unresolved until near the end of the book, of whether the virtuous Captain Nathaniel Hicks and the no less virtuous WAC Lieutenant Amanda Turck are finally to go to bed together…. The dramatis personae who move across the hot, bleak setting of Florida cheapness and Florida sand range from privates to general officers, and each of them not only is distinguished as an individual but strikes the reader as being impossible to do without, for there is nowhere that blurring of focus and pitch in the midst of so many faces, that a less practiced writer might have been unable to avoid.

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    Guard of Honor, James Gould Cozzens
    New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948

    The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder

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    From the first, Lansing admired John Ashley and imitated him, stumbingly. He went so far as to pretend that he, too, was a happily married man. Society would have got nowhere without those imitations of order and decorum that pass under the names of sonbbery and hypocrisy. Ashley converted his Rainy Day House into a laboratory for experiment and invention. Lansing built a Rainy Day House behind “St. Kitts” and revived his interest in “snake oils.” Perhaps it was the influence of the Debevoises, perhaps the example of the Ashleys, that enabled Eustacia to bear a child that lived, and then another, then a third. The Lansings were older the the Ashleys, but their children were closely of an age: Felicite Marjolaine Dupuy Lansing (she was born on St. Felix’s Day; the Iowa Lansing names had been carried to Heaven by the dead infants) and Lily Scolastica Ashley; George Sims Lansing and Roger Berwyn Ashley; then Sophia alone; then Anne Lansing and Constance Ashley. Eustacia Lansing carried well her torch of hypocrisy or whatever it was. In public–at the Mayor’s picnic, on the front bench at the Memorial Day exercises–she played the proud and devoted wife. Creole beauty is short lived. By the time the Ashleys arrived in Coaltown Eustacia’s tea-colored complexion had turned a less delicate hue. her features had lost much of their doelike softness; she was decidedly plump. Nevertheless, everyone in Coaltown, from Dr. Gillies to the boy who shined shoes at the Tavern, knew that the town could boast to handsome and unusual women. Mrs. Ashley was tall and fair; Mrs. Mansing was short and dark. Mrs. Ashley–child of the ear as a German–had no talent for dress, but a magical speaking voice, and she moved like a queen; Mrs. Lansing–child of the eye as a Latin–was mistress of color and design, though her voice cut like a parrot’s and her gait lacked grace. Mrs. Ashley was serene and slow to speak; Mrs. Lansing was abrupt and voluble. Mrs. Ashley had little humor and less wit; Mrs. Lansing ransacked two languages and a dialect for brilliant and pungent mots and was a devastating mimic. For almost twenty years these ladies were in and out of one another’s house, as were their children. They got on well together without one vibration of sympathy. Beata Ashley lacked the imagination or freedom of attention to penetrate the older woman’s misery. (John Ashley was well aware of it but did not speak.) One art they shared in common: both were incomparable cooks; one condition: both were far removed from the environment that had shaped their early lives.

    For these two families the first ten years went by without remarkable event: pregnancies, diapers, and croup; measles and falling out of trees; birthday parties, dolls, stamp collections, and whooping cough. George was caught stealing Roger’s three-sen stamp; Roger had his mouth washed out with soap and water for saying “hell.” Felicite, who aspired to be a nun, was discovered sleeping on the floor in emulation of some saint; Constance refused to speak to her best friend Anne for a week. You know all that.

    Editor’s Comments

    Is it fair to include a failure as a neglected book? Not that The Eighth Day was a failure in a commercial sense: it sold over 70,000 copies in hardback, was picked up by the Book of the Month Club as a featured title, and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for half a year. Nor was it a complete critical failure. Edmund Wilson called it Wilder’s best work ever, and it received the National Book Award for fiction.

    Other reviewers were far less enthusiastic. Stanley Kauffmann, writing for The New Republic, called it “a book that means nothing.” Josh Greenfield in Newsweek assessed Wilder’s message in the novel “a worthless bauble.” In The New Yorker, Edith Oliver judged that “none of the characters, major or minor, rings credible to the reader.”

    A large paperback run was issued by the Popular Library to follow the hardback’s success. In the UK, Penguin issued it as part of its “Modern Classics” series within a year of its publication. But, other than a paperback reissue by Avon in the mid-1970s, for most of the last forty years, it’s been out of print. It became one of those books you often saw in thrift stores, and then it largely disappeared. It was forgotten by readers and ignored by critics.

    If these were its just desserts, we’d be right to let The Eighth Day pass into obscurity. But if it’s fair to call The Eighth Day a failure, that’s not the same thing as calling it worthless. If The Eighth Day fails, it’s in part due the scale of Wilder’s perspective, which could easily be mistaken for his ambition.

    “Is it possible that there will someday be a ‘spiritualization’ of the human animal?” asks the narrator early in The Eighth Day. As a group of the main characters celebrate the start of the 20th century near the start of the book, the town’s doctor is asked to predict what the new century will be like. It would be easy to read the answer to the narrator’s question in his reply:

    Nature never sleeps. The process of life never stands still. The creation has not come to an end. The Bible says that God created man on the sixth day and rested, but each of those days was many millions of years long. That day of rest must have been a short one. Man is not an end but a beginning. We are at the beginning of the second week. We are the children of the eighth day.

    Wilder certainly offers us suggestions that a new spiritual man may be emerging. The book centers upon John Ashley, an engineer working in the near-exhausted mines of Coaltown, who’s tried and convicted of killing the mines’ superintendent, Breckenridge Lansing. On his way to the peninentiary, Ashley is freed by a group of men wearing disguises. Ashley’s flight, which eventually leads him to the copper mines of Chile, and the fate of his wife and children, as well as those of Lansing, forms one parenthesis around the murder. The other is formed by the histories of Ashley and Lansing and their wives up to that moment. In six parts of unequal length, Wilder takes us forward and back in time, attempting to explore the meaning of their stories, and the life of the spirit remains a constant subject throughout.

    Ashley is the most obviously saintly character. Devoid of ego or concern for social successful, his life before and after the killing is punctuated by acts of selflessness, whether it’s lobbying for a rise in the miners’ pay or building a church for the Indian copper miners. He is not alone, however. His son Roger becomes a reporter whose occasional pieces celebrate the minorities, underdogs, and lost causes of a booming Chicago. His wife and Lansing’s both demonstrate almost superhuman strength of character in their respective sufferings. His daughter Sophia outdoes Horatio Alger’s heroes in rescuing her family from removal to the poor farm.

    But Wilder is no Ayn Rand. For all the efforts of these saints, he also recognizes that human progress is more often illusion than ideal. As the doctor speaks of the possibility of a new man emerging, Wilder lets us in on a secret:

    Dr. Gillies was lying for all he was worth. He had no doubt that the coming century would be too direful to contemplate–that is to say, like all the other centuries.

    Wilder’s view of man’s spirituality is more devious than mere Christianity. “The Bible is the story of a Messiah-bearing family, but it is only one Bible. There are many such families whose Bibles have not been written.” Elsewhere, a fellow orderly in the hospital where Roger works soon after running away to Chicago tells him, “We must wait until all the men on all the stars have purified themselves. No man can wish to be happy until everyone else in the universe is happy.”

    But Roger just stares at him, “uncomprehendingly. His family had been happy at ‘The Elms’ [the Ashley home in Coaltown].” A few rise out of the muck of human existence. Perhaps they are elected, in the Puritan’s sense. Perhaps it is their own effort. Wilder leaves us to decide for ourselves:

    There is much talk of a design in the arras [tapestry]. Some are certain they see it. Some see what they have been told to see. Some remember that they saw it once but have lost it. Some are strengthened by seeing a pattern wherein the oppressed and exploited of the earth are gradually emerging from their bondage. Some find strength in the conviction that there is nothing to see. Some

    And so ends the book.

    I think this may be why The Eighth Day has failed to keep the attention of a large reading audience or a solid critical reputation. That there is more to life than “birth, feeding, excreting, propagation, and death” is clearly Wilder’s message here. That it clearly makes a difference in the end, however, is not. Nevertheless, we do have to decide for ourselves if it does, or else we are no better than “a fly that lives and lays its eggs and dies–all in one day–and is gone forever.”

    By not offering a simple answer, Wilder forfeited many of his potential readers after the first wave of best-sellerdom ebbed. By suggesting at the same time that there might be something to those staid old-fashioned notions of charity and piety, he also ran counter to prevailing prejudices among the academics and critics who might otherwise have kept his name in circulation.

    Though out of print, The Eighth Day has moved at least a dozen readers to leave their own comments on “A Must-Read”; “An undiscovered treasure”; “a great and sadly neglected book”; and, “one of the books that has moved me more than any.”

    What’s particularly interesting is what one of the National Book Award judges, John Updike, had to say upon reading the book again after thirty-five years. In his essay, “Chasing After Providence,” describes Wilder’s struggles to resist his own tendency to allow drink, socializing, and endless intellectual distractions to pull his attention away from the novel.

    For the original National Book Award citation, Updike wrote:

    Through the lens of a turn-of-the-century murder mystery, Mr. Wilder surveys a world that is both vanished and coming to birth; in a clean gay prose sharp with aphoristic wit and the sense and scent of Midwestern America and Andean Chile, he takes us on a chase of Providence and delivers us, exhilarated and edified, into the care of an ambiguous conclusion.

    From the perspective of thirty-five years, Updike moderates some of these judgments. Still, he remains in awe of Wilder’s easy handling of countless small and specific details of time, place, and custom that manages to coexist with a conception of “globe-spanning nimbleness and cosmic lift-off….”:

    The Eighth Day-—his one real novel, he more than once said, and much his longest—-opens itself to the digression, the sermonette, the stray inspiration that might capture the simultaneous largeness and smallness of the human adventure. Untidily, self-delightingly, it brims with wonder and wisdom, and aspires to prophecy. We marvel at a novel of such spiritual ambition and benign flamboyance.

    Ironically, this is much the same conclusion Denis Donoghue reached when reviewing the novel in the NYRB in 1967:

    The Eighth Day is one of those old-fashioned things called novels, stories with truth in them…. A big novel, then, impressive in its scale, The Eighth Day is touching in its regard for truth, that great lost cause. It is grand to know that there are still writers who believe that the world is a real garden with real toads in it.


    Time Magazine, 31 March 1967

    By leaving that last word adangle, Wilder presses home his conviction that man’s story is unending and that come what may, man will prevail. The thought is unarguable, but its demonstration leaves the reader with characters who are merely symbols and a story that is an abstraction. After visiting Coaltown, readers may want to hop a fast freight to Grover’s Corners, the setting of Our Town, whose scale was smaller but whose philosophy seemed almost as tangible as its strawberry sodas.

    “Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day,” from “20th-Century American Bestsellers”, a research course at Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

    In all of this, the readers are reminded, by Wilder’s
    style of historical review from a timeless position as God would have, through these
    families that the characters’ lives are only “a hand’s-breadth” of the tapestry, which is
    important on a much grander scale. To appreciate Wilder’s novel for the way it
    characteristically points out these particulars in representative lives implies by his last
    words that the reader must live its meaning and aim to fulfill his/her part of the design.
    Wilder’s fans came back to his novel for his style, seen in his earlier best-selling
    novels and plays. They got what they asked for and more.

    “The Eighth Day as a Christian Work”, By Paul Simon, Student

    Indeed, Christianity is not only part of the novel, it is essential to the novel. It adds a sense of vastness to novel that could not be done by solely secular means. To think that Jesus was only one messiah, only “a hand’s-breadth” of the tapestry of history, adds an immensity to the work that mere geographical allusions such as “range upon range”, could not.

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    The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder
    New York: Harper & Row, 1967

    De Vriendt Goes Home, by Arnold Zweig


    Irmin, who the fateful news had at least reached, looked at towering figure in that low-roofed room, throwing a doubled shadow on the floor and walls. His eyes rested for a long while on the dead man. “I should like to have a model taken of that face,” he said huskily; ‘in plaster or something of the kind.”

    Gluskinos shook his round head. “Impossible, quite forbidden by Jewish custom.”

    Confound your customs, thought Irmin angrily. What appeared in that face ought to be preserved. What was it?–just the face of a man gone home. He looked like one redeemed, like the prodigal son, to whom all things were forgiven–his wanderings, his defiance, his humiliation, and companionship with swine. What exaltation in those closed eyes and on those cheekbones, what peace in those lightly parted lips. It was Dr. de Vriendt’s real face. Irmin breathed quite calmly as he held the dead man’s head in his–this cold hand of a corpse, already stiff. A tune was hammering in his head, to the rhythm of his breathing, as always happened when he was deeply stirred, this time the cavalry signal “Stand to!” though its forceful clarity seemed hardly suited to this moment. His was a quite unsentimental mood, grave and stern. A man lived, and then he lived no longer; too much was made of the change. It was far easier to understand the indifference of the Orient at the contemplation of the teeming life upon the earth, than the attitude of the West. Irmin had been too deeply stamped with the lofty indifference of Jerusalem to birth, sickness, disaster, and death, for the shock, received through the little polished telephone, to have lasted very long. This face must not be allowed to perish. Next day he would come and photograph the dead man. For the rest, the only task that now awaited him was the obvious one of catching the murderer and hanging him.

    Three shots, sideways from behind, and from very close at hand; quite a modern weapon, of small calibre. At the post-mortem next morning two of the bullets would be discovered in the body, so the doctor predicted. It was a pity, it was a damned pity that another of the most amusing people in the city had been taken.


    The story in De Vriendt Goes Home is quite striking for a forgotten novel from the early 1930s. The title character is a Dutch-Jewish intellectual who has emigrated to British-administered Palestine. In private a poet with a strong sensual style, in public he is a law professor and a somewhat controversial figure in Jewish politics for his accomodating stance toward the Arabs.

    Near the middle of his forties, he finds himself falling in love with Saud, a young Arab boy he tutors as a volunteer. He hides the situation from all his acquaintances in recognition of its double risk of rejection: by prevailing morality as a homosexual, and by Zionists for taking his friendly attitude toward the Arabs to a personal level. But he throws his emotions fully into the infatuation, somewhat amazed to find such passion in what has to now been largely a life of the mind.

    Before the situation has a chance to develop, however, De Vriendt is murdered as he walks through Jerusalem. The murder sets off divides throughout the complex mix of cultures and politics in Palestine. Most Jews assume the killer is an Arab–but many are quietly pleased to see this difficult man taken off the scene. Some Arabs suspect others on their side; some see it as a Jewish conspiracy to incite animosity towards them. The British administration simply finds the situation tedious, as it interferes with their work and results in additional unplanned expenses at a time when the Foreign Office would rather see Palestine fade away as an issue.

    As usual with Zweig, a simple story provides the basis for excursions into every corner of a society–or, in this case, three societies: Jew, Arab, and British. Irmin, an officer in the British security service who investigates the murder, does eventually track down the killer–a hot-headed Jew just off the boat from eastern Europe. But he finds that, like Palestine itself, the whole matter has become too complicated to subject to a simple judgment and execution, and decides to allow fate to pass judgment. By this point, the reader, too, has long stopped being concerned about the outcome of Irmin’s pursuit. Instead, like Irmin, he comes to appreciate the difficult of passing moral judgments against any party in a situation where each believes so fervently in its own case.

    Zweig based the story on the life and murder of Jacob Israel de Haan, a Dutch Jew murdered by the Haganah in 1924. Like De Vriendt, de Haan was a moderate Zionist, in favor of negotiation over conflict, as well as a homosexual whose liaisons with young Arabs was the subject of his own poetry and the gossip of others. In de Haan’s case, as has been demonstrated by Schlomo Nakdimon and Mayzlish Shaul in their 1985 book (in Hebrew only), De Haan: The first political assassination in Palestine, the murder was organised and political. However, as with De Vriendt, the initial speculations about motive were fed by suspicions about sexuality and racism as well as politics.

    Although shorter than most of Zweig’s novels, De Vriendt shares their common features of a kaleidoscopic tour through the personalities and forces at play in a situation. Zweig shows us the world through dozens of perspectives in the course of a little over 300 pages. In some ways, the shorter length forces him to distill his themes, thereby increasing their strength. I found it a remarkable book that definitely deserves to be rediscovered as a insightful yet entertaining story, one not without relevance for the current states of Israel and Palestine.


    Though Author Arnold Zweig is writing a tetralogy of War and Peace (already published: The Case of Sergeant Grischa, Young Woman of 1914), De Vriendt Goes Home is not a part of it. Based on the Palestine disturbance of 1929, this book is no brief for or against Zionism, the Arabs or the British mandate. Author Zweig, a Jew, writes not as a Zionist or an Agudist. His chief characters are of different races, different creeds. A good novelist, he never takes sides, and there is no villain in the book. Scene of De Vriendt Goes Home is narrower than The Case of Sergeant Grischa’s, but its theme is as wide: tolerance.

    Dr. De Vriendt, able Dutch Jew, settled in Jerusalem, was a tower of strength to the Agudist party–orthodox, devout, antipolitical Jews, friendlier then to the devout Arabs than to the freethinking, politically-minded Zionists. But De Vriendt had two secret weaknesses: one was writing agnostic verse, the other was an Arab boy. He thought no one knew about either, but when the boy’s family found out and his life was threatened, his friend Irmin of the British Secret Service discovered one of De-Vriendt’s frailties. Knowing the perilous political situation in Jerusalem and fearing the consequences of what would look like a political murder, Irmin tried to get De Vriendt to leave town. On the eve of his departure he was shot. Immediately riots popped. The Agudists made a martyr of him; the Zionists and the Arabs each accused the other of his murder. Irmin began a relentless search for the killer. Meanwhile De Vriendt’s followers had learned the shocking truth about him. Soon he was deliberately forgotten by nearly everybody. But Irmin remembered him so well that when he finally ran down De Vriendt’s murderer he let him go.

    Time, December 4, 1933

    Enthusiasts of all parties will not like the novel, neither English nor Arab, nor those among the hosts of Zion. It will be attacked in Israel. But it will be read. … To the observer bemused by conflicting propaganda about a bitter struggle which is still waging, the book is a great document. But primarily it remains a strong and distinguished novel relating the immediate to the universal. That is the meaning of literature.

    F.T. Marsh, Books, 10 December 1933

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    De Vriendt Goes Home, by Arnold Zweig
    New York: The Viking Press, 1933

    Delilah, by Marcus Goodrich



    She was very slim and light. She was always tense, often atremble, and never failed to give the impression of almost terrible power wrapped in a thin fragile blue-grey skin. The materials that went into the making of her complete being were more curious and varied that those that went to compose her creator, Man–for Man, himself, formed part of her bowels, heart, and nerve centres. She ate great quantities of hunked black food, and vented streams of great debris. Through her coiled veins pumped vaporous, superheated blood at terrific pressure. She inhaled noisily and violently through four huge nostrils, sent her hot breath pouring through four handsome mouths and sweated delicate, evanescent, white mist. Her function in existence was to carry blasting destruction at high speed to floating islands of men; a her intended destiny, at the opposite pole from that of the male bee, was to die in this act of impregnating her enemy with death. It was, perhaps, for this reason that she carried her distinctly feminine bow, which was high and very sharp, with graceful arrogance and some slight vindictiveness, after the manner of a perfectly controlled martyr selected for spectacular and aristocratic sacrifice. Her name was Delilah.


    The suave, glistening Sulu Sea parted before Delilah’s sharp bow and slid under her flat stern with great but smooth rapidity. It was only in her wake, where there was left a white commotion, that there was betrayed the adequate evidence of the effort of her progress. A few feet above the cause of this foaming propulsion–two whirling typhoons of metal–an old Irish monk sat on the edge of a camp cot and gazed intently forward along the destroyer’s narrow steel deck at what was taking place amidships. He seemed unmindful of the sweat that exuded from his tonsure and leaked down the white fringes of his hair and over his big hands, in which he was resting his head. He seemed unmindful of the very sun, itself, which so fiercely inflamed the universe with white glare that it was difficult to look at the opal circle of the sea and impossible to look for long into the sky. Yet he was sitting in the full blaze of it, because even the quarter-deck awnings had been furled as possible hindrances to the attainment of maximum speed.

    The ship, too, seen from one of the small islands she occasionally passed, must have appeared insensible to the limitless conflagration, a compact creature skimming easily along the water, naked to the sun and docile bearer of the few visible people ensconced along her thin length.

    Deep inside of her, however, the Engineer Officer, who was also the Executive Officer, was thinking that she was a skidding shelf of hell.


    Niven Busch in Rediscoveries:

    “… Delilah got good reviews too, and some the kind an author dreams of, particularly an author who has in him the quality of genius but has been forced to follow lowly trades while he bought time–“Ha!”–to do his work….

    Delilah charged onto the best-seller lists, where it held a place for all too short a time. But it had made readers, and these readers, like the critics who had sensed in the book the emergence of a major talent, waited for Delilah‘s sequel–or if not another sea story, then at least a new novel of comparable stature. None came. We are left with this one work.

    Rereading it after a lapse of almost thirty years, I was as much impressed as at first contact by its drive and dimension, its memorable, incisive prose, and the queer subtle spell through which Goodrich, defying the ukase that a sea story must have plot, enmeshes us in his own love for Delilah. Through his love he delivers us to the bony morality that knits up men at sea, binding them in a skeleton made up in part of hate, suspicion, fear, and boredom, but viable nevertheless, strong where it must be strong, bestowing enlargement. Through this love we become as familiar with Delilah as with the pulse, the tread, the perfume, and the proportions of a woman we have loved; we can move about her decks and use her weapons, energies, conveniences, and quarters as we would move around in our own house. Goodrich has seduced us. He has demanded and enforced our surrender, even against our conscious resistance (had we time to develop such resistance) to the codes of Navy tradition. The ship, a tiny furrow opening behind her, moves through a circular immensity of sea and sky, her furnaces blazing, her thin steel skin far too fragile for the tests she must endure, for victory or death….

    … One leaves Delilah with regret–not only that her journey is over, but that there has been no other book since from Goodrich, and none to match from anyone else.

    … Someone–it could have been I!–introduced him to Olivia de Havilland, then coming to the peak of her career as a serious dramatic actress. They fell in love. Mark disappeared for a war stint, which he described in his stick for Who’s Who: “commanded Naval Detachment working with Chinese guerillas behind Japanese lines.” Regardless of the interference of this apocryphal duty and its hazards, he came back to marry Olivia. They had one son, Benjamin. For a time the marriage seemed very successful, even though a person alert to such situations could detect in its outline a time-honored disaster pattern…. Presently Olivia went on tour and the marriage went up the spout.

    If that is what stopped the second book (and when you saw Mark, he always said he had been working, though it took time, ha! it went slowly), I am sorry. Ten years ago, giving a party to celebrate some luck with a book of my own, I had undercover agents looking for him all over New York City–his native habitat when not at sea–to no avail.”

    Editor’s Note

    Delilah was reissued in the 1960s as one of the titles in the Time Reading Program and in the 1970s as one of the titles in the Lost American Fiction series. It was reissued in 2000 in paperback from Lyons Press.

    Marcus Goodrich was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1897. He ran away from home at 16 to join the Navy. He left the Navy after World War One and attended Columbia University, graduating in 1923. He worked in New York and Philadelphia as an advertising copywriter, then moved to Hollywood. He served in the Navy again in World War Two. He and Olivia de Havilland married in 1946 and divorced in 1952. Although he worked as a screenwriter before and after the marriage, he is incorrectly credited with writing the original treatment for the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” (the credit goes to Francis Goodrich). He retired to Richmond, Virginia, in 1963. He died there in a nursing home, of heart failure, in 1991. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


    · Time, 24 February 1941

    By any standards, it is a top-notch yarn. But what frames the story, gives it symbolic sense, restrains the turbulent narrative from getting too diffuse, clarifies each character, even makes amends for the faulty structure of the plot, is the bony morality of the sea.

    The story of Delilah begins a few months before the U. S. entry into World War I. She moves feverishly around the south Pacific, her obsolete engines incredibly overtaxed. She carries a Catholic monk to an island of rebellious Morros, noses through the southern Philippines searching for caches of firearms, finally docks while her old body is torn apart and filled with new organs. The human action is a series of bloody brawls, the friendships and conflicts of men too close together for too long a time. Included in the novel’s 496-page sweep are three brilliant novelle: Ensign Woodbridge’s encounter with the hypocritical missionaries, the story of the Irish monk and the satanic trader, Parker, and Seaman O’Connell on a berserk rampage. Included also is many a burst of virtuoso prose, in which Author Goodrich compares the ship to a walled town, to the Tower of Constance, to the Alamo, to anything that represents man’s constant war against an unfriendly world.

    Marcus Goodrich was famous in New York literary circles ten years ago for his golden tongue. He used to talk this book in evenings of inspired storytelling. In it he put his experience on a destroyer in the last war, heightened by his study of Melville’s towering symbolism, Conrad’s profuse style, and James’s snakelike character analyses. While he talked his book, Goodrich earned his living from advertising and the movies. Now that he has got it on paper, he is a full-fledged, first-rate novelist.

    · Clifton Fadiman in The New Yorker, 1 February 1941

    I don’t know whether the book is worth the decade its composition has required–that’s entirely the author’s affair–but I am certain it is a remarkable work of art. Its defects are the defects of excessive vigor and of an overleaping imagination, which are perhaps preferable to the anemic virtues of caution. If 1941 gives us a better first novel by an American, it will be a year of wonders….

    … there is one set piece–the story of the monk and the fiendish Mr. Parker, whom nothing but music could subdue–which has, I fear, nothing at all to do with the novel but which Conrad or Melville would have given a finger or so to have written.

    … This is, all things considered, a mature work of imagination on a subject ordinarily left to writers of adventure yarns. It cannot fail to make its author’s reputation.

    Find a copy

    Delilah, by Marcus Goodrich
    New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941

    Augustus Carp, Esq. by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man, by Henry Howarth Bashford (first published anonymously)


    Nor shall I forget the thrill, perhaps a trifle guilty, with which I discovered, soon after I was sixteen, how to descend from a vehicle in motion without the sacrifice of an erect position. Hitherto, like my father, when travelling by tram or omnibus, I had always insisted upon complete immobility prior both to entrance into and departure from one of these public conveyances; and many a conductor had been reported by us both for failing to secure the requisite lack of motion. Upon my sixteenth birthday, however, perceiving that the omnibus in which I was journeying could not be brought to a standstill at the desired position, I decided to alight from it notwithstanding and boldly descended from its posterior step.

    Naturally leaving this at right angles, what was my rather rueful amazement to discover myself, in the next instant, lying upon my side in the roadway. At first I imagined that I must have stepped upon something slippery or that some such article must have been adhering to my footwear. But a minute examination both of this and the roadway failed to reveal any such cause. Completely baffled, I made a second attempt, but with an equally discomforting result, and time after time, in spite of my utmost efforts, I was the victim of a similar loss of equilibrium. Many a less determined and timider lad would indeed have given up the venture, and again I ought to confess, perhaps, in view of municipal regulations, that my pertinacity was not wholly defensible.

    Robbed of candour, however, such a record as the present would lose the greater part of its spiritual value; and while I am prepared to admit that, in this particular instance, my youthful conduct may have been open to misjudgement, I cannot concede that it was in any degree incompatible with the highest expression of the Xtian character. Refusing to be cast down, therefore, save in the most literal sense, I continued dauntlessly with my efforts, to be rewarded at last with a final success no less gratifying than entire. Failing to remain upright in departing from the moving vehicle either at right angles to it or with my back towards the driver, I found that by facing in the same direction I could not only descend from it with greater immunity, but that by running after it, as it were, for two or three steps, I could do so with complete integrity. Needless to say, having acquired this knowledge, I only made use of it in an occasional emergency, and for some years now, owing to declining success, I have discontinued the practice altogether.


    One can only speculate what led Harley Street physician Henry Howarth Bashford to write Augustus Carp. He appears, by all accounts, to have been a pillar of his profession and community, becoming at one point personal physician to King George VI. Although he published a number of books, both professional and literary, nothing else in his oeuvre suggests its unique genius.

    It would be easy to categorise Carp as a parody, but few parodists have ever succeeded in submersing themselves into a character’s voice and viewpoint as Bashford did. Back in the decades when the book was out of print and not available in editions that trumpeted it as a “comic masterpiece” or “the funniest book in the world” right on the front cover, I can imagine an unsuspecting reader thumbing through–perhaps even reading–Carp without once suspecting that it was anything but a stone-serious memoir written by a sober gentleman of strong Christian faith.

    What I find marvelous about Carp is how brilliantly the book works on two levels simultaneously. On the one hand, it is solemn, sanctimonious, humorless, and completely lacking in irony. On the other, through nothing more, in most cases, that slipping the right word into a sentence, it’s ridiculous, mocking, riotous, and dripping in irony.

    Take this passage as an example:

    After every such exhibition of pristine vigour, however, my father experienced an acute reaction, and for many weeks would become a martyr not only to neurasthenic indigestion, but to digestive neurasthenia accompanied by flatulence of the severest order. For months on end, indeed, my mother would be obliged to sit by his bedside in case he should wake up and require abdominal kneading, and few were the nights upon which she had not in addition to go downstairs and make him some cocoa. But he would never allow himself to be daunted. His breakfast the next morning would be as hearty as usual. And he was never deterred by even the most obstinate inflation from the performance of a moral or religious duty.

    We hear the voice of Augustus–pained yet proud at his father’s suffering, concerned that we understand in plight in precise detail, insistent as always in noting his father’s dedication to his Christian duties. At the same time, however, we picture the sanctimonious old windbag farting his way through the night, forcing his poor wife to keep a bedside vigil in case he needed help in squeezing out a gust or felt like a nice cup of cocoa. And stuffing himself again in the morning despite the probability of another gas attack.

    And why not? As Bashford portrays so effectively, Augustus and his father are devoid of any sense of shame or embarassment. It is not they, but most of the world around them, in fact, that’s in the wrong. Certain he is without sin, Augustus vigorously takes up Jesus’ invitation to cast the first stone. Much of the book deals with his various attempts to correct the ways of the world. Convinced of his just cause of bringing “Xtian” principles to their proper place, Augustus spies, blackmails, cheats, shortchanges, shirks, evades, and undertakes other justified measures to achieve his ends.

    Take, as another example, his attempt to save the actress Mary Moonbeam. Augustus barrels full steam into her life:

    `I am the Vice-President,’ I said, `of the Anti-Dramatic Union.’
    `And Saltatory,’ she said. `Don’t forget the Saltatory part.’

    `Would that it were possible,’ I replied. `But it isn’t.’

    She gave a little sigh.

    `No, I suppose not,’ she said, `not with all us girls earning our living by it.’

    ‘ And hurling others,’ I said, `to their deaths.’

    `Oh, no,’ she said, `not really?’

    `Every night,’ I replied, `in thousands and thousands.’

    `Oh, good gracious,’ she said, `not every night?’

    I nodded gravely.

    `Every night,’ I said, `in thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands.’

    `But goodness me,’ she cried, `that’s more than ever.’

    `It’s more and more,’ I said, `every night.’

    `Well, I never,’ she said. `What a fearful mortality.’

    `Fearful indeed,’ I replied, `and you are responsible.’

    Invited by Mary to instruct her in the proper Xtian ways, Augustus gladly accepts, eager to take the opportunity to lecture Mary and her party on the error of their ways, fueled by great quaffs of a beneficent beverage, “Portugalade”:

    I was gratified to observe that, apart from water, the only other beverage was Portugalade. It was again, to my annoyance, however, served in wine glasses, although Miss Moonbeam immediately apologized, pouring out a tumblerful for me with her own hand, just as I was beginning my second partridge. Nor did I find it any less agreeable than upon my first acquaintance with it at the theatre, and indeed I had seldom experienced such a sense of warmth and comfort as it very quickly began to endow me with. Peculiarly attractive to the nostril, it was no less grateful to the tongue, while upon its downward passage, it lent an extraordinary balm to a naturally irritable digestive system.

    Nay, it did more, for as it enriched the blood mounting to an always responsive brain, I found myself the vehicle of a delightful flow of new and most valuable ideas. I say valuable, and this was indeed the case, but many of them were also outstandingly humorous, and time after time I was obliged to call for silence so that none of those present might fail to hear them.

    (Augustus inherits his father’s bowels as well as temperament). Augustus proceeds to get roaring drunk, and feeling himself quite full of the spirit(s), is disappointed to find the party has abandoned him just as he’s ready to deliver an address on the evils of the theatre. He carries on, however, more convinced than ever in his mission: “Such was the cross that had suddenly been imposed upon me–a cross so gigantic and of such a character that only the most prolonged and assiduous training could have enabled me to bear it.”

    Bashford insisted on Carp being published anonymously in 1924, perhaps sensitive to the risk that some readers might object to his characterisation of members of the High Church middle-class, and for many years after that, it was only word of mouth that kept the book’s reputation alive. Somewhere along the way, Anthony Burgess came across a copy and became the book’s champion, eventually convincing Heinemann to reissue the book in 1966 and writing an introduction for this edition. Carp was subsequently issued in paperback by Penguin in the mid-1980s and by the now-defunct Prion Books in 2000. Fortunately, all of these editions include the wonderful original illustrations by “Royal,” pen-name of Punch artist Marjorie Blood.


    · Thomas Jones in London Review of Books, 16 November 2000

    “The spoof memoirAugustus Carp, Esq. by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man was first published anonymously in 1924. Carp is a pious, hypocritical, gluttonous, not very bright and, yes, carping resident of Camberwell, and the narrator of what Anthony Burgess called ‘one of the great comic novels of the 20th century’. He begins one recollection of his childhood with a description of how he was ‘happily employed combing a grey rabbit, to which I was deeply attached, and which I had named, but a day or two previously, after the major prophet Isaiah.’ That use of ‘major’ speaks volumes.”

    · Michael Dirda in The Washington Post, 20 September 1998

    Augustus Carp, Esq appeared in 1924 anonymously but is now known to be the work of a distinguished physician named Henry Howarth Bashford. Anthony Burgess considered it “one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century,” as will anybody else who finds and reads the book. Like other classics of English humor (Vice Versa, The Diary of a Nobody), Augustus Carp is the tale of a father and son. The two Carps are models of unconscious hypocrisy; that is, each imagines he behaves as a perfect Xtian (always so spelled) even while exploiting loved ones, blackmailing teachers, bringing suit for minor infractions, and wrecking lives. In particular, young Augustus’s narrative voice is a masterpiece of controlled irony. One revels in every word and turn of his elegant syntax:

    “From the time of his marriage to the day of my birth, and as soon thereafter as the doctor had permitted her to rise, my father had been in the habit of enabling my mother to provide him with an early cup of tea. And this he had done by waking her regularly a few minutes before six o’clock. . .”

    Note that devastating use of ‘enabling’ – sheer genius.”

    Find Out More

    Find a copy

    Augustus Carp, Esq. by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man
    by Henry Howarth Bashford (first published anonymously)
    London: Heinemann, 1924

    Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments, Resources, Condition and Proposed Canal, by E. G. Squier

    From The New York Times, 19 April 1998:

    Traveling Companions

    … One of my favorites is a forgotten classic called Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments, Resources, Condition and Proposed Canal, by E. G. Squier, who served as the American charge d’affaires in Central America during the 1850’s. The years have not diminished its value as a guide.

    I watched the collapse of Nicaragua’s 40-year Somoza dictatorship, and was amazed to read Squier’s account of a terrible bandit who roamed the countryside in his time, “a lawless, reckless fellow under proscription for murder, named Somoza.” One of my favorite pastimes there was climbing to the steaming crater of the Masaya volcano; Squier had also done it, and proclaimed the experience “singularly novel and beautiful.”

    In the town of Granada, I visited a neglected museum where two dozen giant stone idols found on an island in Lake Nicaragua were on display. No one there knew much about them, but they had so impressed Squier that he shipped several home to the Smithsonian. He surmised that before Jesuit missionaries cut off their genitals, they had been worshiped as gods of a fertility cult.

    “They are plain, simple and severe, and although not elaborately finished, are cut with considerable freedom and skill,” he wrote. One of them, he said, “seemed like some gray monster just emerging from the depths of the earth, at the bidding of a wizard-priest of some unholy religion.” Another, Squier wrote, “was a study for Samson under the gates of Gaza, or an Atlas supporting the world.”

    According to, there are copies available for sale, but the prices start at $150 and go up into the high hundreds.

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

    from the opening:

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

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

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

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

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

    from Chapter Twenty-Two: The Death of Scarponi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Caspar Hauser, by Jakob Wassermann

    Caspar Hauser, by Jakob Wassermann
    New York: Harold Liveright, 1928


    from Chapter II. Caspar Hauser’s Story Recorded by Daumer

    So far as Caspar could remember he had always been in the same dark space, never anywhere else, always in the same space. Never had he seen a man, never had he heard his step, never had he heard his voice, never the song of a bird, never the cry of an animal; he had never seen the rays of the sun, nor the gleam of moonlight. He had never been aware of anything except himself, never becoming conscious of loneliness.

    The room must have been very narrow, for he thought that he had once touched the opposite walls with his outstretched arms. Before this, it had seemed immeasurably large; chained to his bed of straw without seeing his chain, Caspar had never left the spot of ground on which he slept and waked dreamlessly. Twilight and darkness were differentiated, therefore he must have known day and night. He did not know their names, but he did see darkness, for when he woke up in the night the walls had disappeared.

    He had no measure of time. He could not say when this unfathomable loneliness had begun, and there was no time at which he thought it might ever end. He did not feel any change in his body, he did not wish that anything might be different from what it was, nothing casual frightened him, no hope of anything to come drew him on, and the past had no words. The regulated hours of this scarcely conscious life passed silently, and his inner being was as silent as the air which surrounded him.

    When he awoke in the morning he found fresh bread near his bed and the water pitcher filled. At times the water did not taste the same; when he had drunk it, he lost his livelineness and fell asleep. Then, when he woke up, he had to take the pitcher to his hand very often, he held it for a long time to his mouth, but no water came out any more. He constantly put it down and waited to see whether the water would not come soon, because he did not know that some one had to fetch it, for he had no conception that any one existed beside himself. On these days he found clean straw on his bed, a fresh shirt on his body, his nails cut, his hair shorter and his skin clean. All this had happened while he was asleep, without his having noticed it, and it left no after thoughts to disturb his mind.

    Caspar Hauser was not entirely alone; he had a comrade. He possessed a little white wooden horse, a nameless, motionless thing which at the same time was something in which his own being was darkly mirrored. Since he dimly conceived that it was a living form, he regarded it as his equal, and all the light of the outer world was centered in the dull glance of its artificial pearl eyes. He did not play with it, he did not even converse silently with it, and although it stood on a little board with wheels he never thought of pushing it about. But before he ate his bread he passed every bite to the horse before putting it to his own mouth, and before he fell asleep he stroked it with a caressing hand.

    This was his sole occupation, for many days and for many years.


    Wassermann’s novel retells the Kaspar Hauser, which Werner Herzog depicted in his film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Hauser was found wandering the streets of Nürnberg in 1828, virtually unable to communicate. Eventually, people came to believe that he was an illegitimate member of the Baden royal family who had been locked away in a solitary, windowless cell since infancy.

    Although a frail and wholly naive youth, Hauser managed to unsettle Nürnberg and German society in a number of ways. The speculation about his royal connections stirred up currents of intrigue among various court factions. At the same time, his emergence from years of isolation led to fascination about the nature of human development or horror at the unknown nature of one who had grown up without any of the normal framework of customs and morals.

    Wassermann is quite effective at weaving all these threads together. On one hand, he shows how players large and small tried to manoeuvre Kaspar to gain the best advantage from his situation, almost none of them concerned for the effects on Kaspar himself. On the other, he shows us the world through Kaspar’s eyes–a world in which almost none of the labels that enable us to make sense of the sounds, sensations, shapes, and concepts we encounter exist.

    The story is so interesting and so well told that it’s hard to believe this novel has been out of print in English for decades. But Wassermann was one of a generation of German-Jewish novelists–including Lion Feuchtwanger and Arnold and Stefan Zweig–who sat uncomfortably between two traditions. Although heavily influenced by Freud and the psychological approach to the novel, they wrote novels of a style and structure rooted in the 19th century, full of details and detours, where the pace is measured and deliberate and perhaps a bit too pedestrian for current readers. For the patient reader, however, the reward is a rich reading experience, sensitive in its depiction of both the emotional and social worlds of the novel’s characters. Caspar Hauser was one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in the last year.

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    Marcus Bullock, “Jakob Wassermann 1873-1934,” in Encyclopedia of German Literature, 2000

    With Caspar Hauser, Wasssermann achieved a major success in 1908. This novel was based on extensive research into the famous case of a foundling reputed to have been the dispossessed heir to the throne of Baden; according to the author, the theme had been maturing in his mind for many years before he felt sufficient confidence in his judgment to execute it. He conceived the novel as a study of a great injustice perpetrated by a harsh world against a completely innocent party, and he regarded the historial events it retold as an injustice from which the conscience of an entire society would remain poisoned until it acknowledged and then atoned for this wrong. All the brutalities perpetrated against Caspar Hauser are ascribed, ultimately, t the human failing to which Wassermann refers in the title as Tragheit des Herzens (inertia of the heart). This idea returns in different aspects throughout his oeuvre. On the one hand, it provides a foundation for his thought, which he is able to vary with some subtlety, but on the other hand, it always reasserts a simple concept of human failings that seems to enthrall his judgment with its narrow certainty.

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    Vagabond Adventures, by Ralph Keeler

    I stumbled across the following references to Vagabond Adventures, Ralph Keeler’s memoir of life as a minstrel player, card shark, low-life, and hobo along the Mississippi and throughout the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s:

    from Cambridge Neighbors, by William Dean Howells:

    There could be no stronger contrast to him in origin, education, and character than a man who lived at the same time in Cambridge, and who produced a book which in its final fidelity to life is not unworthy to be named with Two Years Before the Mast. Ralph Keeler wrote the Vagabond Adventures which he had lived. I have it on my heart to name him in the presence of our great literary men not only because I had an affection for him, tenderer than I then knew, but because I believe his book is worthier of more remembrance than it seems to enjoy. I was reading it only the other day, and I found it delightful, and much better than I imagined when I accepted for the Atlantic the several papers which it is made up of. I am not sure but it belongs to the great literature in that fidelity to life which I have spoken of, and which the author brought himself to practise with such difficulty, and under so much stress from his editor. He really wanted to fake it at times, but he was docile at last and did it so honestly that it tells the history of his strange career in much better terms than it can be given again.

    He had been, as he claimed, “a cruel uncle’s ward” in his early orphan-hood, and while yet almost a child he had run away from home, to fulfil his heart’s desire of becoming a clog-dancer in a troupe of negro minstrels. But it was first his fate to be cabin-boy and bootblack on a lake steamboat, and meet with many squalid adventures, scarcely to be matched outside of a Spanish picaresque novel. When he did become a dancer (and even a danseuse) of the sort he aspired to be, the fruition of his hopes was so little what he imagined that he was very willing to leave the Floating Palace on the Mississippi in which his troupe voyaged and exhibited, and enter the college of the Jesuit Fathers at Cape Girardeau in Missouri.

    … during the Cuban insurrection of the early seventies, he accepted the invitation of a New York paper to go to Cuba as its correspondent.

    “Don’t go, Keeler,” I entreated him, when he came to tell me of his intention. “They’ll garrote you down there.”

    “Well,” he said, with the air of being pleasantly interested by the coincidence, as he stood on my study hearth with his feet wide apart in a fashion he had, and gayly flirted his hand in the air, “that’s what Aldrich says, and he’s agreed to write my biography, on condition that I make a last dying speech when they bring me out on the plaza to do it, ‘If I had taken the advice of my friend T. B. Aldrich, author of Marjorie Daw and Other People, I should not now be in this place.'”

    He went, and he did not come back. He was not indeed garroted as his friends had promised, but he was probably assassinated on the steamer by which he sailed from Santiago, for he never arrived in Havana, and was never heard of again.

    I now realize that I loved him, though I did as little to show it as men commonly do. If I am to meet somewhere else the friends who are no longer here, I should like to meet Ralph Keeler, and I would take some chances of meeting in a happy place a soul which had by no means kept itself unspotted, but which in all its consciousness of error, cheerfully trusted that “the Almighty was not going to scoop any of us.” …

    He had a philosophy which he liked to impress with a vivid touch on his listener’s shoulder: “Put your finger on the present moment and enjoy it. It’s the only one you’ve got, or ever will have.”

    and from My Mark Twain, also by Howells:

    There is a gap in my recollections of Clemens, which I think is of a year or two, for the next thing I remember of him is meeting him at a lunch in Boston, given us by that genius of hospitality, the tragically destined Ralph Keeler, author of one of the most unjustly forgotten books, Vagabond Adventures, a true bit of picaresque autobiography.

    You can read a sample of Keeler’s prose, “Three Years as a Negro Minstrel,” at the Circus Historical Society’s website.

    I searched all over the Internet for Vagabond Adventures and can’t find a copy for anything less than $150, so I’ll have to wait until I have access to a well-stocked university library.

    Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski on “The lost boys (and girls)”

    Source: “The lost boys (and girls),” Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski, The Independent, 14 November 2004

    “It’s a dismal afternoon and I’ve ended up searching for lost authors on the internet: writers who once had flourishing careers, but who now face extinction. Like many things that occur online, it’s a kind of sordid game, depressing even; but it’s addictive. I type an author’s name into a search field: Marlowe, Gabriel. He cropped up in a memoir I was reading; a mysterious figure who had a critical and commercial success in the mid-1930s with his first novel, I Am Your Brother, a tale of someone who finds he may have a brother hidden in the attic above his studio, fed offal and fairy stories once a day by their mother. I like the sound of it, and but I’m primarily interested in how many copies of it still exist: how much Marlowe there is left in the world.” At the end of the artice, Boncza-Tomaszewski selects his own “Five Forgotten Gems”: Thru (1975), by Christine Brooke-Rose; The Woman With the Flying Head and Other Stories (1997), by Yumiko Kurahashi; Crisis Cottage (1956), by Geoffrey Willans; L’Ecume des Jours (Froth on The Daydream) (1947), by Boris Vian; and The Life of Cardinal Polatuo (1965), by Stefan Themerson.

    A Contract with God, by Will Eisner

    Greg Hill, director of Fairbanks, Alaska North Star Borough libraries, gives this site a plug in the Fairbanks News-Miner and add his own recommendation:

    As with all lists, there are bones to pick there, too. How’d they leave out Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, the first graphic novel and the one that paved the way for that new literary form? Reading a graphic novel is a different experience from reading pure text, but the same parts of the brain are exercised, unlike watching videos, which utilizes fewer. And graphic novels re-engage reluctant readers and hone their reading and comprehension skills.

    Jane Smiley on Emile Zola’s “The Fat and the Thin”

    “Try This, 2–Excess in All Things,” by Jane Smiley

    In this guest post to Ariana Huffington’s blog, Jane Smiley celebrates The Fat and the Thin (also translated as “The Belly of Paris”), a volume from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, which brims with food and characters: “I almost said that the best thing about The Fat and the Thin is the complexity of the characters, major and minor, but really, so many things about the novel are both astute and beautifully rendered that there is no best thing. Foodies should not miss this novel, because it is an incomparable trip to the original monument of cuisine, high, low, and everything in between.” Zola’s Money, an Editor’s Choice, does the same for the world of banking and stock market speculation.

    Raymond Chandler’s Neglected Authors

    Sept. 22 1954
    To: Hamish Hamilton

    … If you want to know what I should really like to write, it would be fantastic stories, and I don’t mean science fiction. But they wouldn’t make a thin worn dime. That would be just a wonderful way to become a Neglected Author. God, what a fascinating document could be put together about these same Neglected Authors and also the one-book writers: fellows like Edward Anderson who long ago wrote a book called Thieves Like Us, one of the best crook stories ever written … Then there was James Ross who wrote a novel called They Don’t Dance Much, a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town. I’ve never heard that he wrote anything else … And there was Aaron Klopstein. Who ever heard of him? He committed suicide at the age of 33 in Greenwich Village by shooting himself with an Amazonian blow gun, having published two novels entitled Once More the Cicatrice and The Sea Gull Has No Friends, two volumes of poetry, one book of short stories and a book of critical essays entitled Shakespeare in Baby Talk.

    from Raymond Chandler Speaking.

    From what I can determine, Aaron Klopstein is a figment of Chandler’s imagination. The Library of Congress never heard of him or his books, nor has the Social Security Death Index, and the only place the name appears to show up is in this letter.

    A Very Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainey


    In 1801, the Annual Register, a popular book which chronicled the year’s events, declared that the outgoing century had been remarkable. Science and technology, more than in any previous century, had leaped ahead. While Europe was often at war with itself, it was busy spreading science, religion and civilisation into the remotest forests and gorges. Never had there been such exploring ‘of the more remote and unknown regions of the globe’. The thirst for knowledge, claimed the Annual Register, had supplanted the thirst for gold and conquest. Never had long-distance trade so increased. On the familiar sea lanes the sailing ships were much faster than before; and even the long voyage from Europe to India was no longer feared as an ordeal.

    The world had shrunk but even rich people did not travel far in search of knowledge or pleasure. A queen rarely travelled outside her realm. Only a few European missionaries crossed the seas to work in strange lands. In eastern Asia a few pilgrims sometimes travelled far to visit the great Buddhist shrines, but few Islamic pilgrims travelled far to worship in Mecca. Scholars–and in every nation they were few–stayed at home and learned of the world through books. When the young London poet John Keats wrote the words, ‘Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen,’ he signified that he travelled by reading. At that time he had never moved far from his birthplace.

    The most travelled people in the world were not scholars and priests but ordinary European and Arab sailors, who, in their mobility, were the air crew of their day. Between 1700 and 1800 the largest category of long-distance travellers in the world consisted of those who had no wish to travel: the millions of African slaves led as captives across their own continent or shipped across the tropical sea to the Americans.

    The world was composed of tens of thousands of small, self-contained localities. Even to sleep one night away from home was an uncommon experience. This was true of China, Java, India, France or Mexico, though not of Australia and its Aborigines. People spent their whole life in one place, and from it came nearly all the food they are, and the materials they used for clothing and footwear. Here originated the news and gossip that excited or frightened them. Here they found their wife or husband.

    A holiday by the beach or in the mountains belonged to the future. Spa towns, where people drank the mineralised waters for the sake of their health, were the only specialised tourist towns in Europe. In these ‘watering places’, tourists drank the waters according to a strict formula that prescribed so many jugs or glasses a day. In the early 1800s perhaps the most international of the spa resorts was Carlsbad, a pretty town hemmed in by steep granite hills and pine forests a few days’ ride from Prague and Leipzig. In 1828 an average of no more than 10 visitors arrived each day in order to partake of the medicinal water. Its main spring still rises in a hot perpetual stream, and the water still has an excruciating taste which improves with amnesia.


    “This,” Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey writes in his preface, “as an attempt to write a world history that is not too voluminous. It tries to survey history since the time when the first people left Africa to settle the globe. Inevitably, some large themes which I investigated are described so fleetingly that they are like glimpses from the window of a passing train.”

    If so, then Blainey manages to route his train through some of the most fascinating scenery to be found in the landscape of world history. Condensed from his already brief Short History of the World, this is a terrific book, one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining I’ve read in years. Blainey does an amazing job of squeezing the history of human life on this planet into 450 small pages.

    Faced with a task of condensation on this scale, Blainey tends to focus on trends instead of events, but he succeeded in keeping my interest where others (e.g., William McNeill) have failed. He manages to shift from the specific to the general and back again without seeming formulaic, and as a result, there is something new in every few paragraphs.

    I kept dog-earing pages with such paragraphs as I read, and by the end, there were nearly a hundred pages so marked. Here is just a sampling:

    Virtually all contact between the Americas and the outside world ceased, and maybe for another 10,000 years the silence continued. Migratory birds moved between the two continents, but people lived in isolation. Eventually the inhabitants of America had no knowledge of the place of their origins.

    The Mesopotamian lion, which was smaller than the African lion, was the target of countless hunts. It is easy to guess why this species of lion became extinct. A baked tablet surviving from 1100 BC records that one royal hunter while on foot killed a total of 120 lions. When he was hunting from the relative safety of the chariot he killed another 800 lions.

    Madagascar and New Zealand were the last two sizeable areas of habitable land to be discovered and settled by the human race [in about 400 A.D.].

    A member of the camel family, though lacking the conspicuous hump, a llama could carry a load weighin 40 or 50 kilograms, thereby compensating for the absence of the wheel in Andes civilisation.

    It was Venice, the Silicon Valley of its era, which improved on the old Roman methods of making glass. The glassmakers of Venice had become so numerous, and the fires burning in their workshops posed such a danger of setting fire to the whole city, that in 1291 the government moved them to the adjacent island of Murano. The first mirrors or looking glasses of any clarity were made in Venice about 1500, and the Venetians kept secret their novel process of manufacture for more than 150 years.

    [In 1900] A skeleton of knowledge about remote lands was now in the curriculum of a thousand schools. Coloured maps of the world became commonplace. It is doubtful whether in the days of Napoleon more than a fraction of the people in Europe had ever set eyes on a map of the world; but a century later most of Europe’s schoolchildren had seen such a map or globe and could even recite the names of rivers and mountains in each continent.

    In 1901, in the arid centre of Australia and far from the nearest railway, a miraculous thread was tied between the 20th century and the era of nomads. Professor Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen captured the dances of Aborigines on one of the first movie cameras and recorded their haunting songs on the wax cylinder of a phonograph …. It was a remarkable occasion and time signal. Here were the representatives of a dying way of life that had dominated the entire world in 10,000 BC, standing face to face with the latest step in technology. The dancing Aborigines retained the sense that they and not the strange intruders held the key to the universe.

    Blainey manages to squeeze millenia into a few pages by deliberately slighting political developments in favor of technical, economic, and geographic factors. By so doing, he not only avoids dry accounts of regimes and rulers, but enables the reader to feel, sometimes almost viscerally, how the substance of daily life has changed. “Without initially intending to, I gave space to what people ate and how hard they worked in order to earn their daily bread,” Blainey comments reflectively in his preface.

    Another refreshing aspect of Blainey’s approach is the attention he pays to the environment and the changes in man’s relationship to it. Here, for example, he touches on something as simple–yet so easily overlooked–as the moon:

    The moon, small or large, was usually a commanding presence. The largest object in the night sky, rising and setting some 50 minutes later on each successive day, it moved majestically. A new moon was invisible, for it marched in step with the sun across the day sky. In contrast the full moon could be seen throughout the night. Alive and powerful and personal, the moon was a female to some peoples and a male to others. It was a symbol of life and death, and was said to determine when the rains would fall. It was believed to influence the growth of vegetation; and for thousands of years it was a rural rule that farmers always should plant during the new moon. At a later time, in India and Iran and Greece, it was believed that people after death journeyed to the moon. The cycles of the moon were to constitute the first calendars, after the art of astronomy appeared.

    Blainey also overcomes the perennial bias towards the Northern Hemisphere, giving space throughout the book to developments in Polynesia, Africa, and Latin America. His prose is simple and lucid, easy enough for it to be accessible by young teens. Indeed, one could argue that A Very Short History of the World deserves a place on any short list of recommended reading for high school students. There are few places where one can learn so much about human history in so little space–and at the same time, be so richly entertained. Less than two years after its first publication, A Very Short History is already out of print outside of Australia. It’s our loss.

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    A Very Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainer
    London: Penguin Books, 2004

    Little Lives, by John Howland Spyker (pseudonym of Richard Elman)

    Little Lives, by John Howland Spyker (pseudonym of Richard Elman)
    New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1979

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    Lace Curtains
    Lacey (Lace) Curtains began as a drayman and became a joiner. In short order he was a cooper, a puddler, a mason, a hod carrier, a pedlar, a pinch bottler, and a short-order cook. Lace flailed wheat and farmed fennel. He was a boilerman, a pot stiller, and a punchboard collector, repaired Wurlitzers and Atwater Kent wireless radios, and wove and patched caneback chairs. He had an abiding interest in the Mexican gold half-peso, which he collected, when he could, and old wax Zimmerman consolette recording cylinders, conducted Bingo games, leaf tours in the fall, and grew chrysanthemums for the high-school football “boosterettes.” In the winter he harvested Christmas trees, was the check-out at the Grand Union, and pumped gas for Cumberland Farms.

    This simple yeoman, a perfect amalgam of industry and thrift, lacked only one thing: skillfulness, and craft. He was, in fact, a bit of a bungler, and gollywoggler. A bad drunk, too. In his last years he raised pregnant mares for their urine which was then used in the synthesis of birth control pills.

    Lace had none of the advantages of the educated man and it showed. Whatever he put his hands to he usually failed at: his barrels leaked and his walls would not stay up. When he plucked ducks and dipped sheep the poor creatures usually died before their appointed times. But in his later years he collected many abrimming stoop of urine and prospered, until a mare kicked him almost fifty feet and he had to retire.

    Well, you know, he died miserable and poor, and he even lacked good will. People said they stopped caring for Lace when he overcharged them at the Grand Union.

    Lace always said the most important thing he owned was his last name. If drunk, he would sometimes add: “It will be curtains for you, too, my man, if you don’t learn to respect that.”

    He was also quoted as saying: “When I die I want to be that TV fellow, George Plimpton. Queen for a Day.”

    Needless to say, he had a son with Rose Edmundson and they called the lad Bledsoe, and when I asked why, Lace explained, “Because it’s Eosdelb backwards.”

    Washington County, New York, where Little Lives is set, lies upstate, across the border from Vermont and south of Lake George. It’s hilly, scarcely populated, mostly devoted to dairy farming:

    The County has one of the lowest per capita incomes in New York (and the Nation); it is settled largely by the descendants of Dutch, Canuck, and Scotch Irish yeomen and farmers, with more recent sprinklings and ejaculations from other minorities, such as the Eyties.

    As its fictional chronicler, John Spyker describes the County, “It was the birthplace of nobody lasting or famous beyond its borders that I know of.”

    Instead, as Spyker protrays in a hundred-plus sketches that range from before the Civil War to present day, its inhabitants are a collection of mediocres distinguished most by their physical deformities (the Boleg twins “were noted for their ‘canker sores” and bad teeth”), bizarre notions (“Fred was no ordinary GOP supporter, or loud mouth Buckley-ite. He was an out-right fascist, but polite about it as never-you-mind”), and most of all, sexual proclivities.

    There’s Vanessa Wunderlich, for example:

    The poor thing was suffering from an infection that venereally gnawed at her gums. It came from what she had once eaten, in a rash moment, at her cousin Ellen’s house in Chestertown: the hair pie, or so I was told….

    There is Doc Morgan, the local Ob/Gyn, to whom Spyker attributes at least ten children: “All I know for certain is he made a lot of money and most of the local women, when they mounted his stirrups, chose his ‘raw beef injections,’ too, though Ma always said he had a gentle soul.” There are Little Rose of Sharon and Evelyn DeVilbliss, “friends, as well as lovers”: “Nobody ever knew of any discords between them; they were thick as tracel, and good to everybody who approached them except Brubaker, the knife and scissors grinder.”
    There is Stace Coleman, who traffics in “pessary sponges,” which “… affixed to the cervical os, finally was to provide our local women with some protection against that most habitual infection to their wombs–increase.” Spyker’s own grandmother admitted to owning one:

    As a token of that amity he gave her one of the few devices he was able to salvage from his second voyage, which she told me she used for nearly twenty years to good effect. She even produced the thing for my inspection and it was not only walnut-shaped, but walnut-hard.

    Alongside the intimate relations of the county’s residents, however, Spyker also recounts some tender tragedies. Hetta Wessels, a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage and housed with a malicious mother-in-law, goes quietly mad one day, puts rat poison in her children’s potato-and-leek soup, then packs their bodies in two suitcases and attempts to run. Caught, she chokes on a hunk of bread while awaiting death by hanging: “Her jailors say her cell walls were covered with a three-word scrawl in Hetta’s hand: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry.’

    Some sketches are brief–Naomi Kigelhoff’s is just two sentences: “Bart’s wife. Totally and thoroughly undistinguished except they say she drove every Friday morning to Troy to buy Kosher meat for the week.” Most are a page or two long. One of the longest tells the story of Lorelei Dembitz, who believed “that her ‘soul’ was not her own but that of another person, even smaller, frailer, and morally more ‘tattered’ than she.” Lorelei thought “‘this alien’–Francine, by name–had come to take possession of her sometime before her sisteenth birthday….”

    But this is not a simple case of split or multiple personalities:

    “I am most certain,” she declared, “she and I do not converge throughout our entire integuments. If I lie down she extends somewhere between my shoulders and my knees. When I stand up she peers out through the nipples of my breasts. But we are not corollaries. She crowds my soul. She cramps my heart. I am not her coefficient.”

    The two co-habit, awkwardly and uncomfortably, for over forty years. As time goes by, Lorelei struggles to keep Francine separate: “In the voting rolls from 1922 on she listed herself as F. Lorelei Dembitz.” In the end, Lorelei is removed to the County Home in Argyle, then buried in the Argyle Free Cemetery. A second headstone is placed beside hers “inscribed, simply, FRANCINE.”

    The odd vernacular Elman created for Spyker is one of the highlights of Little Lives. Spyker may be the Washington County’s chronicler, but his perspective is hardly objective and detached. His voice comes right from the odd mix of proper and profane that characterises many of the portraits. The stereotypes and bias of the County are his, too. Kissy Kigeloff is a “lezzy.” The depression of 1881 is blamed “on Jew bankers such as the Goulds and Fisks of metropolitan Gotham.” Brody Shansky is “a mick neighbor I had for a while….”

    Spyker’s prejudices are inherent in his raising, but he claims no superiority for himself. At one point, he tells of the time when he learns that Chester Bowles is visiting the county. Assuming this is the minor political figure of the 1940s and 1950s, he rushes over to make his acquaintance. It turn out to be Chester Bowles, the “retired D&H railway engineer.” “He wasn’t quite the go-getter I expected,” he remarks afterward. “Teach me to social climb.”

    Little Lives did garner favorable reviews when it came out in 1979, but faded quickly after its paperback release. Its cover featured enthuastic comments from critic Maxwell Geismar and novelist Frederick Busch (“If Grandma Moses had ball and could spell, this would have been her book”), but most of its hardcover edition went quickly into remainder. I actually bought a copy from a remainder house years ago, but it took A.P. Siegel’s mention in an item on neglected books in Maud Newton’s blog to get me to give it a second look. I’m glad I did. I will never think of upstate New York in quite the same way again.


    Time, 12 March 1979

    Like its literary antecedents, Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg, Ohio, John Howland Spyker’s Little Lives consists of sketches: hard, brilliant line drawings of small-town Americans. With a roving eye for bawdy detail, Spyker (pseudonym for Poet and Novelist Richard Elman) compresses each life into a tidy epiphany; an individual is captured with an anecdote or gesture, an eccentricity or epitaph. Judge Fury collected wives and knives; “P.C.B.” Terry, who once took a swig of that carcinogenic chemical, spent the rest of his life growing tomatoes that no one else dares to eat. Hypolite Hargrove made a small fortune concocting cocaine-spiked fruit drinks savored by Mark Twain and Jenny Lind.

    Each biography is enlivened by a macabre whimsy: a man is steamed alive “like a lobster” when his car wash malfunctions; children are fed meals of worms; decent folk fall victim to robbery, infidelity and bad genes. Spyker reports it all, creating a community from the disparate characters as well as a portrait of the narrator, an “outlander… struck more by bits of detail than the total sepia haze of the picture: by odd names or locutions, specific items and photographs that have survived, the price paid for caring.”

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    Out of Print Expert Weighs In, from Maud Newton’s Blog

    from Maud Newton’s Blog, out-of-print expert Robert Nedelkoff nominates three American novelists for rediscovery:

    “What I’d like to do here is to present to any interested editors (at major houses, or at small presses with the kind of resources that would be needed) three American authors, whose oeuvres are extensive, and entirely out-of-print — writers whose work deserves the kind of treatment that Dawn Powell received at Steerforth or Stanley Elkin received at Dalkey Archive.”

    His nominees:

    Peter De Vries:

    “De Vries … invariably hailed as ‘America’s foremost comic novelist.’ A writer whom Robertson Davies, in the Seventies and Eighties, repeatedly called the best American novelist, period. A writer praised by Kingsley and Martin Amis, Christopher Buckley, Julian Barnes, Thurber, Paul Theroux . . . the list could go on for centuries.” [Ed. Note: The University of Chicago Press reissued De Vries’ The Blood of the Lamb and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo in 2005.

    Vance Bourjaily

    “His first novel, The End Of My Life, was very nearly the last book edited by Max Perkins — and Bourjaily, to my knowledge, is the last living writer who worked with Perkins. (And, speaking of another of Perkins’ writers, Hemingway, in a conversation with Leslie Fiedler in 1960, singled out Bourjaily as the best writer of his generation….)”

    Jerome Weidman

    “Not long before he died, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote (it’s in his published letters) that Weidman was worth fifty or a hundred Steinbecks (forget which it was). Later in the Forties, Hemingway said in a letter that Weidman, in his first books, certainly proved he could write. Rebecca West liked him too.”

    The Family Carnovsky, by I. J. Singer

    Israel Joshua Singer was the older brother of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Also a novelist, I. J. Singer wrote several well-regarded sagas of Jewish life in Germany and Poland. Here’s what Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in Commentary magazine reviewing a reissue of his novel, The Family Carnovsky, in February 1970:

    In an era of novels in which the milieu is evoked with a stroke of the pen if it is rendered at all, in which the novelist’s craft is praised in direct proportion to that amount he is able to show without telling, I. J. Singer comes to remind us of some long forgotten relish in the novelist’s activity. The Family Carnovsky will come with strange thickness to an audience which has learned that the novelist’s genius is economy, those deft single strokes, the gesture which defines a whole universe, as though the art of the novelist were the art of the dancer. It will seem even stranger to the reader who has been given to understand that the more he is left to gather from the unspoken and the unrendered, the more likely it is that he is in the toils of a vision rare beyond rendering.  

    Nothing is too rare for Singer. To read him is to know again the pleasures of an endless novelistic energy, a loving and discursive relish for detail not far from the fashion of the 19th-century novelist. Indeed, that is what Singer is, though The Family Carnovsky, his last complete work, was published in 1943. And, though he is more often compared with Thomas Mann than with Dickens, there is the Dickensian in him very much more, in his insistence on the meaning of social detail, and on its moral meaning precisely.  

    The world of Singer’s novels is morally fateful, always. In The Family Carnovsky, the social question, and its moral valuation, quite simply hang on the question: how does one live as a Jew, if it is hard to be a Jew? And it is always hard to be a Jew. It is hardest of all to be a kind of Jew or a part of one, since for the most earnest assimilationist, there is no guarantee that the world will recognize which kind of Jew he is, or, if he is part of one, which part is which. There was certainly no such guarantee in the world of the late 19th-century German-Jewish enlightenment, the era in which David Carnovsky leaves his Melnitz shtetl to join, an assimilated Berlin Jewish society.  

    The Family Carnovsky is the story of three generations of Jews, each more surely rooted in its German culture than the last. But culture is not blood, and it is not character, and Singer never fails to remind us of the ineradicable ancestry of the Carnovskys. Let them assimilate: their hair is black, their doctor’s hands are brilliant, their scholarship natural and effortless, their ethos prominent…. 

    It is that radical difference, that degree between men, which is Singer’s novelistic concern. This he engages without any depth of formal psychological scrutinythough there are things which make for psychic allusion in an old way: Georg’s uneven, flashing teeth, his wife’s blush, the wasted awkwardness of their son. These are all we know: these and circumstances, and somehow it is enough. From a complex structure and milieu, characters emerge affecting and powerful, as much as to say, when we know what happened to them, we know very well how they felt.


    French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime, by John McManners


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

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


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

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

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