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Found in an ex-Library: “The Pomp of Power” by Anonymous

I am attending a management course at a former country house (now conference center) in the U.K. this week. The breakfast room was formerly the home’s library, a typical grand library room with stately built-in wood shelves running from wainscotting to twenty-foot ceiling. Most of the books are gone, but there were several hundred still left–left or brought in bulk by some decorator. Dining alone on the first day, I went over, browsed through a few, and pulled down one titled, The Pomp of Power.

Leafing through it, I saw that it was some kind of memoir of politics, diplomacy, and intrigues during the First World War and the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles. It was written in clear, graceful first-person prose — quite readable, in fact — that led me to check the title page for the author. There was none. There was none on the spine, either.

My reaction was to go back to reading, but this time with a considerable skepticism. When somebody close to the inner circles of power writes an anonymous memoir, it’s hard not to think there is at least a 50-50 chance that anonymity is a reflection of cowardice more than discretion. Still, it was an interesting enough read, assuming you’re vaguely familiar with at least a few of the personalities involved (Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Douglas Haig).

I didn’t have the interest to smuggle it back to the room, though. But I have located a long review of the book from the New York Times in 1922. (I notice that the Times appears recently to have put a good chunk of its archives, going back to the turn of the 20th century online. Bravo!). The review ends with the following comment:

Let us hope that The Pomp of Power will be the last of the anonymous books. It would have added greatly to the force of this one if the writer were courageous enough to sign it; but, after all, most of us who believe in reconstruction will not regret this lack of force in a book which, with all its power of style and keen insight, tends toward the fostering of distrust and hopelessness.

Unfortunately for the reviewer, distrust and hopelessness did win out over belief in reconstruction.

The Reader Online on “the most underrated novel in English”

In 1969 critic Laurence Lerner called Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters “the most underrated novel in English.” And Henry James wrote of it, “The hours given to the novel’s perusal seem like actual hours spent.” On The Reader Online, contributor Josie Billington writes a wonderful appreciation of the book, suggesting that,

… the relative neglect of Wives and Daughters might best be explained by the very quality which, for an admirer such as Henry James, gave it a right to the status of ‘genius’; that’s to say its subtlety and the corresponding absence of the kind of decisive life-moment or revelatory event which might compel a reader of a novel by George Eliot or by Charles Dickens.

The full piece can be found at http://thereaderonline.co.uk/?p=242.

A Matter of Life and Death, by Virgilia Peterson

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'A Matter of Life and Death'')
Cheryl Crawford’s 1978 memoir, Mommie Dearest set the benchmark for mothers from Hell with its portrayal of Joan Crawford’s unique terror-and-saccharine approach to parenthood. Yet Cheryl Crawford on her worst day pales beside Virgilia Peterson when it comes to “having issues” with her (step)mom. Peterson’s 1961 memoir, A Matter of Life and Death, is 334 pages of relentless mom-bashing.

But this is frightfully crass of me. The daughter of one of America’s first practicing psychologists, Peterson was born into the heart of New York City society, raised in a brownstone mansion in the East Seventies and rating a notice in the New York Times’ social column for her coming out party. Graduating from a Seven Sisters college, she travelled the Great Tour and took classes in Grenoble. Her father decorated their home with his priceless collection of Chinese art. And her mother would never have bothered about wire hangers — how the clothes were stored were for the servants to worry about.

No, the contest of wills between Peterson and her mother was far more subtle and refined than that between Joan and Cheryl Crawford. Mrs. Frederick Peterson must have learned her techniques at the same places where her husband bought his art. As her daughter relates it, her approach to abuse was understated, elegant — and unrelenting. Like Chinese water torture, in which no single drop does much but the cumulative effect is unbearable pain, decades of her mother’s corrosive influence would have been enough to drive anyone mad. Indeed, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Virgilia Peterson did, in some ways, go mad. Certainly her need to write out what is, in effect, a 300-plus page monologue to her dead mother — 300 pages unrelieved by a single moment of humor and rarely focused on anything but how her mother reacted or judged some event in her daughter’s life reflects a degree of obsession at least bordering on the pathological. “I always knew you were insane” are the last words her mother spoke to Peterson. And by that point in the book, you’d probably concede her at least half-right.

Not that this obsession blinds Peterson to her own faults in this relationship. This is a searingly honest book.

Unfortunately, while passionate obsession and searing honesty add up to a powerful combination, it’s the kind of power a jackhammer has, especially when it’s been going for hour after hour. This is not a book you pass along to a friend. This is a book you hurl out the window at a yowling cat.

It’s bad enough that the focus of the book is a bitterly negative relationship that never once came close to a reconciliation. But take that story and relate it in Peterson’s hyperbolically intellectual style, and you have a combination that will drive all but the sturdiest readers away. Here, for example, is a representative Petersonian sentence:

At the same time, however, because of my father’s marked reluctance ever to apply the word insane; because of his insistence that his patients — no matter how they might appear to us — were not lunatics but ailing friends; because of his tenderness toward them and his reluctance to laugh at them, which, even as a child, I recognized as a kind of consideration he did not feel called upon to show to me; above all, because he was continually pointing out that between sanity and insanity lay the most delicate, the most shrouded, the most poignant of fulcrums, we knew better than other people that insanity was more tragic than any other tragedy that could befall.

Maybe it’s just me, but I had to reread that sentence several times before I could convince myself that the printers hadn’t dropped out a word or two at the end. Indeed, the tendency to string wandering dependent clauses together until one forgets what the subject was is only one of her stylistic pecadillos.

It’s a true shame, for both Peterson and her readers. For the bare facts of her life are not without interest. Travelling Europe in style with her first husband, she meets with and falls in love with a Polish nobleman. After much hand-wringing and scenery-chewing her family consents and they marry. They return to Poland and the near-medieval life of a rural estate. Hitler invades; Peterson’s husband is trapped along with most of the Polish Army. She and the children become refugees. They eventually make it back to America. Peterson publishes (as Virgilia Sapieha) a best-selling memoir of the experience, Polish Profile. A third marriage, to another member of the upper crust, follows. She starts reviewing books and becomes an established fixture on the East Coast literary scene, hosting a weekly show, “Books in Profile,” on WNYC radio with fellow Neglected Books Page writer Harding Lemay.

Her influence in the publishing business might have helped critics view the book in a positive light when it was first published. Reviews feature such phrases as “… a shining example of the proper use of candor ….,” “… continuously engrossing, often eloquent, and always serious …,” “… an impressive book,” and “… one of the outstanding autobiographies written by American women.” The book was nominated for the 1962 National Book Award. But even the favorable reviews are clouded with shadows of doubt: “… an almost obsessive — sometimes morbid — fascination …”; “… the unkindest comic valentine to the deceased I have run across …”; “… if it was written to exorcise her mother’s influence or achieve a posthumous reconciliation, these ends have not been accomplished.”

If only as case study material of a self-consciously literary form, A Matter of Life and Death has some value. And perhaps more diligent and empathetic readers than I will find the book worth rediscovering. My copy, however, is up for grabs for anyone who wants it. I am happy now to be working on Hermes Nye’s irreverent fictional memoir of life in 1930s Dallas, Fortune is a Woman. As Coleridge wrote of reading Fielding after Richardson, it feels like “emerging from a sick-room heated by stoves into an open lawn on a breezy day in May.”


Postscript: I had some belated confirmation from this entry in Helen Bevington’s Along Came a Witch, her journal from the 1960s:

Virgilia Peterson’s autobiography, A Matter of Life and Death, is motivated by hate, an emotion for which I have no respect. She addresses her mother in cold fury as “you,” an evil woman, and is herself touched by pitch. This is a self-wounding book with no healing in it, no cure, filled with revenge, the desire to hurt and destroy a dead woman.

Post-postscript: A Matter of Life and Death also got a thumbs-down from poet Louise Bogan, who mentions it in a letter to her friend (and later executrix) Ruth Limmer:

— The Virgilia Peterson, on the other hand, is a sort of Electra-complex nightmare. The old girl has absolutely no insight into her situation, and she writes like a simple-minded Proust — all curly sentences, which sometimes do not come out right. This you should see, as well, if only for the wry laughter it engenders

From What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-70


A Matter of Life and Death, by Virgilia Peterson
New York: Atheneum, 1961

An Appreciation of “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony,” by Henry Handel Richardson

Tony Spors writes in with a personal appreciation of the Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson (nom de plume of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson)

“How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography. I’d have every wart and every pimple emphasized, every murky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it.” These are the words of Henry Handel Richardson, a woman writer from Australia who lived from 1870 to 1946. Yes, woman writer, for like George Eliot, she wrote under a male pseudonym.

Mrs. Richardson applied this principle of exact unrelenting truth she stated above to her own fiction. Her masterpiece, completed in 1929, is The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, a trilogy of novels, which tells the story of a family living in the gold fields of frontier Australia, immigrated from Ireland, having to cope with the devastating effects of the young doctor father’s severe mental and physical deterioration from syphilis. I’ve read It is based quite closely on Mrs. Richardson’s own childhood.

I read this trilogy of novels about at the same time in my life as I was reading the great Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The trilogy, being over 900 pages, is related to these Russian novels in size. But more importantly The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, is similar to these Russian novels in its penetrating psychological realism Not often will you find a novel written almost eighty years ago that deals this honestly with no sugar coating or sentimentality with the severe mental illness of a young doctor head of a family. You can feel for the young mother and her children having to face the growing ostracism by her neighbors caused by her husband’s bizarre behavior. Of course, the doctor’s patients drop away after several of his episodes, and the family is reduced to poverty.

But not only is this family’s story courageous. Henry Handel Richardson is a writer of the very top rank. Although here in the United States she is little known beyond the movie of her novel The Getting of Wisdom which was made by Bruce Beresford in 1978, in Australia Henry Handel Richardson is considered a classic novelist. Sentence for sentence, the writing holds your interest as only the best novels do. Here is a writer in English we can read without the filter of translation.

Later in my reading life, I discovered Patrick White, another writer from Australia, whom I consider probably the greatest novelist ever to write. I can’t help but think he must have read Henry Handel Richardson in his youth. If you like one of these writers, you will probably like the other.

Since The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney is divided into three separate novels, I would recommend a reader start with the first volume, Australia Felix, and see if you are not hooked as I was into reading the other two volumes, The Way Home and Ultima Thule.

If you’re happy to deal with raw text instead of a physical book, you can find Australia Felix, The Getting of Wisdom, and her first novel, Maurice Guest on Project Gutenberg. Or you could wait for the release of Monash University’s authoritative publication of her complete works. And if you’re really patient, you can wait until film director Bruce Beresford finds backers for his mini-series based on Richard Mahony. — Ed.

Doug Anderson Recommends Some Neglected Titles

Doug Anderson of the Blue Guitar Press writes to offer a few suggestions for books well worth rediscovering:

· The Junior Bachelor Society by John A. Williams

Williams has a tendency to go overboard racially (in my opinion); that is Black = oppressed and Good vs White = oppressor and Bad, but sometimes he overcomes this tendency and knocks it out of the park. A couple more titles come to mind: Mothersill and the Foxes and Captain Blackman. Thudermouth Press, recognizing a neglected writer, brought out a few of his novels in the 80s, including his one critical success, The Man Who Cried I Am. He still didn’t catch any kind of popular or critical wave. With !Click Song a racial bitterness sets in though not more so than many another Post War African American writer.

· William Hickling Prescott’s History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and History of the Reign of Philip the Second

I would like to see a university press or some adventurous small press reprint William Hickling Prescott’s History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and History of the Reign of Philip the Second published in the mid 19th century by Lippencott & Co – three volumes under each title. These are general histories and yes, written by the quintessential white male of old. Even so, anyone looking for perspective on a world-dominant America can’t go wrong reading about Europe’s first powerful empire after the fall of Rome. Prescott is always readable, informative and, blush blush, that horrible word: entertaining.

· The Tinieblas Trilogy”by R.M. Koster

Koster wrote these wild wonderful novels (The Prince, The Dissertation, Mandragon) about his fictional Central America in the 1970s and then reality gobbled them up and turned them into non-fiction in the 1980s. Even so they are great books. Full of life and expert writing they enthrall and delight. They might not be forgotten but they are way, way under appreciated.

· An unclassifiable novel: What the Maid Saw: Eight Psychic Tales, by Yasutaka Tsutsui, translated by Adam Kabat, published by Kodansha Intl in 1990

Say I could only use the word “riveting” once, for one book that I have read in my life until now; I would use it for this novel: riveting. [Tsutsui has several other books available in English translation, including the memorably-titled Salmonella Men from Planet Porno. — Ed.]

Doug adds a last recommendation taken from one of this site’s Sources:

I note that you site Anthony Burgess as a source for overlooked novels. How about Burgess himself? Does anyone read his M/F at all? I found it larky and generous and full of mischief – but – seemingly, very unread.

I assumed that Burgess is now solidly fixed in the ranks of writers critically recognized and perennially in print, but a quick search on a few of my own favorites among his many novels — the Enderby tetralogy, Napoleon Symphony, and ABBA ABBA — reveals that most are, in fact, available only as second-hand copies.

Clutch and Differential (AKA Highway Episode), by George Weller

Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of 'Clutch and Differential' (retitled 'Highway Episode')George Weller’s Clutch and Differential is an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful experiment. Indeed, it bears at least one trademark of experimental fiction: an obvious design to which all other elements of the work are subservient. Time magazine’s review provides a good explanation of Weller’s plan:

Written in a technique that owes something to John Dos Passos, something to James Joyce, Clutch and Differential is made up of 35 long episodes dealing with characters who bear little apparent relation to each other. Stripped of its complicated gadgets, it could be mistaken for a collection of old-fashioned, high-wheeled short stories. But 18 of George Weller’s episodes are subtitled “clutch” and 17 “differential” and apparently the clutch stories deal with people who are hanging on to money, love or dreams, while the differential ones deal with people who are letting go. Each “clutch” episode is introduced with a little discussion called Shift of Gear and followed by one called Universal, made up of technical automotive instructions directly or obliquely related to the material of that particular episode.

In addition to the alternation of his “clutch” and “differential” motifs, Weller adds the constraint of arranging the stories in order of the age of their protagonists: the first story, “Irene Herself,” is written in the voice of a girl of about 5; the last, “Mark My Words,” in that of Julia, an aging widow somewhere past seventy.

Weller places his overall theme at the book’s start, quoting a supposed automobile sales circular that states, “Beneath American-made bodies that are tastefully refashioned every year, power transmission has gained a standard performance. New bodies come and old bodies go but clutch and differential now change but little.” The message that human nature persists despite changes in technology has become more familiar since 1936, but even then it was a slender branch on which to hang a 400-plus page magnum opus.

Weller deserves an E for effort. He strenuously embraces and attempts to project the unique voice of each of his characters, whether it’s a clueless high school football player missing his first chance at making out to a passed-over Foreign Service officer musing over his many failures to make the right career moves. And you can’t help but admire his breadth of vision, as he ranges all over the social and geographical map of the United States.

Unfortunately, all this good work comes to no great end. One finishes story after story wishing Weller had applied his impressive techniques to a character or situation of real substance and interest rather than an theoretical construct. None of the 35 Americans in Clutch and Differential is half as believable as any of Joyce’s Dubliners and certainly none of its stories comes close to an “Araby” or “Two Gallants,” let alone “The Dead.” In all his earnest design and construction, Weller forgot to include some heart and soul.

Clutch and Differential was reissued as “Highway Episode” in an early paperback edition that featured a woman in stereotypically-ripped bodice fleeing from some unknown threat, alongside text that claimed, “No novel before or since has so nakedly revealed our automobile age! Here is the pulsing drama of penthouses, hobo jungles, summer camps, country clubs … of mad pleasures and promiscuous passion ….” It was also reissued for the academic market in 1970.

Weller went on to work as a journalist during World War Two and after, earning a Pulitzer Prize in 1943 for an account of an emergency appendectomy performed on a submarine in enemy waters. He died in 2002, but his work will soon be in print again, thanks to his son Anthony’s compilation of his father’s long-withheld account of the devastation of Nagasaki, First Into Nagasaki — which has already sparked some contrarian comments in his Wikipedia bio.

Clutch and Differential, by George Weller
New York: Random House, 1936
New York: Royal Books, 1936 (as “Highway Episode”)

Isabel Paterson’s End Note to “The Golden Vanity”

On the back dust cover of the first edition of The Golden Vanity can be found the following note by the author, Isabel Paterson. I wanted to reprint it here to highlight again her wonderfully flippant and original style. Would someone please publish a collection of her columns and letters?

Every time I write a novel my publishers demand the story of my life. this is embarrassing, because as will Cuppy says we have only one like to live, if that, and I Told All the last time. The fact is, most of my life is a blank because I forget what I was doing at any given time.

During the part year and a half, my life has been comparatively blameless, except for the customary novel. All I’ve done is build a house in the country and go native. Building a house is great fun. It’s like magic. You say a few words and make marks on a piece of paper and go away and when you come back there is a house. Still more mysteriously, the magic gives out just one split second before the last pantry shelf has been put up, and never, as long as you live, can you get that shelf, or the final towel rod in the bathroom. Perfection is not attainable by mortals.

It doesn’t matter anyhow, because of the garden. The house is ultimately only a place to go into when it rains, and not then until you are thoroughly soaked. I’m not really a gardener; only a weeder. I don’t know if one ever develops from that stage. My garden consists of six zinnias, several cosmos [because of lack of space the publsihers deleted here certain particulars about Mrs. Paterson’s garden] and some shrubs, at present described as “What is that?” Many magnificent trees dot the landscape. A tree which I have decided is a mulberry lurks in the back lot. It has got to be a mulberry; I can’t be changing the name of the thing every five minutes. I have to get on with the weeding.

My friends and acquaintances express surprise that I should have rural tastes. This attitude indicates to me what is wrong with public opinion. It has no relevancy to the facts. I was born and brought up in the country, so far from any urban influences that I never saw an electric light till I was fifteen and was afraid of it when I did see one. This is why I hate clocks and appointments and can’t find a train in a time-table. My idea of time goes by the sun — morning, noon, afternoon, and night. I seldom know the day of the week and never the date of the month, so it is impossible for me to date my letters. I hate crowds, and radios, and public speakers, and cannot drive a motor car. These things being so, I lived in New York for years and years. Finally I acquired sense enough to move out. I don’t mind commuting because it gets me to the country. That is all for the present.

“Bison Frontiers of Imagination” reissues from the University of Nebraska Press

A site visitor tipped me off to a series of reissues of neglected and long out of print science fiction classics from the University of Nebraska Press, which already deserves credit for keeping many of the works of the fine American novelist Wright Morris in print.

Titled the Bison Frontiers of Imagination, the series includes over 50 titles now. Each title includes an introduction or afterword by a worthy science fiction writer or critic such as John Varley, an original cover painting, and, in some cases, original illustrations as well. In keeping with the press’ long-standing practice, the reissues are high-quality trade paperback editions.

Some of the titles will be familiar to fans of neglected books: Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus all appear on more than one list on this site. Perhaps not all of the titles are of equal literary and historical merit (I remembered cringing at the wooden characters and cliches when I read When Worlds Collide back in 8th grade), but this worthy university press earns a standing ovation for its commitment to these pioneering works of speculative and science fiction.

The Outmoded Authors Reading Challenge

Source: http://outmodedauthors.blogspot.com/2007/08/welcome-to-outmoded-authors-challenge.html

Imani, a “Jamaican lost in Canada”, and a bunch of other Blogspot bloggers have joined together to issue “a reading challenge for all interested in exploring authors who were kicked out of the “in” crowd”. “The idea behind this challenge”, states the site, “is to give some needed attention to authors who have fallen by the way side.”

Their Rules and Requirements are simple:

  • The challenge will last for six months and end on February 29th 2008.
  • During that time you may choose to read however many books by however many authors you like.
  • For reviews or any author-related information or musings you think would be interesting, please submit it to the blog as well as to your own, if you like.
  • With each post you add the relevant tags/labels such as the author’s name (“Dawn Powell”), whether it’s fiction or poetry, a review or a news item (“news”), perhaps a quote from a good essay you found on one of the writers you’d like to share (“essay”) and so on.

The list of outmoded authors is posted on the right side of the blog, linking to sites or pages with information about each. It includes such well-known, but certainly less-read, authors as Walter Scott, Somerset Maugham, and John Galsworthy — and such truly little-known and largely unread writers as Alfred Chester and the Catalan novelist Mercè Rodoreda.

I encourage all fans of neglected books and authors to participate — as the site says, “Owning a blog isn’t required.”

I am Jonathan Scrivener, by Claude Houghton

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Locate a Copy

Excerpt


Cover of first UK Penguin paperback edition of 'I Am Jonathan Scrivener'His first act after inheriting his uncle’s fortune was a definite indication that he had renounced social glory. He sold the great house in the country which contained so many treasures, and ignored all the social responsibilities of his position. Doubtless this offended a number of people very much. A man is expected to do exactly what the herd does of which he is a member. If you belong to a family whose supreme pleasure is hunting, you are expected to hunt — and to evince a delirious passion for that activity. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you. And not only that. Your refusal is regarded by the members of your family as a criticism of them. It’s no good saying you don’t hunt because you don’t like it, for the interpretation given to that statement is that you mean that they ought not to like it. If you persist in your refusal, it is either assumed that you have a secret vice, or that you are a Bolshevik in close touch with Moscow. Argument is useless. Either you must adhere to your refusal and accept ignominy, or you must leap on t a horse and pursue a tiny and terrified animal in company with other sportsmen.

In precisely the same way a number of assumptions were made about Scrivener. He was well-born and wealthy. Very well then. He would immediately adopt the type of life lived by those so circumstanced. He would entertain and be entertained. He would adopt with enthusiasm that mode of life which consists of doing the same things, with the same people, at the same places, at the same periods, year in, year out, world without end, till gout or death do them part. That is, he would become a member of the fashionable world.


Editor’s Comments


Paul Auster has taken some critical bashing lately, but I’ve always enjoyed the way he takes his characters on wild detours, getting them to abandon one life for another simply through an irresistable narrative pull. Becoming a prisoner of an eccentric couple of millionaires (as in The Music of Chance) or cataloging phone books in an abandoned bunker (as in Oracle Night) is hardly what either protagonist sets out to do, but somehow they end up in these implausible situations, and the reader follows along just to find out what happens next.

I was strongly reminded of Auster’s work in the first few chapters of Claude Houghton’s I am Jonathan Scrivener. I will quote from Time magazine’s review to summarize the plot:

One James Wrexham, impoverished but well-educated Englishman past his first youth, is distastefully employed in a real-estate office. One day he answers an advertisement in the London Times, is accepted, becomes secretary to mysterious, invisible Jonathan Scrivener.

Secretary Wrexham never sees his employer, who goes abroad after hiring his secretary solely on the strength of his letter of application. Wrexham’s only duties are to live in Scrivener’s London flat, catalog his library, receive his friends, write occasional reports to the absent employer. One by one Scrivener’s friends turn up in search of him, get acquainted with Wrexham, tell him what they think of Scrivener. Each description is different. None of the friends have met, but through Wrexham they become intimate. Complications ensue. Soon Wrexham is convinced that the whole business is an experiment of Scrivener’s, a carefully laid plot to bring these varied types of men and women together, to see how they will react on each other.

In other words, Wrexham, in a very Auster-ian move, abandons one life and steps into another, highly implausible one, and we follow along just to find out what happens next. Why does Scrivener want him to be a secretary in absentia? And who is Scrivener, anyway?

Over the next few chapters, four characters come to Scrivener’s flat: Pauline, the beautiful and very independent-minded daughter of an Army general; Francesca Bellamy, the stylish widow of a millionaire suicide; Middleton, a hard-drinking sportsman going through an early mid-life crisis; and Rivers, a bon vivant and social climber. From each, Wrexham obtains a starkly different account of Scrivener. He struggles to fit these versions together, as each of the visitors seems to be struggling to come to their own understanding of Scrivener. Finally, after countless conversations, Wrexham answers the door one evening to greet a man who introduces himself: “I am Jonathan Scrivener.”

And there the story ends. Unfortunately, the novel long before loses its similarity with one of Paul Auster’s novels. Aside from the conversations with the various characters about Scrivener, nothing much happens. An efficient but aloof housekeeper named Matthews feeds and looks after Wrexham, but she remains another enigma. Wrexham occasionally drops something equivalent to “Note to self: find out more about Matthews” into his interior monologues, but he never follows through. Although by the end, Wrexham’s inclined to think that Scrivener threw him and the other four together as part of an ulterior scheme, he can’t figure out just what the point of the scheme was. We close the book not really knowing much more about the principle characters than when we started.

One could say the same thing about some of Auster’s novels, but at least they have the merit of a strong narrative. Somewhere around page 200 of I am Jonathan Scrivener, I stopped wondering what would happen next: it was all too clear that nothing would, except another few conversations about Scrivener. I kept with the book on the slim hope that I might be proved wrong.

Not everyone had the same opinion of I am Jonathan Scrivener, though. Henry Miller wrote in The Books in My Life that “it would have made a wonderful movie,” and Orson Welles may have drawn upon it as one of his inspirations for “Citizen Kane”. Who knows, it may even have sown a seed for another masterpiece about an absent figure, Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. Michael Dirda discussed it in his book, Readings, concluding that it “may not be a lost masterpiece, but it is a highly diverting, philosophical novel of considerable merit.”

Dirda does note one of the most attractive features of the novel, which is the wealth of great quotes Houghton scatters throughout the text:

  • “Most of us commit suicide, but the fact is only recognized if we blow our brains out.”
  • “I’ve met a number of people who had endured agonies in their determination not to suffer.”
  • “To solve a problem, you must have all the data or none.”

  • “It is the custom of slaves to praise independence, but on the rare occasions when they encounter it they become extremely angry.”

These, and passages such as the excerpt above, go a long way to redeeming the book. And Houghton does manage to raise some intriguing questions, even if he doesn’t always put them to the effective service of a plot. Even if I don’t think the book is as successful as it could be, I’m certainly intrigued enough by Houghton’s writing to try another of his books — maybe Julian Grant Loses His Way, about a man who discovers that he’s dead (an inspiration for The Third Policeman perhaps?).


Locate a Copy


I am Jonathan Scrivener, by Claude Houghton
London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1930
London: Penguin, 1937

2blowhards.com on Neglected Author Francis Iles

Source: Francis Iles, “Before the Fact”, from the 2blowhards.com blog.

Michael, one of the anonymous Blowhards, writes a long and thoughtful piece on the works of Francis Iles, who wrote several examples of the genre known as the “inverted mystery,” a forerunner of the psychological thriller in the 1930s, before disappearing from the publishing scene completely.

Iles is not utterly neglected, as his novel Malice Aforethought is in print again as a reissue, thanks to a 2005 BBC miniseries.

However, Michael lights upon another Iles work, Before the Fact, by way of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 film, “Suspicion”, for which it was the source. The basic story, as Michael describes it, has become familiar to us: “a marriage between a charming cad who is also a sociopath, and a mousey, somewhat priggish, and well-off woman.” Joan Crawford chewed up the scenery in the mid-1950s with a similar premise in “Autumn Leaves” (OK, so the Cliff Robertson character was a psychopath instead of a sociopath … the point is, it’s a much-beaten path).

As usual with a familiar story, it’s the telling that makes the difference. Michael delights in Iles’ ironic twists of phrase:

Armed as you are with foreknowledge of what’s going to come, some very simple sentences can make you guffaw: “On the whole, Lina enjoyed her honeymoon,” for example, was one. That “On the whole” hit me like the punchline to a dirty joke. Poor old Lina … She just couldn’t see it coming, could she?

“On the whole” … it reminds me of “Little did he know …” from “Stranger than Fiction. The third-person omniscient voice does allow an author to play God in such devilish ways. In the end, Michael is so impressed by Iles’ success in his telling that he wonders aloud, “Why isn’t Before the Fact widely recognized as one of the most amazing book-fictions of the 20th century?”

Neglected mysteries publisher Crippen & Landru have reissued The Avenging Chance, a collection of short stories Iles published under his real name, Anthony Berkeley Cox.

Movies can sometimes lead us back to long-forgotten gems. Julian Fellowes’ excellent 2005 movie, “Separate Lies”, for example, leads us to Nigel Balchin’s intricate psychological thriller, A Way Through the Wood (reissued and retitled “Separate Lies” to make the journey easier) … although Clive James did not think it one of Balchin’s best novels when he wrote “The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin” a few years ago.

“Who is Harry Sylvester?” from First Things

Source: “Who Is Harry Sylvester?”, by Philip Jenkins, from the March 2007 issue of First Things: the Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Dayspring'“If the Ministry of Truth had devoted their full attention to obliterating the memory of Harry Sylvester, his elimination from the public consciousness could not have been more total,” writes Jenkins in this profile of a neglected American novelist. Of Sylvester’s three novels on Catholic themes, his three Catholic novels, Dearly Beloved (1942), Dayspring (1945), and Moon Gaffney, he writes, “To read them today is to recognize their relevance for modern audiences. In the mid-1940s, a generation ahead of their time, Sylvester’s novels were already exploring such themes as Catholic social activism, church involvement in civil rights, Christian mysticism, and Hispanic religious practice.”

A few traces of Sylvester can be found online, even though Amazon shows only one out of three of the above titles available in used copies:

In American Novelists of Today (1951), Sylvester’s biographical sketch states,

Mr. Sylvester’s first three novels present a comprehensive treatment of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Strong elements of anti-clericalism mark his serious work, but his central and pervading theme has been that of growth, spiritual and intellectual, and the various ways and the events by which he feels it is sometimes achieved:

  • Dearly Beloved, his first novel, is an ironic and realistic portrayal of the psychological and social problems of a young man, John Cosgrove, who allies himself with a Jesuit priest in an effort to improve the conditions of poor fishermen in St. Mary’s County, Maryland….
  • Dayspring concerns Spencer Bain, an anthropologist, who visits New Mexico to study the Penitentes, a group of Roman Catholics who practice flagellation. He participates in their religious services with strong intellectual reservations, but comes to feel a steadying influence upon his life as a result. Some critics consider the book the first serious novel concerning “grace” by an American.
  • Moon Gaffney traces the career of the son of a Tammany Hall politician in New York City. The young man, who has been reared strictly as a Roman Catholic, is ambitious to become mayor. Yet his friends with social insight and liberal ideas lead him to take a vigorous stand for progress.

  • A Golden Girl (1950) is a sharp departure from the earlier novels and reflects Mr. Sylvester’s two visits and a period of residence in Peru. It concerns Therese Morley, an American girl of exceptional vitality and intuitive honesty, who has misused her talents.

Twenty Suggestions from Will Schofield

In his email tipping me off to Paul Dry Books, Will Schofield mentioned that Mr. Dry asked him to do three things to prove he was qualified for an internship with Dry’s publishing house. One of these was to prepare a list of twenty out-of-print books. Well, Will not only got the job but has now worked there for over seven years. I asked him if he’d be willing to share his list, and he kindly forwarded it, along with updates on each book’s status today.

As Will writes,

When you read these paragraphs, remember that they are the enthusiasms of a nervous and dorky 23-year-old college drop-out who was frittering his life away: living in the cultural wasteland of Northeast Philadelphia, catering, selling tambourines, drinking, and going into massive debt buying rare books and records. I still stand by the list. Most of the works mentioned remain (and probably will remain) neglected.

Perhaps this post will help gently nudge one or two titles back into the limelight.

Products of the Perfected Civilization by Chamfort, translated & introduced by W. S. Merwin.

Published by North Point Press in 1984. French aphorist and philosopher with no works currently available in English.

[2007 update: the Merwin book seems to still be out of print, but Douglas Parmee’s selection and translation is available from Short Books: Chamfort: Relections on Life, Love and Society Together with Anecdotes and Little Philosophical Dialogues.]

 

Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel (1877-1933, France).

Eccentric genius millionaire who composed the majority of his works using a strict system of word associations and puns (as detailed in How I Wrote Certain of My Books). This particular book is incredibly scarce, the few copies that occasionally surface going for at least $50. It’s considered his best book (and the translation is very respected). Published by John Calder and University of California in the seventies. Roussel’s admirers include John Ashbery, Foucault (who wrote his first book on Roussel, titled Death and the Labyrinth, now out of print), Duchamp, Apollinaire, Blanchot, Calvino, Gide, Proust, Cortazar, and Queneau.

[2007 update: Still out of print.]
 

Difficult Death by Rene Crevel (1900-1935, France).

A beautiful autobiographical novel by one of the original surrealists, Rene Crevel (he was gay and they were generally a homophobic bunch), written in 1926. Ezra Pound has said of Crevel: “He will be read more and more as the wind carries away the ashes of the ‘great names’ that preceded him.” I’m inclined to agree. It was last published by North Point Press in 1986. I’ve come across only one copy on all out of print book searches in the past six months!

[2007 update: this is still out of print, but you can now easily find the book on Addall.com. The excellent press Archipelago Books recently published Crevel’s My Body & I.]
 

Mood Indigo (Grove 1968, tran. John Sturrock) or Froth on the Daydream (Quartet, trans. by Stanley Chapman) by Boris Vian (died in 1959).

Vian is a cult figure in France and should be in America. Also out of print is his collection of jazz writings, Round About Close to Midnight. Never in paperback, the excellent Blues for a Black Cat: The Selected writings of Boris Vian was published in the early 90s by University of Nebraska. He is an amazing, idiosyncratic writer. Raymond Queneau even called Mood Indigo, “The greatest love novel of our time.”

[2007 update: Tam Tam Books is bringing out translations of Vian’s books. They published Brian Harper’s new translation of L’ecume des Jours as Foam of the Daze (great title), as well as translations of I Spit on Your Graves, Autumn in Peking, and The Dead All Have the Same Skin (forthcoming). Dalkey Archive reprinted Heartsnatcher recently. Nebraska did publish a paperback version of Blues for a Black Cat.]

 

Killachter Meadow — six stories by Aidan Higgins (Grove Press 1960).

I just came across this very scarce book by Irish writer Higgins. It seems that many of his books are out of print. From the back cover: “In the title story, he tells of a macabre family of sisters living a desolate life on a ruined estate in South Africa, spilling their melancholy and venom on one another, until the eldest slips matter-of-factly into the river to die.” Sounds good to me.

[2007 update: Still out of print]

 

Journals by Denton Welch (published by Allison and Busby in the 1980s).

An incredible British writer. Exact Change books has recently reprinted his first novel . Welch was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 18. He started writing after the accident and didn’t stop until his death at 31. He was apparently an amazing and prolific poet as well, but the poems have only been published in an out of print volume called Dumb Instrument (Enitharmon Press, edition of 1000) which was a mere 58 pages long.

[2007 update: still out of print.]

 

Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel.

The absolute bible for followers of international avant-garde/interesting cinema. Should be used in every college film course, but remains inexplicably scarce. My copy seems to be inscribed to Martin Scorcese.

[2007 update: D.A.P./C.T. Editions brought this back into print in 2005]

 

Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard.

The Austrian writer’s autobiography is currently unavailable, I have no idea why. Also, it seems that his very first novel, Frost, has never been translated into English. A huge gap therefore exists between the very early work On the Mountain (published only much later when Bernhard was famous, I think) and his Gargoyles. Bernhard also wrote a couple of novellas around this time (1965-70) for which he was awarded numerous prizes. It looks like University of Chicago will be publishing these soon.

[2007 update: Random House seems to keep this sporadically in print with their “value publishing” imprint. It deserves better. Knopf brought out Frost in a translation by Michael Hoffman. Chicago did indeed release Bernhard’s Three Novellas, but not until 2003, and it seems to have not made it into paperback.]

 

The Ship by Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959).

Considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest German writers of the century, Jahnn has been completely overlooked by America and Britain. His novel, Das Holzschiff, was translated by Catherine Hutter as The Ship and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1961. It is the first, and only translated, part of a trilogy. The book is bleak, beautiful, and incredibly strange. More people should at least know it exists. There is one other volume in English called Thirteen Uncanny Stories, from about 1984, which might still be available. This book contains extracts from his longer works. I shall spend my life trying to raise the profile of this forgotten writer.

[2007 update: I haven’t done a very good job raising his profile. At least there is now one critical work available in English, Thomas Freeman’s The Case of Hans Henny Jahnn: Criticism and the Literary Outsider. The French have rediscovered him already. I should also mention that Jahnn was gay; that fact, coupled with his violent imagery, seems to have scared the hell out of critics for years.]

 

Juan de Mairena by Antonio Machado (trans. Ben Belitt, Univ. of California 1963).

The book is subtitled “Epigrams, Maxims, Memoranda and Memoirs of an Apocryphal Professor. With an Appendix of Poems from the Apocryphal Songbooks.” All of the prose works by Machado, “Spain’s finest modern poet,” are long gone or untranslated.

[2007 update: still Out of print]

 

• Villy Sorenson

Considered one of Denmark’s greatest contemporary writers. He writes short stories exclusively. The few I’ve read are fragmented, disturbing, and often hilarious. His first collection of stories — translated as Strange Stories and also as Tiger in the Kitchen — has been out of print since 1957. His other collections in English, Harmless Tales (Norvik Press Series, 1991) and Tutelary Tales (Nebraska 1988), are out of print also.

[2007 update: still nothing in print]

 

Building Poe Biography by John Carl Miller.

From a book review by Marguerite Young, 1977: “John Henry Ingram, a clerk in the savings bank department of the London General Post Office, spent a lifetime saving Poe from the slanders of Griswold (Reverend, shabby poet and author of a malicious Poe biography). Working in his after hours when the bank was closed, Ingram authored biographies of this long-neglected genius as well as literary biographies of Oliver Madox Brown, Elizabeth Browning, Robert Burns, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Chatterton. Each of these biographies was magnetized, almost without exception (as John Carl Miller points out), by an author who had associated with Poe or had been a child-prodigy poet or had died at an early age or had left a reputation that needed redemption from slander. Miller did his work at the University of Virginia in the Ingram’s Poe Collection, which contains enough material for two additional volumes. The present fascinating work of literary detection contains letters that, along with Miller’s analytical comments, are here published for the first time. They bring into sharper focus many of the mysteries surrounding the poet’s life and death.” I have not tracked down a copy of this yet. I don’t know if these letters have been published again elsewhere, or to what extent the author comments on them.

[2007 update: I still don’t know if these letters are published elsewhere. Young wrote about this book and the Feikema book below in her collection Inviting the Muses, published by Dalkey Archive.]

 

A Night of Serious Drinking by René Daumal.

Ex-surrealist, Sanskrit scholar, poet, philosopher, and a pupil of Gurdjieff, Daumal is best known to English-speaking readers as the author of the short novel Mount Analogue, which has been reprinted many times. Roger Shattuck has called the book “… a rare and mysterious account, superbly translated, of what today would be called a ‘trip.’ Daumal mixes satire, fantasy, and allegory (plus a subject index!) into a fiction that runs a mere 130 pages instead of the 700 a contemporary American novelist would need.” Someone named Gerard Joulie wrote: “Basing its inspiration on the Rabelesian metamorphosis of drink, A Night of Serious Drinking has no other project than to engage its readers in conversation… Daumal presents an oasis, an instrument for distinguishing the essential quality of research, a manual on how to think…”

[2007 update: back in print from Tusk Overlook. They have also reprinted his Mount Analogue (reportedly a big inspiration for Jodorowsky’s movie “Holy Mountain”) and Le Contre Ciel. Nebraska Press brought out his You’ve Always Been Wrong (Exact Change cancelled a planned paperback edition due to a low number of preorders). It looks like his City Lights collection, The Powers of the Word, may be out-of-print at the moment, hopefully not for long.]

 

The Death of Lysanda by Yitzhak Orpaz (trans. from the Hebrew by Richard Flint (Cape Editions, 1970).

“Naphtali Noi, publishers’ proofreader, scholar and recluse, lives in a rooftop room absorbed in his stuffed animals and his vision of the calm and beautiful Lysanda. With the appearance of Batia, the corpulent motherly figure who infiltrates his monastic seclusion, Noi’s image is banished, his peace destroyed. Written in taut and vivid prose, this story contains within its compact framework a volume of ideas, images and implications.” Haven’t read this one either, but this is from the first page: “Underneath this advertisement was a news item about a man who killed his wife and told his interrogators: ‘I had a headache and couldn’t sleep all night. I got up in the morning and wandered around the yard. I saw a big rock. I picked it up and dropped it on my wife’s head.’ The wife’s name was Eve. I was taken by the clear, restrained, almost classical style of the paragraph.”

[2007 update: Still out of print.]

 

A Dark Stranger (and others) by Julien Gracq (New Directions, 1951).

Great French writer, whose four novels were all translated at some point. Two are still available from Columbia University Press. His first novel, The Castle of Argol, was last printed in a huge hardcover edition by Lapis Press (now defunct). This novel is stunning and unavailable at the moment. I have never seen a copy of A Dark Stranger (and others), and there is only one listed on Addall.

[2007 update: still out of print, but Turtle Point is bringing out translations of his non-fiction works, and Pushkin Press brought out a beautiful compact edition of Chateau D’Argol. A Dark Stranger is still very hard to find. See my post at ajourneyroundmyskull.blogspot.com for a scan of the amazing cover image.]

 

O the Chimneys by Nelly Sachs (1967, FSG).

A good friend of Paul Celan (their correspondence was recently published) and an incredible poet herself. She won the Nobel Peace Prize. Her poetry has remained unavailable for too long. I think FSG did two volumes.

[2007 update: Green Integer is finally restoring her to print (Collected Poems I and Collected Poems II in November 2007.]

 

The Golden Bowl by Feike Feikema (aka Frederick Manfred).

Published by Grosset Dunlap/St. Paul Webb in 1944. It may be the only edition. Marguerite Young wrote: “another lyric performance, a dexterous biography of the elemental forces which threaten a various pioneering population, among them, an albino. Much of the novel reads like a folk ballad, the meditative passages being underscored like the refrains of a song.” A description by an online bookseller: “Set in the dust bowl in the dark years of the 30s. Story of Maury Grant, wanderer, hobo, pilgrim in search of a faith, and of his contempt for a land which brought him to bitterness and confusion.” I’ve never seen or read the book.

[2007, nothing in print. I think Larry McMurtry has written about Manfred.][Editor’s note: as Frederick Manfred, he wrote a number of novels about life on the Plains before and after contact with white men. Of these “Buckskin Man Tales”, Conquering Horse is in print from the University of Nebraska Press.]

 

The Quest by Elisabeth Langgasser (1899-1950, Germany).

I recently found out about this book and tracked down a copy. This women’s literary career was cut short by the Nazis, who banned the publication of her work for 10 years, from 1936 to 1946 (she was half Jewish). From 1946 until her death five years later, she published seven books of prose and poetry, most of them considered her major works. The Quest, her last novel, is the only one translated into English (Knopf, 1953). The jacket says it delves into the spiritual devastation of the Germans after the war.

[2007 update: nothing in print]

 

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa (1956, 1963 Knopf).

Jorge Amado says in his preface, “The English-reading public will make the acquaintance of one of the greatest books our literature has produced, brutal, tender, cordial, savage, vast as Brazil itself.” This books goes for $100 to $200 these days and, again, for inexplicable reasons, has never been reprinted. The same goes for Rosa’s other books. I’ve heard it towers over Marquez from at least one person.

[2007 update: There must be serious rights issues with this book, because it has a cult following, and now sells for $300 online, but has never been reprinted.]

 

A Life Full of Holes by Driss ben Hamad Charhadi (1964, Grove).

This book was dictated to and translated by Paul Bowles. Charhadi, aka Larbi Layachi, could not read or write, but possesses an extraordinary gift for telling stories. This cycle of stories tells of the author’s teenage years, spent living on the streets of Morocco, working crappy jobs, trying to sell pot, and sometimes stealing to survive. An intense and wonderful book which has been out of print for years.

[2007, still no reprint. Rain Taxi wrote about it back in 2001 as a great lost book. Again, there must be serious rights issues, because the book is way too good to have stayed out of print for so many years. Thank you to Ian Nagoski for handing the book to me at the exact right moment, when my own life was obviously full of holes.]

The Golden Vanity, by Isabel Paterson

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

Excerpt


Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Golden Vanity'
No, that must be wrong. One must make a life, out of the lump of raw commonplace, content with a kind of average return. Or fix upon some definite, tangible objective, and convince yourself that it’s worth your whole effort. Men did that, too, accumulated money and possessions and strove for importance. Mysie thought, at least Gina is successful; a great match is the legitimate traditional ambition for a woman, as much as place or power for a man. And Geraldine is successful, not because she has written a best seller, nor because she had got a husband; Leonard isn’t much; but she has made something out of their relation, out of her marriage and her children; they belong to her.

For herself, Mysie had decided some years ago, she would have to work. Work was all right of itself. It wouldn’t get you anywhere; she saw that. Presumably a career was as good for a woman as for a man, if no better; but she knew it would never be enough for her. After all, a man who has only a public life, even if he is a Napoleon, is somehow a poor creature, posturing and pathetic; and furthermore, Mysie had an inexplicable conviction that those apparently solid rewards were growing hollow, being eaten away by some spirit of the times, perhaps through being sought as an end in themselves. Everybody played the stock market for easy money; everything was flashy and tipsy and swift. And yet nobody really had any fun; there was always an aftertaste of bad gin in the pleasure. She did not like the way things were, the stupid drinking and promiscuous pawing and meaningless familiarity, in which all personal values went by the board and people seemed to derive an imbecile gratification from cheapening themselves. Work was better than that. Abstinence and virtue became attractive.

I suppose I’m a failure, Mysie thought. The simplest, most ordinary fool, crying for the moon…. But isn’t there something?


Editor’s Comments

Written in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, The Golden Vanity is at once a subtle social comedy of errors and mores and a deeply cynical view of the Jazz Age, shown through the lives of three very different women. Cousins of various removes, Gina, Geraldine, and Mysie (for Artemisia) are all living in New York City when the novel opens somewhere in the early 1920s.

The novel opens with Gina, secretary to the head of a social charity, being hired as a reader for Mrs. Charlotte Siddall, a grand dame “so used to the part of a great hostess that it had become second nature to her,” during a short loss of sight due to surgery. Mrs. Siddall appreciates Gina’s aid, tact, and striking beauty, but sees her as no more than hired help. Contrary to her intentions, however, Mrs. Siddall’s grandson and heir, Arthur, a quiet and sheltered bibliophile, falls in love with Gina. After several attempts to undo the alliance through emotional and financial manipulations, she concedes, and the two marry. Born into a ne’er-do-well family from a small Washington state logging town, Gina accepts her situation as some form of success, and adapts easily to the life of wealth, even though she never feels any real connection with Arthur.

Geraldine, on the other hand, achieves her success on her own, writing a best seller that enables her to pay for an apartment in the West Seventies, a cook, a housemaid, and a nurse for her two children. Her husband Leonard is another of Paterson’s thin, feckless men, a mediocre company man who speculates on Wall Street with Geraldine’s royalties.

Mysie, the third cousin, works as a press agent for a Broadway producer, rooms with Thea, the widow of a man who shot himself after an earlier stock market failure, and carries on an ambiguous friendship with Jake, a man who is both a gadfly and a deeply serious and intelligent writer … or might be, at least. Even though Mysie’s life seems, on the surface, to be quite unconventional, even bohemian, as the story develops, we come to see that she is most “grounded” (as we would say today). Indeed, although The Golden Vanity focuses on Gina at its start, Mysie emerges as the book’s center, observing and commenting with irony and skepticism on the lives and events around her.

As the Twenties unfold, Arthur and Gina have a son and Gina rises as a socialite, gaining some respect from Mrs. Siddall. Arthur dabbles in arts and politics, founding a small, left-leaning magazine that runs at a loss. Geraldine continues to write. Mysie becomes an actress, good enough to gain some small celebrity. She and Thea buy a small weekend house, not much more than a shack, out on Long Island. Jake gets a play produced, then another.

Meanwhile, the termites are at work. Hints are dropped — dropped and passed over — that the financial boom is built on deceit and sleight-of-hand. An acquaintance suggests to Mrs. Siddall that her impressive new office building is underwritten with junk bonds. Leonard’s stock buys get riskier. A play Mysie is cast in has to fold just before opening when the backer comes up short.

But the parties carry on. At one, Mysie flirts with a Frenchman and asks him, “I daresay New York strikes you as a madhouse?” “Not mad,” he replies, “but Atlantean. It confounds judgment.” In Paterson’s view, the Crash is inevitable, the consequence of lives lived without the motivation of need. “Wisdom and beauty are not to be had for nothing,” Mysie thinks at one point. “Work is something that must be done.”

When it comes, the Crash comes almost as an anticlimax: “… [A] breath brought it down. It was a soundless catastrophe.” It is also, however, an indiscriminate catastrophe. It hits new money and old. Leonard’s stock bubble bursts, the family is forced to cram into a small flat, and they live from sale to sale of Geraldine’s stories. She has a nervous breakdown and flees to Cuba, where she has a brief affair with a gangster than ends melodramatically when he is shot in their hotel room. “Geraldine saw she had never depended on Leonard,” Paterson writes, but we already knew that. Mrs. Siddall’s junk bonds collapse and her half-finished building consumes what’s left of her fortune. Reeling from the shock, she suffers a stroke and dies. Arthur and Gina’s son dies of a sudden illness. The brownstone mansion they shared becomes a shell.

Mysie goes on, though, as she must, being Paterson’s oracle. She’s become recognized in recent years as a pioneer of libertarianism, thanks largely to Stephen Cox’s The Woman and the Dynamo, and we can see her political views surface throughout Mysie’s commentaries:

Between the blasted reformers and the earnest immoralists a pretty good country has been darned near ruined. Neither will recognize that there really are different kinds of people. There used to be room for everybody to be what they were. Cities, small towns, suburbs, farms, backwoods. Rigid respectability with the alternative of doing what you pleased at your own risk. Take it or leave it.

This could almost serve as a gloss on libertarianism. Underlying these thoughts, however, is Paterson’s atomistic view of human existence:

Being what we are, we must each have a separate world. They tell us we are going through enormous changes, that everything will be different. But it will last our time; it must, for you create and hold your own world around you, so it can end only when you die. And none of us can know what the other’s world is or looks like….

“How difficult, how impossible communication is,” a character muses in Paterson’s Never Ask the End. In The Golden Vanity, Mysie thinks, “Speech is the distinguishing mark of human beings; and every word we use is charged with the whole burden of experience.” If this is, indeed, Paterson’s outlook, then libertarianism is not just a matter of making “room for everybody to be what they were,” but the natural state for us isolated, experience-charged particles.

Isabel Paterson circa 1930The problem with the Twenties, as Paterson characterizes it, was not a matter of “doing what you pleased” but doing what everyone else was doing, and doing it thoughtlessly. Despite her deeply individualistic view of life, she admires the Victorians for the effort they put into maintaining their structured morality: “Respectability is a genuine accomplishment,” Mysie says at one point, and of all the characters in The Golden Vanity, Paterson gives most credit to Mrs. Siddall: her attempts to manipulate Arthur and others is, at least, an active defense of the status quo.

For the generation that follows hers, however, there is no foundation to fall back upon when the bubble of the myth of success bursts. In the book’s closing scene, Jake tells a group gathered at Mysie and Thea’s house about an incident in which he and several others spent hours adrift in a boat, not realizing they were all the time within feet of the shore. “We’ll never touch our shore again,” Mysie thinks, hearing this. “That landfall is lost forever, down under.”

As interesting as the commentaries in The Golden Vanity are, though, they cannot hide the fact that, Mysie and Mrs. Siddall aside, this is a book populated by names more than characters. Gina is meant to be shown as superficial, but Paterson’s intent is undermined when Geraldine and others remain equally flat. Despite some fine passages and a strong underlying theme, The Golden Vanity seems to me incomplete, almost unfinished. Perhaps Paterson was dissuaded from making the book as indirect and experimental in its approach as Never Ask the End, but I suspect it would have been far more effective and coherent if she could have ventured further from the confines of a novel of manners. Paterson might have respected structure, but her personality seems never to have sat too comfortably with it.

This does not mean, though, that The Golden Vanity is not an entertaining and enlightening book, more than worthy of resurrection in print. If Dawn Powell can rate two volumes in the Library of America, Isabel Paterson at least deserves some serious critical attention for more than just her political writings. Although I can hardly claim to speak on their behalf, I suspect more than a few women of today would find Mysie and Marta (of Never Ask the End) remarkably contemporary in their situation and views. And if this short excerpt from her New York Herald Tribune Weekly Books Review column, “Turns with a Bookworm” is representative, a collection of her newspaper pieces would make a terrific read.


Find Out More


Locate a Copy


The Golden Vanity, by Isabel Paterson
New York: William Morrow & Co., 1934

The Peabody Sisters of Salem, by Louise Hall Tharp

The stories of Elizabeth Peabody, Mary Peabody Mann, and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne — the Peabody Sisters of Boston — whose lives interwined with most of the great names of 19th century American literature and culture, have retold in such recent books as Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury, and the essay collection Reinventing the Peabody Sisters. As a subject, the sisters seem too good to pass up: Elizabeth’s 13 West Street bookshop in Boston was, if you will, the Shakespeare and Co. of the Transcendentalists; Mary was married to the pioneering educator Horace Mann, after whom one in six middle schools in the U.S. is named; and Sophia to the great novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Peabody Sisters of Salem'Louise Tharp Hall first celebrated the remarkable sisters in her 1950 collective biography, The Peabody Sisters of Salem, now out of print, which at the time was received with great acclaim. Here is a small sample of its many enthusiastic reviews:

• Jane Volles, San Francisco Chronicle

Generously Mrs. Tharp has filled in the background of that golden age in which the sisters lived. At one time or another, you meet all of the ‘Olympians’. She gives an interesting treatment to the young crowd of Transcendentalists parading the Boston streets in smocks and tasseled caps…. Mrs. Tharp evokes rather than probes in her presentation of the Peabodys. Her portraits have that quality we call inspired which defies the wreckage of time and catches certain aspects that remain in the mind of the reader: Elizabeth at her happiest when she was giving more than she could afford; Mary, always stimulating to the mind; Sophia, filled with irrepressible buoyancy. Mrs. Tharp’s manner of presentation is summed up perfectly in certain words of Mary Peabody’s: “It is not enough to cultivate the memory or even to enlighten the understanding. Out of the heart are the issues of life.”

• Henry Steele Commager, New York Herald Tribune, 8 January 1950

Mrs. Tharp has re-created the Peabody girls and the circle in which they moved with consumate skill. It would be easy to make the Peabodys objects of fun, but Mrs. Tharp writes of them with sympathy and affection and understanding…. [The criticisms of the book] are minor matters. What is important is that one of the exciting families of our middle period should be rescued from oblivion and made to live again.

• Clorinda Clarke, Catholic World, March 1950

Wit and pathos, respect and scholarship are the ingredients of this book. In it we meet afresh, Alcott and Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Mrs. Browning. It achieves that blend of history and humanity that makes a first-rate biography.

• Edward Weeks, The Atlantic, February 1950

In style and technique the book is a blend, and a very good one, or letters and diaries and Mrs. Tharp’s reanimation of the past. In its scenes, in its conversation, in its detailed knowledge of the background, it is an invigorating, honestly recaptured chronicle. These people mattered largely in their day, and we enjoy that day and feel their vitality in this leisurely and attractive book.

• Cleveland Amory, New York Times, 8 January 1950

Mrs. Tharp has a narrative ability and an affection for her subject which is contagious. Her scholarship is extensive and, while one wishes she had included a list of her sources as well as a complete list of the writings of the Peabodys themselves, it is convincing.

• Edward Wagenknecht, Chicago Sunday Tribune, 8 January 1950

Judged by any standard you like, this is absorbing biography. The year 1950 is not likely to offer any more exciting reading experience.

Copies of The Peabody Sisters of Salem can be picked up on Amazon for as little as 15 cents. A bargain like that is hard to pass up.

Most of Tharp’s other books were biographies written for young readers, but her 1965 biography of the Boston heiress and art patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose museum is one of the finest art collections from the “Robber Baron” era, Mrs. Jack was a best-seller and received reviews equal to that of The Peabody Sisters of Salem. It was reissued in 2003 by the museum.

Which forgotten novel do you love?, from the Guardian Unlimited

Source: http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/09/plucked_from_obscurity.html, Guardian Unlimited Books Blog, 2 September 2007

Following up on The Observer’s feature, “How did we miss this?”, in which 50 contemporary novelists were asked to name the books they considered most “shamefully undervalued,” its literary editor, Robert McCrum, took to his blog to invite readers to recommend their favorite “obscure, half-forgotten, probably out-of-print titles.”

As in The Observer feature, the recommendations include a fair number of in-print, critically recognized, and well-established books neglected only in the assessment of those who proposed them: The Bell Jar? In the Heart of the Country? Le Grand Meaulnes? They may not be Moby Dick, but they’re certainly not “obscure, half-forgotten,” or out-of-print.

But it’s worth a look for the genuinely obscure works that pop up in and amongst these:

• Bernard Gilbert’s “Old England” series

Gilbert “envisaged a sequence of 12 books each in a different form : poetry, drama as well as prose” depicting aspects of “Old England.” In a 2006 post in the Codisdead, writer and artist Herbert Read’s review of one of these books, Old England: A God’s-Eye View of a Village, is quoted in which Read wrote,

His book is so completely planned and neatly executed that it comes into the category of those works of science that in conception give evidence of a poetic mind…. In our own time it will stand as a diagnosis of the diseased heart of the country. In another age it will mean as much as, and even more than, Piers Plowman means to us.

Thinks I to Myself, by Edward Nares

First published as “Says I, Says I” by “Thinks-I-to-Myself Who”, this “Serio-Ludicro-Tragico-Comico Tale”, popular in the early 1800s, is a tongue-in-cheek “autobiography” penned by an English clergyman. The narrator fills his story with all sorts of asides and commentaries, such as this lament upon the decline in the servitude of servants:

It used formerly to be a matter of convenience for any master or mistress to communicate an order or direction through a third person: to tell the butler, for instance, to tell the coachman to wait at the table, or the footman to ask the groom to carry a letter to the post; but this round-about mode of communication is now properly put end to; Mr. Butler no longer dare presume to tell Mr. Coachman to wait at table, nor Mr. Charles the footman Mr. Bob the groom to carry a letter to the post; Mrs. Housekeeper to tell Miss House-maid to help her prepare the sweetmeats; nor the nurse to ask the laundry-maid to bring up little Miss’s dinner.

The full book can be read online or downloaded from Google Books.

• Katharine Topkins’ All the Tea in China

Poster christopherhawtree writes of this 1960s novel,

Nothing like it. Seething, erotic, with an extraordinary meditation upon a woman’s view of depressing a car’s throttle pedal, something I have never seen mentioned anywhere else (it’s hardly a subject one can broach in polite company). Topkins wrote “Kotch”, filmed with Jack Lemmon, and later wrote novels with her husband. I lent my copy to somebody at Virago – it screams out to be a Modern Classic, but I never got it back… It’s not quite Lolita but getting that way. A wonderful novel.

“How did we miss these?”, from the Observer

Source: http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/generalfiction/0,,2160644,00.html, The Observer, 2 September 2007

“[B]ooks that seem to speak only to you are, in some ways, the most treasured,” writes Robert McCrum, The Observer’s literary editor, in his introduction to a recent cover feature. The magazine’s editor asked 50 contemporary novelists to name “the novelist or poet whose work they believe to be shamefully undervalued.”

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'The Balloonist'Their responses show that undervalue, like value, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Given the wealth of academic attention paid to Flannery O’Connor’s work and the fact that A Good Man Is Hard to Find, it’s hard for me to agree with M. J. Hyland’s nomination of the book. For several other writers, it’s the work, not the author, that’s undervalued: Thackeray, Samuel Johnson, and Edith Wharton are secure in their respective spots in the literary canon, but Pendennis, Rasselas, and The Reef are hardly the titles most likely to be associated with them.

Only few genuinely neglected titles pop up on this list. Philip Pullman proposes The Balloonist, one of the many out-of-print wonders by the late MacDonald Harris, of whom he writes, “Actually, it’s almost impossible to read any of Harris’s first pages without helplessly turning to the next, and the next.” Although Julien Green’s Midnight (recommended by John Mortimer), Hans Fallada’s The Drinker (Beryl Bainbridge), and Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s Viking saga, The Long Ships (Michael Chabon) are all now out of print, each has had one or more reissues within the last decade or so.

The most significant aspect of the feature is its demonstration of the resurrection of works of the English novelist and short-story writer, Elizabeth Taylor, “the author of some of the finest and subtlest English novels of her time,” in McCrum’s assessment. Three novelists nominate her works, which can now enjoy a revival on the order of Barbara Pym’s in the early 1980s, thanks to new editions of such works as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Angel, At Mrs Lippincote’s, and In a Summer Season from Virago Modern Classics and a 2005 film of “Mrs. Palfrey.”

An Introduction to General Systems Thinking, Gerald Weinberg

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

Excerpt


Cover of first U.S. edition of 'An Introduction to General Systems Thinking'The complete substitution of theory for observation is, of course, not scientific. Even worse is going through the motions of observing, but discarding as ‘spurious’ every observation that does not fit theory — like the Viennese ladies who weigh themselves before entering Demel’s Tea Room. If they’re down a kilo, they have an extra mochatorte, and if they’re up a kilo they pronounce the scale ‘in error’ and have an extra mochatorte anyway.

This, then, is the problem. Raw, detailed observation of the world is just too rich a diet for science. No two situations are exactly alike unless we make them so. Every license plate we see is a miracle. Every human being born is a much greater miracle, being a genetic combination which has less than 1 chance in 10100 of existing among all possible genetic combinations. Yet the same is true for any particular state — in the superobserver sense — of any complex system.

‘A state is a situation which can be recognized if it occurs again.’ But no state will ever occur again if we don’t lump many states into one ‘state.’ Thus, in order to learn at all, we must forego some potential discrimination of states, some possibility of learning everything. Or, codified as The Lump Law:

If we want to learn anything, we musn’t try to learn everything.

Examples? Wherever we turn they are at hand. We have a category of things called ‘books’ and another called ‘stepladders.’ If we could not tell one from the other, we would waste a lot of time in libraries. But suppose we want a book off the top shelf and no stepladder is at hand. If we can relax our lumping a bit, we may think to stack up some books and stand on them. When psychologists try this problem on people, some take hours to figure out how to get the book, and some never do.

It’s the same in any field of study. If psychologists saw every white rat as a miracle, there would be no psychology. If historians saw every war as a miracle, there would be no history. And if theologians saw every miracle as a miracle, there would be no religion, because every miracle belongs to the set of all miracles, and thus is not entirely unique.

Science does not, and cannot, deal with miracles. Science deals only with repetitive events. Each science has to have characteristic ways of lumping the states of the systems it observes, in order to generate repetition. How does it lump? Not in arbitrary ways, but in ways determined by its past experience — ways that ‘work’ for that science. Gradually, as the science matures, the ‘brain’ is traded for the ‘eye,’ until it becomes almost impossible to break a scientific paradigm (a traditional way of lumping) with mere empirical observations.


Editor’s Comments


This is the most mind-opening book I have never read. Never read, that is, from beginning to end, as I have every other book I’ve featured so far.

I first came across this book while browsing through the stacks of the engineering library at my graduate school. Even though An Introduction to General Systems Thinking has plenty of equations, graphs, and diagrams, it stood in dramatic contrast to all the other volumes, wholly and humorlessly technical in content. In just the first few moments of thumbing through its pages, I could see that this was an attempt to step away from the entire range of scientific and technological endeavors and ask, “What’s going on here?” As most of my waking hours at the time were devoted to such endeavors — physics, orbital mechanics, statistics, and linear programming — the book had the effect of someone opening up the window in an grim, airless cell. I couldn’t escape the need to stick with the curriculum, but at least, with Weinberg’s help, I could put it all in some kind of perspective.

When one gets deep into a particular scientific or engineering subject, the depth and breadth of details, theories, and methods can easily come to fill one’s whole field of vision. The discipline becomes the way we approach a great range of problems. However, we also quickly learn to define away any of the problems that fall outside the means of the discipline to solve. “But what,” ask Weinberg, “of the problems that refuse to be avoided? What of the depletion of our natural resources by an ever-increasing population in an ever-more-wasteful economy? … What of grisly wars and impoverished peace? What of death, and what of me, dying?”

“Such problems,” he continues, “fall outside any discipline.” An Introduction to General Systems Thinking, is, fundamentally, an attempt “to teach an approach to thinking when the labels are missing, or misleading.” Weinberg takes the basic principles of General SystemsTheory, as introduced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s and then developed by Kenneth Boulding and others, and shows how they can be applied, in various ways, … well, not exactly to solve such problems, but at least to recognize and understand them. He doesn’t presume to have all the answers: “…[D]o not take this book too seriously,” Weinberg warns his readers. “It is not a bible, nor a proof, nor even a cohesive argument. It is, indeed, my first few thoughts, a collection of hints, nudges, pushes, and sometimes shoves, which aim to assist your first few thoughts on any ‘systems’ problem.”

In mapping out his territory, Weinberg early on divides (and, as he notes repeatedly in the book, any act of dividing things up has inherent dangers) the space of problems into three regions:

  • “Organized simplicity” — the region of mechanical laws
  • “Unorganized complexity” — the region of sufficient diversity or randomness for statistics to be reliable
  • “Organized complexity” — the region “too compex for analysis and too organized for statistics”

For problems that fall into this last space, he argues, “there is an essential failure of the two classical methods.” Weinberg is not opposed to the use of scientific methods. “Science, too, is a most useful tool — probably the most useful tool that man has ever discovered,” he writes. But we are continually stymied in our attempts to tackle problems where the simplifying tools of mechanics or statistics don’t seem to work. And, unfortunately, we have a tendency to persist in hammering away at the coalface with these tools even when they don’t work.

Weinberg compares the situation to the story of the boy who said, “Today, we learned how to spell ‘banana,’ but we didn’t know when to stop.” Or, as he elevates the idea into the Banana Principle,

Heuristic devices don’t tell you when to stop.

Take, as Weinberg does, the example of the two classic approaches to understanding a system: the black box and the white box. On the one hand, in the black box approach, we run the risk of not understanding the limitations of our tools for observing (e.g., the uncertainty principle in quantum physics) or of the act of observing on the black box (e.g., the Hawthorne effect in social sciences). On the other, with the white box approach, he writes, “because of our own limitations, no box is ever entirely revealed to us, even if we construct it ourselves.”

Understanding the limitations of our tools is a recurring theme in An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. As in the excerpt above, Weinberg stresses that any scientific tool must have a simplifying effect to have any value. Awareness of a tool’s limitations does not undermine its value, however — or, as he proposes in the Count-to-Three Principle,

If you cannot think of three ways of abusing a tool, you do not understand how to use it.

Weinberg compares scientific methods to a handyman’s box of tools. It’s been highly effective at solving many problems in the first two regions. What lies in the third region might be “situations in which present scientific methods could work, but have not, either because they have never been tried or because they have been tried without proper imagination and understanding.” But it’s also possible that there are situations where we’re unlikely to stumble across the breakthrough that pulls the problem into a space where our tools can solve them completely or effectively, at least anytime soon.

One of Weinberg’s strongest messages in the book is the importance of recognizing when problems don’t respond to known methods and approaches. Or, as he puts it, “[A]fter we have been fishing in a small pond for a while, most of the easy fish will have been caught — and it may be time to change bait.” Because we are human, we resist change. We stick with what’s worked in the past even when it doesn’t seem to be working. Only extreme frustration, disaster, or some other crisis, forces us to step back and rethink what we’re doing. Weinberg calls this the Used Car Law:

  1. A way of looking at the world that is not putting excessive stress on an observer need not be changed.
  2. A way of looking at the world may be changed to reduce the stress on an observer.


“In other words,” he writes, “why do we continue pumping gas into certain antique ways of looking at the world, why do we sometimes expend mammoth efforts to repair them, and why do we sometimes trade them in?”

Such questions are one of the great delights of An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. At the end of each chapter, Weinberg offers a set of “Questions for Further Research.” Questions such as:

  • Tagore said, “By plucking her petals you do not gather the beauty of the flower.” Many poets are similarly renowned for their celebration of wholeness and complexity. Choose a particular poet and several representative works to discuss in light of the Law of Medium Numbers [“For medium number systems {i.e., those that fall in the third region–Ed.}, we can expect that large fluctuations, irregularities, and discrepancy with any theory will occur more or less regularly.”].
  • The French Academy is reputed to have debated for 40 years over whether it was “le voiture” or “la voiture. How does an English speaker learn the sex of a feather? How does a French child learn the same thing? How does the French Academy know the sex of automobiles?

  • Go out into a large open field — if you can still find one — lie on your back, and gaze up at the clouds for an hour or so. Make notes of the figures you see there, and later analyze those notes to see if you can detect the influences that have shaped your vision.

Like most of the questions in the book, these are open-ended. An Introduction to General Systems Thinking is that rare book where the questions outnumber the answers. Go to just about any page, and you will find some question that can lead you to hours or days of thinking. Which is one of the reasons I’ve never succeeded in reading it from start to finish. For me at least, doing that would require me to set aside some great eye-opening question in favor to pressing relentlessly on, which seems contrary to Weinberg’s whole point. “All general systems thinking,” he writes, starts with one of three questions:

  1. Why do I see what I see?
  2. Why do things stay the same?
  3. Why do things change?

Of our grappling with these questions, Weinberg says,

…[W]e can never hope to find the end; we do not intend to try. Our goal is to improve our thinking, not to solve the riddle of the Sphynx.

Which is also why I’ve found myself returning to An Introduction to General Systems Thinking again and again in the twenty-plus years since I first stumbled across it. I know no better spark to revive a mind that’s stuck in dead-end thinking than to open this book, dive into one of Gerald Weinberg’s wonderful open-ended questions, and rediscover how one looks at the world.

An Introduction to General Systems Thinking was out of print for years after its first publication by John Wiley & Sons in 1975, but in 2001, Dorset House reissued the book in a silver anniversary edition, with a new preface by Weinberg.


Other Comments

· John Richards, CSQE Body of Knowledge areas: General, Knowledge, Conduct, and Ethics (on the silver anniversary edition)

As one can tell from the title, this is not a new book – it is a classic. The author worked on the original from 1961 to 1975. He begins the preface to this silver anniversary edition with a quote from Albert Einstein: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

This book is about thinking. It is about how humans organize, synthesize, and put order to their universe….

It is difficult to summarize the book’s broad chapters in a few sentences and even more difficult to give this book the credit it deserves in such a limited review. Suffice it to say this is one of the classics of systems or science of computing. I recommend it to all; it will cause both scientists and nonscientists to examine their world and their thinking. This book will appear on my reading table at regular intervals, and one day I hope to update to the golden anniversary edition.

· Charles Ashbacher, posted on Amazon.com

. . . it is truly an extraordinary piece of work. . . . It is not about computing per se, but about how humans think about things and how ‘facts’ are relative to time, our personal experience and environmental context. . . .

….This is a book that is a true classic, not in computing but in the broad area of scholarship. It is partly about the philosophy and mechanisms of science; partly about designing things so they work but mostly it is about how humans view the world and create things that match that view. This book will still be worth reading for a long time to come and it is on my list of top ten computing books of the year.


Find Out More


Locate a Copy


An Introduction to General Systems Thinking, Gerald M. Weinberg
New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1975
New York: Dorset House Publishing, 2001

On “The Last Puritan”, by George Santayana, from the Financial Times

Source: “A life worth living for”, by Harry Eyres, published August 17 2007 on the Financial Times website.

Harry Eyres, the Financial Times’ “Slow Lane” columnist, writes about “one of the slowest novels I’ve ever read”, the philosopher George Santayana’s The Last Puritan.

“Leisurely as it is,” writes Eyres, “it packs a surprisingly hard punch — at least at the end. A more sustained attack on the American puritan ideal has never been penned.” As Eyres describes the book,

Santayana’s attack on American puritanism is anything but crude. It is conducted through a long character study of the most noble and admir-able American puritan it would be possible to imagine. Oliver Alden is the wealthy scion of a leading Bostonian family – beautiful, intelligent, gifted and kind. He is thoroughly good, but, as becomes increasingly clear, incapable of happiness. A brilliant student and heroic footballer and oarsman, he has no idea how to live – or perhaps, too many ideas.

Despite its leisurely, meditative style and Santayana’s critism of mainstream American values, The Last Puritan was a best-seller and Book of the Month Club selection when it was first published in 1936. Back then, Time magazine’s reviewer offered an accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Santayana’s sole novel:

It is characteristic of all Santayana’s writing that the weightiest subjects are handled with lightness and grace. The Last Puritan, no exception, contains amusing portraits of crabbed New Englanders, sophisticated New Yorkers, self-important Englishmen, sentimental Germans, to temper the gravity of the tale. It also contains extended digressions, discussions of German philosophy, of Shakespeare, Goethe, English education, yachting, sports, war, and rises in its record of Oliver’s last decision to some of the most eloquent prose that Santayana has written. Yet critics are likely to disagree for a long time to come over the question of whether The Last Puritan deserves to be reckoned with great U. S. fiction, whether it should even be considered a novel at all. Challenging comparison with The Scarlet Letter in its theme, it is obviously pale, frail, overintellectualized beside Hawthorne’s masterpiece. Evil for Hawthorne’s puritans was intense, powerful, a demon to be fought. For Santayana’s characters it is distant, abstract, a moral problem to be solved like geometry. Thus the characters in The Last Puritan are real as symbols of Santayana’s philosophy rather than as people.

Amazon shows The Last Puritan as out of print, but MIT Press still sells a pricey hardback edition from its series of Santayana reprints.