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

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.

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


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


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 on Neglected Author Francis Iles

Source: Francis Iles, “Before the Fact”, from the 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 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 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


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:, 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:,,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


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

. . . 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.

In the Mill, by John Masefield

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


Cover of first U.S. edition of 'In the Mill'
In a few days I mastered mistake-finding sufficiently to enjoy it very much and do it competently. I was at it all day long, working at speed; well, that was no hardship to me. From childhood, I had been trained to jump to the order; and speed has always seemed to me to be a vital part of efficiency. The continual movement put an end to my day-dreams about the Merchant Service college. I now was moving about all day long, going from floor to floor, stopping a loom, getting another under way, solving some odd error, or causing something to be set right, and having brief words with weavers now and then about the working of their machines. Most of my joy in the work came from its independence. I was the mistake-finder, running the job pretty much as I liked, trusted t do it well, and knowing that I was trusted. The flattery of this was a continual great delight to me; it was my first command, and full of the liveliest interest. No man can be unmoved by the great concerted energy of many men and women. The roaring thundering clang of the energy of the weaving-rooms was a big and exciting thing. Sometimes I felt that it was an enormous dragon and that my mind was going against it with one little purpose, to get at its secret springs and master it.

Editor’s Comments

In 1895, John Masefield, a young seaman apprentice on an English windjammer, became convinced he had some latent gift for writing and jumped ship in Manhattan. After a few hungry weeks, he walked into the office of a carpet factory in Yonkers and applied for a job. In the Mill is his memoir of the next two years, during which he worked as one of hundreds in a great Industrial Age factory full of looms, presses, pulley, conveyors, steam engines, and other complex machinery.

Masefield’s poetry has a strong lyrical streak, and it infuses In the Mill with a poetry that few would suspect of a world usually portrayed as grim, relentless, and inhumane. Partly this is because work in the mill was for Masefield, an improvement on his previous situations — working all hours in extreme weather on the ship, and before that, rising at four A.M. and carrying out back-breaking chores on a farm. Within a few weeks of being hired, Masefield realizes the regular hours — and days off — have their advantages:

When I returned from one of these excursions I felt that indeed my lot had fallen on a fair ground and that I had a goodly heritage; beauty all round me, leisure, such as I had not thought possible, books, so cheap that I could have a library of them, and a great, vivid romantic capital City only half an hour away.

As much of In the Mill is about Masefield’s time away from the factory as in it. Yonkers then sat on the far fringe of New York City; within fifteen minutes’ walk, he could find himself in the middle of a wild forest with no trace of man’s touch. And he could afford to buy books that he consumed with a ravenous hunger. Even though he saw writing as his calling, he had no real sense of what or how he would pursue it until he stumbles upon cheap red Buxton Forman editions of the works of Keats and Shelley:

I began with the Keats, wondering what a classic would be like, and a little fearful lest it should prove to be in couplets like Pope’s Odyssey. I read one short poem with amazement, then a second, which brought me under his spell for ever, then four lines of a third, and for that night I could read no more. I was in a new world where incredible beauty was daily bread and breath of life. Everything that I had read until then seemed like paving-stones on the path leading to this Paradise; now I seemed to be in the garden, and the ecstasy was so great that the joy seemed almost to burn…. I knew then that Medicine was not the law of my being, but the shadow of it; and that my law was to follow poetry, even if I died of it.

Masefield proves a diligent worker and obtains several promotions, moving up to the job described above, one we’d now call quality control. His supervisor holds out fine hopes for him — one day, he tells young “Macey”, you can have a factory floor of your own to run. To Masefield, however, this prospect rises up like a great life-consuming threat. He quits, collects his pay, sells off most of his books, and gets a berth on a merchant ship headed for England.

In hindsight, he thinks he may have seen the factory system in its best light, “in a land which held very strongly the concepts of equality and of dignity.” And he admits that his memories of the mill are not always glowing:

Often, I hated the mill; sometimes in a dream, I have thought that I had to be there again, or was there again, unable to leave, and have wakened glad to find it not so. When I revisited it a few winters ago, my heart sank at the sight of it, and I knew again my old winter horror.

In the Mill is written in a simple, self-effacing style that often belies its beauty and insights. One might argue that this style stems from a tendency in Masefield to avoid stepping above his place in the world, an innate acceptance of the Victorian class system that was fading fast or gone completely by the time he wrote this book. Certainly In the Mill seems subdued compared to what one might expect of a memoir of grunt work in a great dark factory. But it also seems something of a relief from the over-written and strident accounts more usually cataloged as proletarian literature. Indeed, subtlety and self-effacement are part of In the Mill’s great charm.

Other Comments

• The New Yorker, 23 August 1941

The British Poet Laureate recalls his experiences as a carpet-mill worker in Yonkers some forty-five years ago, at a time that marked the beginnings of his apprenticeship to literature. A simple and poignant autobiographical sketch.

• Time, 11 August 1941

By stiff literary standards, England’s Poet Laureate is an easy man to underestimate. But the very qualities that make his work minor (and made him Laureate) — simplicity, traditionalism and sentimentality — are also his great charm. Hardly less than Rudyard Kipling, he is a workingman’s poet. The same qualities make In the Mill, the story of the days when he was an intelligent young workingman, one of the most engaging of his books.

Locate a Copy

In the Mill, by John Masefield
London: Heinemann, 1941
New York: Macmillian, 1941

Save These Books!, from

“Save These Books!”, from, December 1997

Way back in its early days, asked some of its contributors and other writers to share their thoughts about a favorite book that has fallen out of print. The feature included over twenty short essays on a hodge-podge of volumes ranging from The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (now back in print) to The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, Joseph Wechberg’s contribution to a Time-Life cookbook series from the late 1960s. Of her selection, Diane Johnson writes,

People did not seem to like Nigel Dennis’s A House in Order as much as his earlier Cards of Identity, a novel much admired in the ’60s but now, perhaps, nearly as obscure as the strange little parable that followed, which I have loved since I read it when it came out, in 1966, but have lived without, unable until now to find a copy in libraries or second-hand bookshops. I had even begun to think I had invented this novel in the ensuing 30 years.

My remembered novel is a soothing allegory of order and serenity, concerning a man who isolates himself from the chaos and terror of the actual world when he is confined during a war to a greenhouse, and occupies himself with cleaning it up and growing a garden of flourishing plants. I understand now what attracted me then — it was the making of order out of chaos that, as the mother of young children, I envied. At the time, I saw no way out of personal household chaos, no way to achieve the single-minded and solitary pleasures of a grand project.

Luc Sante celebrates David Maurer’s The Big Con (also now back in print with an introduction by Sante), which he described as “a small masterpiece of the American language, veined with grifter lingo and populated by such characters as the High Ass Kid, the Seldom Seen Kid and the Narrow Gage Kid, whose ‘height was just the distance between the rails of a narrow gage railway.'”

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic suggestion comes from Jane and Michael Stern, who propose the Sears Catalog, a “vast syntagma of American stuff” in which you could find “a hunting rifle, a love seat, a diamond engagement ring or a tractor axle.” It might not qualify as literature, but can anyone who grew up with the Wish Book disagree that it’s a nonpareil sampler of middle American culture of the 20th century?

The Time of the Assassins, by Godfrey Blunden

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Time of the Assassins'I first read Godfrey Blunden’s The Time of the Assassins back in the late 1970s, after coming across a copy of the Bantam Modern Classics paperback reissue. The tag line on the cover read, “The nightmare novel of the terrorist war between the NKVD and the Nazi SS.” I was intrigued to find this unfamiliar author and title, and this subject, packaged as a “modern classic”, along with such established titles as All the King’s Men, Darkness at Noon, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Anthony West reviewed the book for the New Yorker when it was first published in 1952, and I will quote him at length to tell what the book’s about:

Godfrey Blunden is a newspaperman, and his novel about the Nazi occupation of the Russian city of Kharkov, The Time of the Assassins, is more a matter of reporting than of invention. But while it has no great aesthetic appeal and cannot be given much credit for literary grace, it makes its points in a blunt way and tells its horrid and fascinating story effectively. Mr. Blunden was in Russia during the war, and he was one of the correspondents who entered Kharkov soon after it was first retaken from the Germans. From the things he saw and heard among the ruins, and the things he learned later, he has constructed a convincing account of what happened in the town. In a sense it is stale news and of very little interest; Kharkov was lost to the Germans as they pressed eastward across the steppes toward Stalingrad, recovered after a year or so, lost again in a week, and finally retaken and held. A story of the events, and of the atrocities, during this swaying to and fro would be sad but boring because it is the story of too many towns and one already knows it too well. But Mr. Blunden is not reporting at that level; he is concerned with states of feeling and with what the time meant to people whose lives were altogether changed by the events that poured over them.

Kharkhov (Kharkhiv) under German occupation, 1942
… The Germans took Kharkov is a rush, so unexpectedly and so rapidly that all public records fell into their hands. Among them were lists of members of the Communist Party. While the city was still welcoming the Germans as liberators who had brought an end to the years of terror and purges that had begun in the early thirties, the Gestapo began hanging their way through the lists. Within a few days there was not a street, square, or public building in Kharkov that was not decorated with the supreme emblems of cruelty — hanged men and women….

The long-drawn-out process of disillusion began as the Ukrainian welcome to the foreign liberators was choked into stunned silence. At first the S.S. confined themselves to wiping out the Communists, and since the Party itself had ruled by terror, the German butchery seemed like the first step to setting up a rational state. But then came the massacres of prisoners of war, and then the massacres of the Jews, and then massacres of Slavs to make room for German colonists…. The unbelievable had happened; the liberators had brought with them a way of life worse than anything a sane man could imagine. The only hope was the return of the men who had made government an affair of secret denunciations, terror, and cold remoteness. It is human nature to reject despair. Mr. Blunden’s teacher and her friends believed that what they were going through might mean an end to government by terror — that it was impossible to live through it without learning how important kindness and gentleness and the humanitarian values were. When the Germans were driven out, something better would come.

But kindness and gentleness proved to be disloyalty to the only force that could drive the Germans out…. The Party came back, hardened, more tenacious, more uncompromising than ever, and among the first people it killed was the teacher.

The closing passage of The Time of the Assassins vividly depicts this grim denouement. After years of Soviet-managed famines and Stalinist purges, after battle, conquest, and a year of ruthless German occupation and exterminations, the few surviving innocents are smashed before they even have the chance to catch their breath:

In these cold battlefields and devastated cities there are no grotesqueries. The dead lie as in sleep, quietly no-sleeping, may lie there for as long as there is frost, the snow sweeping over them like a soft lace shroud, the flesh waxed and pink as with health. Nor does high explosive make that much difference or, as with this old woman, the rifle butt. Lying there on the floor her face broken, she is yet human, real, still clutching the old string bag with which, evidently, she attempted to fight her aggressors. And the children about her skirts! The children in the corners of the room! In the other rooms! Difficult even to see where they had been shot, lying there in sleeping attitudes, little bundles of ice-starched clothes, bullet-tinctured somewhere, frozen, perfect small angular faces, thin drumstick legs. There in the old schoolhouse, in the ruin of broken-in windows, torn-up floor, over-turned stove, in the confusion of rags and refuse, they are not in themselves horrifying; when the life-ending is less pathetic than the life-in-living, death may seem even pretty and peaceful. This is what Maryusa is thinking as she walks through the streets, a pace ahead of her captor: there are no lives any longer, therefore no responsibility; all that for which she has fought so stubbornly is now disposed of. She is not thinking of punishment; there being none to punish the doer, that is, none above the human authority by which this action was condoned. In her mind there if only peacefulness. It is not bad that the children are dead. The struggle was carried on, but now it is ended. Already in the basement room of the NKVD she awaits her own prompt demise with the same expectancy.

… Later (we remember) there were some in Moscow who thought the liquidation of the Kharkiv [Blunden uses the Ukrainian name for the city] schoolteachers precipitate. But the matter was soon forgotten, for not much over a week later (it seems so long ago now as to be hardly worth mentioning), the Germans were back in Kharkiv.

Cover of Bantam Modern Classics edition of 'The Time of the Assassins'If history is a broom, sweeping back and forth through time, then The Time of the Assassins is history told from the dust’s perspective. The truly nightmarish aspect of the experience of the survivors of Kharkov is that the purpose of the Soviets’ purge after retaking the city was rendered moot in the space of a week or so. There was no safe situation: side with either the Soviets or the Germans and you risked being killed as the other’s enemy. Attempt to remain neutral and focus on surviving, and you risked being wiped out by either side’s blind adherence to its ideology. It would not be too hard to see some parallels between the Kharkov of The Time of the Assassins and Baghdad and other Iraqi cities today, where there is danger in taking sides with the Shiites or Sunnis or Americans and danger in not taking sides. One wonders if retaining hope in such a situation isn’t just as insane as the monomanias of the various factions.

Lionel Trilling wrote the introduction to the Bantam Modern Classics edition, and I will let him provide the critical assessment of The Time of the Assassins:

I have no knowledge of what literary model Godfrey Blunden had in mind for his remarkable novel, The Time of the Assassins. But if I had to guess by whom he had regulated his tone and attitude, I should think it was not a novelist at all. My own reference as I read Mr. Blunden’s book was to certain historians, to Thucydides and to Tacitus, and, in a lesser degree, to Josephus. Like them, Mr. Blunden tells a story to which the only possible response might seem to be despair. Like them he maintains the power and fortitude of his mind, and of ours, before the terrors of actuality.

This is, I believe, a very considerable achievement, possibly a great one. It is first to be thought of as a literary achievement. Nothing could be more difficult than to present human extremity without, on the one hand, falsifying or mitigating the facts, or, on the other hand, assailing and subduing our minds with the details of horror. It is also a moral achievement, of the intelligence put at the service of the emotions.

… Yet if what Mr. Blunden tells us is more terrible than what we read of in the old historians, still Thucydides’ account of the Melian massacre, or of the plague at Athens, or of the death of the Athenian army in the Sicilian quarry, or, again, Tacitus’ record of the tyranny, torture, and treachery of the Roman civil wars, or Josephus’ narrative of the war against the Jews, are the ancient analogue of what the modern world has experienced in more extravagant form. And in the attitude of the historians, in their determination to maintain the power and integrity of the mind before the decay of the very fabric of society and the human soul, we have the tradition in which Mr. Blunden has put himself.

… The narrowness of the circumstances in which Mr. Blunden’s characters must exist, the limitation of their power of choice, is, as I have suggested, a disadvantage to the novelistic imagination. It is a measure of Mr. Blunden’s quality, of his literary power, his intelligence, and his moral commitment, that he overcomes this disadvantage. He overcomes it by realizing the power of the historical imagination. Like Thucydides, he derives his information in part from personal observation — he was for many years a correspondent in Russia and in that capacity was with the Red Army at Stalingrad and when it made its first reinvestment of Kharkov — and in part from careful inquiry. His commitment is to fact and to essential truth, which he serves no less by his imagination than by his experience and research. There is no page of his work that does not compel our admiring interest.

Locate a Copy

The Time of the Assassins, by Godfrey Blunden
Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1952
London: Jonathan Cape, 1953

Caroline Slade

To an extent that puts better-known writers such as Steinbeck to shame, Caroline Slade wrote for the dispossessed, exploited, and impoverished Americans of the 1930s and 1940s. Educated at Skidmore College in the early 1900s, she spent three decades working and teaching in the field of social work before her first book was published in 1936, when she was fifty. She had begun to write years before that, though, winning an O.Henry prize in the late 1920s for one of her first short stories.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Sterile Sun'Her first novel, Sterile Sun, leaps straight into a subject few people were willing to discuss, let alone write about: prostitution. One by one, Slade takes the viewpoint of three prostitutes — Sue, a fourteen year-old runaway; Allie, a veteran of the streets who strenuously defends herself and her daughter; and Winkie, who filters everything through a romantic haze to avoid dealing with the reality of her situation. Of the three sections, the first, in Sue’s voice, is the most successful, very much a stream-of-consciousness monologue following the models set down by Joyce and others:

I wished I could get some more money then one day the old man met me down the road when I was coming from school he said Sue you go on up to the rocks and wait for me I want to tell you something I said hwo much will you give me he laughed he said well you little bitch but he said fifty cents so I said I would wait for him. He sat on a rock and made me stand between his legs he liked to feel me through my clothes he made such funny noises with his mouth I had to laugh I thought he was pretty silly but when he let me go he gave me a dollar bill I could hardly believe it he said will you meet me here again and I said I bet I would he just said you stand still Sue and then a whole dollar. I put it in my shoe I was so happy I could feel it with my foot in my shoe all that money I said it all for me and he said you bet it is then I was so scared my mother would find it.

Kicked out of school because she admits to having sex with older men, Sue hitch-hikes to a nameless city and soon turns to prostitution when her slim funds run out. She manages to avoid getting trapped into a white slavery racket, starts walking the streets, and then dies from a botched abortion. Allie and Winkie have managed to survive longer than Sue, but the novel ends with no indication that things will get any better.

At least one magazine criticized Slade for failing to suggest that society could solve the problems that led these women to their fates. But, as Paula Rabinowitz writes in her book, Black & White & Noir, “Faith in society was not going to solve these girls’ problems. Slade’s years as a social worker had taught her that already.”

Vanguard Press, which published Sterile Sun, took an odd marketing tact, advertising that it was issuing the book “in a special edition, the sale of which is limited to physicians, psychiatrists, sociologists, social workers, educators, and other persons having a professional interest in the psychology of adolescence.” Vanguard also prefaced the novel with a sober introduction by one Reverend John Howard Melish urging readers not to look upon the book’s pornographic values (which are none, by today’s standards). They still managed to sell enough copies that the book is relatively easy to find, online at least, for five bucks or less.

In her subsequent books, Slade continues to hold to the view that things get better only through a tremendous effort of will — or as a fluke. While she never puts a social worker in a heroic light, she at least shows an understanding of, if not a sympathy for, the grim job they have. Still, she recognizes the symbiotic relationship between the poor and the bureaucrats trying to help them. In Lilly Crackell, Miss Stallings, the case worker who works on Lilly’s case for years, admits at one point, “The truth is, I live upon the lives of hungry, cold, poverty-stricken people; their misfortunes make possible for me my good job. My God, I never honestly looked at my job before. Why, my own income rests upon the backs of the poor!”

Cover of Signet paperback edition of 'Lilly Crackell'I read Lilly Crackell (1944) after seeing a post on the Women Writers message board that proclaimed, “This is a great American novel(very possibly ‘the’ Great American novel) that, to put it bluntly, wipes the floor with Steinbeck.” Lilly Crackell is the story of a welfare mother back before that term was invented. The Crackells are a white trash family living on Sand Hill, next to the dump, in a shack with a dirt floor. They get a weekly care package from the town that keeps them on the edge of starvation. Lilly is a stunningly attractive young girl who fools around with one of her school classmates, a young man from one of the “better” families in town, and winds up pregnant.

The book follows her through two decades and six children. She gets a job keeping house for an older farmer and ends up having three kids by him before he drops dead of a heart attack. His heirs kick her off the farm and she returns to the shack on Sand Hill. Meanwhile, we see, from Miss Stalling’s viewpoint, social services go from private charities to government programs and influx of money and attention with the New Deal. Yet, as the book closes, with Lilly feeling another pregnancy coming on, the Crackells are still dependents. Her oldest sons can’t pass the Army’s physical due to bad teeth and other effects of long-term malnutrition and Lilly and her mother are still stuck on Sand Hill.

I can’t agree with the poster’s high regard for Lilly Crackell as a work of art. Slade’s flat prose style lacks much of the energy of her monologues in Sterile Sun. I have no doubt that her account of the Crackells and the social agencies is utterly honest and firmly rooted in real cases Slade worked on. But few of her characters are developed in more than superficial detail and Lilly herself shows almost no change in her perspective and thoughts between 14 and 30-something. Still, I can agree with the New Yorker reviewer who wrote of the book, “Mrs. Slade has the talent, rare in these days, of combining warmth and compassion with intelligence, and she writes movingly, often humorously, and with sturdy common sense.”

Slade’s other novels are:

· The Triumph of Willie Pond (1940)

A story of a family on relief and the effects of the WPA and other New Deal programs. Social Work Today gave The Triumph of Willie Pond this strong endorsement: “to say every single social worker in the United States ought to read it is to do it injustice….” According to Time magazine, Slade’s mother wrote her after reading the book, “Caroline, wherever in the world did you hear such language?”

· Job’s House (1941)

In this novel, Job Mann and his wife, an elderly couple, find themselves slammed to the bottom of the social heap by the Great Crash and the Depression and struggle to cope with the “world of hate, whores, idiots, stinking tenements and the loathed ‘Welfares'”, as Time’s review put it.

· Margaret (1946)

Margaret was probably Slade’s best-known and -selling novel. It revisits the story of Sterile Sun, telling the story of a sixteen year-old girl who becomes a prostitute to help out her family and runs into problems with gangs and juvenile justice.

· Mrs. Party’s House (1948)

This book also deals with prostitution, but from the viewpoint of a madame. In Rabinowitz’s words, it “offers a history of government, legal, journalistic, welfare, and economic investments in prostitution.”

Slade’s husband, John Slade, was an attorney for Saratoga County and a professor of law at Skidmore College. The two were active supporters of the arts and she served as the first president of the foundation that built and ran the famous Yaddo writers’ colony. She died in Saratoga Springs in 1975.

Pull Devil, Pull Baker, by Stella Benson and Count Nicolas de Toulouse Lautrec De Savine

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


Cover of U.S. Literary Guild edition of 'Pull Devil, Pull Baker'[The Count:] At Cracow I stop at the Hotel de France. There I soon make the acquentance of the jeunesse dorée of the locality, and between19 them — (a very costly one) — of Count P______, son of governor general of a province, to hoom I made cleaver story; that on way I was robed of my french passeport, that make me stop at Cracow expecting to find a french consulate in town. On ground of this story, the young count introduce me to the austrian chief of police, who give me, without any difficultys, a certificate of identity, due signed and seeled by him, that had the same value as a regular passeport for all austrian empire. I reussite also to lent [borrow] two thousand florins by the proprietor of the hotel, to wich I payd largely all my bill and my way further — to Vienna. At Vienna I had the opportunity to make another loone of two thousand florins by a old friend of my. With this lendet money I left Vienna for the south — for Buda-Pesh, the beautiful Hungarian capital, where I spendet foolish near all my money with the charming, pretty, Hungarian gerls — that brogth me bec to misery. In this critic position I rich Trieste, where I stop in the best hotel, kept by a friend of my friend in Vienna. That make me all rigth; permit me to ewayt some new chances of making money for my tramping further.


[Benson:] The count does not explain exactly why he was all right in the best hotel, or enlarge upon the nature of the “chances” that here favoured him, or mention whether the numerous creditors he left trailing behind him as he flashed upon his brilliant course, ever Came Back into His Life — (as your creditors and mine are so lamentably likely to do). I should very much like to discuss with him his financial methods; it seems to me that he must have much that is useful to teach us all on this point — but as he is now without a penny, enquiry would perhaps seem ill-timed or tactless. But at the period of his life which this story embraces, his skill in “making money” seems to me most enviable. His world seemed always full of strangers anxious to lend him thousands on no security at all. I can only say that mine is not. I once, with great difficulty, borrowed a shilling over a strange bank counter, on the security of my simple face — but this is my nearest approach to the Count’s splendid insouciance.

Editor’s Comments

This site has been idle for the last month while I enjoyed the longest vacation of my adult life — one whole month (long vacations being one of the benefits of working in Europe). I did not, however, stop searching for and reading neglected books, so I have a backlog of posts to work through. I’m starting on it in reverse order, taking a look at the last book I came across (in Missoula’s Bird’s Nest Books), which I read in the course of my flights back home: Stella Benson’s 1933 book, Pull Devil, Pull Baker.

Finding it in the Russian history section, I pulled Pull Devil, Pull Baker down for a look on the strength of Benson’s name, which I recognized from Tobit Transplanted which D. J. Enright mentioned on several lists on this site. Although the spine only lists Benson, the title page credits her and one Count Nicolas De Toulouse Lautrec De Savine, K. M. (Knight of Malta). A quick flip through the book suggested it was a combination of recollections by the count and commentaries by Benson. It also showed that the count’s sections featured a highly unusual prose, full of misspellings and words from a hodge-podge of languages. I still wasn’t quite sure what this was, but it looked novel enough to buy for a very reasonable $5.

Stella BensonThe book opens innocently. Benson vouches for the real existence of the count and offers a synopsis of his noble pedigree (quite unconnected with that of the famous painter) as a member of “one of the most distinguiched aristocratic famelys of Europe.” She describes meeting him while he was a patient in a charity hospital in Hong Kong. According to Marlene Baldwin Davis’ Notes to Benson’s diaries, Benson did, indeed, encounter:

an elderly expatriate Russian who was penniless and ill. This relationship, which began 13 April 1931, involved Stella’s listening to the man’s ‘loving stories’, transcribing them into readable, but not literary English so as not to spoil the effect, and getting them published under the title, Pull Devil, Pull Baker.

Benson describes with some admiration the Count’s talent for wandering the world with hardly a cent to his name, playing on the sympathy and admiration of unsuspecting Samaritans. But she also saw that his taste for adventures was being outpaced by the wear of old age:

Wait a little while — and yet a little while again. There was, I thought, the sound of a creaking bolt in the words. At seventy-seven, when a man is sick and worn out, a little while is as high a prison wall as a big while.

The Count, we learn, comes from a family with blood ties to French, Spanish, German, and Russian nobility and social links to just about anyone else of “hyg class” in Europe. Born in Russian Alaska in 1856, he survives a turbulent childhood to become a guardsman, gambler, and gallant. He easily falls in love with women, who, by his account, usually fall just as easily in love with him. He runs up enormous debts, almost always with Jews whom he looks upon with splenetic contempt. The Count’s first chapter ends with his discharge from the Russian army after a fight with a Jewish tailor over money.

Benson titles the first chapter, “Pull Devil: Presenting the Baker from the Devil’s Point of View.” According to Brewer’s, “Pull Devil, Pull Baker” is “said in encouragement of a contest, usually over the possession of something.” Benson (the Devil) sets up the book as a series of opposing chapters: one chapter giving Benson’s view of the Count (the Baker) and his stories, followed by another presenting the Count’s story, mostly in his own words with slight commentaries and footnoting by Benson. She admits at the start that,

[t]he dislocation between author and editor is usually more discreetly glossed over than it is in our book. At any rate, in our book, the Count says what he means, and I say what I mean, and, although our meanings are often mutually contradictory, at least I do not interpret him, as some editors have been known to interpret authors who are no longer sufficiently alive to insist on interpreting themselves.

My editing consists largely in trying to outshout my author with ideas of my own — ideas always, I am sure, in his opinion, completely irrelevant and frivolous.

We pass by this statement as nothing more than editorial self-effacement, but about fifty pages into the book, Benson returns to the matter in a passage that, in my view, ranks among the most remarkable to be found in any piece of fiction from the first half of the twentieth century:

For this reason I am uncertain now whether the Count de Savine is editing me or I him. I am cleverer than he is — I think — but I am not sure whether I see more or understand more. Simply, I say more and I understand that I don’t understand. He writes austerely in terms of appearances. He feels that there are various sets of words applicable to various kinds of people. Cluck, to the goose, spells hen — grunt spells pig — what else can the goose know about hens and pigs. Blu eys, gold hairs and smole fiets spell women to the Count, champagne and guardee ostentation spell hyg class men, durtiness and igrerence spells loo class men; crookyness spells Jew. That Count writes A Crooky Jew and means all that is comprehensible to him about a Jew…. What more is there to say? What other eyes can one look through, if not through one’s own? I write ‘The Count de Toulouse Lautrec de Savine’ and add after the name thousands of words. What do I mean? I mean an invented thing — the Count-plus-me. And yet I write his name again and again and add thousands and thousands of invented words to describe him-plus-me, simply because I have not the austerity to confine myself to what I know. His narrative shows me how little I know — yet here I am, commenting industriously upon in.

It seems to me that I could edit the Jew Taylor quite as easily as I can edit the Count. I could edit an armadillo now, if I had to. I have seen and talked to the Count; I have not seen or talked to the Jew Taylor or the armadillo, but to describe Count, Jew or armadillo I have no recourse but to invent. I know nothing about the Count de Savine, either, except what he looks like and what he says and what he writes.

So I shall make up some words about the Polish Jew — and I maintain that my Jew can be no more unlikely than the real one.

Benson then proceeds to repeat the story of the Count’s fight with the tailor — only this time from the tailor’s viewpoint. The Count knocks the tailor on the head and in the commotion, the lights are snuffed. The tailor thinks, for a moment, that he has died and gone into an afterlife of nothingness. He is frightened, then comforted by the realization that all his worldly cares and burdens are now gone. Coming to, he thinks, “For a minute I was free … now I am the slave of a slave.”

With this passage, Benson leaps from the simple dimensions of a collection of fanciful reminiscences with editorial commentary to the fictional equivalent of differential geometry. Pull Devil, Pull Baker is not just “an arrangement of short stories”, as critic R. Meredith Bedell describes it. I think it shares more in common with such works as Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and other early works of metafiction. Indeed, there are more than a few parallels between the book and Don Quixote itself: both play with the dimensions of the story as experienced and the story as told; both intersperse narration and commentary; and both deal with an elderly man from one era trying to deal with the realities of a very different one.

Perhaps without knowing it, Benson also manages to address a profound issue about the relationship between perception and reality that no less weighty a thinker than Ludwig Wittgenstein was grappling with at roughly the same time that she was writing Pull Devil, Pull Baker. “Cluck, to the goose, spells hen…. What other eyes can one look through, if not through one’s own?,” she writes. Is this not, essentially, what Wittgenstein was arguing with his aphorism, “If a lion could speak we wouldn’t understand him”?

That the Count is more likely descended from Baron Munchausen than Count Alexander IV de Toulouse Lautrec is obvious. Benson’s intrigue with the Count’s stories and viewpoint does not prevent her from exercising editorial discretion when it’s called for:

[The Count:] “Very please to meat you, Count,” tell he, “I was effrayed to molest you. You can not mean2 how inthusiast peopel are concern you, from the Blac See to the Baltic, and from there to the Pacific Costs of the Fahr East….” etc, etc, etc.

2Know, imagine.

[Benson:] (Here follow nine pages of hero-worship.)

She does acknowledge that “I have grown to love the Count’s oddities of spelling”, but here again, her remarks play with our understanding of the relationship between “Baker” and “Devil”:

To make a loone suggests to me something more insouciant and dashing than the mere borrowing of money. I think the noty gerl must have possessed a piquancy that ordinary naughty girls lack. I like the ai and ay effects — so incongruously refained upon the bearded lip (bearded pen-nib?) of a world-roving adventurer; quait and quait I find much more convincing then a mere completely. And my favourite sentence in the whole of this work is —

[The Count:] The most ones of our officers had sweathearts, but I was to yang and to inconstant to bound me with a gerl; prefair to flay from one to a other, as a butterflay who flay from one flower to a other one.

“As an experiment”, Benson then “tries transposing” (an interesting choice of a mathematical term over the expected “translating”) one of the Count’s stories into grammatically and orthographically correct English: “The lawyer of the baroness appealed, on the ground that she was not in her normal mind at the time of the murder, but the appeal was dismissed by the high court.” Her point, although unstated, is clear: in these words, the story is not, in fact, one of the Count’s stories, but something different, not just if wording but in viewpoint. Yet the experiment also raises a question about the fundamental premise of the book: are these the stories as written by the Count (as claimed in the introduction) or as told by the Count and written by Benson? I have not had the opportunity to check Benson’s diaries, but if what Prof. Davis states is true (“This relationship, which began 13 April 1931, involved Stella’s listening to the man’s ‘loving stories’, transcribing them into readable, but not literary English so as not to spoil the effect….”), then Benson’s experiment is itself a metafictional sleight of hand, showing the reader how dramatically a story can be changed just by altering the words and grammar in which it is told.

Pull Devil, Pull Baker is, I think, an unrecognized precursor to much of the post-modernist fiction that would be written after the Second World War. It belongs in the same canon as the works of Calvino, Borges, and Queneau. Take the following, which now recalls Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle but at the time displayed the same self-referential élan as Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”):

There is, perhaps, no thing called Truth in any book — or at any rate that can be arrived at by appraisal from a standpoint outside the book itself. Words in books are like citizens in cities; as long as they live in accord with their neighbours, they are beyond outside challenge…. My word truth, the Count’s word truth, the police-magistrate’s word truth, would all be strangers within one another’s gates.

For all the post-modernist and metafictional wizardry she displays in Pull Devil, Pull Baker, however, Benson does presume to be the Count’s superior. Instead, she reflects, with some sadness,

The words “quait unexpected”, which might almost be called the refrain of the Count’s story, no longer seem to us exciting — as they seem to him. We have grown wary of surprises, through living all our lives in such a quait and quait unexpected world. But the Count was born into an established world — a world scored with seemly grooves and bristling with instructive signposts….

The increasing complexity of the world, as compared with the much simpler, black-and-white world on which the Count de Savine first opened his eyes nearly eight decades ago, now imposes upon us a kind of colour-blindness. We forbid our hearts to leap forth on new adventures; spiritually as well as economically, we can’t afford adventures any more. We have learned to stay at home, because we know now that the world is round — that travel only takes us back to the same place in the end — that the path to adventure is a treadmill path round a spinning globe. There is no destination, either of dragon or princess…. And so I submit, as black-and-white refreshment to eyes dazzled with complex colour, these simple stories by a storyteller who never got tired of anything — least of all of himself….

At the time of its publication, Pull Devil, Pull Baker was seen a little more than a collection of quirky and entertaining reminiscences.“rodomontadinous reminiscences”, as Time’s reviewer put it. Scribner’s compared it to Trader Horn, while in the New Yorker, Clifton Fadiman called it “quaint without being at all nauseous.” One of the few to recognize that the book was something more than that was Benson’s friend and fellow writer, Winifred Holtby. In a letter to Benson, she wrote that the book “[S]how[s] how a writer works, how the artist’s mind differs from the non-artist’s — and how the purely self-regarding imagination which blinds, differs from the outward looking imagination which illuminates.” Perhaps the misunderstanding of the book worked in Benson’s financial favor, though: it was picked up by the Literary Guild and sold well in the U.S.. Unfortunately, she never had the chance to enjoy this success, as she died of pneumonia in December 1933 while living with her husband in northern Vietnam.

Find Out More

  • Wikipedia entry on Stella Benson
  • Prof. Marlene Baldwin Davis’ Notes to the Diaries of Stella Benson

Locate a Copy

Pull Devil, Pull Baker, by Stella Benson and Count Nicolas De Toulouse Lautrec de Savine, K. M.
London: Macmillan, 1933
New York: Harpers, 1933

The Story of a Life, Konstantin Paustovsky

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


Lenin began to speak. I could not hear well. I was squeezed tight in the crown. Someone’s rifle butt was pressing into my side. The soldier standing right behind me laid his heavy hand on my shoulder and squeezed it from time to time, convulsively tightening his fingers….

He spoke slowly about the meaning of the Brest-Litovsk peace, about the treachery of the Left Social Revolutionaries, about the alliance of the workers with the peasants, and about bread, about how necessary it was to stop the endless meetings and noise in Moscow, waiting for no one knew what, and to start to work the land as quickly as possible and to trust the government and the party….

The heavy hand was now lying quietly on my shoulder, as if resting. I felt in its weight something like a friendly caress. This was the hand the solider would use to stroke the shaved heads of his children when he got back to his village.

I wanted to look at the soldier. I glanced around. It turned out to be a tall civil guardsman with a blond unshaven face, very broad and very pale, without a single wrinkle in it. He smiled at me in embarrassment, and said:

“The President!”

“What president?” I asked, not understanding.

“The President of the People’s Commissars, himself. He made promises about peace and the land. Did you hear him?”

“I heard.”

“Now, that’s something. My hands are itching for the land. And I’ve straggled clean away from my family.”

“Quiet, you!” another soldier said to us, a frail little man in a cap.

“All right, I’ll be quiet,” the civil guardsman whispered and he started quickly to unbutton his faded shirt.

“Wait, wait, I want to show you something,” he muttered as he fumbled inside his shirt until he pulled out, at last, a little linen bag turned black with sweat, and slipped a much-creased photography out of it. He blew on it, and handed it to me. A single electric lamp was flickering high up under the ceiling. I couldn’t see a thing.

Then he cupped his hands together, and lit a match. It burned down to his fingers, but he did not blow it out. I looked at the photograph simply in order not to offend the man. I was sure it would be the usual peasant family photograph, such as I had often seen next to the icon in peasant huts.

The mother always sat in front — a dry, wrinkled old woman with knotty fingers. Whatever she was like in life — gentle and uncomplaining or shrewish and foolish — the picture always showed her with a face of stone and with tight-pressed lips. In the flash of the camera’s lens she always became the inexorable mother, the embodiment of the stern necessity of carrying on the race. And around her there always sat and stood her wooden children and her bulging-eyed grandchildren.

You had to look at these pictures for a long time to see and to recognize in their strained figures the people whom you knew well — the old woman’s consumptive, silent son-in-law — the village shoemaker, his wife, a big-bosomed, shrewish woman in an embroidered blouse and with shoes with tops which flapped against the base calfs of her legs, a young fellow with a forelock and with that strange emptiness in the eyes which you find in hooligans, and another fellow, dark and laughing, in whom you eventually recognized the mechanic known throughout the whole region. And the grandchildren — frightened kids with the eyes of little martyrs. These were children who had never known a caress or an affectionate greeting. Or maybe the son-in-law who was the shoemaker sometimes took pity on them quietly and gave them his old boot lasts to play with.

Editor’s Comments

Cover of US edition of 'The Story of a Life'I first came across The Story of a Life in a garage sale. I thought the title rather pretentious, particularly when paired up with Paustovsky’s grim portrait on the cover. “Oh boy,” I thought: a great thick Russian book about how to live is to suffer. But then I noticed a quote by Isaac Bashevis Singer just beyond Paustovsky’s hands: “A work of astonishing beauty … a masterpiece.” I flipped it over and was moved to buy it by the following quote from Orville Prescott of the New York Time: “The Story of a Life is one of the most surprisingly wonderful books it has ever been my pleasure to read.”

Why had I never heard of this book if it was so terrific? After years of scouring the shelves of countless bookstores, I rarely ran into something truly new and unknown. I decided to make it the book I’d take on my next long airplane ride.

Unfortunately, when I’d found my seat, stowed my bag, and buckled my seat, I opened up my copy only to be confronted by: “The Death of My Father.” Less than ten pages into the book, and there I was standing beside Paustovsky at his father’s funeral: “The river went on roaring, the birds whistled a little, and the coffin, now smeared with dirt and clay, slowly settled down into the grave. At this time I was seventeen years old.”

Great. Only 650 pages of this to go.

I kept on reading through the chicken with gunk on it, but soon surrendered to the in-flight movie. The problem wasn’t that The Story of a Life was too grim, however. On the contrary. There is so much life in these pages that I knew I needed to find somewhere I could get away from all distractions and immerse myself in them. Luckily, we had a vacation in Sicily coming up. I’d rented a house out in the countryside, and each day for the week we spent there, I’d rise before the rest of the family, go out to the terrace, plop down in a lounge chair, and read for two or three hours straight, soaking up the sunshine and Paustovsky’s luminous prose.

Konstantin Paustovsky was born in Moscow in 1892. The earliest scene in The Story of a Life takes place in 1901, and the American edition, comprising three of six parts of the original Russian version, follows Paustovsky from then to his arrival in a besieged Odessa in 1920, in the midst of the Russian Civil War. He witnesses Tsar Nicholas and all the ceremony and obsequy that accompanied him. He joins an ambulance team and experiences the horrendous casualties and conditions of the Eastern Front; he finds himself in Moscow at the time of the October revolution; he hides out in Kiev as the Germans, the White Russians, the Ukrainians, the Poles, and the Bolsheviks in turn fight for ownership of the city. He sees a village die in the space of a few days from smallpox, survives starvation, abandonment, and the loss of much of his family. For the simple merit of providing a first-hand account of one of the most tumultuous times of the 20th century The Story of a Life would at least be a notable book.

The remarkable thing about how Paustovsky tells his story, however, is that with all the events that history would record around him, his attention is inevitably drawn from the great to the small. Lenin speaks to the restless soldiers, but Paustovsky turns away to focus on the guardsman next to him, to examine the photo and imagine the people it shows. The guardsman soon tells him of the beautiful woman sitting next to him in the photo, his bride-to-be, who later died giving birth to his child. He finds himself in a backwater provincial town when, late one night, the news arrives of the abdication of the Tsar, and he shows how the fops and eccentrics he’d met in the days before gather, first confused, then inspired, transformed, eager to act, not yet ground down by the brutal disappointments to come. And wherever he goes, whatever happens, he tells us about the color of the leaves, the smell of the grass, the warmth of the sun, the sharp cold of the water, and the people around him.

And such people they are. Hundreds come and go in the course of the book, but for each one Paustovsky manages to provide some brief yet memorable sketch:

… [A] frequent visitor to Uncle Kolya’s was Staff Captain Ivanov, a very clean man with white hands, a meticulously pointed light beard, and a delicate voice. In typical bachelor fashion, Ivanov became a member of the family at Uncle Kolya’s. It was hard for him to spend an evening without dropping in to sit and talk. He blushed each time he took off his overcoat and unbelted his sword in the vestibule, and said that he had dropped in for a word or to get Uncle Kolya’s advice on some matter. Then of course he would sit there until the middle of the night.

As he travels, he comes across vestiges of a very ancient Russia that would soon disappear. There are the “old men of Mogilev”, a fabled cult of ascetic beggars who gathered each year from the corners of Russia to speak to each other in a secret tongue and pass on the sacred prayers and ways of seeking alms. A group of them wander into the funeral of a peasant boy:

They were all dressed in identical brown robes with wooden staffs, shining with age, in their hands. Their gray heads were raised. The beggars were looking up at the altar where there was a picture of the God Jehovah in a gray beard. He looked amazingly like these beggars. He had the same, sunken, threatening eyes in the same dry, dark face.

Or the handful of elderly monks he finds in the forests of the Ukraine, disoriented and frightened in the new secular world of the revolution:

“We really don’t know any longer,” the monk told me, “whether we should ring it or not. It’s dangerous. It seems there is some insult in it for those who are in power now. So we just ring it gently. A crow sometimes sits of the bell and he doesn’t even fly away when we ring it so softly.”

There are lovely young girls he falls for with full youthful passion. He watches his first true love, Lelya, a nurse on his ambulance team, become infected with smallpox and die in a few days, along with a whole village the team has been ordered to isolate and quarantine until the last victim is dead.

Cover of UK edition of 'The Story of a Life'Paustovsky was a member of the Writer’s Union during years when it was probably impossible to work without cutting some bargain, committing some betrayal large or small, and ever so rarely we witness a tip of the hat to the prevailing dogma: “It was only in 1920 that I realized that there was no way other than the one chosen by my people. Then at once my heart felt easier.” Usually, these outbursts of Party faith are brief, awkward, and out of step with the rest of the story. The worst, a caricature of a kulak woman — fat, greedy, hoarding a great trunk of silver on a crowded train of refugees — is pure stereotype. It’s as if Paustovsky kept reminding himself to drop in a good Soviet screed every hundred pages or so, just to keep his insurance premiums paid.

The Story of a Life is, with Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, perhaps the sunniest Russian book ever written. Paustovsky seems to have possessed an almost inexhaustible stock of optimism. Sitting in a lonely room on a dark winter’s night, nearly penniless, a teenager whose family has fallen apart and scattered far from him, he notes, “I began to notice that the more unattractive reality looked, the more strongly I could feel all the good that was hidden in it.”

Russian literature produced two of the world’s greatest autobiographies in the middle of the 20th century: Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Konstantin Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life. Hopehas been in print continuously since it was first published in English in 1970. The Story of a Life went out of print a few years after its first English publication in 1964, enjoyed a reissue in 1982 as part of a Vintage series of modern European classics, then vanished again.

The Story of a Life was published in six volumes in the Soviet Union. Five were published in the U.K. between 1964 and 1969. In the U.S., the first three were collected in The Story of a Life, published in 1964, and the fourth as Years of Hope in 1968. I can find no trace of an English translation of the sixth volume.

Other Comments

· Jose Yglesias, Nation, 11 May 1964

Paustovsky is an old-fashioned writer by current American standards; he means to communicate and to do good; whether he is describing a landscape or discussing the revolution…. The Story of a Life seems to be the perfect book with which to make his acquaintance; in it he speaks directly and at length, an old man for whom youthful experiences have not lost their wonder, able now to speak truthfully and without vanity about hurtful, wonderful, and confusing days…. It’s a long, crowded treasure of a book and Joseph Barnes’ translation is particularly fine, for he maintains a single tone faultlessly throughout.

· Peter Viereck, Saturday Review, 16 May 1964

Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life is a literary masterpiece…. This is not the cracker-barrel blandness of some professional sage, as so often in America’s ghost-written memoirs, but a wisdom of tragic insight and of hard-earned integrity.

· Naomi Bliven, The New Yorker, January 2, 1965

The book is copious, as the urgencies of its author’s intentions require: an older man, a survivor, and a witness, he writes against time, to tell the young what the past was like, and to bring to life a host of human beings — cocky schoolboys, earnest schoolgirls, blind beggars — not because they were good or great but because they were. His work is nothing like an elegy, nor is it as routine as a backward glance at the good or bad old days. It is, rather, a series of sketches, stories, novellas, in which vanished people (including the author’s young self) are present again — as they once walked in a park, or smiled, or wept — and made anew in man’s most endurable medium, language.

· Thomas Merton, The Commonweal

The Story of a Life is one of the very finest autobiographies of our time. It has all the warmth and richness of the most authentic humanism … an unforgettable account of life in one of the most crucial periods and places in world history.

Find Out More

Locate a Copy

The Story of a Life, by Konstantin Paustovsky, translated by Joseph Barnes
New York: Random House, 1964

Lost Literary Classics, from “Talk of the Nation” on NPR

Back on Boxing Day in 2002, the NPR show, Talk of the Nation talked with about a half-dozen writers about their favorite “lost” classics. Among their suggestions:

• Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination — suggested by NPR’s Neal Conan, host of Talk of the Nation

• Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other — suggested by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient

…[I]t’s about (O’Brien’s) parents, about himself as a boy and his parents, who were silent movie stars. And after they divorced, he’s sort of brought up by both of them very ineptly. It’s a very, very funny book and quite devastatingly critical of his parents, but it’s something like Catcher in the Rye, really, for our time. It’s a very, very good book.

• Louise Bernikow’s The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America, 1552-1950 — suggested by Honor Moore, poet, author of Darling, A Collection of Poems

[P]ublished in 1975, and at that time there were so many fewer women poets in the canon than there are today. …the poems that she chose from these poets were chiefly poems about or out of human experiences had mainly by women, like childbirth, relationships between women, mother-daughter, so on and so forth.

• A.R. Luria’s The Mind of the Mnemonist — suggested by Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire

[T]he story of a man, a Russian, in the 1930s whose memory had no testable limits. He remembered everything that ever happened to him. And it became a torment, because, you realize, forgetting is almost as important as remembering things, forgetting through life.

The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, Donald Justice, editor — suggested by Anthony Lane, author of Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker

[I]’m quite interested in a poet called Weldon Kees, who’s a very semi-mythological figure, which means he’s almost entirely unread. Kees was born in 1914, and in 1955, his car was found near the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s presumed that he disappeared or went to Mexico like Ambrose Bierce….

You can listen to the full segment at

Antioch Review’s Neglected Books Contest

In his preface to the Spring 2007 issue of the Antioch Review, editor Robert Fogarty issues this challenge:

The reader who sends the best and most persuasive list of “neglected” books will get a free one-year subscription to the Review. You must include a paragraph stating your reasons and it must arrive here by December 31, 2007.

Send your lists to:

Neglected Books Contest
c/o The Antioch Review
P.O. Box 148
Yellow Springs, OH 45387

Good luck!

Classics of the Future, by Alan Cheuse

In the Spring 2007 issue of the Antioch Review, noveliest and critic Alan Cheuse speculates on “what variety of fiction might have a chance to survive what Norman Mailer in a recent interview dubbed ‘the thirty-years-out rule,’ by which he means that the test of a contemporary writer’s work begins at about thirty years after his death when we can see whether his work is still in print.”

As evidence of the evanescence of contemporary fame Mrs. Fanny Trollope’s list of good American writers of the early 1830s in her Domestic Manners of the Americans. Among the best, in her opinion: Timothy Flint. “There is a vigor and freshness in his writing that is exactly in accordance with what one looks for, in the literature of a new country….”

Timothy who? Flint doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry, although you can find his Columpia Encyclopedia entry on It turns out that Flint was a clergyman whose biography of Daniel Boone, The First White Man of the West (subtitled Life and Exploits of Col. Dan’l. Boone, the First Settler of Kentucky; Interspersed with Incidents in the Early Annals of the Country) can be found online at Project Gutenberg.

Cheuse goes on to offer “a group of test cases” of the durability of contemporary fame:

John O’Hara

At the height of his powers, O’Hara was writing stories thick and fast for the New Yorker, when that distinguished magazine stood at the pinnacle of contemporary fiction publishing. A
snapshot of that moment — which lasted, actually, for nearly twenty years (from 1930 to 1949) — would show a fiction writer with a devoted audience destined to stay around for a long time…. Not even Geoffrey Wolff’s intelligent biography of O’Hara [The Art of burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara] has done much to bring him back into the American canon.

Lawrence Durrell

Another writer whose day was seen as one that would last into infinity…. Justine, the first volume of his “Alexandria Quartet,” first published in the United States in 1961, turned all our heads toward his future and ours, which we saw as intertwined. Like some creature trapped in a bog, the book slowly sank out of sight. Has anyone recently tried rereading Justine?

Marguerite Young

… Young’s two-volume novel [Miss Macintosh, My Darling]… was highly praised at the time of publication in the New York Times Book Review, among others, by novelist William Goyen (his own quickly faded reputation now nearing the death-plus-thirty-year mark), by Anaïs Nin (who only last month reached the death-plusthirty-year mark), by the, fortunately, still vital Kurt Vonnegut and, when the novel appeared in a reprint edition in 1993, by the astute Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. Even so, she is not read much today.

John Fowles

… whose reputation had languished even within his own lifetime (due in some part to the accident of a debilitating stroke) and now in the wake of his recent demise comes into question. Last year I reread The Magus and found that it cheered my soul (in a shivery sort of way). Let’s all reread Daniel Martin, the novel we all took to be a work of genius when it first appeared, and meet next year and compare notes. Is Fowles a writer for the millennium? Or is he just another flash in the pan whose novelty we mistook for brilliance?

In Cheuse’s view, these examples raise “the larger question of exactly what is, if we can determine anything in human studies with any exactitude, a classic? Classic. A classic writer is a writer of the first rank. A classic work is outstanding work of the first order. Classic works are those works that endure over time, over generations, over centuries.”

He offers a few books he considers “valuable, which few others seem to care enough about to read and reread”:

“But we can never be sure…. Reputations rise and fall, and rise again.”

He concludes with the example of the novelist Mary Lee Settle who died in Charlottesville, Virginia on September 28, 2005. “She did some work that will last,” George Garrett said.

“Yes,” agrees Cheuse. “That’s the best tribute one writer can give to another. But the thirty year clock is ticking — twenty-eight years to go — and despite all our best predictions chances are her work will, alas, end up like her ashes, cast on the Rivanna River, on a rainy early autumn afternoon, disappearing into the flow.”

“Or, again, maybe not. Perhaps her wonderful love story Charley Bland will come back to haunt the lives of deep-hearted Americans in, say, thirty or forty years. And her joyful novel of quandary and religious faith, Celebration, will find a home in the minds of future citizens trying to live with the large and awful questions of destiny and vocation.”

Cheuse also reprints the complete list of titles from David Madden and Peggy Bach’s Rediscoveries II, obviously cut-and-pasted from this site.

“Breakthrough” Neglected Books, from Lingua Franca magazine

Lingua Franca, the now-defunct “Review of Academic Life”, has a regular feature called “Breakthrough Books”, where academic experts recommend the groundbreaking books in their various fields. Way back in June 1997, the field in question was neglected books. The magazine asked thirteen writers and academics to share their favorites. Here is a sample of their responses:

• Terry Castle, professor of English at Stanford and author of Noel Coward & Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits

The extraordinary Irish novelist Kate O’Brien is virtually unread today, but her sometimes sentimental-sounding titles — Pray for the Wanderer, As Music and Splendour — conceal works of great beauty, intellectual precision, and moral candor. The pellucid Mary Lavelle (1936) — about an Irish governess’s sensual and emotional awakening in Spain-is perhaps her most subtle, ardent, and delighting fiction.

And I continue to be amazed by the (relative) neglect of Elizabeth Bowen — a novelist, in my view, far superior to Virginia Woolf. Her early novel The Hotel (1927), in which a young woman staying with friends in an Italian pensione falls painfully in love with a Madame Merle-like older woman, is at once heartrending, fierce, and almost achingly well written.

• Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review and author of Pictures at an Execution

Two neglected books that I am always recommending are Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows (1956) and Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy about the World War I, Parade’s End (1924-1928). Ford’s portrait of a society dealing with a despised war and its returning veterans will remind my generation of our own Vietnam era; and for readers who love great characters, none can beat Christopher Tietjens and his malicious wife, Sylvia.

The Fountain Overflows is a book that nobody I know has read without my recommending it, yet it is one of the great turn-of-the-century novels. It is about sibling rivalry, musical families, genteel poverty, unreliable fathers, the death penalty, the newspaper business, the market for old master paintings-and it is also, despite all this plot, an invitingly autobiographical, intimate book.

• Sandra Gilbert, professor of English at UC-Davis, author of Ghost Volcano: Poems

Because I am myself a poet as well as a critic, I have a special fondness for fiction produced by poets, a frequently overlooked genre. Karl Shapiro’s novel Edsel is a case in point. Published in 1971 (and currently out of print), it’s been virtually forgotten. Yet it’s a scandalously funny account of the travels and travails of poet-professor Edsel Lazarow, marked by the same verbal pyrotechnics that give Shapiro’s poem “The Bourgeois Poet” (1962) its satiric zing.

• Timothy Brennan, professor of English and comparative literature at SUNY Stony Brook and author of At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now

Even among Caribbean writers, George Lamming is shamefully unheralded, while being in some ways the English Caribbean’s last word. Natives of My Person (1972) is his (and my) favorite. Nothing like it has ever been written anywhere, with its weird mock seventeenth-century prose, its setting in a slave ship off the Guinea coast, and its fantastic allegory of women’s oppression as the intimate result of the triangular trade.

No one thinks of reading Fyodor V. Gladkov’s Cement (1925), because we all suppose Soviet socialist novels are junk, but it’s among the shrewdest and most inspired treatments of the pathos of organizations and the sacrificial impulse of the makers of new worlds.

• William Gass, author of The Tunnel and Finding a Form: Essays

Wyndham Lewis’s greatest novel, Self Condemned (1954) — written after he had gone blind, in Canada and about Canada, in condemnation of Canada, in condemnation of himself for inexplicably abandoning England and coming to Canada, whose bleak unlit winters bore upon even a blind man-was received with some interest in Canada but with unopen arms, selling 7,000 copies during its first two years there. Not bad for Lewis, not bad for Canada, but even in Canada it failed to achieve the audience it ought to have had, an audience which, had it been there, would have condemned the book just as its protagonist, Harding, was condemned…. The book’s movement is glacial and grinding, the writing brilliant, the mood cold and sterile, but the hotel is set on fire (as Lewis’s was) only to become a fire hose’s frozen shell, like Harding himself, who, after his no-longer-loved wife is crushed under a car where she’s rolled herself, is empty enough now, hollow enough now to become an American academic.

The complete article can be found online at

And Gladly Teach, by Bliss Perry

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'And Gladly Teach'

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Editor’s Comments

Bliss Perry was a minor figure in American literary history. A professor of English literature and language, he taught at Williams and Princeton for roughly ten years each at the end of the nineteenth century, edited the Atlantic Monthly for ten years, then taught at Harvard for twenty years. He wrote dozens of books, mostly collections, essays, and biographies of American writers such as Emerson and Whitman.

Perry’s memoir, And Gladly Teach, is a book of muted tones and little drama. As he admits in the book,

… I suppose that even at home I have had, more than most men, what would be considered a sheltered life. There has been no feverish anxiety about money, for there has always been a modest salary and no fear of losing the job; always a roof over our heads; always food and fire and libraries and friends, to say nothing of a household happiness so perfect that I cannot attempt to describe it here.

This is an excursion back to another world, to the orderly and reasoned life of an academic and scholar at a time when the entire faculty of a college could sit around one not very large conference table and when reading and thinking were considered priorities to which a professor was expected to devote much of his working day:

I choose for illustration four English authors on whom I happened to be lecturing at Williams in the eighteen-eighties, at Princeton in the eighteen-nineties, and at Harvard in the nineteen-twenties. It is clear that the lecturer, at the outset, should have read the entire work of each author. Then comes the task of thinking, for, as W. C. Brownell used to say: “To produce vital and useful criticism it is necessary to think, think, think and then, when tired of thinking, to think more.” The third stage is the selection and arrangement of such significant facts, conclusions, queries, as can be presented to a class in fifty minutes….

“All this,” Perry writes, “is preparatory to the actual delivery of the lecture.” The son of a Williams College professor, Perry grew up in Williamstown, Massachussetts, graduated from Williams, then stayed on to teach introductory classes in English. As a boy, he and his father often wandered in the hills and forests around the town, and when not studying, teaching, or writing, Perry was usually out somewhere in the New England countryside, walking or fishing. And Gladly Teach is, therefore, a quiet and pastoral book, and comes to a modern reader as an escape from the world of 24-hour interactivity.

It is also very much a book from the time when power and social status in America lay in the hands of a small number of white men, mostly from the Northeast. “My day’s work, for more than half a century, has been with gentlemen,” Perry writes, and by “gentlemen”, it is quite clear that he means men much like him. He is not, however, quite so narrow in his definition as his Harvard neighbor, who offers the following classic assessment of the world as seen from Cambridge in 1900:

The men, while taking their coffee, mentioned a then newly published book, Who’s Who in America I remarked that I was finding it useful in the Atlantic office, inasmuch as it gave biographical information about most of the men who had achieved national prominence. Whereupon our host asked, with entire seriousness, “Wouldn’t the Harvard Quinquennial Catalogue answer every purpose?”

The relative inertia of the social class structure of Perry’s world extended to the relations between faculty and students as well. Perry writes unashamedly that,

Likewise I was too ignorant of the personal history of the men whom I was trying to teach. One could place the graduate students roughly, for one knew the colleges from which they came and something about their records and plans. But I never knew even the names of the majority of students in the big undergraduate courses, nor their preparatory schools nor their Harvard groupings and social affiliations. I had to leave all that to my assistants who read the blue-books and conferred personally with the men.

On this point, though, I suspect that the only thing that’s changed between Perry and many of today’s university faculty members is the willingness to admit this.

And Gladly Teach is not a major work of autobiography. “I am aware that I have not portrayed a whole life, but only such aspects of a teacher’s career as may conceivably prove interesting,” Perry writes near the end. It is, though, a sterling example of a life devoted to, and illuminated by, a deep love of the humanities, and a thoroughly pleasant place in which to spend a few hours.

Other Comments

• Percy Hutchison, New York Times, 13 October 1935

A rare book, rare in the sense that it has individuality of flavor. One the whole, Bliss Perry lived a quiet, even uneventful life. But he lived a life of the mind, of the spirit, and the will, which three together, plus friendliness toward one’s fellow-men, make personality. For this writer, who was one of Mr. Perry’s first assistants at Harvard, he lives anew in these pages, so unconsciously does Bliss Perry reproduce himself.

• G. M. Janes, Churchman, 1 November 1935

In reading the various chapters of this interesting volume of reminiscences, one has the same feeling as in biting into a juicy apple and finding it neither too tart nor too sweet, but altogether enjoyable.

• C. M. Fuess, Atlantic, November 1935

One notable feature of this book is the author’s skill in characterization, shown in little sketches…. No one can spend an hour with this book without respecting Bliss Perry’s balanced, tolerant spirit, his astonishing fund of literary knowledge, his keen intelligence, his urbanity, his blessed common sense.

• Christian Science Monitor, 30 September 1935

When the subject is worthy and workmanship good, only in the reader’s own taste lie any impediments to enjoyment of a book. The subject of Bliss Perry’s reminiscences is worthy because it is a record of life as it affect and was affected by a cultivated, idealistic, and modest man; the workmanship is as good as that of one who spent his working hours with the masterpieces of literature ought to be.

Locate a Copy

And Gladly Teach, by Bliss Perry
Boston and New York: Hoghton Mifflin Company, 1935

“Their Back Pages”: Forgotten books by famous authors, from the Village Voice

In “Their Back Pages”, from the 26 September 2005 issue of the Village Voice, Paul Collins amusingly discusses forgotten books by famous writers. Among those mentioned:

Casing the Promised Land, by Caleb Carr

A first novel from the author of The Alienist, this rock-n-roll saga led Carr himself to post the following as an Amazon review:

I am the author of this book. It has a few good scenes, but is essentially “roman a clef” nonsense that every writer has to get out of his system early on. Do yourself a favor and read ANYTHING else I’ve written (you’ll be doing me a favor, too).

Franklin Evans: Or, The Inebriate, by Walt Whitman

As Collins puts it, Whitman “fortified himself with hooch while writing his tale of a country boy corrupted by the city and the demon dram.” Of this attempt to emulate the success of T.S. Arthur’s temperance best-seller, Ten Nights in a Bar Room, Whitman wrote, “It was damned rot — rot of the worst sort….”

Invasion of the Space Invaders, by Martin Amis

Nine years before his first Booker Prize nomination (but surprisingly after publishing three novels), Amis wrote this guide to the first generation of computer arcade games, subtitled, An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines. Although copies fetch $130 and up on Amazon, Amis has preferred to omit it from his credits in subsequent books.

Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book, by Len Deighton

“A shockingly good cookbook,” writes Collins, despite the tongue-in-cheek cover showing a holstered Deighton scooping up spaghetti. This is actually a collection of “cookstrips” Deighton wrote for “The Observer” back at the time his first thrillers were being published. Also published as Cookstrip cook book and Ou est le garlic?, this is not only an introduction to cooking even complete novices can handle (historian Simon Schama recalled that it “showed the idiot novice male how to dice an onion without it falling apart”), but also something of an innovation, perhaps the first time comic art came to the aid of cuisine. Writer Matthew Christian salutes the quality of Deighton’s recipes and English graphic designer Richard Weston celebrates its graphic and design on his “Found Things” blog

Collins repeated the story on NPR’s Weekend Edition: you can hear the excerpt here.

Collins takes the punchline of his piece from Annie Proulx, writing on the task of examining used cider barrels in her early (but still in print) work, Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider: “Don’t be shy. Put your nose right up to the bunghole.” Good advice for those willing to look beyond the best-seller lists for their reading material.

Inside, Looking Out, by Harding Lemay

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· Locate a Copy


Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Inside, Looking Out'
After Marianne left with her husband and baby, I prepared a light lunch which Vincent and I ate around Mother’s bed. Then he escaped, first to wash the dishes and then to so unrevealed diversion, and I sat by my mother’s bed, along with her for the first time since I had run away from home thirteen years earlier. Propped up against her pillows in a bedjacket one of her children had sent her, she seemed unusually lucid and oddly girlish. She whispered that she knew I would take care of her; I was the favorite of all her children and I wouldn’t let Marianne go on mistreating her. Her customary lethargy gave way to flirtatiousness and quick, energetic gestures. Grasping her hot hands in mine, I looked into eyes I had evaded for many years and told her than I would not, and could not, rescue her from Marianne. She stared at me in utter disbelief, nodding her head at everything I said, hearing nothing. I told her I was getting divorced (she had never seen my wife), and she nodded her head in approval. I told her I was going to marry again (she had never met Dorothy), and again she nodded approvingly. She forgot, I think, the promise she had tried to extract from me, and rested quietly for most of the afternoon. Once, turning to me, she asked with a childlike clarity of speech, “How old are you, Harding?” “Thirty,” I replied, and she fumbled for my hand. “You’re in the prime of life,” she comforted me, patting my hand as she had often done when I was a boy.

Lying back, she muttered something I couldn’t understand until her urgent movements made me realize she required the bedpan. I raised her flaccid body to perform that function, which embarrassed me far more than it did her. When I came back from emptying the pan in the bathroom, she was asleep, her face peaceful against the pillow, her breath coming in sharp little grunts. I watched her as I was to watch, in later years, our young children asleep in their cribs, merriment and tantrums wiped from their faces, leaving only blank slates upon which a father (a son?) can write what he pleases. She was still sleeping quietly when Marianne and Lou returned, and I made my way back to Manhattan.

Editor’s Comments

Harding Lemay’s memoir, Inside, Looking Out, struck critics and readers alike as an exceptional novelty when it was first published in 1971. At the time, this soul-baring account of Lemay’s painful escape from the poverty, alcoholism, violence, and ignorance of his upbringing and his fitful attempts to establish himself in a career and as a family man stood out from the mass of autobiographies. Disreputable relations, bad habits, and errors of judgment were considered best left unmentioned. Now, after the success of Angela’s Ashes, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Running with Scissors, and other such tales of adolescents emerging from troubled situations, Inside, Looking Out probably seems a bit old hat.

Lemay is best known for his work in the 1970s on the soap opera, “Another World”. When he wrote Inside, Looking Out, however, he had little in the way of conventional accomplishments on which to base an autobiography. He had written a few plays, none of which had got past an off-off-Broadway weekend run. He had spent nearly ten years working for Alfred and Blanche Knopf in their publishing firm, rising to a fairly senior level, but he’d quit that to devote himself full-time to writing. Before the Knopfs, Lemay had worked as a largely unsuccessful actor. His only starring roles were with touring company that performed abridged versions of the classics for high school audiences. His first marriage had ended in divorce; in the Army, he’d deliberately flunked out of officer training; and before getting drafted, he’d lived in a home for wayward boys and shelved books at the New York Public Library. A memoir was hardly what anyone would have expected him to write.

It’s not the facts of Lemay’s life that make Inside, Looking Out worth reading. Instead, Lemay introduced a new dimension to American autobiography. This is a story of mistakes, embarrassments, bad judgments, problems ignored, and hard choices avoided. What makes this something of a novelity for its time is that Lemay portrays his own failures and foibles as honestly as he does of others.

But what makes is most remarkable about Inside, Looking Out is that Lemay does — gradually, haltingly — come to find the character within himself to make those hard choices. He comes to admit that his first marriage is a failure. As he leaves, he throws into a garbage bin all the bits of theatre memorabilia he has made his hobby and his escape. He later leaves a solid position and an excellent salary at Knopf when he comes to recognize its toll on himself and his family. And, as in the excerpt above, he comes to terms with his parents. Lemay never takes his own growth as an excuse for judging others:

For memory may be nothing more than another form of fantasy, in which we ceaselessly arrange and rearrange the incidents of our lives into a pattern we can accept. The honesty with which we present our motives to ourselves may be merely rationalizations for actions we not longer dare to confront, and those we’ve loved and hated, blur together into one haunting image.

Inside, Looking Out was nominated for the 1972 National Book Award for Biography. It lost to Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin. Dorchester Publishing reissued the book as a paperback in 1982, but it’s been out of print since then. For anyone who appreciated the like of Angela’s Ashes, it’s certainly worth looking for.

Other Comments

Peter S. Prescott, Newsweek, 3 May 1971

Harding Lemay’s story is an American classic. … Not a man to attract a biographer’s attentions, but that is the joy of a personal memoir. It does not matter who the author is or what success he has achieved — what matters is the book he fashions from the rough materials of his life. I think that Lemay’s recollections of his family and his service in the court of the Knopfs are themselves worth the book, but the whole is better than that. It is a very tough, unsparing self-evaluation, an honest book that shows how a man not used to honesty can work toward it. It shows how difficult it can be to learn to accept what one is and to build on that. It is, very simply, an account of how a man forced himself to become as full a man as he could be.

Haskel Frankel, Saturday Review, 5 June 1971

[This is] a literary event, and — much as I suspect this will embarrass Mr. Lemay — a true inspirational work. He cannot help but be meaningful to the majority of us who just gasp for air in the stranglehold of status and possessions and titles that never produce the happiness we thought came as part of the whole package. In short, I think Inside, Looking Out is as important for what it says as it is beautiful for the simple, controlled way it says it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Locate a Copy

Inside, Looking Out: a Personal Memoir, by Harding Lemay
New York: Harper, 1971

“The Coast of Utopia” and The Romantic Exiles

Cover of 1949 Penguin edition of 'The Romantic Exiles'The New York Review of Books devotes a long article in the 31May 2007 issue to Tom Stoppard’s play trilogy, which just finished playing on Broadway.

One of key sources Stoppard acknowledges in his forward to the plays is Edward Hallett Carr’s The Romantic Exiles, which Francis Steegmuller recommended in Writer’s Choice. Serif Publishing just reissued the book, which pops back into print every 20 years or so.

If you’re interested in getting a taste of The Coast of Utopia but don’t have a theater company near you willing to undertake a nine-hour production, The Romantic Exiles is a good substitute. Like the plays, it tells the story of the life in exile, mostly in France and England, of a group of Russian political thinkers, artists, writers, lunatics, and their wives, children, maids, and mistresses. These were people who liked to “live loud and live large,” as a character in one of my kids’ first computer games said.

Carr does a wonderful job of blending first-person accounts from diaries, letters, and memoirs with the perspective of a professional historian and the dry wit of a decidedly un-romantic skeptic. Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, Ivan Turgenev, and other characters carom off political theories, art, literature, financial problems, and romantic entanglements with passion and energy, committed to a “stubborn refusal to compromise with reality.”

“Lost Books” from Nextbook Magazine

Since 2005, Nextbook magazine, which focuses on Jewish literature, culture, and ideas, has published a regular feature on “Lost Books”, in which writers such as Meg Wolitzer and David Rakoff discuss the lives and works of neglected writers.

Among the fascinating pieces to be found in the “Lost Books” archive are:

· Earl Ganz’s account of Myron Brinig

Brinig was once mentioned alongside Thomas Wolfe as a rising American literary star, but he suffered a triple whammy sales curse of writing Western novels from the perspective of a gay Jewish man. But who can resist Ganz’s teaser for Brinig’s novels Singermann and This Man is My Brother (which not even AddAll lists a copy of): “Prostitutes, Christian Scientists, cross-dressing teachers—just a few of the temptations faced by the Singermanns in Myron Brinig’s frontier saga”?

[Don Napoli reviews another of Brinig’s novels, the 1939 Anne Minton’s Life on his Reading California Fiction site.]

· Neal Pollack on Ben HechtCover of '1001 Afternoons in Chicago'

Pollack celebrates A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, a collection of Hecht’s impressionistic newspaper pieces about one of the great American cities at its liviest times: “The book still holds a kind of magical sway over me, because it showed a kind of American life that seems to have disappeared, a time when public eccentricity didn’t merely feed the appetite of cable TV and when cities could be slightly unsavory without feeling overwhelmingly dangerous.”

· Jennifer Weisberg on Stefan Zweig

Zweig, one of my favorite neglected writers, embodies one of the great tragedies of the 20th century: the destruction of enlightened European Jewish culture at the hands of fascism and violence. Weisberg writes that Zweig’s 1938 novel, Beware of Pity , which was reissued by New York Review Classics in 2006, “is in many ways a micro-portrait of life in the late Hapsburg Empire, capturing the overweening attention paid to ritual, detail, and order, and the occasions it afforded for self-transformation.” She also quotes a New York Herald Tribune obituary, which wrote tellingly that Zweig took his own life because he was “overwhelmed by the past, and by the realization that all he had held most dear had been wantonly destroyed.”

· Chloe Veltman on Israel Zangwill

Zangwill’s The Melting Pot was celebrated by President Theodore Roosevelt as a “great play” when it debuted in 1908, but Veltman admits that now it seems a “ham-fisted” melodrama “made worse by Zangwill’s didactic tone.”

· Lawrence Levi on Melvin Shavelson’s “How to Make a Jewish Movie”

In How to Make a Jewish Movie, director Shavelson recounts his diligent and ridiculous efforts to make “Cast a Giant Shadow”, the story of Mickey Marcus, a Jewish American Army colonel who helped jump-start the Israeli Army in 1948. Levi concludes that Shavelson “seems to have learned, as an entertainer, that the story of a nice Jewish filmmaker who finds himself while shooting a $5 million flop has more potential in the hands of a comedy writer than the story of a Jewish general who gets killed.”

I look forward to further installments in this excellent series and encourage neglected book fans to check out all the articles.

Reading California Fiction

Cover of 'The Flesh Merchants' by Ross Thomas, from the Reading California Fiction siteDon Napoli has created a wonderful site, Reading California Fiction, devoted to his admirable quest of reading his way through the archives of fiction set in California.

Don’s work so far has led him to books good, bad, and indifferent. Among the first are some long-forgotten but worthy titles as David Duncan’s The Serpent’s Egg, of which he writes,

A labor arbitration case? Am I going to tell you that someone could produce a great novel about a labor arbitration case? Yes, I certainly am. A skilled writer can present complicated characters and an interesting story against even the most unpromising of backgrounds. And David Duncan is a terrific writer. Here he cuts back a bit on the usual energy of his prose to tell his tale in all of its complexity. I like this book a whole lot. When I get around to compiling a list of favorite California novels, The Serpent’s Egg will be near the top.

Don’s also honest in admitting that his journey sometimes leads to a dead end. Of Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s Play the Game, he writes, “Sometimes the only nice thing you can say about a book is that you’ll never have to read it again.”

Reading California Fiction is well-conceived, attractively presented, well-organized, and full of books you’ve never heard of but may want to pursue, thanks to Don’s literary archaeology. It’s among the very small number of sites I’d care to browse through in entirety.

Thomas Rogers, 1927-2007

I neglected to note the death earlier this month of Thomas Rogers, whose first two novels, The Pursuit of Happiness and Confessions of a Child of the Century were both nominated for the National Book Award (in 1968 and 1972, respectively) … and have both been out of print since 1982.

In a review of Roger’s other two novels, At the Shores (1980) and Jerry Engels (2002), both of which dealt with the adolescence and sexual education of an Indiana boy in the 1940s, Cathleen Shine wrote,

One of Thomas Rogers’s many gifts as a novelist is his ability to imbue the less appealing realities of both love and landscape with a gentle, elegiac beauty. Rogers writes about adolescent boys and the industrial towns of eastern Indiana. Nothing, at first glance, could excite less admiration. Yet, in Rogers’s loving hands, drunken frat boys are revealed in all the sweetness of their humanity, and the fires of steel mills decorate the evening sky like sunsets.

The Other Press, which issued Jerry Engels and reissued At the Shores, has a small set of pages devoted to Rogers. But more touching is the obituary from the Centre Daily Times, in which neighbors recall his garden and the sound of his typing away on quiet summer days.

I read The Pursuit of Happiness decades ago and remember it as surprisingly strong but written with a light touch. It’s the story of a privileged young WASP who, as I recall, leaves the country not because of the draft and the Vietnam War, which always lurk in the shadows of the story, but because of a stupid hit-and-run accident. I may go back and reread it now. Vale, Thomas Rogers.

Never Ask the End, by Isabel Paterson

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


Cover of Literary Guild edition of 'Never Ask the End'
In the Grande Place, the peaked fronts of the old Guild Halls, as rich as wedding cake with tier on tier of sculptured figures, seemed asleep. The rain had lifted. They descended from the motor, walking softly on the wet grey flagstones, as in a cloister. The buildings enclosed their period and atmosphere inviolate, locking the ranks against any modern intrusion. If one went, the rest would crumble, betrayed to the time spirit.

“This is where the Spaniards used to burn heretics,” Russ pointed to a small memorial set in the pavement. Marta averted her mind. If you let yourself contemplate the monstrous sum of deliberate cruelty in known history, the fact that it is a part of human nature, you wanted to creep into some hiding place and cease to be. She said, “Handy for postcards in those days. X marks the spot. Wish you were here. The Belgians have a lot of old scores. But I suppose they’ve washed out the Spaniards, after three hundred years, except for the formal record.”

Russ said, “They have not. They hate the Spaniards yet. It actually makes trouble when we have business with the Spanish branch, calls for considerable diplomacy in direct contacts.” Yes, if you’ve been hurt, she thought, the fear is in your blood. She could not bear uncertainty, because of that long bewilderment which left her permanently dismayed … She conceded: “The Duke of Alva would take considerable washing out.” She wondered if hell might be an inescapable knowledge of what others think of you, after you are dead. Not so good for most of us. Then a mass would help, a kind thought, with music and candles. But Alva wouldn’t be let go to his masses; they’d hold him here at the stake he built, by the strength of their hate. She was not a Catholic, had never been anything, nor wished to be; but the forms of religion engaged her intellect. Disbelief did not wash them out; the mysteries then became one mystery of the creative imagination: that all these gods and devils and visions of judgment should exist in the brain of man, if nowhere else. Like the idea of justic, of virtue, of mercy. Say it all began in the crude barbaric legend of a warrior chief or a wise matriarch, or in a child’s trust in the omnipotence of its elders; and that it was passed on and magnified by untraceable degrees until it grew into the splendid and shining images of poetic myth, Athena with her golden spear, Saint Michael with the sword of the spirit: the process of transmutation remained inexplicable and marvelous. If it were only the insubstantial shape of what men would be if they could, how come so pitiful a creature to desire so greatly? … She checked herself, feeling that she was boring Pauline and Russ by such ponderous and futile fancies, though unuttered. They were not in the mood for history, nor was she; they wished to make the most of their own hour, of one another. Holding hands, for comfort….

Editor’s Comments

The story in Never Ask the End is almost ridiculously simple: Marta Brown and Pauline Gardiner, two American women in their early forties, are visiting Paris. They have dinner with an old friend of Marta’s, Russ Girard, another American, who’s now an executive with a firm based in Antwerp. Russ invites the women to visit him in Antwerp. They spend a weekend together in the Ardennes. They agree to meet again in London, but Russ is delayed and arrives after Pauline has to board a liner back to the U.S. Marta and Russ enjoy London for a day or so, then return to Paris together, where Russ then heads off to Italy on business.

The extraodinary richness of Never Ask the End is certainly not to be found in the plot. It’s most definitely a book written in the wake of Ulysses, Virginia Woolf, and other early stream of consciousness novels. “… [T]he mind is a deep pool, froth and ripples and straws on the surface and God knows what down below, water weeds and drowned things,” Marta thinks to herself at one point, and Paterson freely switches between physical events and the thoughts of her characters throughout the novel. Even for an experienced current-day reader, accustomed to narrative techniques of considerable complexity, Never Ask the End can be a challenge at first. I have to confess that I stopped after about seventy-five pages and started over again, reading more slowly and carefully the second time, in order to catch and keep track of the references to past experiences Paterson seeds in the flow of her characters’ thoughts.

Fortunately, there is much to reward the careful reader. Paterson, who worked for many years as a book critic for the New York Herald Tribune, accumulated more than her share of cultural and historical background fodder in the course of over a decade of reading and reviewing several books each week. Her principle character, Marta — something of an alter ego — is a cartoonist rather than a critic, but she appears to have had a reading diet similar to Paterson’s. She moves through Europe picking up historical connections and references at every brush.

Bits of history and snatches of poetry constantly slip into Marta’s thoughts, but she is sophisticated enough to keep most of them to herself. Instead, her public face is that of a wisecracker. “My epitaph will be, ‘She was right, as usual’,” Marta tells Pauline at one point, and she slips in an occasional quip worthy of her contemporary, Dorothy Parker:

Later in the morning they pursued the cathedral spire through a maze of narrow crooked streets, loitering by shopwindows filled with cheap lace, imitation jewelry and rayon undergarments. “These must be the Belgian atrocities,” Marta conjectured.

Marta includes herself among the targets of her humor:

“The English and the French,” Marta heard herself saying profoundly, “are different.” Fortunately Pauline ignored this contribution to world thought.

Marta and Pauline know each other from time they spent together in the Midwest twenty-some years before. Both women had left their homes, found jobs as waitress or clerk, and begun establishing themselves as that novelty of the time, the independent woman. One of the most interesting aspects of Never Ask the End is the glimpse it offers into the transformation of the role of women that began around the turn of the last century:

But all of us … Marta knit her brows, tracing through the confusion of her experience a thread of pattern … An army of girls, without banners, in mutiny…. Going out of the home, each alone, but multitudes at once. We didn’t intend to go back, to be caught; we were leaving it behind forever. Child-bearing and drudgery and dependence…. Just as we grew up, the door was open. Our mothers hadn’t had the chance. But they told us to run for it. And we did…

While working as a waitress at a hotel, Marta fell in love with a married man, a traveling salesman who often stayed at the hotel. Around the same time, Pauline fell for Keith, a handsome local charmer (“He was no damn good. But attractive,” Pauline recalls). Marta’s love never got beyond a rare walk holding hands, and the man eventually left, even after coming to talk with Marta about getting married soon after his wife died. One afternoon, Keith came to visit Pauline, found Marta reading by herself instead, and invited Marta for a horse ride. In the space of a few days, Keith and Marta decided to marry. Pauline soon after married George, who later proved to be an alcoholic. After a few years of marriage, Marta and Keith came to realize there was no love between them, and separated. Marta moved to New York and remained a working woman. Pauline had two children, bore up with George’s drinking, and found herself a widow at forty.

Throughout this time, the two women remain friends, and their history — both at the personal level and at the level of the social changes they’ve experienced — forms a tapestry of connections that Paterson manages to bring into even the smallest of details:

“Have you got a pin?” Pauline whispered, though they were well out of hearing, out of sight.

“A pin — what for?” Marta made a sketchy useless motion of searching. “The elastic of my knickers is done bust,” Pauline muttered tragically. “Wouldn’t it —” Marta had no pin. There was a historic transformation; she had not even a button about her, everything she wore pulled on, wisps of silk tied with a bit of ribbon. Women used to be clamped with whalebone and triple brass, bristling with pins. Our moral support, Marta thought; if it hadn’t been for that…. It was a state of mind….

Paterson’s perspective on the relationships and situations of Marta and Pauline strikes a modern reader as remarkably feminist. Never Ask the End was written by a woman who understood deeply that any progress she and her contemporaries had achieved did not alter a fundamental reality:

Marta remembered Alma, with her deep clear melancholy, saying that a woman’s point of view differs from a man’s because women can be used….

Paterson develops this thought into a howl of rage against the thoughtless power of men over women:

Even the process of childbearing is a physical indignity which no sentimentalizing can alter. One might resign oneself to that; the flesh is an increasing humiliation to the spirit, until in the end it is cast off with relief as a worn-out rag. But one may learn the lesson too soon. At her age, Marta thought, women were supposed to be overcome by regret if they were childless. When she was depressed, reckoning her errors, she was glad that at least she had no children. Otherwise she did not think of it at all. The exhortations of priests, moralists, statesmen, aroused only her remote contempt. Fat comfortable men in robes of office … Their insistence that tired, overworked, unwilling women must “submit,” bear more and more children, the fruit of apathy, fear, or even disgust, seemed to Marta a mental rape, a refinement of lust. She would answer to neither man nor God for her refusal.

Still, the different choices each woman has made — Marta’s to leave her husband and define herself as a working woman, Pauline’s to stay with her husband and find herself defined as wife and mother — add up to gulf between them that even the strongest friendship cannot always bridge:

How difficult, how impossible communication is, Marta thought…. At the moment, she and Pauline were about four feet apart in space, with no material obstacle to confidences, and no external distraction. The difficulty lay in the fact that an emotional truth is clothed in circumstance, and derives from a series of untraceable causes dating back to creation. To make it understandable, and the action resulting from it, one would have to reconstitute the universe as it was at precisely that interval of time, with the auditor in the center of it, and gifted with omniscience.

But this divide exists between all people, Paterson continues:

Now, for instance, Pauline, in a chrysanthemum kimono, was propped against the pillows of the lower berth, frowning slightly at a handful of letters scattered over the coverlet. Marta lay flat on her stomach in the upper berth. A curtain swayed, a draught from an invisible source blew on her bare shoulders. The white-painted box of a stateroom in which they were confined slanted crazily on the Channel waves. And if later Marta were to endeavor to explain, say to Alma — though she wouldn’t, but say Alma, whose receptive sympathy was unfailing — how futile this attempt at explanation had been, she would be impelled to describe these externals, as if they were important. Their significance was purely associational, not valid outside the minds of the participants.

Marta takes no special pride in her decision to make her own way:

Marta exclaimed out of the middle of her thoughts, because the three of them at that moment were enclosed in a fragile sphere of sympathy, so exquisitely perfect that it didn’t matter whether they understood or not: “Words cannot express the sheer horror that overcomes me when I find myself in a good home. A happy family, and a radio, and a concrete garage….” But why? What was the matter with her? Her own life was toilsome, solitary, insecure. She had made a wilderness and called it peace.

Paterson is remarkably effective in sketching, with the briefest of strokes, the complex ties that can be established between people. Five years or more before their meeting in Europe, Marta and Russ had shared a cab back from a party in New York. During the ride, Russ had taken Marta in his arms and confessed a great passion for her. Unsure of his motivations — and her own — Marta chose not to pursue the opening, and the two remained friends only, keeping up a periodic correspondence.

Now, in Europe, Marta see that Pauline is attracted to Russ, and she sincerely attempts to give the two some time to development their feelings, even as she struggles to understand her own desires for him. But circumstances conspire to make the effort futile. Pauline returns to the States without her hoped-for day with Russ in London. Instead, it is Marta and Russ who take a ride together to see Windsor Castle, and later spend the night together.

Marta has no illusions about their affair, though. She comes to see what an effort of will it has taken Russ to create and maintain his business face, and Russ himself allows an occasional mention of the physical cost he had paid. “My arms are always tired,” he says at one point, and later, he confides in Marta that he had already suffered some heart problems. He talks of holding on long enough to earn his pension and retire to his farm, but neither he nor she takes that seriously:

They understood one another well enough. Their relation had no name because it had no conditions. Whatever was between them was like those legends of rings exchanged or a coin broken, to be sent as a summons only in some unforeseen circumstance of finality…. She told herself she was romantic, inventing justifications. No harm, anyhow. Not with Russ. That was what he wished he could add to the past — wear his rue with a difference. They would not hurt each other.

Never Ask the End is a meditation on relationships. Marta and Pauline are, briefly and only in the most tangential way, rivals for Russ’ affection, but at no time does this competition take precedence over their friendship:

Pauline is a little in love with Russ now. As she [Marta] was with Lucien … Friendship is personal. Love, passion, don’t seem to be. We recognize our friends, we fall in love with strangers; they remain strangers.

If it’s true, as Fitzgerald once wrote, that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” then all three of Paterson’s main characters are geniuses. Marta knows, for example, that she wants the comfort of a sustained love affair with Russ and that she is temperamentally incapable of it. “… [T]he fault was in herself. She couldn’t walk straight along a pavement.” It’s just this intelligence that makes Never Ask the End such a rich and refreshingly adult book.

Paterson is best known now as, in the words of her biographer, Stephen Cox, the “earliest progenitor of libertarianism as we know it today.” Her 1943 book, The God of the Machine argues against the possibility of engineering economies and advocates freedom and personal energy as the driving forces of progress. Cox’s 2004 biography, The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America revived Paterson’s role as a key influence on — and perhaps, in the end, a more profound thinker than — Ayn Rand.

Now and there one can glimpse a bit of this aspect of Paterson’s thinking in Never Ask the End, but I would caution anyone against reading it in hopes of pulling out some juicy bits of libertarian insight — just as I would warn non-Randians against shying away from it because of what others have made of Paterson and her political views since her rediscovery. In Never Ask the End, three intelligent and world-wise middle-aged people share a few days and a few thoughts with each other (and with us). The result will probably not change anyone’s world: but you will certainly feel lucky to have had such a chance — and to have been asked so little in return.

Note: Never Ask the End is currently available in an expensive paperback edition from Kessinger Publishing, but I recommend purchasing one of the much less expensive copies of the original Literary Guild release from 1933 available from Amazon or For one thing, the Kessinger edition is nothing more than a bound photocopy of the William Morrow first edition; for another, Kessinger specialises in such reissues of books on the fringe of copyright and I’m not entirely sure if theirs is an enterprise I care to support.

New! Never Ask the End is now available in PDF format from the Ludwig Mies Institute website:

Other Comments

· Roberts Tapley, Bookman, January 1933

Abundantly garnished with good things of Mrs. Paterson’s own and good things she has gleaned here and there, Never Ask the End looms larger in retrospect than a mere aggregate of good things; it creates the impression of life and intrinsic force, or original power, like something transfused and welded and informed by creative heat at the core.

· Ellen Glasgow, Books, 8 January 1933

The whole modern approach to life, with its eagerness, its lightness, its disenchantment, its feeling for the moment as it passes and because it passes, its joy but not too much joy, its pain but not too much pain, its courage in the face of time, its secret loyalties of the heart, and yet, somehow, somewhere, its lack of the state or quality of mind Spinoza called “blessedness” — all this is woven here into a pattern that seems as real as the hour in which we are living. Never Ask the End is a book of delicacy, charm, truth, interfused with the something different that is personality.

· Nation, 1 February 1933

It is part of Mrs. Paterson’s skill that the sense of disillusionment is not the ultimate mood of the novel. Though she constantly conveys it to us with a subtle and civilized irony, it is the behavior of the three characters themselves that the moral of the tale must be read. Desperately gallant in the wearisome adventure of Europe, they have at last hit upon the expedient of substituting wit for emotion. And this, one feels, is not merely the technique of the novel, but a solution that Mrs. Paterson offers us — a complete philosophy for living in these times.

· James Branch Cabell, Saturday Review, 7 January 1933

Mrs. Paterson has made, in Never Ask the End, a book which any tolerably civilized American must regard, throughout, with a sort of charmed squirming. Of those of us Americans, reasonably cultured, who have today reached responsible middle life, here is an honest portrait, all the honest, will admit perforce. Thus, and not otherwise, have we lived, from each moment to the next moment, during the most notable generation, it may be, and during the most disastrous generation, it is certain, in the world’s history.

Find Out More

Locate a Copy

Never Ask the End, by Isabel Paterson
New York: William Morrow & Co., 1933

Larry McMurtry recommends some Lost Novels

Robert Nedelkoff forwards an article by Larry McMurtry from the 23 June 1975 issue of the Washington Post titled, “Two Novels: One a Find, One Better Lost.”

In it, McMurtry lambasts the Lost American Fiction series from the Southern Illinois University Press for floundering “into an area of dry holes, of which the present volume [Janet Flanner’s The Cubical City] is certainly one of the driest.”

“It is in view of the rich possibilities offered by the ’90s, the teens, the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s, etc., that it seems to me time that the series stop futzing around trying to breathe life into ’20s artifacts….”

McMurtry offers some candidates of his own for rediscovery:

· The Aging Boy, by Julian Claman

“Julian Claman’s fine novel The Aging Boy was published in the ’60s, but it is already as lost as The Cubical City, and far less deservingly so.”

· Go in Beauty, by William Eastlake

“William Eastlake’s Go in Beauty is an unknown book, already….”

· No Pockets for a Shroud, by Horace McCoy

“Horace McCoy has a vivid novel that has so far been published in America only in paperback — it’s called No Pockets for a Shroud.”

McMurtry also cites Caroline Gordon, John Sanford, David Stacton [him again!], and Calder Willingham as examples of writers with “lost novels that deserve revival.”

Ironically, the other novel McMurtry reviewed in this article, Maurice Edelman’s Disraeli Rising — the second of an unfinished tritypch that started with Disraeli in Love, both of which he described as “highly readable, well-handled narratives, in which the great and near-great figures of Victorian England appear and disappear” — has also been pushed into a dark corner of neglect.

“Good Old Books”, from the National Review, 23 December 1996

A post on the NYRB Classic blog led me to the 23 December 1996 issue of the National Review, which featured two articles, by Florence King and Terry Teachout, about favorite reads — forgotten ones, in particular.

Florence King’s picks and comments:

· The Valley of Decision, by Marcia Davenport

This novel has everything: sex amid the Johnstown Flood, labor-union strife, an expatriate adventuress, a playboy turned monk, a society wife who goes mad, a Czech violinist fleeing the Nazis. And if all this weren’t enough, the author even keeps us glued to the page when she describes the operation of the open-hearth furnace, a tour de force of “writing like a man” that won her high praise from male reviewers in that benighted pre-feminist age.

· The Cardinal, by Henry Morton Robinson

The Cardinal opens in 1915 and traces Steve’s [Stephen Fermoyle] rise from Boston parish priest to prince of the church. My favorite parts are the behind-the scenes accounts of how the Vatican works, and the descriptions of the Roman contessa’s salon: a hierarchy of ecclesiastical guests, their rank denoted by the colors of their flowing capes and birettas (the book answers all the Protestant questions about vestments), soignee women kissing rings, learned Jesuits swapping bons mots, and Cardinal Merry del Val capping quotations from Horace while juggling oranges. That’s what I call a party.

· Jubilee Trail, by Gwen Bristow

Sisterhood eludes feminist novelists, but it fairly leaps off the pages of Gwen Bristow’s Jubilee Trail, a good girl/bad girl western in which the male characters are all satellites.

· Maggie-Now, by Betty Smith

Maggie Moore (her childhood reprimand, “Maggie, now,” becomes her nickname) is a simple Irish-Catholic girl who wants only to marry a good man and have children. But along comes Claude Basset, a Protestant-agnostic college graduate with an ironic wit that goes over her head and a wanderlust she doesn’t find out about until after she marries him. The O. Henry-like twist here is the blissful marriage of this mismatched pair. Under normal conditions they would grow to hate each other, but their strange modus vivendi inadvertently keeps the dew on the rose.

· Kings Row, by Henry Bellamann

Suffice to say that Kings Row is immensely satisfying to read during political campaigns when the Trad Vals pile up too high.

[The movie version of Kings Row gave Ronald Reagan the title of his 1965 autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?; as King notes, the novel was a bloodfest of medical malpractice, insanity, and small-town vice. — ed.]

· Katherine, by Anya Seton

Another favorite Anya Seton novel is Katherine, about the love affair between John of Gaunt, the ambitious younger son of Edward III, and Lady Katherine Swynford, whose four bastard children became the progenitors of the York and Tudor lines in fulfillment of the ancient prophecy, “Thou shalt get kings though thou be none.” Richly descriptive of medieval life, the story dramatizes major events of late-fourteenth-century England — the Black Plague, the Lollard heresy, the storming of the Savoy palace in the Peasants’ Revolt — and presents a brilliant fictional portrait of Katherine’s brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer.


Terry Teachout’s picks and comments

· The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

Anyone capable of marrying Kenneth Tynan must have had a sense of humor, and Elaine Dundy’s first book, originally published in 1958, proves the point. It’s the stock Wanderjahr plot, transposed into a female key: Sally Jay Gorce, young, fairly innocent, and full of beans, heads for Paris in search of romance and adventure, gets more of both than she bargained for, and in the process makes modest headway toward maturity.

[Teachout provided the introduction to the forthcoming NYRB Classics reissue of The Dud Avocado. You can also find more about Dundy at her website,— ed.]

· Pictures from an Institution, by Randall Jarrell

This savage satire of life at a progressive women’s college circa 1954 is so good, it made Whittaker Chambers laugh. Some characters are drawn from life (Mary McCarthy among them), but you don’t need a scorecard to get the point, for every liberal fallacy of our time is here made as flesh.

· Father Malachy’s Miracle, by Bruce Marshall

This lovely, all-but-forgotten book tells the story of what happens when an easily exasperated priest, vexed to the utmost limits of his endurance by the invincible ignorance of the heathen multitude, requests God to confound them all definitively and simultaneously by working a jumbo miracle in broad daylight — and God obliges, leaving the world agog.

· The Locusts Have No King, by Dawn Powell

Long a fixture on short lists of Most Underrated American Novelists, Dawn Powell finally got lucky last year when Steerforth published her diaries and started reissuing her wicked novels. This is the best of the lot, a caustic tale of frustrated love and inadvertent success in postwar New York.

· Max Jamison, by Wilfrid Sheed

Speaking of critics, here’s a minor miracle: a comic novel about a famously ferocious drama critic for a weekly news magazine who awakes one day to find himself athwart a five-alarm spiritual crisis.

Tom Fool, by David Stacton

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Locate a Copy


Cover of UK first edition of 'Tom Fool'
At Fairbanks he learned that he was not to be allowed to deliver at Minneapolis, as he had planned, a public address on his trip. Security reasons, said the President, who had to bottle him some way, and perhaps in this instance was not altogether wrong, but was getting tired of the way in which, no matter how we had defeated, the man came bouncing back. Report to Washington first.

There was also an offer to speak over the radio on October 26th. Well, thought Tom, that would take care of the bottling operation, if he had his way.

Unfortunately, the world, like the mouse’s tale in Alice, has a tendency to dwindle away to nothing, when you got back to America, except that in this case it was no mouse, but a lion they had by the tail. Didn’t they realize that?

He glanced at the mountains, whose snows were gold with sunset. Who was it, somewhere during his travels, a wit, so perhaps it had been in Turkey, where Noumen Bey, the Foreign Minister, had seemed, like his mind, a little sad, a little cynical, very strong, and very subtle, had referred to life in America as “Life behind the Gold Curtain”?

He could not remember, but he remembered the remark.

There were forces abroad (the war had let them out, as ghosts come out in a thunderstorm), out there, across the seas, which would have to be reckoned with, and which, if they were ignored, would distrub the whole world.

The trip had taken forty-nine days. That was almost exactly the length of that other trip he had taken, during the election campaign. That had not occurred to him before, but now he saw that they were the same trip, or at any rate, one on one side of the mirror, and the other through it; the one through a world that preferred to dream, the other through a world that was the nightmare America feared. It is true: the dream of reason produces monsters. But in this case it was an irrational dream. In this case it was the monsters who had reason on their side.

America is fenced with mirrors. They are our spiritual defence against the truth. And since we refuse to shatter them, there was nothing to be done now, but wait until they had been shattered from the other side, which would happen soon enough; though what would the world fine on the inside, then, but broken glass? The creature was shrivelling away from sheer mirror vanity. It was too late.

It had no dignity. Therefore it was a comedy, but only because one forced one’s self to smile. For it was also a tragedy, which broke for good hearts of those who still loved the place, no matter how ashamed they might be of what their government had done. There are a good many of those, and always will be, for the land means everything, even when those who rule it mean little or nothing at all. So it is sometimes nobler to be Tom Fool. Nobler, and of better use.

Editor’s Comments

David Stacton seems, from his Wikipedia biography, a fascinating case of the neglected writer. In the space of eight years, between 1957 and 1965, he published eleven historical novels, ranging in subjects from ancient Egypt (On a Balcony) and medieval Japan (Segaki) and India (Kaliyuga) to the Cannes film festival (Old Acquaintances). He also wrote a good share of pulp fiction under pseudonyms such as Bud Clifton, Carse Boyd, and David West. He died at the young age of 42, having lived a fairly itinerant life, and his work quickly vanished from public and critical sight.

Among Stacton’s works was what he referred to as his “American triptych”: A Signal Victory, a novel about the Spanish conquest of Mexico; The Judges of the Secret Court, about the assassination of Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth’s flight and death; and Tom Fool, about Wendell Wilkie, the unlikely Republican presidential nominee. Having a long-standing interest in FDR, I thought I would start my investigation of Stacton by trying out this novel about the man who gave him his toughest competition in all his four presidential campaigns.

Wilkie came into the 1940 Republican convention with virtually no organization and absolutely no delegates, but a combination of strong support from several influential newspaper publishers and a three-way gridlock among the official candidates — Robert Taft, Thomas E. Dewey, and Arthur Vandenberg — enabled him to emerge after six ballots as the nominee. The old guard Republican party, in Stacton’s words, “wanted something like the Bourbon Restoration in Naples. They wanted to be reactionary. They wanted to punish.” Instead, the convention led to, in the words of one newspaper writer, “the most revolutionary thing the Republican Party had done since the nomination of Lincoln.”

Stacton portrays Wilkie as something of a holy fool. His motive is pure and simple — protect the land and the people from the many dangers of “that man”. Unfortunately, he quickly finds that modern politics is less a crusade than a circus, and no different from the lions and elephants, he is at the mercy of his handlers:

He was beginning to learn how much the professionals hated him. That left him the people. Unfortunately, as his advisers told him, it was first necessary to get to the people. He had to turn to such of the professionals as he could gather in, after all.

And so he winds up with a bevy of professionals at a retreat in Colorado. “The term is religious,” writes Stacton, “but the event is not. The event had about as much spirituality as a locker-room conference twenty minutes before the big game. It also had the same jockstrap, hard soap, sheep dip, and sweaty-armpit smell.” From the retreat, the Wilkie circus then takes off on an epic train journey around the country. Unlike Truman’s legendary whistle-stop campaign, Wilkie’s was less a matter of plain speaking and more one of media manipulation. Professionals such as “Sideboard,” who ghost-writes articles and forces canned speeches on Wilkie, or the Pattersons, who “had traits, but no character.” “Indeed,” Stacton continues, “they were not people at all, only a bank account and that odd, vacant look in their eyes.”

Wilkie’s crusade is not just a simple “back to roots” plea for folk democracy. He might argue against Roosevelt’s third term, but he shares FDR’s abhorrence of isolationism:

He could only tell such people that theirs was not the only country in the world, and that it behoved them to act accordingly. But that is never a popular message. Xenophobia saw to that, xenophobia is an act of ignorant pride, and pride, after all, goeth before a whole man.”

Still, Wilkie manages to misread the people’s will almost as consistently as the professionals do. He finds himself booed in Michigan: “… the workers, though better paid than the office staffs above them, were sullen with class hatred. He had never seen class hatred before.” He tells his listeners, “… if we do not prevail this fall, this way of life will pass.” But “Half the people … didn’t care. All they wanted was their salaries and hand-outs.” This half was already lost, at least in Stacton’s eyes, and with Wilkie’s loss, the other half — the good people of the land — lose their last chance:

The great ranches are going. The farms are gone. The highways lead nowhere; and the suburbs are worse and worse built; they cost more and more; and everybody drives.

The second half of Tom Fool seems a bit deflated. Despite his defeat, Wilkie carries on. Roosevelt sends him around the world as a personal investigator, a series of journeys Wilkie described in his 1943 best-seller, One World. But as Stacton characterizes the trip, which in the novel mirrors Wilkie’s campaign tour as precisely as described in the excerpt above, it is a journey through lands as spiritually defeated as America. The Soviets are neither the great red enemy nor the great hope for mankind. The Chinese masses are pulled between two leaders — Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao — more concerned with ambition and ideology than their peoples’ needs. Fascism comes to seem only slightly the greater of two evils. Wilkie’s vision has no outlet, even if Stacton considers it “Nobler, and of better use.”

The problem with Tom Fool, though, is that it claims to be a novel and yet comes across as a tract. Stacton may write that the Pattersons have no character, but Wilkie himself is more spirit than substance. The figures in this book have attitudes and positions, not features and habits.

In a review of another Stacton novel, Naomi Bliven wrote in the New Yorker, “Although Mr. Stacton is a good writer, his work is extremely disheartening, because he will indulge his talent for twisting perspectives so as to make human life appear to be nothing more than a grotesque and malignant practical joke.” This tone certainly pervades Tom Fool, and by the end of Wilkie’s journeys, the reader grows weary of Stacton’s relentlessly acerbic commentary. One biographer noted that Stacton’s characters

… are often two-dimensional figures, selected to illustrate a thesis, and drawn without much sympathy or understanding. By way of compensation there is his baroque and waspish style, studded with epigram, apothegm, and aphorism, ‘one of the most massively complex and convoluted styles of our time.’

In Tom Fool, however, this style bludgeons narrative, protagonist, and reader, leaving all with various scratches and bruises. Imagine one of Gore Vidal’s wonderful historical fictions, such as Lincoln, with all the intelligence and insight but almost none of the grace and wit. Or a cocktail party hosted by a brilliant but overbearing host — who drives his guests to the bar for another martini to tune out their host’s insufferable banter.

I plan to give Stacton a try again sometime. But if you care to give Tom Fool a try … well, then, you’re no wiser than Wilkie was.

Locate a copy

Tom Fool is fairly rare. Neither nor lists any copies for sale, so if you’re desparate to read this book, you’ll need to search for it at a major university library or consider plunking down $75 for one of the few copies listed on

Tom Fool, by David Stacton
London: Faber and Faber, 1962

Driftwood from “The Sustaining Stream”

Robert Nedelkoff forwards a link to “The Sustaining Stream”, a Time magazine article from February, 1963 that provides “a recommended reading list of American novelists whose first work has appeared within the last few years.” As with any “best of” list from decades past, the names discussed are a mix — those whose works are now accepted into the canon of university curricula, academic studies, and regular reissues, and those whose works merit the dubious distinction of requiring rediscovery and mention on this site.

Among the well-known and established names are Walker Percy, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, and John Updike. But the article also mentions several novelists worth noting here:

  • David Stacton, of whom it writes,

    David Stacton, 37, is a Nevadan who wears cowboy boots, is fond of both Zen and bourbon, and is as nearly unknown as it is possible for a writer to be who has written, and received critical praise for, 13 novels (all have been published in England, five in the US.). His books, most of which have historical themes, are masses of epigrams marinated in a stinging mixture of metaphysics and blood. Mostly they resemble themselves, but something similar might have been the result if the Duc de la Rochefoucauld had written novels with plots suggested by Jack London.

    Stacton’s story is as interesting as any of his books. He managed to produce 28 books in roughly the same number of years, including 22 novels. Most of these were historical novels, but Stacton shared the same kind of arch omniscience that makes Gore Vidal’s historical novels so entertaining. In addition to these, however, he also produced a number of pulp fiction titles such as Muscle Boy aimed at gay readers, using the pseudonym Bud Clifton, and westerns such asNavarro as Carse Boyd. Stacton rated Sir William, an account of the affair between Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton, as his best book. Back in 1992, Thomas Disch picked it as his book of the year in a roundup in The Nation magazine, saying he’d intended to read Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, but read Stacton’s account instead when he found a copy in his shelves. Disch said of the book,

    It’s wonderful, paced and cut like an MTV video, so epigrammatic I could extract an enticing quote from almost any page, and, as Sontag’s readers already know, one of the great Believe-It-Or-Not sex scandals of all time. For those who relish Boito’s “Mefistofele” all the more for having enjoyed Gounod’s “Faust”, Stacton should be the perfect complement to Sontag, not an alternative. Seek him out, or if you’re in the book business, republrsh hrm. He’s too good to be gathering dust.

    I bought a copy of Stacton’s Tom Fool, a 1962 novel about Wendell Wilkie, and read it recently, but I have to confess that it’s in the queue for a post under the justly neglected tag. Stacton was just a bit too clever to be tolerable and Wilkie seemed more a bit of flotsam carried off on the tide of history than an effective protagonist.

  • Richard Dougherty. Dougherty’s 1962 novel, Duggan, was described by Time’s reviewer as a “nasty, low, mean and excellent novel.” The book tells the story the friendship and then the betrayal and mutual cuckolding of an honest politician and his more cynical campaign manager. Dougherty’s later novel, The Commissioner was perhaps the first of a wave of grittily-realistic police nobels that Joseph Wambaugh later surfed to success on, and was made into a fairly good movie, “Madigan”, starring Richard Widmark.

  • Richard Bankowsky. In 1958, Time wrote of his first novel, A Glass Rose, which centers on the wake of the scion of a Polish-American family:

    In unfolding this grim tale, Novelist Bankowsky is thoroughly convincing as he enters successively the minds of a tormented religious fanatic, a furtive, greedy storekeeper, a mentally retarded girl. In each character’s rambling recall, his own weaknesses are laid bare and another’s motivation is made clearer.

    On the other hand, Norman Podhoretz, writing in the New York Times, called it “an embarassingly naked imitation of The Sound and the Fury.” In more recent years, however, Thomas Gladsky called A Glass Rose “perhaps the best novel about Slavic immigration in all of American literature.” Bankowsky has put a number of excerpts from his work on the web under his Cal State Sacramento page, including the first dozen or so pages of A Glass Rose.

The article also mentions several names neither too famous nor too obscure: Richard Condon, who will never fade completely away as long as people watch “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” and my favorite, “Winter Kills”; John Knowles, whose A Separate Peace rates its own Cliff Notes; and William Gaddis, who may still have a tough time finding casual readers, but who’ll continue to provide raw material for PhD dissertations for many years to come.

Two Reasons to Read Second-Rate Books

from John Berryman’s afterword to the Signet Classics edition of Theodore Dreiser’s The Titan:

Thank the Lord for second-class novels, or what would we read after the age of twenty-one, and how insufferable would be a criticism that devoted itself solely to first-class novels (the fifty-two or eight-six there are).

and from Zadie Smith’s wonderful essay, “Fail Better,” which appeared in the Guardian on 13 January 2007, but is no longer available online:

If it’s true that first-rate novels are rare, it’s also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them. The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt….

Few of the books featured on this site qualify as first-rate or first-class, by Smith’s or Berryman’s standards, so it’s good to know that there are such eloquent justifications for reading them.

Six of Them, by Alfred Neumann

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Other Comments

· Locate a Copy


Cover of the first U.S. edition of 'Six of Them'The barber at Stadelheim prison is called Adam, and most people don’t know if it his given name or his surname. He is not an independent businessman, but a state employee with the title of Surgical Assistant and a certificate attesting to his competence. He lives in the prison. Until 1935 he lived in the same capacity in the surgical clinic, and shaved the hairy parts of bodies before they were submitted to the surgeon’s knife. He is a master of his trade, but his trade has nothing in common with the gay, loquacious beautification work of a Figaro. For he does not shave faces. Adam is grave and taciturn and emaciated like a fakir. His office, his appearance and the late hour of the night at which he usually goes into action, spread terror, deadly terror. He is used to it and pays no attention to it. Sometimes it happens that his clients must be tied to their cots face down and cut hair in any position and has never yet nicked anyone. That is his pride.

“Adam, work!” the prison’s executive secretary speaks over the house wire.

“Cell number,” Adam requests.

“There are six.”

“Six,” says Adam. It is not an exclamation of astonishment, but only a repetition of the number. He hangs up, and dons his work coat. Every barber in the world wears a white jacket, Adam wears a black one. He is no worldly barber.

Editor’s Comments

Six of Them is a remarkable feat of imagination. An exile from Germany, writer Alfred Neumann wrote the book, a fictionalized account of the 1943 White Rose protest against Hitler and Nazism, and the subsequent arrest, trial, and execution of the six organizers, with little more than hearsay accounts published in Time magazine and circulated among the emigre community. Yet he managed to convey with considerable accuracy both the particulars and the atmosphere of the event.

The book opens with the six in jail, awaiting their questioning by a Nazi Peoples’ Court. Although the narrative thread runs a short course from here to their conviction and execution, Neumann provides for each of the accused a flashback that shows how he or she came to the decision to publically oppose Hitler, with all the obvious risks that involved. Hans and Sophie Moeller (brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl in the real protest), university professor Karl von Hennings and his wife Dora (Karl Huber and his wife), and their comrades, Christopher Sauer and Alexander Welte, each arrived at his or her choice through different experiences and motivations. Sophie had watched as her best friend, a Jewish girl, was hounded out of school, then hemmed in by increasingly restrictive measures, and finally shipped off to a concentration camp. Karl von Hennings’ objection was an ethical one; Christopher Sauer’s a religious one. Dora went along out of love for Karl; Alexander out of loyalty to Hans, whom he befriended on the Eastern Front.

Neumann contrasts these six with the judges on the Peoples’ Court. They, too, have reached their destination through different paths.One is an dilettante nobleman who disdains his Nazi colleagues but lacks the personal strength to find any faith of his own to follow. Another is a fat, smug butcher who gloats at the rise in his fortune and standing resulting from his decision to join the Nazi Party early in its existence. Where the six accused took risks to voice and defend their beliefs, Neumann shows the judges as compromised, corrupt, or opportunistic.The political power may be theirs, but the moral strength of the six protesters is greater.

The book suffers somewhat from Neumann’s awkward style and his tendency to rely too much on conveying his characters’ thoughts rather than their actions, but it remains a strong story. He often shows a cinematic flair for scene-setting: at the time he wrote Six of Them, he had just finished the screenplay for None Shall Escape, another tale of Nazism for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Neumann may not have intended to turn Six of Them into a screenplay, but it wouldn’t have taken much effort.

The real story has itself been filmed several times, most recently in the 2005 film, Sophie Scholl, and the facts have also been well-documented in numerous books. Neumann wrote his novel to show Americans that a simple stereotype would not suffice to understand tthe German people, but perhaps there is little remaining reason for anyone to pick up Six of Them and read it. That does not mean, however, that the genuine merits of this book deserve to be forgotten.

Other Comments

F. C. Weiskopf, Saturday Review of Literature, 28 July 1945

A craftsman of great experience and skill, Mr. Neumann masterfully combines economy in the use of his artistic means with richness of imagination and narrative power…. Many passages of this sincere and passionate novel will long be remembered by its readers, especially the weird picture of Christopher Sauer; the fine character sketch of the “destroyed destroyer of life,” member of the Peoples’ Court, Baron Freyberg; and the moving story of the married love of Karl von Hennings and Dora.

Virgilia Sapieha (Peterson), Weekly Book Review, 29 July 1945

The six lives are both credible and intensely moving. Bright shafts of reason in the Nazi night, they show up the grotesque crooks and cranks and fools around them. If this book, Six of Them, could be filmed for Germany it might help to melt the frozen youth and quicken the hearts that a century of militarism has stilled.

Locate a Copy

Six of Them, by Alfred Neumann, translated by Anatol Murad
New York: Macmillan, 1945

“Reputations revisited” from the TLS’s 75th anniversary issue added to Sources

Just added to the Sources lists on this site: “Reputations revisited”, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement’s 75th anniversary issue.

The TLS asked a number of writers and academics to name the writers and books from the past seventy-five years they considered most overrated and underrated. This feature is remembered now for two reasons: first, the revival of the reputation and works of the English novelist Barbara Pym; second, for Vladimir Nabokov’s odd choice of H. G. Wells’ lesser novel, The Passionate Friends, which one Wells biographer described as, “by anybody’s standards … a solemn and boring book.”

The Long Walk of Samba Diouf, by Jerome and Jean Tharaud

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Locate a Copy

Cover of the first U.S. edition of 'The Long Walk of Samba Diouf'


But the old routine had to be followed again, almost as monotonously as in Saint Pierre Wood and in the camp of Arcachon — drudgery of all sorts, fetching water, carrying soup, wine, grenades, work with pick and shovel to extend the branching ways. The coupe-coupe and gun were useless here too and the only difference the Blacks could see in the trenches was that they could find death there at any moment, but they had no better chance of dealing it.

Certainly life in these holes in the ground did not seem like the war they had imagined. War as their parents had always spoken of it was war in the open, the stealthy surroundings of a village, the ambuscade behind the trees, then all at once warriors dashing forward with wild cries, palisades overthrown, streets taken, the combat around the huts, the gun that once fired cannot be reloaded, sabre strokes on naked flesh, screams of women who flee into the forest, necklaces and bracelets snatched, old men gutted like useless beasts, young men borne into slavery — these were the memories of ancient warfare. Then at night the return, driving before them droves of cattle and captives, women bending before the conquerors, dances, tambours, songs of the witch doctors, all celebrating the exploits of the glorious day….

Editor’s Comments

A couple of years ago, I came across a French compilation of novels about World War One. Most of the titles were familiar — Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel, Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, and Arnold Zweig’s Education Before Verdun. But La randonne de Samba Diouf caught me short. Who’d ever heard of a World War One novel with a title about “Samba Diouf”?

Intrigued, I did a little searching and located an English translation: The Long Walk of Samba Diouf. It appears to have been out of print in English since its first printing back in 1924, but it didn’t cost too much to obtain a copy in good condition. It was written by Jerome and Jean Tharaud, French brothers and writers who collaborated on dozens of books, won the Goncourt Prize in 1906, and were separately inducted into l’Academie Française (in 1938 and 1946).

The Long Walk of Samba Diouf tells the story of a young Senegalese fisherman who sets out to claim some animals that were left to him by a relative. His journey takes him through lands belonging to other tribes, and along the way, he learns of the war that has broken out in the homeland of the Toubabs — the local term for the French colonials. Like most other natives, he ignores the news, concerned more with his fantasies of coming home a wealthy man, ready to marry the daughter of one of the strong men in his village.

Unfortunately for Samba, he wanders into an strange town just as the French authorities announce a draft of able-bodied young Africans. For every 100 villagers, one man has to be offered up for service in to the Toubab cause. A few local men befriend him, ply him with palm wine, and turn him in as their contribution. When Samba comes to, he’s on his way to a boat destined for France.

Although the Tharauds (at least as translated) adopt a rather stilted tone to convey it, the mix of tribes, languages, customs, and religions in Samba’s group of inductees is the most memorable aspect of his story. The Toubabs see the men as a faceless band of “les noirs”, but they are a wild hodgepodge — Muslims and animists; sophisticated traders and primitive bushmen. Each has some story to tell around the campfire or barracks stove each night, and each has his own interpretation of this odd endeavor of the French to turn them into a uniformed batch of able, if loosely disciplined, utility troops.

After months of training, the Africans are hauled up to the front. Expecting to put their skills as warriors to the test, they spend their days merely filling in shell craters and laying down new duckboard lanes through the mud. Finally, the NCO in charge of the group convinces his commander that the men deserve a chance in combat. In a brief, furious scene in which the sensations of an attack across No Man’s Land is mixed with learned impressions of war as told by their elders, the men attack a German line, and Samba is wounded.

From this point, the journey rolls back in a fast rewind. Samba recovers in a field hospital, wondering for a moment if the tenderness of a beautiful French nurse could lead to romance. It’s all in his head, of course, and soon enough he’s boarding another ship, headed back to Africa. He eventually gets back to his home. In true war story cliche, his girlfriend has married another, and he’s never managed to collect the livestock that was to make his fortune. He returns to fishing. What significance the whole experience has had for him is unclear as the book ends.

It would be hard for any book written almost eighty years ago by white men about the world as experienced by African men not to seem a bit dated now. To the credit of the Tharauds, who specialized in accounts of peoples very different from the advantaged, intellectual world they inhabited — Africans, Jews, Gypsies — they make considerable efforts to take the perspective of the Africans at face value. Although they adopt primitive dictions to convey the talk and thoughts of the men, there is relatively little implication that these conversations and perceptions are not sublte and sophisticated in their own way. The Tharauds’ Samba is a considerable development from James Fennimore Cooper’s American Indians, and The Long Walk of Samba Diouf probably ranks among the more balanced and sympathetic Western attempts to depict a Third World culture.

Jerome and Jean Tharaud are largely forgotten now, even in France. I suspect this is due mostly to the fact that the gap between the French and the people of their former colonies has shrunk considerably — physically, at least, if not in other ways. However, they deserve recognition for creating some of the earliest works in which these peoples were treated from an anthropological rather than imperialistic perspective.

Novelist Julian Barnes brought another novel of les freres Tharaud, Dingley , l’illustre écrivain (Dingley, the famous writer), to public attention in this 2005 article in the Guardian. Of this loose fictionalisation based on the life of Rudyard Kipling, he wrote,

The novel is thus both a critique of British imperialism – of its coarsening effects, its brutalities and self-deceptions – and a warning against literary populism. But it is also a proper novel about human failure, about the price paid (and the public benefits reaped) when part of the human heart is suppressed. It seems impossible that Kipling could not have heard of Dingley; also highly unlikely he would have read it (not least because of Archie’s death-scene). I can’t find Kipling making any written or reported comment on the novel; fictionalising him, I would imagine silent contempt as his reaction to this piece of Gallic impertinence.

Unfortunately, Dingley stands even less chance than The Long Walk of Samba Diouf of being rediscovered, at least by English readers — it’s never been translated.

Locate a Copy

The Long Walk of Samba Diouf, by Jerome and Jean Tharaud
New York: Duffield and Company, 1924

The True Detective, by Theodore Weesner

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


Cover of the first U.S. edition of 'The True Detective'

Off the phone, Dulac returns to his list. Yes, of course, he thinks, the APB should be all New England, and they should put reminders out to the customs people at the border. He’ll have DeMarcus take care of that. The photograph, he thinks. Did he mention the need for a photo to the state police commander? He cannot remember if he did or not and reminds himself to mention it in the rendezvous in the liquor store parking lot, before they go ahead and move on the house.

The last item of his list is the phrase and the question mark: Status of boy?

Was he being kept in the car? Dulac asks himself. Why would Vernon return to the cottage by himself? Was the boy in the car? Tied? Was he harbored elsewhere? How could this Vernon character leave him and be on campus that morning? Did he have access to some other shelter? A barn? A garage? As he was buying him food at McDonald’s, did that not imply an intent to care for the boy. Certainly it does, Dulac says to himself. And given all the signs this suspect has left in his wake, does that not imply that he is not a calculating or hardened criminal? Certainly, Dulac thinks. No question there. Is he therefore less dangerous? What is his frame of mind? Does he really know they have a make on him?

Standing, the questions left hanging, Dulac knows without looking at his watch that it is time to leave. Checking his hardware, double-checking the presence in his deep shirt pocket of the warrant and a USGS map on which the cottage has been marked in flourescent yellow, he takes up not his regular jacket but a flak vest he has checked out, and adds over this a light and roomy, dark blue jacket with POLICE on the back in reflective white letters. And he remarks to himself, this is why you’re here, this is the time to do what you’re here to do, as he moves across the hall and into the squad room, where the others are waiting in their blue jackets, with tear gas canisters, shotguns, rifle with scope, waiting for his word.

Editor’s Comments

Theodore Weesner’s The Car Thief is mentioned on several lists on this site, and remembering the power of that novel, I went rooting around the net one day in search of information about his other novels. Of these, The True Detective had the most intriguing title. I was curious to see what Weesner did with a detective novel, and searched the New York Times book review archive to see what critics thought of it. The first hit to come up was not a review, though, but the following letter to the editor:

May 17, 1987

To the Editor:

I’m sure you receive many letters of dismay and complaint over book reviews, and of course nothing is perfect — still, how can I tell you how deeply you have hurt me by publishing Jonathan Coleman’s review (April 26) of my new novel, The True Detective? The degree of unfairness is what is so extreme or, believe me, I would not be sitting here feeling as if I have witnessed the very authorities commit a terrible crime.

The book in question is one I worked on for more than five years, and it came alive, and it does work — it is relevant and it is compelling — and the responses I’ve received from others and in earlier reviews have been genuine, extravagant, even passionate. Yet you chose to give it a short review, inconspicuously placed, and — and I just cannot deal with this — your reviewer did not even understand what he read.

I repeat: your reviewer did not even understand what he read.

And you printed it. You break my heart. You owe me much more than an apology.

Theodore Weesner

This is more than just the grumbling of an unhappy author. This is the cry of a wounded soul. I clicked the next link and read Coleman’s review, which was lukewarm but not harshly critical. What was there in this book that could provoke such a raw expression of pain to what seemed just a mild review? I knew I had to find out, and immediately ordered a copy — a first edition in great condition for $1.50.

The Car Thief is a grim book, and from its opening pages, The True Detective promised to top it in bleakness. Weesner sets his story in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a fading port in mid-winter, already on the margins of progress — literally: a great new bridge now carries the Maine-to-Boston freeway traffic high and away past the town. Claire Wells, a divorced waitress barely making ends meet, worries about the grim prospects of her sons Matt, 15, and Eric, 11. Vernon Fischer, a miserably unhappy college student, comes to recognize that his overtures toward another male student have been rejected. And Lt. Gil Dulac, the true detective of the title, 52, fat, aging, in a lifeless and childless marriage, wonders where his town is heading.

Murder stopping at a small town may have the effect of a nail dropped into the mechanism of town life. In large cities, by contrast, any number of murders may be processed and left behind daily, and only a glut creates a stir. A town or small city, even as it has no choice but to continue on its way, is likely to pause. It will look within, may gaze even harder and longer if the crime seems to have stepped down from a bus coming in from Boston or New York, L.A. or Atlanta. Questions will be asked. Why here? Did we do something? Is this the start of something new?

And it goes downhill from there. Over the course of five days in February 1981, these lives intersect in an increasingly gruesome disaster. Overwhelmed with despair and sexual confusion, Vernon goes to a gay bar, hooks up with and then flees an older man’s embrace, watches a child porn film, then finds himself cruising the streets of Portsmouth. Vernon’s fantasy is to find a young boy, care for him, and love him — a tender but desparate and senseless love. Turning a corner, he passes Eric, walking home from the bar where Claire works.

He has driven past something that has alerted his mind and shifted his eyes to his rearview mirror. As if in a movie, in its odds reflection, there is a young boy walking on the sidewalk through the early evening air. Already there is a new beating in his heart, as he returns his eyes to the street before him and lets his car roll along.

Approaching an intersection, slowing to a near stop, he has no idea where he is going or what he might do. He turns right and rolls slowly along the side street. Where there is a space along the curb, he pulls over and stops.

The boy may not come this way, Vernon thinks. He may have already passed back there on the larger street. He doesn’t look back; he decides not to let himself do so, so he turns off the motor. Life is chance, he thinks.

Vernon gets out and pretends to work on the car’s engine. Eric passes. Vernon coaxes Eric into getting behind the wheel and helping out. The car starts, and he offers to give Eric a ride home.

Instead, he drives out of town, and after Eric resists his approaches and tries to run, Vernon strikes him, binds him, and brutally rapes him. Weesner spares us the details of the rape until the autopsy near the end of the book, but he is completely unsparing in his portrayal of the intense and chaotic thoughts and emotions that grip Vernon as, over the next few days, he tries everything from bathing Eric to trying to flee with him to Canada to leaving Eric’s lifeless body in his trunk as he attempts to return to his college classes. Weesner manages to keep an astonishingly sympathetic view of Vernon’s inner demons even as he takes us through every desparate action.

Meanwhile, Claire returns home and after a sleepless night waiting for Eric, reports him missing. Gil Dulac, the town’s chief of detectives, senses something more than a routine runaway, and quickly raises his department’s level of attention to the case. Dulac may be somewhat confused and unhappy himself, but as Weesner repeatedly shows in dozens of small touches of police procedure, he is an excellent detective. He immerses himself in the case, digging deep into the world of porno stores, gay bars, and man-boy love networks that lies unnoticed around his town.

Step by step, a combination of good police work and lucky breaks leads Dulac to find Eric — dead from the accumulated effects of a blow to his head, the rape, exposure, and dehydration — and then Vernon. In a cinematic (but overdone) climax, Dulac chases him to the freeway bridge and then watches as he accidentally falls to his death.

Weesner is most effective when he drills inside the heads of the main characters, achieving a remarkable balance of empathy and stark realism. Weesner told one interviewer, ” The True Detective helped me as a writer. I learned a lot about looking outside myself and trying to capture other characters.” No one in The True Detective gets what he or she wants, and that fatalism, along with the wrenching realisation that Vernon cannot pull himself out of a spiral that will crush Eric and himself, too, makes for some tough reading. But it’s also a riveting narrative.

Weesner first began working on the book as a piece of nonfiction, an account of the abduction and murder of several young boys around Detroit, where he was living in the early 1980s. The book grew bigger and bigger, ending up as a 1300-page manuscript. After numerous blue-pencil rounds, his editor at Simon and Schuster persuaded him to turn it into a novel instead. What he learned in the course of his original research served him well in adding to the credibility of the details of Dulac’s investigation.

The Vietnam War spreads a subtle shadow across the whole of The True Detective. Vernon’s unhappy childhood and hateful relationship with his mother are the result of his father’s death in the war. And to Dulac, the war has left the world in an “endless hangover”: “Everything they did as policemen had changed in his time and he had never been comfortable — he had always been upset — with the implication that a policeman was not a good or humane person.” Porn, too, he sees as part of the aftermath of the war: “Of porn, all he can say — he sees in this moment — is that it makes the air around it different. It creates an air in which life has a different value. Less value.” The story on the surface of The True Detective is about a kidnapping and murder. But beneath the surface, Weesner suggests that the larger story is that of a wounded nation dealing with a world “in which life has a different value. Less value.”

Recognizing the deeper thread in The True Detective, one might sympathize a little more with Weesner’s anguished letter to the New York Times. Novelist Stewart O’Nan (below) calls The True Detective a great novel. Whether one fully shares his opinion or not, The True Detective is certainly a powerful and engrossing story that deserves to be taken down from the shelves and experienced.

Other Comments

· Stewart O’Nan in Post Road magazine:

In The True Detective, Weesner swings the other way. Everything is at stake — life, limb, innocence, the moral fiber of the nation. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a confused young man kidnaps and sexually assaults a boy. One police lieutenant has the responsibility of finding the boy before it’s too late, and also, for his own peace of mind, making sense of the crime. The kid goes missing, and the whole city becomes the stage. Weesner digs deep into the boy’s mother and brother while the passing time cranks up the tension of his plot line.

These are the ingredients of a cop-and-robber thriller, except that Weesner’s sense of complexity undercuts the melodrama. His portrait of the young man, Vernon, is amazingly empathetic without once excusing him for what he’s doing, just as his look into Lieutenant Gil Dulac is generous yet never simply admiring. The two men are singled out, isolated in their hopes and fears, their hard-earned views of the world.

The True Detective is tough-minded, but subtly done. The language, the details, the progress of the POV sections — everything serves Weesner’s total effect brilliantly. And while it deals with a sensational, even loaded subject, ultimately I’d say the novel is that rare achievement, a wise book, and maybe the saddest book I’ve read. That it’s also a page-turner is a marvel.

And yet, The True Detective is out of print, and when people think of great American novelists, few think of Theodore Weesner. I won’t waste time speculating on why this is.

“Theodore Weesner on true crime, literary awards and the art of the rewrite”, from Sea Coast Online

This interview from November 2007 mentions this post, which elicits a less than enthusiastic response from Weesner (“I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot”). Weesner gives some background about the book and mentions that he’s currently at work on an autobiographical trilogy.

Locate a Copy

The True Detective, by Theodore Weesner
New York: Summit Books, 1987

Interview with Mark Moskowitz of “The Stone Reader” and the Lost Books Club

In his blog, Things I’d Rather Be Doing, “reformed” critic John Kenyon interviews Mark Moskowitz, director of The Stone Reader, and founder of the Lost Books Club. Despite the appearance of its website, he says, the club is still at work:

It took us more than two years to get tax-deductible status for the non-profit (the two are not synonymous) so we can now accept donations, which are needed. It takes about $10,000 per book. We have a list of about a dozen we’d like to help bring back, with hundreds more waiting to be read and thought about (each week we get suggestions).

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'The LBJ Brigade'Moskowitz mentions that the club has William Wilson’s The LBJ Brigade, one of the earliest novels about the Vietnam War, awaiting a deal with the right publisher. He also offers several more suggestions to the list of neglected books discussed in The Stone Reader:

  • Heckletooth 3, by David Shetzline, out of print since first published in 1969, a tale of a Forest Service ranger whose accidental poaching of an elk turns into a rebellion against society in general and leads to a manhunt and then a forest fire.
  • Silk and Cyanide, Leo Marks’ irreverent memoir of code-breaking during World War II.
  • Robert Spitz’s Barefoot in Babylon authoritative and engrossing account of the organisation of the landmark Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.

Smugging up on forgotten authors, from the Guardian Unlimited

In his Guardian Unlimited blog, author Sam Jordison writes,

I’ve recently been indulging in the literary equivalent of schadenfreude. Not so much pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, as pleasure in everyone else’s lack of knowledge.

It’s not an admirable emotion, I know. Even so, I can’t help it. I’ve just started reading one of the finest writers I’ve encountered for a long time — and my enjoyment is only heightened by the certainty that very few others in the UK have even heard of him, let alone shared the delights of his superb prose.

We fans of neglected books must admit, like Jordison, that a certain amount of the pleasure in discovering them is the knowledge that we’re among the lucky few to have made the discoveries. In this case, the discovery was the works of the writer, Alfred Chester:

They are strange contradictory books. Marked out by Chester’s superb prose, they’re both surreal and unflinchingly true to life, at once light, witty and imbued with heavy existential angst. They deal with everything and nothing. They are sometimes brutal and hilariously waspish, but always humane. Essentially, for all their 1950s existentialism, they are unlike anything else. As Chester himself said in description of The Exquisite Corpse: “… it is probably the most unlike book you have read since childhood. And probably also, the most delicious.”

As one of his commenters points out to Jordison, Chester’s works might be rare in the U.K., but thanks to the efforts of the Black Sparrow Books, long a supporter of such neglected writers as John Sanford and Ed Dorn, three of his books are currently in print, and a fourth is due for reissue later this year:

Jordison invites his readers to suggest an “unsung genius” of their own, and among the names proposed in response are:

  • M. R. James, a Victorian writer of ghost stories whose works are readily available in collections from Penguin and Oxford World Classics.
  • Delano Ames, who wrote dozens of mysteries between 1932 and 1972, including a series featuring Dagobert and Jane Brown “full of arch conversation and bizarre wealthy characters.”
  • James Hanley, an Irish novelist whose 1985 Times obituary was headlined “Neglected Genius of the Novel”. Hanley’s books are out of print in the U.S. but he had at least the honor of his own tribute website (now in archive). You can pick up a copy of A Dream Journey, one of his late and most highly-praised novels, for as little as $0.03 on Amazon. What are you waiting for?

And one of the commenters is even kind enough to mention the Neglected Books page. Thanks!

Northwestern University Press reissues The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith

Northwestern University Press this month reissued Mark Smith’s The Death of the Detective, a novel considered by some of the readers who’ve discovered it since it went out of print nearly 25 years ago to be one of the greatest works of American fiction of the 20th century. Although nominated for a National Book Award when first published in 1974, its critical reception was, on the whole, mixed. The New York Times Book Review said of it,

[Smith’s] large and eccentric melodrama is marked by lavish skill at doing what novelists always need to do–write scenes, weave narrative threads, hatch and construct characters, see and smell and feel and describe. Good sentence piles upon good sentence until the novel sags and cracks. What it sorely needs is a blue pencil and an artistic point of view.

Its status hasn’t improved much over the years. One of its Amazon reviewers gave it five stars and the tag-line, “Ross MacDonald meets (the american) John Gardner,” and this is as apt a summary as any. Like Gardner’s magnum opus, Nickel Mountain (now out of print), The Death of the Detective is ambitious, grand in scope, and overloaded with atmosphere, moods, and characters. Novelist Wallace Markfield slammed Smith (getting his name wrong) and Gardner in one swat in a 1978 interview available online at the Dalkey Archive Press website:

Markfield: There’s a stench given off by novels written by academics. A point in case is John Gardner. It’s a stench of unreality. There is no contact between Gardner and the real world. He’s fanciful and he has a few pathetic tricks. Another case in point is an academic named Frank Smith; he wrote something called The Death of the Detective

Interviewer: I don’t know it.

Markfield: You’re not missing very much. I read it and why I finished it I don’t know. It was a terribly boring book. You know, clearly modeled upon whomever. But of no interest whatsoever in the world.

The Death of the Detective is one of the books that inspired me to start this site and has been one of my Editor’s Choices since day one. While I can see the point of the New York Times critic who wrote that it could stand some “blue pencil” editing to trim off some of its excess and improve its artistic merit, I don’t think artistic merit is the reason to seek out and read this book. The Death of the Detective is a book about Chicago, and like that city, prone on occasion to extremes of temperature, drama, and violence, which is what makes it such an engrossing and memorable reading experience. It’s the novelistic counterpart to Sandburg’s “Chicago”:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

If it were ever made into a movie, its settings would be dark, its lighting melodramatic, and its score heavy with pipe organ chords, and you’d sit there in the theater, reveling in the sensory overload. But why wait for the movie? Find a copy, crack open its covers, and dive in. You will surface a few days later — perhaps a bit drained, but in awe of Smith’s ability to achieve sensory overload with nothing more than words on a page.

The Winds from Nowhere

Here in northern Europe, we’ve been battered by record high winds over the last 48 hours (see BCC story). These and the growing number of climate change disasters being reported bring to mind The Wind from Nowhere, the first of J. G. Ballard’s novels and the first of a series of four, each of which dealt with a world experiencing (or coping with the aftermath of) a global climate change:

  • The Wind from Nowhere (1961) is the most conventional of all Ballard’s novels and one he now dismisses the work as forgettable. High winds flatten the earth and survivors live in pits dug out in the remnants of ruined cities.

  • The Drowned World (1962) foretells global warning and describes a world where London and New York are largely submerged and much of the planet is a series of large and strikingly beautiful tropical lagoons.

  • The Drought (1964) (also published in the U.S. as The Burning World describes another man-made ecological disaster, in which the dumping of radioactive waste causes a shell to form over the seas, turning water into man’s rarest and most precious commodity.

  • The Crystal World, the least overtly about climate change, is generally considered the finest of these novels. The story, about a British doctor journeying a leper colony, encountering a deep African forest to that progressively turns into crystalline forms, has obvious parallels with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and marks Ballard’s own transition into more abstract and experimental worlds such as The Atrocity Exhibition

Only The Crystal World is in print in the U.S., but you can find The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World in print in the U.K..

You can view artist Richard Power’s covers for these and other of Ballard’s works at Rich McGrath’s treasure trove of Ballard artifacts and criticism,

James Guetti, 1937-2007

Novelist and critic James Guetti died 11 January 2007 at his home in Leverett, Massachussetts. Guetti’s 1972 novel, Action, was one of the titles featured by Roger Sale in his 1979 American Scholar article, “Neglected Recent American Novels”. Sale wrote of Action, “… the best novel I know about gambling, and indeed is so much better than most that the others cease to count. Furthermore, it has a grand opening sequence that is, by itself, a first-rate short story, and, to boot, a wonderful indicator for any wary reader of what is in store.”

Guetti taught for 36 years at Rutgers in New Brunswick, before retiring in 2000. Although most of his publications were critical works on Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, he published a second, autobiographical, novel, Silver Kings, after his retirement. Portions of Silver Kings can be read online at the publisher’s website. His obituary from the New Jersey Star-Ledger is currently available online.

H. L. Humes

“Somewhere on the bookshelf between forgotten and neglected, between the tragic and the strange, stands the reputation of the American writer Harold L. Humes,” writes Celia McGee an article in the 13 January 2007 edition of the New York Times:

The Third Man of the postwar Paris expatriate crowd — he was a co-founder of The Paris Review in 1953, with Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton — Doc Humes, as he was known, went on to produce two novels in the late 1950s that placed him at the head of a new generation of writers to watch. But in the ’60s he succumbed to a mental illness that left him paranoid and peripatetic. Yet to those who remember him, he remained so brilliant that even in madness he dazzled, delighted, educated and touched.

Now “Doc,” a documentary by an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (one of Mr. Humes’s daughters) and fresh awareness among several publishers is raising hopes that Mr. Humes’s long out-of-print novels will finally resurface.

If availability of his books is any measure of a writer’s neglect, Humes is currently up in the top ranks. Neither of his two novels are available (even used) on Amazon, and a search of today produced a sum total of two copies each of The Underground City and Men Die.

Alan Cheuse wrote an essay on The Underground City in Rediscoveries II and Ted Morgan named it as one of Antaeus magazine’s “Neglected Books of the 20th Century”. Time magazine wrote of Men Die,

A talented young first novelist named H. L. (for Harold Louis) Humes last year produced an almost classic example of the ambitious book that tries to say too much. The Underground City was at once a war novel, a treatise on right and wrong, an indictment of the human condition. Its 755 pages were too many and too tiring. Now, in less than one-quarter the wordage. Author Humes, 33, has produced a new book that gives off more significance than his first could even suggest….

Author Humes does his work in flashbacks, not the smooth ones of a Marquand, but brusque revelations carved out like sections of a monument to doom. Unfortunately, he also chooses to interpolate interior monologues, which prove only that he has not read James Joyce well enough. But these form a minor irritant compared to the book’s merits — clean writing, crisp description, and a surprisingly accurate sense of the bitter relationships, mostly unspoken, between the enlisted Negroes and their commander. Author Humes is no optimist. Every page of Men Die implies an underlying sense of doom for mankind; yet every page is also immensely readable.

Immy Humes has also set up a website, The Doc Humes Institute, to promote Humes and her documentary. You can also read a short sketch of Humes’ life and work at Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody Slept Here, by Elliott Arnold

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Everybody Slept Here'Elliott Arnold’s Everybody Slept Here is a tragi-comic account of Washington, D.C. during World War Two. Arnold’s descriptions of how the sleepy Southern capitol coped with a huge influx of people brought in by a government engaged in a global Industrial Age war will remind some readers of David Brinkley’s best-selling Washington at War. The atmosphere in both books is much the same. Housing is beyond a premium. Privileges and perks are as much a part of the everyday economy as dollars and cents. Enthusiastic idealists, opportunistic fixers, and effete society dames all find themselves jostled together in the best restaurants and the lowest dives. And as could be expected of any place with a large temporary population with some idle hours and spending money, more than the usual amount of booze and sex can be had.

As both the hardback and paperback covers show, its publishers pushed Everybody Slept Here as a book about sex. Which it is, in the sense that it’s obvious that characters in the book have sex. But being a 1940s’ sex book, the tawdry details of the act itself are still left off-stage. So it seems pretty tame stuff today, and is by far the least interesting part of the book.

Everybody Slept Here centers on a few of the tenants of one of the better apartment houses in the city. It’s a hodge-podge of personalities: Willy, a simple but garrulous Rotarian from San Bernardino who’s turned out to be a pretty handy political operator on behalf of the Army; his wife, who’s found alcohol an effective way to calm her fears about taking the step from bridge clubs to Capitol society circles; Kitty, technically married to a soldier in the Pacific but “dating” heavily in his absence; a Robert MacNamara-like technocrat who discovers that efficiency has relatively little political value. There’s even the building’s concierge, a would-be antebellum princess with a relish for malicious gossip who’s stooped to dealing with the arrivistes brought by the war.

Cover of first US paperback edition of 'Everybody Slept Here'Many of the characters Arnold sketches are one-dimensional and forgettable, but he does a marvelous job with Willy and his wife. Willy wears a girdle to rein in his gut and relaxes by sewing women’s’ dresses, and serves his time in uniform finding the best Scotch, the finest steaks, and whatever other amenities the Congressmen and generals need. It would be easy to make him preposterous and contemptible. Instead, Arnold is able take us past first impressions and show that he is also an honorable man in his own way, and a tender husband to his fragile wife.

The real merit of Everybody Slept Here, though, is not in Arnold’s treatment of the characters but in his precision in depicting the environment of wartime Washington. Nothing in his portrayal of the military, of the working of the political machines of industrial warfare, or of way people worked, ate, drank, and partied rings false. Everybody Slept Here could easily substitute for Washington at War as an introduction to its subject, and it lacks the affectionate haze leant by the distance of forty years to some aspects Brinkley’s book.

This is certainly not a great novel, and I won’t start campaigning for its reissue, but it is a fairly entertaining one. And it’s a grown-up’s book, by which I mean that it’s one in which characters act and make choices in a way that adults usually have to in the real world: not abruptly, not dramatically, and not as cleanly and neatly as they might like.

There’s one big exception to this. Kitty eventually throws herself out the window after making love with a disabled soldier. It’s so abrupt, melodramatic, and clean and neat that it’s the one thing in the book that IS preposterous.

Other Comments

· Russell Mahoney, New York Times, 30 May 1948

Everybody Slept Here must be condemned by the conscientious reviewer as superfluous. Some parts only; by far the greater part of this lively tale of wartime Washington has a very genuine interest, ranging from the real human insight which is the novelist’s stock in trade down to the clever reporter’s tricks which the rank file of novelists use to piece out their insight.

· Joseph Holbrook Jackson, San Francisco Chronicle, 16 April 1948

Mr. Arnold is a novelist. And even when he’s purposely writing with sales figures in his eyes, he can’t help making his book a good deal better than (a) it sounds here, or (b) the bosomy jacket will suggest to you. For Mr. Arnold saw something of wartime Washington himself. He had a chance to see what went on behind some of the protective coloration that was called “brass.” He learned how things get done in certain kinds of groups, what roles the adroit politician might play when it was wartime and normal rules had to go out of the window…. And these things he impales sharply in his story. More, he saw also what the decent, reasonably forthright regular Army career officer was like, and came to understand what it was that really made the Army tick.

· Springfield Republican, 25 April 1948

While Mr. Arnold isn’t exactly reticent about sex, he has come the closest yet of all the writers who have tried to explain what the nation’s capitol was like during World War II…. It is a rough, lively and often very funny book, with an undercurrent of seriousness that shows Mr. Arnold to be a most competent critic of his fellow men.

· Winnipeg Free Press, 4 September 1948

In an era of uninhibited novels, Mr. Elliott’s [sic] study of a group of heels in wartime Washington deserves the prize for frankness. The author, who writes with brutal clarify and often poignant insight, leaves no stone unturned in his quest for the slimy aspect of the U.S. capital at a time when the world was battling Hitler and his cohorts.

Once, however, the initial shock of meeting such a collection of over-sexed, neurotic and generally frowsy characters is overcome, one can see in the purpose of the writer an honesty and a skill which will commend it to the attention of all those who like a hard-bitten, honest and frankly realistic book.

Find a copy

Everybody Slept Here, by Elliott Arnold
New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1948