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0 - The Neglected Books Page

Season’s Greetings, by Herbert Clyde Lewis

It’s fitting that the last book I feature this year is Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Season’s Greetings. His work–particularly his first novel, Gentleman Overboard, which I reviewed here back in July, has been one of the best discoveries and pleasures of this year. I only regret not getting this piece written a few days ago, since Season’s Greetings, his third novel, takes place on Christmas Eve.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Season's Greetings'The story takes us through the day in the minds of the residents of a rooming house in the Greenwich Village – Lower Fifth Avenue area of Manhattan. Mr. Kittredge–we never learn his first name–is a depressed, dyspeptic, world-weary World War One veteran who plans to commit suicide that night. Betty Carson is a young girl from Cape Cod, now working at Macy’s. Betty has discovered that she’s pregnant, by a man named Joe Henderson who left a month ago and hasn’t contacted her since. Having given up hope of seeing him again, Betty has decided to visit an abortionist after work.

Hans Metzger is a German Jew, a refugee stuck in limbo–unable to return home, unable to join his surviving sisters in South America. Minnie Cadgersmith, a widow in her seventies, suffers from a variety of ailments and has determined that she will die in her sleep that night after paying a visit to her three grandchildren. And Flora Fanjoy takes pride in having saved her pennies over the years and managed to rise from serving girl to own her own humble but upstanding rooming house.

As might be expected of any story set on Christmas Eve, each of Lewis’ main characters experiences a revelation of one sort or another in the course of the day. Soon after her tenants leave, Flora is struck on the head by a falling can of cleanser and falls down her basement stairs, landing paralyzed and unable to speak. Her only witness, her cat Flossie, soon abandons her to roam the neighborhood, and Flora gradually becomes aware that she will, in all likelihood, die before anyone comes to look for her. Lewis provides a fine passage describing how Flora learns “that there were tones and shades of blackness”:

It was nighttime, Mrs. Fanjoy realized. When first she opened her eyes the blackness had been gray, so that she had been able to discern dimly above and ahead of her the flight of stairs leading to the first floor hallway. The eyes of Flossie her cat had shone milkily opalescent in this gray blackness, she remembered. But after a while Flossie had gone away, and Mrs. Fanjoy, straining her eyes at the stairs, had watched their color and the color around them change imperceptibly to brown black, so strikingly brown black that it seeme she was lying in the center of a chocolate world. She had watched the brown black then, watched it fearfully a long time, until without warning it had vanished in the surrounding gloom, and a new color, a majestic, funereal color, had appeared to take its place. This was purple black, a blackness of such incredibly pure purple that it made each stair on the staircase stand out solemnly and distinctly from the others. And Mrs. Fanjoy had looked at the purple black, looked at it and dissected it and mentally run her fingers through its rich thickness, for a timeless time of endless minutes and hours, until, at last, she had seen it start to fade. She had watched it fade, watched it thicken and solidify and drop down into the well of darkness around her, until the last hard fleck of it was no more, and then, all of a sudden, it was black black, and Mrs. Fanjoy knew what time it was.

This quote may offer a hint of a prevailing feature of Season’s Greetings. Coming it at just over 400 pages, it’s over twice as long as Lewis’ three other books. In writing of Gentleman Overboard, I remarked that, “It’s been said that a true artist knows when to stop–and does. By this criterion alone, Herbert Clyde Lewis proves himself a true artist….”

Well, by the same criterion, Season’s Greetings proves something less than a work of art. There are plenty of places where a healthy application of blue pencil would have enabled Lewis to make his points with the kind of subtlety and grace one finds throughout Gentleman Overboard.

On the other hand, one of the great pleasures of the novel is the space it can offer the writer, the space to stretch out and explore alleys and sideways that run off the course of the main narrative–detours that can’t be afforded in a more economical form like a short story. And Lewis constantly goes wandering off into the maze of streets and lives one finds in Manhattan. He devotes a whole chapter to the thoughts of Mrs. Fanjoy’s cat, Flossie, as she leaves her owner’s side, looks around the house for food, then heads out to the tiny, barren backyard–her kingdom. Metzger befriends a bum who relates much of his life’s story, full of travel to seaports around the world and violent struggles in the early days of labor.

And he spins out many prose poems to Manhattan itself:

Very slowly the city came to life on this morning of the day before Christmas. The sun rose out of the ocean, out of Queens, out of Brooklyn, and shone listlessly through the heavy black clouds upon the slush-covered rooftops, the dirty windows, the grimy east sides of buildings, the sooty smokestacks, chimneys and air vents. Slowly the noises of the city came to life, autos shifting gears, horns honking, doors slamming shut, trains rumbling underground, machines chugging and whirling, feet tramping, babies wailing, children shouting, peddlers calling their wares. Slowly the smells of the city came to life, coffee brewing, bacon frying, garbage stewing, chemicals churling in cauldrons. And men who had a talent for putting one stone on top of another built towers into the sky so they could look down upon all this.

Needless to say, a book set in Manhattan leaves its author with no shortage of excuses to indulge in such descriptive flurries, and you’ll find them here by the dozens. Perhaps a few too many for some readers, but I was usually happy to follow along whenever Lewis strayed from his course.

Lewis had devoted much his first two books–Gentleman Overboard and Spring Offensive–to coldly watching his protagonists die alone. And even though Season’s Greetings is a Christmas story and most of his characters reach the end of the day at least a little happier than they started, Lewis retains a bit of his trademark dispassion. As most of the other characters come together in the rooming house, Mr. Kittredge calmly walks to Washington Square, finds a secluded park bench, and blows a hole through his chest.

No one heard the loud report or saw Mr. Kittredge half rise from the bench and topple over onto the snow. A motorist driving under the arch on Fifth Avenue thought for a moment he had heard a shot, but decided it was only an auto backfiring. Around the whole windswept park, in all the apartment houses and brownstone mansions and college buildings, not a single window opened and not a single person looked out.

Lewis’ theme is, as one character puts it, “the problem of loneliness in a city of eight million people.” While Hans and Mrs. Cadgersmith find its solution in the company of others and Betty Carson is reunited with Joe Henderson instead of left alone to recover from an abortion, Lewis is too much of a realist–he was at one point a crime reporter for the New York Herald Tribune–to let Christmas miracles fix everyone’s problems. Frank Capra would undoubtedly left Mr. Kittredge out if he’d filmed Season’s Greetings.

Ironically, Liberty Films acquired the rights to another Christmas story by Lewis, “It Happened on Fifth Avenue,” intending it to be directed by Capra. Although Capra opted for “It’s a Wonderful Life” instead, a film version of Lewis’ story was released in 1947. Starring one of the best character actors of the 1940s, Victor Moore, “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” is something of a neglected film classic and earned Lewis an Oscar nomination for his original story. Lewis worked in Hollywood for about six years in the mid-forties, becoming friends with Humphrey Bogart and others, but he returned to New York City around 1948 and joined the editorial staff of Life magazine. He died of a heart attack in 1950, leaving behind a wife and two children. Some years later, somewhat inexplicably, a fourth novel, The Silver Dark was published as a paperback. All his work has been out of print for over 50 years now, and Season’s Greetings is so scarce that doesn’t even list it.

Here’s hoping a Christmas miracle might come to one of Herbert Clyde Lewis’ books soon.

Locate a Copy

Season’s Greetings, by Herbert Clyde Lewis
New York: The Dial Press, 1941

The Sun’s Attendant, by Charles Haldeman

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Sun's Attendant'After receiving a long post by Charles Haldeman’s brother, Richard, in response to my piece on Charles’ second novel, The Snowman, I decided to try his first novel, The Sun’s Attendant, which received enthusiastic praise in the Times Literary Supplement:

To finish a new novel by an unknown author with a sense of complete satisfaction is rare. To come across one that compels instant second and even third readings is far rarer. The Sun’s Attendant suggests itself as something more than a fresh and accomplished work of fiction. It arouses the kind of puzzled excitement that can sometimes mark the entrance of an outstanding writer. At the very least, Mr. Haldeman has a most original mind and a set of unusual gifts.

Such praise raises questions: If true, how is it that The Sun’s Attendant has vanished from any critical account of 1960s American fiction, gone unnoticed after its initial release? Or did the reviewer simply get it wrong?

The Sun’s Attendant is nothing if not ambitious. Although it’s just over 300 pages long, it’s dense with difficult, challenging writing. Joyce, Gide, and, I suspect, Günter Grass, are noticeable influences. There is little conventional narrative that runs for more than a few pages.

As Marvin Mudrick described the book in his New York Review of Books review,

It is an enormous collage of fragments: isolated jokes, apothegms, parables, riddles, letters, notebook entries, newspaper articles, fairytales; a journal introduction, written in a clever pastiche of the high-collar rhetoric by which French intellectuals (even Camus) find it too easy to convince themselves of their sincerity (“My only hope is that in laying these strange pages in the hands of others, I shall perhaps have begun to reopen some long-closed windows in myself”); lengthy passages of interior monoloque; passages of stage-dialogue: each of the fragments headed by a title barely indicative, helpfully informative, or cryptically sardonic; abrupt dislocations from one character or milieu to another.

Haldeman also chose an overt and apparently symbolic structure. Subtitled, “A Diptych,” the book has two main sections–Left Panel and Right Panel, with a short linking section called Hinges. Each panel is divided into three sections named after positions of a planet as it orbits the sun: Summer Solstice; Aphelion; Autumn Equinox, etc..

All this deliberate artifice is meant to give weight and depth to the story of Stefan Brückmann, a half-German, half-Gypsy boy who is caught up in the turbulent history of Germany from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. Born to an itinerant Roma family, he loses his parents when their wagon falls through the ice while crossing a river somewhere in Central Europe. Taken in by his German uncle, he rebels against Nazi conventions and spends his time with other Roma and outcasts on the margins of Berlin.

Swept up in a late round-up of unwanted non-Aryans in 1943, he is sent to Auschwitz. On his sixteenth birthday, as he is about to resign himself to being sent to the gas chambers, he is yanked out of the huts thanks to his German bloodline and sent to be an attendant in one of the camp’s SS barracks. Stefan refers to the SS men as “the priests.” There, he is befriended by Hannes, a slender, blonde homosexual a few years older, who is also working in the barracks.

Cover of first U.K. edition of 'The Sun's Attendant'As the Russians approach, Stefan and Hannes are moved, along with other inmates, towards the West. They manage to escape when an Allied plane attacks their train, causing it to derail, but Hannes is wounded and soon dies. Stefan is interned again, this time by the Americans, as a displaced person. An American G.I., a Southerner named Moon (more symbolism), takes a liking to Stefan and eventually adopts him. After a brief spell in South Carolina, full of atmosphere straight out of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Stefan returns to Europe.

In Paris, he meets up with a French intellectual, Immanuel de Bris, who ends up taking him along on a lecture trip to Heidelberg. There, de Bris introduces him to Barbara Speer, recently widowed by the suicide of her husband, a promising young poet and critic. The twists and turns of Stefan and Barbara’s relationship, as they come together, wring hangs over their respective losses, encounter various artists and intellectuals in postwar Germany, part, and, finally, come to some kind of reconciliation, fills the second half of the book (Right Panel).

I stuck with Haldeman to the very end of The Sun’s Attendant out of simple faith in his artistic aims. He did not set himself an easy task. He clearly wanted to take on profound questions about life and death, playing out his story against a backdrop where death is everywhere and on a large scale. And he lacked no courage when it came to embracing absurdity. Great personalities come to ridiculous ends in his story. And the reader regularly gets exposed to short bursts of what I can only suppose is meant to be purely absurdist prose:

Merchants are no longer sure of Canada: its puppet strings were snipped by Vichy scissors. Spectacles, hats and rings went down with boots.

Only the blank uncounted Sunday flies fill their ears like inedible puddings.

Swollen prunes and spilt milk mingle with the natal flow and the honey of Canaan.

As well as great clumps of weighty thoughts:

But just as life, as a wound, depends on death, as a body, for its sustenance, Man himself could not begin to realize himself until his fall had wounded Eden. Man will return at once to his original home, which has never ceased to exist, in the very moment that his wound becomes irreversible–that is, when life is no longer healable by death.

There’s a little of everything here: Brechtian dialogues, rabbinical , dry analyses auf die Akademie, pensees worthy of Satre’s review, Les Temps modernes, Gypsy folktales, even snatches straight out of Kerouac:

I began to wander, from town to town, always farther inland. I reached the Rockies and, repelled by them, turned southward and back. Two years I drifted, sometimes working, mostly not. I avoided trains and seldom hitchhiked; usually I took buses, with endless accordion tickets, go off in unlikely places, stayed an hour or a day and go back on, in and out of a kind of sleep-read-sleep-talk-stop-start-sleep, on and on through the slow transitions, the wastes, the geographical paradoxes, the dry primitivity, through the inexplicable familiarity, freak electricity and sudden clarity, the named placelessness of the American continent, transported by an absurd, fluid, heart-breaking dream of distance.

Do all these fragments amount to something as significant and serious Haldeman seems to have intended it to be? Serious–yes. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote in his review for the New York Times, “We are always conscious of the author’s utter seriousness of purpose, that he is less engaged in display than in the fulfillment of his themes.”

Charles Haldeman, 1963'Significant, though? Sadly, The Sun’s Attendant suffers from the tendency of many inexperienced writers to mistake serious for profound. Giving Stefan Brückmann an interesting story does not make him an interesting character. The book’s end comes as a relief, not a revelation.

As Kauffmann put it, “[W]hat we are left with is the work of a young writer … who is able and attractively ambitious but who has attempted subjects not yet within his grasp.” Mudrick reached much the same conclusion: “The energy of the novel dissipates itself in local effects–comments, technical surprises, aphorisms, short-lived intellectual fireworks of impressive diversity and inventiveness–and nothing is left for the long run.”

After finishing The Sun’s Attendant,I picked up another of Eric Hatch’s novels, Road Show, and the contrast reminded of Coleridge’s line about Fielding (“To take him up after Richardson, is like emerging from a sick room heated by stoves, into an open lawn, on a breezy day in May”). I can’t imagine turning back, like the TLS critic, for a second and third read of Haldeman’s book. But then the TLS’s man may have been a better reader than I, Gunga Din.

I will not, however, give up my faith in Mr. Haldeman. I have ordered his last novel, Teagarden’s Gang, which, according to his brother Richard, “was unable to find an American publisher because a main character was too closely identified with J. Edgar Hoover, still powerful and living.” Written ten years after The Sun’s Attendant, it may just deliver on his promising ambitions.

Find a Copy

The Sun’s Attendant, by Charles Haldeman
London: Jonathan Cape, 1963
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964

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

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

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

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

Five Days (AKA Five Nights), by Eric Hatch

In the 1951 reference book, American Novelists of Today, it says of Eric Hatch, “He writes entertaining popular novels which are enlivened by a pleasant vein of humor and by light, satirical characterizations.” This is a polite academic way of saying, “Eric Hatch writes screwball comedies.”
Cover of 1948 Bantam paperback edition of 'Five Days'
Screwball comedies such as “Bringing Up Baby” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” were staples of Hollywood film-making in the 1930s and 1940s and a few are now considered among the finest examples of the art. The situations of screwball comedies were usually ridiculous–mistaken identities, cross-dressing, assumed crimes (the same sort of things that worked for Aristophanes and Shakespeare)–but there is one constant: silly idle rich people.

Well, this is exactly the same raw material Eric Hatch mined in nearly 20 novels written between 1928 and the early 1970s–most of them in the first twenty years of that time. It’s no coincidence that the one novel for which Hatch is likely to be remembered today–My Man Godfrey–was made into one of the greatest of all Hollywood screwball comedies. Five Days (later retitled Five Nights when issued as a Bantam paperback in 1948, mainly to play up the sex angle) is a perfect example.

As the book opens, Beadleston Preece, known in the papers as the “Millionaire Sportsman”, sits dejected on the terrace of his Long Island mansion as night falls. The auctioneers’ men haved just hauled off all his belongings. For reasons he little comprehends, his fortune, so his broker tells him, has evaporated in the stock market and he is now penniless. He begins to think his only recourse is to go up to his bedroom and hang himself when he turns to find a man holding a gun on him.

He turns out to be a burglar all set to rob the house. Preece breaks the bad news to him and soon Swazey (Lionel Stander, if Hollywood had gotten around to filming this) is commiserating alongside. “Say,” Swazey interjects, “did you beat up dis guy what lost your chink for you?” And soon, thanks to Swazey’s immoral leadership, the two are sneaking onto the stock broker’s estate and stealing his fifty-foot yacht.

Over the course of the next five days (or nights, depending on which edition you’re reading), Preece and Swazey manage to accumulate a small band of fellow runaways, including an Episcopalian bishop, a debutante, a girl from the Jersey waterfront, and the unhappy husband of patent-medicine heiress. Their ramblings around Long Island and New York City waters takes them to such fixtures of East Coast society as the Harvard-Yale Regatta and a lavish dinner dance in Newport. And there a few more crimes, such as a break-in at a fancy Newport dress shop, all pulled off with the lightest of excuses and consciences, and lots of hot and cold running booze.

As I read Five Days, I kept picturing the unmade film version. Preece would have to be played by someone with the right touch of naivete–Joel McCrea, probably. Mary from Jersey would have to be young and a bit street-smart–Ginger Roger would be too old, Betty Hutton too young. Bishop Hartley would have to someone with a nice balance of propriety and mischief–Edward Everett Horton, maybe. Lewis Stone, probably not–not mischievous enough.

Eric Hatch, author of 'Five Days'

“Move over, Wodehouse! Make room for Eric Hatch,” wrote a reviewer of one of Eric Hatch’s early novels, and there’s a lot of truth in that statement. P. G. Wodehouse’s reputation is now well-fixed in the literary firmament, despite the utterly frivolous nature of all his work and that bit of unpleasantness during his time in Nazi-occupied France. Yet one can easily argue that much of Hatch’s work shares the same characteristics that have enabled Wodehouse’s work to survive the test of time. The classic Wodehouse novel sits somewhere in the ambiguous zone between the end of the Great War and the start of the Great Depression. Hatch’s period sites about a decade or so later, between the end of Prohibition and the introduction of television. Both build on a solid bedrock of silly, idle, but fundamentally good-natured and tolerant rich people and working class characters with rough exteriors and hearts of gold.

Hatch’s characters aren’t quite as prim as Wodehouse’s. They drink and smoke and break a law or two along the way. And I can’t imagine a Wodehouse woman muttering “Itch-bay” to a shrewish wife, as one of Hatch’s does. But Hatch’s novels have the same sense of being fixed in a particular period while managing to seem timeless, and I have to say I did actually find myself chuckling at a number of points throughout the book. If things in the world were just, which they aren’t, we would see Five Days, Road Show, and Little Darling sitting a few feet down the shelves from The Inimitable Jeeves. But if the rest of the world can’t manage to figure this out, that won’t keep me from giving a few more of Eric Hatch’s novels a try.

Five Days, by Eric Hatch
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1933

Reach to the Stars, by Calder Willingham

I included Reach to the Stars on my Editor’s Choices when I first created this site, based mostly on a fond memory of reading the book back in the 1980s. I was going through a lot of black (black meaning dark, nihilistic) humour at the time (Burt Blechman, Bruce Jay Friedman), and Willingham’s novel seemed very much an early example of the genre. Willingham shows no compunction about making fun of alcoholics, gays, and the aged in this book.
Cover of 1953 Signet paperback edition of 'Recah to the Stars'
If anything, on second exposure, the book seems rawer than any of the 60s examples of black humor. There is no one remotely likeable. Dick Davenport, Willingham’s protagonist from his 1950 novel, Geraldine Bradshaw and the central figure here, is an asshole with laughable pretensions of writing ability. Mr. Fletcher, the hotel’s assistant manager, is a sexual predator. The manager totters on the edge of sanity. The lead bell-hop is a rapist and thief. The newstand girl is a prostitute. The best-known of the hotel’s resident film stars are, respectively, a nymphomaniac, a closet homosexual, a drunk, and an abusive loud-mouth. And here’s a sample of Willingham’s empathy for the aged:

Mrs. Jameson, Mrs. Wheeler, and Mrs. Werby looked almost as old as Penny, and their state of health was as bad. Mrs. Wheeler and Mrs. Werby often carried walking sticks to help them get around, and Mrs. Jameson always carried one. Mrs. Jameson and Mrs. Wheeler had arthritis and liver trouble, and Mrs. Werby had dizzy spells. Mrs. Jameson also had dizzy spells. All of them had moustaches, especially Mrs. Wheeler, and they all had indigestion, nightmares, skin trouble, and other things.

And nothing good happens to anyone in the book. Willingham’s Hotel Goncourt is a high-priced sanctuary of degradation, excess, and decay in the midst of wartime America and it’s hard to see why anyone would put his life at risk to defend it. In fact, nothing much happens at all.

The life continued as always, but to Davenport it seemed that nothing was happening, or if it was it had no significance. Nothing seemed to have any effect on him; it was a dream , a dream of chaos in technicolor, and the painful flashes of reality that illuminated the scene from time to time were like heat lightning and seemed to make no difference at all. He was indifferent, and shrugged his shoulders and went to sleep standing up at the bell stand.

After several months at the hotel, Davenport takes off again, headed for New York. What do we or he learn from the experience? Not much.

Every few chapters, Willingham tosses in a few pages from a science fiction story: “Nelor the Andallian stared attentively at the telescreen, waiting for the first faint buzz to stop….” Why? Perhaps these are meant to be samples from the stack of SF magazines Davenport’s roommates is constantly reading. Perhaps they are meant to suggest that the world of the Hotel Goncourt is as artificial as that of bug-eyed monsters and space patrolmen. Or perhaps Willingham just put them in as an experiment. Since I’m feeling in a generous mood toward the book, I’ll chalk it up as the last, but I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it.

Throughout his career, Willingham’s fiction tended to split critics and readers into two camps. A few critics and fans, such as Tom Wolfe, considered him a bold, savage satirist and a forerunner of some of the more radical fiction of the 1960s. Newsweek’s reviewer called his 1963 novel, Eternal Fire, one of the finest works of post-war American writing. Others–and their numbers grew over the decade as he published such novels as Providence Island (1969) and The Building of Venus Four (1977)–dismissed him as a hack whose material should stay in the pages of Playboy, where it often appeared. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between the two views. Certainly no one appears to be clamoring to bring his work back in print.

But I have to say that despite the fact that I found Reach to the Stars a bit more of a mess than I remembered, I nevertheless enjoyed its unrepentent meanness. It’s appropriate that Dick Davenport is, in the end, no better than anyone else at the Hotel Goncourt. It would be an insufferable book if any character had any claim to higher moral ground than the others. Instead, everyone is wallowing in the muck. And since I’m feeling so generous, I might even propose that Reach to the Stars could rank as an American counterpart to the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline: negative, nihilistic, and gloriously nasty. If you’re going to wallow in the muck, why do it halfway?

Reach to the Stars, by Calder Willingham
New York City: The Vanguard Press, 1951

Meg Rosoff recommends Sylvester Stein’s “Second-Class Taxi”

Meg Rosoff, award-winning author of such novels as How I Live Now, What I Was, and The Bride’s Farewell, wrote to recommend Sylvester Stein’s novel of life in South Africa under apartheid, Second Class Taxi:

Published by Faber in 1958, it was banned in South Africa for twenty years. The audacity of a white man writing in the character of a dispossessed black South African only works because the voice is so hilarious and tragic and true; as editor of Drum Magazine, an important figure in the early days of the anti-apartheid movement and a supporting member of the ANC, Stein had a unique perspective on the absurd world he describes. It’s a wonderful book.

Banned in South Africa, out of print for most of the last fifty years, Second Class Taxi is now available “in a brilliant new staple-bound A4 format” from the one-title Nononsense Press. It tells the story of Staffnurse Phofolo, a “non-person” who lives in a drain-pipe, hangs out in illegal bars (shebeens), participates in protests, and generally lives outside officially-sanctioned society. While savaging the practices of the South African government, Stein maintained a sly, gently-mocking tone akin to Hasek’s in The Good Soldier Svejk. Stein left South Africa in the late 1950s when state censorship made editing the integrated magazine a near-suicidal endeavor, taking with him the manuscript of this novel.

Stein’s most recent book, Who Killed Mr. Drum? (2003), is still in print from Corvo Books.

“The Best Books You Haven’t Read,” from The American Conservative

Source: “The Best Books You Haven’t Read,” from The American Conservative, 1 December 2009 issue (

Kevin Michael Derby passed along the link to this article, in which 15 conservative writers, critics, and academics offer their nominations of worthy books their readers have probably overlooked. As seems to be typical of such efforts, there are intriguingly novel titles–and a few that leave any true fan of neglected books wondering if the nominator’s sole criterion is that the book’s not currently on an end cap display at Waldenbooks. How else could Jeffrey Hart suggest that Winesburg, Ohio is underappreciated?

Some of the more interesting titles and comments from the article:

Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918-1945, 2nd Edition, by John Wheeler-Bennett

Nominated by Jacob Heilbrunn, author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons and a senior editor at The National Interest: “No doubt it’s been superseded in many areas by the latest scholarship. But what Wheeler-Bennett possesses, in contrast to many of his successors, is the ability to transform the corruption of the army by the Nazis into a beautifully written, tense drama, complete with majestic and convincing judgments about the individuals who speeded or tried to resist Germany’s descent into totalitarianism… Once opened, Wheeler-Bennett’s massive history is almost impossible to put down.”

Roger’s Profanisaurus, from the pages of Viz magazine

Nominated by Alexander Waugh, grandson of Evelyn and author of Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family and The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War. “The Profanisaurus is essentially a dictionary of filthy words and idioms compiled with so much cleverness, wit, and complicated cross-referencing that the reader who consults it for one definition finds himself browsing indefinitely. Profanisaurus brings tears to my eyes and is honestly the funniest, most enlightening, and most enlightened book I know.” Viz, which makes Mad magazine look prim, is the most successful humor magazine in the U. K. (a sample from a recent issue: “A Kettering Man’s Appeal to Space Aliens: ‘Please Leave My Arse Alone!'”). Which is one reason why this volume is probably most often found in the one-seater library. U. K. readers may be happy to learn that a paperback version of the book has recently been released with the title, Magna Farta.

The American Beaver and His Works, by Lewis Henry Morgan

Nominated by Peter W. Wood, author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now. “It is what it sounds like: detailed observations on a bucktoothed rodent that devotes itself to hydraulic engineering. The writing is anything but fanciful. Morgan was a serious man with a scientific purpose. But his book grows and grows from mere external characteristics of beavers to a fugue on beaver dams and lodges, culminating in a chapter on ‘manifestations of the animal mind.’ He ultimately sees the beaver not just as a creature of instinct but as a ‘reasoning’ animal.” You can purchase this book from several print-on-demand houses, but why not just download it yourself from the Internet Archive?

The London Dialogues, by David Hirst

Nominated by Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Easily the rarest title on the list–unavailable from anyone but the author (David Hirst, 24 Kidmore Road, Caversham, Reading, Berkshire, RG4 7LU, England). “About 30 years ago, I gave a rave review to a book called The London Dialogues, which, in spite of most profoundly and originally addressing all the important issues of this or any other age—love, property, beauty, art, science, sex, equality, populism, race—has scarcely been read at all. The trouble is that the author, David Hirst, did not so much contradict all the current intellectual fashions as rise above them, or rather look down upon them. The effect on me was like breathing fresh air—immensely bracing and refreshing if shockingly politically incorrect.” I’m assuming this is the same David Hirst who once wrote for the Guardian and published one of the best-regarded books on the politics of the Middle East, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East.

Books to Watch “Mad Men” By, Part 2

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d really tapped the vein of Madison Avenue books in my first post on books to watch “Mad Men” by, so I returned to the coalface and started digging some more.

It turns out that by the time of “Mad Men”, the early 1960s, most of the literature of the New York advertising world–not that much of it deserves the “literature” label–had already been written. 1958, in fact, appears to have been the highpoint of Mad Lit, as this article from Time magazine suggests, which surveys a half-dozen novels published that year set in and around the advertising business. Although the reviewer dismisses most of them as easily interchangeable with camp science fiction with a simple switch of scenery–“the bug-eyed monsters will be replaced by tyrannical clients, the clean-cut spacemen by bright-eyed space-buyers, and the half-dressed blondes by other half-dressed blondes”–his description of their heroes sounds remarkably similar to that of the protagonists of “Mad Men.” “They are drumbeatniks who brood during a few drinks about the morality of what they are doing, then get over it.”

Here, then, are some more sagas of Scotch, sex, and sales campaigns for those who can’t get enough from a weekly session on the tube.

A Twist of Lemon, by Edward Stephens

“A young man’s desparate scramble up the cold and treacherous plate-glass cliffs of Madison Avenue,” according to its dust jacket. Here is a book that Barry Goldwater would love. What’s wrong with being a Mad Man is not the business, which in the end only “honestly and intelligently and faithfully advertises sound products to people who are glad to know about them. And that, after all, is what makes the economy go around.” What’s wrong is doing it in the plate-glass cliffs, which is why the hero heads to Phoenix to set up his own mom-and-pop ad company, in a steel-and-stucco cliff, one assumes.

Cover of 'Pax'

Pax, by Middleton Kiefer

Harry Middleton and Warren Kiefer, one-time PR men for Pfizer, stick it to the Man with this novel about false promises and misleading advertising in the pharmaceuticals business. It’s pure coincidence that SmithKline Beecham later adopted the name Paxil for their successful anti-depressant. It is a fact, however, as shown in the cover of the paperback version of Pax, that there was a brief period in 1958 when advertising executives enjoyed dressing up as airline pilots.

The Admen, by Shepherd Mead

Mead, who’s best remembered now because his 1952 book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, was the basis of a successful Broadway musical and a fun 1967 starring Robert Morse (resurrected forty years later to play Bert Cooper in “Mad Men”), was a Man Mad himself, VP of Benton & Bowles. Mead, who wrote a slew of mostly ephemeral satirical books (The Big Ball of Wax, The Carefully Considered Rape of the World, Free the Male Man!, How to Get to the Future Before It Gets to You), considered this his best book. Time’s reviewer had a different opinion, well and truly skewering it: “This time the author does not try for laughs, instead achieves a notable first: a novel whose characters will have to be deepened before they are translated to the screen.” The book did earn Mead one of the Establishment’s highest forms of recognition, though: it was issued as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.

The Detroiters, by Harold Livingston

Set in Detroit rather than Manhattan, but an ad-biz saga nonetheless. “Call-girls, debutantes and wives–the big novel about big operators, big deals, and beautiful women” trumpets the cover of this novel–and who would deny that fascination with a time when blatant sexism was not just tolerated but encouraged is part of the attraction of “Mad Men”? Livingston displays the schizophrenia of his fellow ad-man writers: “Good writers … look down their noses at advertising. They’d rather starve. So what does it get them? Self-respect? Integrity? Try paying your bills with integrity.” You thought that last line was a cliche, right? Nope, someone actually wrote it. I believe Livingston later attempted to copyright “Try paying your bills with integrity.”

Cover of A Really Sincere Guy

A Really Sincere Guy, by Robert van Riper

Yes, that really is the book’s title. Riper, who worked for the prominent PR firm, N. W. Ayer, wrote several novels about the intersection of PR and politics. In this one, his PR man hero sets aside his principles to tout a louse running for governor, fools around with a fast woman, then straightens his life out. Straightening his life out consists in returning to his wife, dumping the louse, and setting up his own mom-and-pop PR company. Probably a case where the cover is better than what comes after it.

The Insider, by James Kelly

Kelly, an exec with Compton Advertising, once wrote an article titled, “In Defense of Madison Avenue” for the New York Times magazine. The Insider earned the best reviews of all the books on this list–“told thoughtfully, and is worth reading,” wrote Time; “Not only a very good first novel but solid evidence that Mr. Kelly is a writer of perception and skill,” concluded Saturday Review. Perhaps, in part, because he chose an anti-hero–an amiable account exec married to a drug company heiress who suddenly has to make some real decisions for the first time in his life–rather than a “man of principles” like most of the other novels’. And in Kelly’s case, it was he, rather than his protagonist, who left Manhattan and headed off to the Southwest, settling in New Mexico.

The Golden Kazoo, by John G Schneider

When published in 1956, this satire about Madison Avenue finding a candidate and getting him elected as president (in the far-off year of 1960) as easily as it could pitch “a can of beer, a squeeze tube of deodorant, a can of dog food” seemed far-fetched enough to be considered as material for a Broadway musical. Now, of course, it’s business as usual.

Cover of 'The Advertising Man'

The Advertising Man, by Jack Dillon

This 1972 novel, by a VP of the legendary Dane Doyle Bernbach, was well-received by some critics. Time’s reviewer offered this left-handed compliment: “If this were a polished writing job, it would be one more of those slick commercial novels about an ad agency. Instead, it is clumsy, serious and painstaking, and perhaps as a consequence, considerably more enlightening.” It’s essentially a familiar story: work too hard and the rest of your life will eventually go on the fritz–but rich on authentic Man Med atmospherics.

Chocolate Days, Popsicle Weeks, by Edward Hannibal

Just recently reissued by the Authors Guild epublishing service, iUniverse, this 1970 is, in the words of a Times reviewer, “a rung-by-rung” account of climbing the Madison Avenue ladder in the late 1950s. It won Hannibal a Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship and became a best-seller. The title comes not from advertising, but from its protagonist’s first job, working in an ice cream factory–days making chocolate-covered bars were tougher than those making popsicles. In keeping with its time and the formula for most of the novels discussed here, Hannibal’s ad exec eventually decides to drop out and pursue life away from the rat race–not, however, by setting up his own mom-and-pop ad firm.

Madison Avenue, USA, Martin Mayer

Probably the one to read if you really want to soak up the atmosphere of “Mad Men.” Written in 1958, Madison Avenue, USA is one of Mayer’s specialties: factual, intelligent, and authoritative accounts of how an industry really works.

Spring Offensive, by Herbert Clyde Lewis

Spring Offensive takes place during the first twenty-four hours of the German attack against French and British forces along the Maginot Line in April 1940.

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Spring Offensive'Of course, the Germans didn’t attack the French and British in April 1940, but two months later, in June, and when they did, they wisely bypassed the Maginot Line in favor of a blitzkrieg through the Ardennes and the Lowlands. This is a major reason why Herbert Clyde Lewis’ second novel, Spring Offensive, quickly flew from the new release stacks to obscurity. While the Phoney War dragged on, there was still an opportunity for a writer like Lewis to fantasize about what might happen when the shooting started. When it did start for real, events moved too fast for anyone to have time for fiction.

Peter Winston, Lewis’ protagonist, is a young American from outside Indianapolis serving with a British Expeditionary Force unit encamped in a small French town along the Maginot Line. He’d joined out of mixed motives–a bit of anti-Nazi fervor and a bit of self-pity. His girl had dumped him, he’d lost his job as a newspaper reporter, and his best friend had begun to avoid him as a hopeless loser. Readily accepted into the British Army, he now finds himself killing time in the most meaningless military drills.

One night, he decides to sneak out of the barracks and commit a small act of eco-vandalism. Taking a packet of flower seeds he’d obtained from a villager, he quietly slips into the barbed wire and anti-tank obstacles of the No Man’s Land between the Allied and German lines and spends the night planting seeds.

As dawn breaks the next morning, however, the sky is suddenly filled with the shriek of incoming German artillery shells. Winston injures his ankle in trying to run back to his unit. He takes a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder and winds up pinned down in a shell hole. Over the next few hours, he watches as the fearsome blood-letting of First World War battles like the Somme are re-enacted with faster-firing machine guns and deadlier explosives. Late in the afternoon, a young, frightened German soldier rushing forward in another futile charge bayonets him in the gut, leaving him to die in his muddy crater.

In many ways, Spring Offensive reworks the situation of Lewis’ first novel, Gentleman Overboard, which I covered here several months ago. Instead of a stockbroker slowly drowning in the Pacific, we have a young soldier dying in No Man’s Land. In each book, Lewis switches between the present and flashbacks to his protagonist’s past and between the mind of his unlucky hero and the thoughts of other people in his life. And in both, Lewis is quite effective in conveying the wavering emotions and wandering thoughts of a man consciously moving closer and closer to death.

Unlike in Gentleman Overboard, however, a rather abstract situation is replaced by one very much within the reality of his contemporary readers. In early 1940, the American public was torn between support for the Allies and the isolationist views of the “America First” movement. Some of the thoughts that run through Winston’s mind as he lays in his shell hole touch directly on that debate:

And he was wondering why he had come all the way across the ocean to fight when he might have stayed at home, right in Indianapolis, and fought there. There was a war to be fought in America, he thought, and what a war it was! He was not proud of having been a private in the B. E. F., but he would be proud to be a general in that other army. And millions of men would volunteer, brave young men with hard brave faces, men from the fields and the factories and city streets and country roads, men marching west and shaking their fists at the setting sun. Winston moaned softly and moved his head from side to side. He didn’t want to die; he wanted to live and go home and fight in America’s war, in the war to make American a Land of Promise once again.

Now it could be that this is only meant to be a last thought of a dying man, no more or less significant than his memory of slipping his hand around the waist of his old girlfriend. But it’s hard for me to separate this passage–which, by the way, goes on with yet more Hollywood-ish populist cliches (Lewis did go on to work for the studios)–from the general premise of the book: the young man going out to plant flowers and being caught in the crossfire of a vast, bloody, and largely pointless battle. Perhaps Lewis truly did not intend to take a stand against anything but war itself, abstracted from the context of Nazism, Antisemitism, and Fascism, and was not casting a vote with the America Firsters. He did, after all, demonstrate an ability to view the most desparate situation–a man drowning alone at sea–with remarkable objectivity in Gentleman Overboard.

If he did, then Spring Offensive must rank with one of the great examples in literature of bad timing. Within weeks of its publication, the statis of the Phoney War was replaced by images of Panzer tanks rolling across France and the Nazi flag flying under the Arc de Triomphe. And within a few years, the abstract image of anonymous young German soldiers was replaced by that of S. S. troops carrying out mass executions. Whatever Lewis’ intention, it’s impossible now to view this book outside the context of its time.

In the very last lines of Spring Offensive, a German shell lands directly on top of Winston. “… [A]nd when the smoke cleared away, he wasn’t there any more.” History appears to have had the same effect on Spring Offensive.

Spring Offensive, by Herbert Clyde Lewis

New York City: Viking Press, 1940

A few unusual items on John Cowper Powys’ List of 100 Best Novels

Obooki’s Obloquy recently published the list of titles from a 1916 book, One Hundred Best Books by the sometimes-neglected British novelist, John Cowper Powys. While many of the titles are tried and true standards of the canon–Pride and Prejudice, Faust, Leaves of Grass–there are a number that reflect the tendency of some works to get buried under the shifting sands of taste. So here, for those who might be interested in rediscovering them, are a few notes on the lesser-known items in Powys’ list.

• Sanine [also published as Sanin], by Mikhail Artsybashev

Sanin is a thoroughly uncomfortable book, but it has a fierce energy which has carried it in a very short space of time into almost every country in Europe,” wrote Gilbert Cannan in his preface to the English translation of this book. “In Vladimir Sanine,” he continues, “Artsybashev has imagined, postulated, a man who has escaped the tyranny of society, is content to take his living where he finds it, and determined to accept whatever life has to offer of joy or sorrow.” In other words, a turn-of-the-century Russian take on the old hippy motto, “If it feels good, do it.” A new English translation by Michael Katz was published in 2001 by the Cornell University Press, which wrote that Artsybashev’s novels are “suffused with themes of sex, suicide, and murder.” Also available free from Project Gutenberg.

The Disciple, by Paul Bourget

The Disciple is narrated by Robert Greslou, a private tutor and disciple of the renowned philosopher, Sixte. Based on a true story involving a young disciple of Bourget’s, it centers around an aborted double suicide–aborted by Greslou, after his lover has already taken the plunge. Greslou claims it was all inspired by Sixte’s theories. Contrary to prevailing attitudes today about the teacher-student relationship, Bourget lays most of the blame with Greslou rather than the influence of his mentor.

Round the Corner, by Gilbert Cannan

Subtitled, “Being the Life and Death of Francis Christopher Folyat, Bachelor of Divinity, and Father of a Large Family,” this novel is, in the words of one contemporary review, “The story of the depressing fortunes of an English clergyman and his eight children, for whom happiness seems ‘just round the corner’ and out of reach.” It was also banned by the London censor, mainly for showing the clergy in such grim light. Canan’s first novel had the intriguing title of Peter Homunculus. It can be read online or downloaded in PDF format at the Internet Archive.

The Flame of Life and The Triumph of Death, by Gabriele D’Annunzio

D’Annunzio’s literary reputation has taken a nose dive since Powys’ time. His becoming best buddy and court poet to Mussolini had a little to do with it. That and D’Annunzio’s own super-sized ego. His estate and mausoleum on the hillside above Lake Garda, Il Vittoriale, is a treasure trove of Art Deco and self-glorification, not to be missed if you’re in the area. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) describes one of his protagonists as “viciously self-seeking and wholly amoral Nietzschean,” but this could just as easily describe D’Annunzio himself. Like is too short for dreck like this. Probably justly neglected. I quoted a long and funny passage from “Lust and Leprosy,” Rudolph Altrocchi’s essay on one of D’Annunzio’s plays, elsewhere on this site.

A Night in The Luxembourg, by Remy de Gourmont

When Night was first issued in English translation in 1912, the New York Times called de Gourmont “one of the most extraordinary and significant minds putting thought into print in the world to-day.” This short novel, full of atmosphere and symbolism, is said to have been a major influence on Lawrence Durrell when he started planning his Alexandria Quartet.

The Song of Songs, by Hermann Sudermann

Another tale of a cad letting down a lover–this time, for the comfort and prestige of a marriage to a member of Berlin high society. It was made into a film in 1933, one of Marlene Dietrich’s early American films. In his time, Sudermann was better known as a playwright, but now he isn’t known at all. Thomas Hardy had little enthusiasm for the book’s first English translation: “… unfortunately, rendered into the rawest American, the claims that the original no doubt had to be considered literature, are largely reduced, so that I question if there is value enough left in this particular translation to make a stand for.”’s Most Wanted Out-of-Print Books of the Last Year


From’s annual report of their most-requested titles from searches made from July 2008 to June 2009. A real mix of the obscure, the intriguing, and the utterly uninteresting (Mailer’s “Marilyn”–gimme a break!).

A couple of the more interesting samples:

And I’d Do It Again, by Aimee Crocker

The memoir of an heiress to the San Francisco Crocker fortune, published in 1936. Written–according to Time magazine’s review–“with a lurid, Sunday-supplement archness,” it takes the reader to Asia, India, Germany, and Spain, with love affairs at each stop. ‘The impressionable young lady then returned to San Francisco, married, was almost killed in a train wreck on her honeymoon, got a divorce, hired a 70-ft. schooner and set out for the South Seas, scandalizing the missionaries in Hawaii on the way by taking part in an “orgy,” the precise details of which she does not disclose,’ Time’s reviewer continued. And that’s just the first decade or so!

Ticket to Ride, by Dennis Potter

A critically acclaimed novel from 1987. I was astonished to find it out of print in both the U. S. and the U. K., given Potter’s reputation and popular success for The Singing Detective, but even more astonished to find that–at least at first glance–ALL of Potter’s titles are out of print in the U. S. and less than a handful in print in the U. K.!

The King Ranch, by Tom Lea

Lea, a fine novelist, painter, and illustrator, wrote this official history of the legendary Texas ranch in 1957. Issued in a two-volume boxed set illustrated by Lea himself, this is a fine piece of book publishing. But it turns out that it’s not out of print–you can purchase a commemorative reissue published on the book’s 50th anniversary from the King Ranch Saddle Shop.

On the other hand, I will pass on the Associated Press’ hagiographic tribute to JFK, A Torch is Passed: my Grammy sent me a copy back in 1964.

BBC Radio 4’s Neglected Classics Contest

BBC Radio 4 logoBBC Radio 4’s program, Open Book, recently launched a contest to rediscover “forgotten treasures of the literary world – books that have been overlooked or become inexplicably out of vogue.” The winner will be dramatized on Radio 4 sometime during 2010. You can find out more at the website they’ve set up: “Neglected Classics”.

To get their audiences’ thoughts cranking, Open Book is devoting two programs to discussions with leading U. K. authors on some of their own candidates for this prize. The first, broadcast last Sunday (18 October), can be heard online now at The second will be broadcast on Sunday the 25th. The ten books proposed on the two programs can be found now at the “Neglected Classics” page.

Several U. K. papers and magazines have noted the contest and invited their own readers to propose candidates in their comments threads. The Times covered it in their 17 October book section with an article by Adam Sherwin and commentary by Erica Wagner. Wagner proposes several favorites of her own, including P. V. Glob’s The Bog People, reissued in 2004 by New York Review Classics, and a collection of essays and lectures, The Voice That Thunders, by Alan Garner, whose The Stone Book Quartet has been mentioned on this site before. The Guardian’s Alison Flood also commented on the contest (“Remembering forgotten classics”) the day after the first broadcast. And the Reader Magazine’s “Reader Online” site picked up the idea, also asking for suggestions. I look forward to a rich crop of new titles to investigate and share with fans of this site.

Transport, by Isa Glenn

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Transport'Reading Isa Glenn’s novel, Transport, I kept thinking of the refrain from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo. Only in the case of Transport, it’s round and round the women go, talking of every other soul trapped on a hot, slow steamer from San Francisco to Manila.

Transport is about a group of Army wives and children, along with a sprinkling of officers and enlisted men, traveling to posts in the Philippines some time in the 1920s. This was familiar territory for Glenn. The daughter of an Atlanta mayor, she married Brigadier General Samuel Bayard Schindel in 1903, when he was in his forties and she in her twenties. Glenn accompanied her husband on assignments to Philippines, China, Hawaii, and Panama, and learned well the hothouse atmosphere of rank, manners, and bottled-up ambitions and jealousies of these isolated Army posts.

After her husband died in 1921, Glenn began turning her nearly twenty years’ worth of observations into literature. Encouraged by Carl Van Vechten, she wrote her first novel, Heat, which was published by Knopf in 1926. Heat, which portrayed the failed romance of a young Army officer and an idealistic American teacher caught up in the exotic world of Manila, drew heavily upon her overseas postings with General Schindel, as did its successor, Little Pitchers (1927).

Transport was the last of her novels taken directly from her time as an Army wife. She and Schindel probably took much the same voyage when they were posted to the Philippines. It’s something of a tour de force, in that Glenn set herself a considerable technical challenge in setting the whole of the story within the confines of the promenade deck, dining saloon, library, and cabins and passageways of the transport ship and managing a cast of over twenty distinctly sketched characters. Her ability to weave their movements, conversations, and bondings and partings around her set is on a par with a ballet master’s.

And her talent for tracing the intricate fabric of Army society has something of the touch of Henry James in his later years. It’s a fine, taut, and airless weave that makes one glad to be far removed from it. Take the seemingly simple matter of selecting chairs on the promenade:

For only upon the deck of an army transport do humans act the splendid lie that all men are born free and equal. Passengers have their official assignments to staterooms, and to seatings in the dining saloon, strictly according to the Army List; but there there glorious prerogatives of rank cease. Upon the small deck there is waged a daily battle for the right to the shade, the right to the breezy side, the right to any space that any mortal could conceivably wish to occupy. Silent pressure is put upon the wary and the unwary. The wife of a high ranking officer may come to a halt squarely in front of the chair that you have risen betimes to snatch. Under her cold eye, you cast about in your mind the chances that one day her husband may be in a position to do your husband–or your brother, or your son, or yourself if you happen to be of the right sex from the military standpoint–dirt, or the reverse; and with this thought uppermost, you then do the graceful thing of arising and respectfully seating the lady in the desirable place wherefrom you had been lazily contemplating the day ahead.

However, as John Bradbury notes in Renaissance in the South: A Critical History of the Literature, 1920-1960, while Glenn’s themes, organization, and technique are “astonishingly Jamesian”, her style “is distinctly her own, sharp, pungent, often barbed with wit and satire.” While she understands the logic of Army life, she doesn’t for a second forget that it’s an artificial set of rules and rituals.

As might be expected with any volatile mix of ingredients that is bottled up and shaken about for three weeks straight, this tightly-wound little society eventually explodes. Worn down by the effort of putting up a stolid front, a passed-over major goes momentarily mad and reveals a horrifying secret he and his family have been keeping under wraps for years. The dancers retreat, regroup, and reinforce the pretences that keep this society running smoothly. By the time the ship pulls into Manila Bay, everything is back in order.

Isa GlennGlenn published a total of eight novels in the space of nine years. Two–Southern Charm (1928) and A Short History of Julia (1930)–drew upon Glenn’s early years as a budding Southern belle. Both dissected the pretensions of post-bellum Southern society as coolly and satirically as she dealt with those of the Army. East of Eden (1932) was set in the literary world of New York City she had become a part of, while The Little Candle’s Beam (1935) portrayed the “cave dwellers” of old Washington, D. C. society.

Glenn appears to have exhausted her creative energies by the end of this burst of work, for her later novels received far less notice and far fewer enthusiastic reviews. Although Bradbury calls her 1933 novel, Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age her “take on James’ The Ambassadors“, Newsweek dismissed it with a three-word review: “An average novel.” There are several references to a final novel, According to Mac Tavish, supposedly published in 1938, the title cannot be found in the Library of Congress or New York Public Library catalogs. She died in 1951. Most of her biographies list her birth year as 1888, which would have made her 15 when she married Schindel and 12 when she studied briefly under James McNeill Whistler. It seems more probable that she was born in 1874 as the New York Public Library’s catalog indicates. Her son, Bayard Schindel, published one novel of his own, Golden Pilgrimage, in 1929.

Transport, by Isa Glenn
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929

Books to Watch “Mad Men” By

Like millions of other viewers, my wife and I have been enjoying frequent plunges back into the early 1960s as we blast through the first two seasons of A&E’s “Mad Men” on DVD. I was born in 1958 and have remarkably strong memories from that period: the cars, kitchens, and clothes, in particular.

Though I’d hardly recommend a return to the stereotypes and prejudices of that time, I do feel a certain nostalgia for the style and certainty of the time. So I thought I’d take a moment to note a few titles that readers might find interesting if they’re in the mood for taking a deeper plunge back into the days of “Mad Men.”

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Hucksters'

The Hucksters, by Frederic Wakeman (1946)

This best-seller from 1946 (OK, I’m stretching the boundaries of the era) was the first “expose” of the twisting and turning of the truth that was advertising back in the days before the FCC found its backbone. Its hero, Vic Norman, was an early anti-hero, refusing to kowtow to his boss while devising new ways to sell soap on the radio–a conforming non-conformist rather like “Mad Men”‘s Don Draper. Now out of print.

Aurora Dawn, by Herman Wouk (1947)

Subtitled, “The True History Of Andrew Reale,” this broadly satirical novel tells the story of an utterly unscrupulous young man who scampers to the top of the corporate ladder in an advertising firm leaving more than a few victims along the way. Wouk always emphasized that he’d actually written his book before Wakeman’s, even though it was published a year later. Still in print.

The Price is Right, by Jerome Weidman (1949)

Cover of early paperback edition of 'The Price is Right'Technically, this is a novel about getting ahead in the newspaper business, but it is set on Madison Avenue. Its hero, Henry Cade, decides that, “… you could no more want a little success than you could want a little love … To want less than everything was to get nothing.” “Mad Men”‘s Peter Campbell appears to share this philosophy.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson (1956)

Probably the best-known novel associated with the white collar WASP culture of the 1950s, the fictional counterpart to William Whyte’s classic, The Organization Man. Tom Rath, the hero, is in public relations rather than advertising, a distinguished war veteran, and faithful to his wife, Betsy. So maybe this isn’t the book to read while watching “Mad Men.”

The Naked Martini, by John Leonard (1963)

This first novel by a man who would come to be considered by some “the best critic in America” was panned by Harrison Salisbury in the New York Times: “… it possesses a certain wry wit, but 255 pages seems a long, long journey with no better company than a young adman, his bottles and his babes.” Sounds like a much more promising candidate in this case, however.

Cover of paperback edition of 'From Those Wonderful Folks'

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, by Jerry Della Femina (1971)

Jerry Della Femina has been called one of the “100 most influential advertising people of the 20th century.” This tongue-in-cheek memoir of some of his wilder adventures during the Mad Men era is full of laugh-out-loud passages. Interviewed recently by USA Today, Della Femina said of the time, “It was a business of drinking. The way we lived really would make the characters in “Mad Men” all look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. We drank and screwed around.”

Confessions of an Advertising Man, by David Ogilvy (1985)

A more restrained but still occasionally outrageous memoir, this one by the most famous Mad Man of his time. A 1962 cover article in Time called Ogilvy a “literary wizard,” though some of his most memorable ads had more to do with visual impact (the Hathaway shirt man’s eye-patch) than his copy.

Suds in Your Eye, by Mary Lasswell

Suds in Your Eye is about as substantial as the head on a freshly-poured beer but a lot more fun.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Suds in Your Eye'><a href=Suds tells the story of three older women (and an older man referred to only as “the Old Timer”) who come together to scrape through some lean times during the Second World War. Mrs. Feely lives in a rickety old house known as “Noah’s Ark,” which sits in the middle of the junk yard left her by her husband. Her primary contribution since his passing has been to erect a fence of concrete and old beer cans, and she spends most of her days emptying more of the latter.

She soon invites Miss Tinkham, a piano teacher too poor to keep up with the inflationary rents of wartime San Diego, and Mrs. Rasmussen, another widow, who’s been reduced to squatting in her daughter’s apartment, to join her, and the rest of the book is about how the three pull together and overcome a series of hardships.

Mrs. Feely finds out that her lawyer has been pocketing her property tax payments for years and her house is about to be auctioned off by the county. After a fretful night, they spring into action. Mrs. Feely begins selling her junk to builders slapping together new housing; Miss Tinkham creates leis from the flowers around the house and sells them to sailors on liberty; Mrs. Rasmussen finds out where to get meat scraps and day-old bread and vegetables, out of which she fixes delicious-sounding meals. The three of them get jobs in a tuna-canning plant. And in between, they sing songs, make wisecracks, and drink beer.

Beer plays a prominent role in this book, which is one of its more refreshing aspects. Lasswell definitely believed that life took on a softer, gentler glow after a cold one or two. Every few pages one or other of the characters is walking into the house with a fresh case. The book is also sprinkled with illustrations by the wonderful George Price, who was a master at sketching slightly off-balance characters like the three old ladies in Suds.

Mary Lasswell was a Scots-Texan who started writing while waiting ashore for her first husband, an ensign in the U. S. Navy. The success of Suds led to a whole series about the travels and adventures of Mrs. Feely, Miss Tinkham, and Mrs. Rasmussen: High Time (1944); One on the House (1949); Wait for the Wagon (1951); Tooner Schooner (1953); and Let’s Go For Broke (1962). Lasswell continued to write stories about them, publishing a few in the AARP magazine in the 1970s and 1908s. She also published two cookbooks inspired by the many fine meals whipped up in the books: Mrs. Rasmussen’s Book of One-Arm Cookery (1946) and a reissue with more recipes, Mrs. Rasmussen’s Book of One-Arm Cookery with Second Helpings (1970). “One-arm cookery” means, of course, stirring the pot with one hand and a beer in the other.

Suds is a goofy but warm-hearted comedy of the sort that was very popular in the 1940s. Like Leo Rosten’s The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N and Betty McDonald’s The Egg and I, it’ll give you a few chuckles (even sixty years later) and leave you feeling good about mankind. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

Suds in Your Eye, by Mary Lasswell
New York City: Houghton-Mifflin, 1942

Eight Recommendations from Sonesh Chainani

I’m always interested in getting suggestions from other readers, and when I do, it’s usually just a title or two. Sonesh Chainani, a closet English major in Miami, took a break from his busy schedule to provide a whopping eight-pack of his favorite neglected books. He gets an A+ in my book, because he came up with three titles that are wholly new to me. And I give myself a D- for letting my own busy schedule keep this post on hold for over a week.

Sonesh writes,

I now realize that the roots with obsession with neglected books goes back at least to college, where I wrote my thesis on Julio Cortazar’s 62: A Model Kit, which is mentioned on your site. (New Directions re-released it 2 months after I finished my thesis, but I had to buy an expensive copy from a used bookshop in England in order to read it and I was so fascinated and confused by it that I decided I should write my undergraduate thesis on it.) I remember my advisor telling me that Cortazar was well-respected but nobody read 62: A Model Kit, and I remember the feeling of excitement of opening the book and being hooked by the first paragraph and thinking I may have been one of only a very small group of English-speaking readers who had read this book, which was written, published, and then quietly disappeared.

So, without further ado, let’s leap into Sonesh’s list:

All Heads Turn When the Hunt GoesBy, by John Farris, which was published by Playboy Press in 1977.

I would describe it as a “Southern gothic voodoo sexual horror novel” and though pacing of the book lags in places, the writing creeps up on you. The book opens with a brilliant over-the-top setpiece at a posh formal military wedding at a Southern estate where the groom goes absolutely unhinged with his sabre and darkest Africa takes its revenge on the antebellum south. There is a crumbling church, virginal decapitations, incestuous hysteria — I don’t know what else to say about the opening to the book except that it stuck with me for a while. The rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to the opening but it’s pretty damn good.

Farris is a prolific but very underrated and neglected writer — he wrote the novel The Fury which I haven’t read, but which is the basis of a minor but still enjoyable Brian DePalma movie starring Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving and John Cassavetes. The movie (and I imagine the book) is a funny mixture of the clinical and the lunatic.

In Praise of Older Women, by Stephen Vizinczey

A beautiful book that only a European could have written. Despite the salacious title and deliberately misleading jacket copy, the book is actually both a beautifully constructed engaging first-person novel and an argument for the induction by young men of older (not old but older) women and against the championing of mutual virginity and teenage cluelessness and prudery when it comes to sex. A google search reveals that this book was also made into a movie but I know nothing abou it.

Truth and Lies in Literature: Essays and Reviews, by Stephen Vizinczey

Truth and Lies, which I couldn’t stop reading, although a bit dated as literary criticism, is written in crystalline clear prose. Vizinczey’s prose is beautiful and limpid in both the novel above and this book and his reading of Melville’s “Billy Budd” as disturbing, fraudulent, politically indefensible literature is interesting. (I never liked “Billy Budd” myself but for different reasons.) He champions slightly more neglected or rather unfashionable French classic authors (e.g. Stendhal, Balzac) over the Russians it seems, which is not a very contemporary view, although he is clearly fond of some of the Russians as well. He also has definite and controversial views on various authors (he thoroughly whips on Malraux in one essay and in another praises Mailer for The Armies of the Night).

In both books that I read Vizinczey has a gift for not being mean, condescending or glib, even when his subject matter is difficult — love (for women, for literature) infuses everything he writes and it’s refreshing and enlightening to read him.

Nine Hundred Grandmothers, by R.A. Lafferty

This is a strange and compelling short story collection. Comparisons have been made between Lafferty and Heinlein and Phillip Dick, but these “sci-fi” (I use that term loosely) short stories are really in a world of their own. They are very damn funny and strange — a bizarre combinations of jokes without punchlines and very disciplined writing. The quality of the stories varies but they are all worth reading. Neil Gaiman is a big fan of Lafferty and has said that he has been influenced by Lafferty, although I don’t think Gaiman’s writing is nearly as entertaining.

Dance of the Dwarfs, by Geoffrey Household

I got this book from a friend who knew how much I liked another neglected book with a title involving those who are vertically challenged — Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget — and although I had low expectations, the book turned out to be fantastic. The main character is a courageous, stoic agricultural expert working out in remote Columbia near the jungles. Although the beginning of the book only hints at mystery, it quickly becomes a strange and captivating suspense novel that was actually quite terrifying (despite the hilarity of the title ). The book’s a slow burn and the view of remote South America through the perspective of a cerebral white man becoming slowly ensnared in its mysteries is a nice antidote to much of the mediocre Latin American fiction that passes for “magical realism” these days. Also, just for the record, I am 6 foot 2.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Nikolai Leskov

This was a great little novella — truly deranged — despite the title, the main character is more Medea than Lady Macbeth. I’d like to read more of this Russian writer who I suspect is little read in the West.

A Melon for Ecstasy, by John Fortune and John Wells

Hilarious though inconsistent humorous epistolary novel about a quiet, repressed man who not only has a very serious physical hankering for trees but acts on it. This book was one-of-a-kind and I found myself laughing a lot out loud. The authors’ vocabularies are prodigious and well-used. I don’t really know what else to write about this book, except to note that the book opens with the following fictional Turkish proverb.

A woman for duty,
A boy for pleasure,
But a melon for ecstasy.
– Old Turkish proverb

A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, by Peter Dimock

A lean, stylized novel in the form of a single letter from Jarlath Lanham to his nephew and the son of his father’s ex-lover. The narrator’s focus on the rules of ancient rhetoric actually ties in quite well to the subject of the book: the Vietnam war and what allowed it to happen and to continue happening. This is a strange and intense novel, well worth reading although it is not an easy read.

The Winners

I believe this was one of the first books put out by NYRB Classics. It’s a hilarious, disturbing novel that is part Kafka and part Groucho Marx, about a group of state lottery winners in Argentina who win passage on a mystery cruise ship for an unknown destination. What starts out with aimless gossip, intrigues and annoyance by the bored, confused passengers develops into something more sinister. Cortazar’s female characters are rich and well-developed, and although this is not my favorite book by him (that would have to go to his stories and 62), it is an exciting and brilliant first novel. This is a useful link to Cortazar’s bibliography and publishing history:

Remember When We Had a Doorman?, by Josephine Lawrence

“Do you remember when we had a doorman?” is the stock question asked by the older tenants, whose occupancy dates back to the golden days when we had not only a doorman, but adequately uniformed elevator attendants and a handy man who could paint and repair, and even build simple furnishings such as bookcases. Above all, we remind each other in these nostalgic outbursts, we had a competent superintendent.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Remember When We Had a Doorman?'Remember When We Had a Doorman? is set in a Manhattan apartment building that’s seen better days. Most of its residents are retired or in their last working days, although there are enough young people to keep the gossip flourishing: “The elderly and retired, as the magazines (read mostly by the young) solemnly point out, have few resources and must depend for diversion upon–well, upon putting their wrinkled noses into other people’s business.”

One of the older women in the building is Holly Berry, Lawrence’s narrator. Holly makes a little money on the side as a dog walker, which keeps her in regular circulation throughout the halls and makes her an ideal observer for the many little dramas that play out over the 5-6 months covered in the novel. By the time she wrote Doorman, Lawrence had long since mastered the technical craft of fiction, and one of the more impressive aspects of this books is the size of the cast she manages–easily over 50 characters are introduced in the course of 170-some pages. Yet every one is provided with a certain amount of personality: Nicky, the lazy and incompetent new super; Mrs. Gilmore, for whom diet is the answer to all life’s problems; Aunt Sarah Turner, who arrives to put things to order when her niece’s husband proves a lush; Wilbur, the song-writing elevator man.

Lawrence was never considered a great writer, but the one thing critics consistently acknowledged over the course of 40-plus years she published novels was her feel for the real problems of working-class people. Years Are So Long (1934) was about the problem of housing for the elderly in the days before Social Security; If I Have Four Apples (1935) was about people struggling to keep up with installment plans–the 30s equivalent to credit cards. Even a lesser work like I Am In Urgent Need of Advice dealt with the confusions of a sexually-maturing teenager.

No one in Remember When We Had a Doorman?–with the possible exception of Oliver Locke, rumored to be one of the building’s owners, who holes up with mountains of old newspapers–is living on easy street. Those who work worry about making it when they retire; those who are retired worry about keeping up with rising grocery bills. And age is taking its toll:

It happened that this evening was the date of the semiannual “gala” evening of the bridge club to which I’ve belonged for more than thirty years. Time has effected changes. Where once we were eight couples, now we are eight widows. Once, the twice-a-year celebration meant dinner in one of the large restaurants and an evening at the theater; now, by common consent, we dine in a neighborhood restaurant and go to the movies, preferably one near at hand. But we do not, as Evie Keith says so firmly, accept the label of “senior citizens.” The trouble is, no one else we knows we reject it.

Remember When We Had a Doorman? was Josephine Lawrence’s 30th of 33 adult novels and somewhere around her 120th book if you include her many series of childrens’ books (“Brother and Sister,” “Betty Gordon,” “Elizabeth Ann,” etc.). Lawrence also wrote childrens’ and advice columns for the Newark Sunday Call for nearly 60 years and several drama series in the early years of radio. She started as a working woman back when that was still relatively rare and kept at it for longer than most of us will.

I found Remember When We Had a Doorman? remarkably fresh, entertaining, and grounded in unshakable common sense. It encourages me to seek out more of her work.

You can find out more about Lawrence’s life and books on Deidre Johnson ‘s comprehensive website devoted to childrens’ book series of the 19th and 20th century.

Remember When We Had a Doorman, by Josephine Lawrence
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971

The Silver Dark, by Herbert Clyde Lewis

This book is a bit of a mystery. My copy, a 1959 Pyramid Books paperback, shows no prior publication history. There is a quote from Budd Schulberg (“A genuinely original and compelling novel”) on the cover, which is the sort of thing one might expect to be carried over from an original hard cover release–but this appears to be the first and only edition. And there is the fact that Herbert Clyde Lewis died from a heart attack in 1950, which makes this a posthumous first-time publication–something that’s also a little unusual in a cheap paperback.

However this came to be published, it did little to revive Lewis’ reputation. His three other novels–Gentleman Overboard, which I reviewed here a couple of months ago; Spring Offensive, an anti-war novel from 1940; and Season’s Greetings from 1941–were already long-forgotten by then. The Silver Dark soon disappeared, too. I could locate less than a handful of copies for sale on the Internet today and virtually no library has a copy.

Cover of first edition of 'The Silver Dark'It’s a real shame, for The Silver Dark is a memorable story told remarkably well by Lewis. Theodore Huber is a dwarf, living alone in a small Manhattan apartment, working as a bookkeeper, shuffling through the streets trying to avoid the looks of pity and disgust. The emptiness of his life rings in our ears:

He ate with automatic movement, spoon from plate to mouth and back to plate again. He had no chance for happiness. He was trapped. He was tired of living and unable to die. He was in a void; he was existing in a vacuum. Slowly, he got up and carried the half-empty dishes into the kitchen for Mrs. Asgood to wash in the morning. Time had stopped, as far as he was concerned. For the rest of his life he would feel the same way, think the same thoughts, do the same things every day and every night. He would go on like this. He would observe his fortieth birthday and his fiftieth birthday in this fashion, and then his hair would grow gray and his breath would come short, and one day, alone, he would die a natural death.

His only real interest is in the lives of the beautiful women and handsome men he sees in the streets and through apartment windows. Theodore is not a peeping Tom, but he is at least a glancing Tom. He fantasizes about the lives they live: “She worked in a department store, and now she was hurrying home to her man, who worked in a bank. He was waiting for her, and as soon as she came in they kissed each other. Theirs was not a passionate kiss; theirs was a friendly kiss. Everything they did was friendly, easy, companionable.”

One night, he goes up to the roof of his apartment building to look out at the city. He sees a man and woman in an apartment and watches as they begin to make love. Suddenly, he becomes aware that someone else is up there with him. He panics, but then a strange, misshapen woman sees him, screams and faints. He carries her to his apartment. She revives in a few moments and runs out into the hallway in fright.

He hears no more of this, but over the next few days he starts ruminating, turning the incident over and over. He convinces himself that this woman is his only chance, the one woman who might actually accept him. He tracks her to a neighboring apartment and learns her name–Jane Liste. He decides to write to her. It’s the kind of letter a novice stalker might write: “I have very few friends, in fact, I haven’t any, and you were the first person I talked to, outside of business hours, in a long time…. I’ve been thinking it would be good if we could see each other, because we hardly know one another and might have a lot to talk about.”

A reply arrives. It’s polite, a little friendly. But there’s a hitch. Jane left New York, where she’d been visiting an aunt, the day after the scene on the roof, and returned to Bakersfield, California. A few more letters are exchanged–still friendly, but no more. Theodore, however, manages to talk himself into a romantic whirlwind. He quits his job, put his few belongings in storage, and flies off to Bakersfield. (In Lewis’ world, by the way, there are direct flights from New York to Bakersfield.) He has decided that he and Jane must get married.

Jane, a hunchback who leads an even more isolated life, lets Theodore into her apartment, and an hour or two later, they head off to City Hall for a marriage license. It’s a mark of Lewis’ skill that he manages to make this implausible sequence of events believable. I think it’s due in part to the jarring contrasts he creates. On the one hand, everything going on in the world around these two people is mundane, muted. On the other, there are their emotional worlds, which are filled with bone-aching loneliness and wild dreams of idealized love. While other people go on about their lives, Jane and Theodore are so used to living in pain that it seems sensible to take each other’s hand and go leaping off a cliff into marriage.

It’s not an easy landing, though. One thing they have learned and internalized from decades of living in a world full of normal looking men and women: a deep, deep disgust for people who look like–well, they do. They both want to find not just companionship, but romantic, sexual love; what they feel at the sight of their naked bodies, though, is repulsion.

How Jane and Theodore get beyond these feelings and come to discover a genuine, mature love involves yet more implausible events, but to the very last page, Lewis does a remarkable job of pulling us along and leading us through their emotional transformations. The Silver Dark reminded me at times of McDonald Harris’ Mortal Leap, another book about making a radical life decision. Our rational mind keeps whispering, “This just doesn’t make sense,” and yet we keep turning the next page and reading on.

Coming across a book like The Silver Dark is what makes the pursuit of neglected books so enjoyable. I had essentially no information whatsoever about this book, aside from the fact that I had enjoyed Lewis’ first novel, Gentleman Overboard. I had no idea if this would be good or bad, interesting or tedious. So if it hooked me, it had to do so solely on its own merits, without the aid of reputation, reviews, or anyone’s word of mouth.

And it did. I finished The Silver Dark in three days of a working week, which is exceptional for me. I wouldn’t call it a great novel, but it is certainly a good one–original, unusual, and continuously interesting. It proves once again what treats lie in store for those who dare to dive deep into the stacks.

The Silver Dark, by Herbert Clyde Lewis
New York City: Pyramid Books, 1959

The Gang’s All Here, by Harvey Smith

I’m not sure what’s most remarkable about Harvey Smith’s The Gang’s All Here:Insignia of Nostalgia University--'From easy to ordinary'--from the title page of 'The Gang's All Here' the book itself or the fact that it was published by the Princeton University Press. Purportedly the “twenty-five year record of ‘the finest aggregation of men that ever spent four years together at Old Nostalgia'” as penned by the class secretary, “Tubby” Rankin, The Gang’s All Here manages to trash just about every ritual and myth of American college life in the first half of the 20th century.

Smith (Princeton, 1917), a classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald, provides sketches of 60-some alumni from the 1917 class of Nostalgia University, a proud bastion of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Male that could easily stand in for Harvard, Yale, or even Princeton itself. Virtually everyone in the book is Republican and Episcopalian. Only two Jews appear. Of one, Rankin/Smith notes, “Morrie left college after fraternity elections freshman year and has not been heard from since.” The other eventually becomes a noted surgeon and trustee of the university: “With his keen mind he must hard known from the first day he was in college that there was a line, invisible but as clearly defined as the equator, between Jew and gentile. Unlike Morrie Posner, however, he never showed resentment.”

As a work of art, The Gang’s All Here is handicapped by the narrow bounds of its subjects and Smith’s immaturity as a stylist, but it nonetheless manages to impress on multiple levels. First, Rankin/Smith experiments with a wide variety of forms to cover his cast: first, second, and third-person narratives; several comic short stories; a pompous letter written by the subject himself; even the transcript of the divorce proceedings of an over-ardent Nostalgia fan and his fed-up wife. Second, for all the successful bankers, brokers, and CEOs in the class, there are also lunks, lushes, lounge lizards, and flat-out losers. One man marries a lady wrestler; another quits Wall Street and makes a new start as the proud owner of a gas station; a third quietly thanks “that man” Roosevelt for the W.P.A. job that restored his dignity. And Rankin is not reluctant to peel back the veneer of respectability to note that Jim Denison didn’t did in a sailing accident back in 1937, but took his life in despair at his wife’s affair with that “heel” Bud Coleman.

The most admired member of the class–at least in Rankin’s eyes–is Adelbert l’Hommedieu X. Hormone, or Bert for short. Kicked out of school after three months, he lives out his classmates’ secret dreams: shanghaied into the French Foreign Legion, crewing a Dutch freighter around the Great Horn, running a bar in Java, and settling down in married bliss with a native pearl diver in Tahiti. He sends his regrets at missing the 25th annual reunion in a 1,000-word collect telegram, citing the demands of his new trained-shark business.

Published in 1941, The Gang’s All Here portrays a way of life that was already becoming a thing of the past. Even then, one alumni notes sadly, the administrators of old Nostalgia were expecting prospective athletic stars to pass a rudimentary entrance exam rather than accepting them as the “blessings” they were. An advertising executive in New York, Smith was well-qualified to take on his subject, having penned the 1917 class notes in the Princeton Alumni Weekly since 1927. While not the master his classmate Fitzgerald was, he deserves a special footnote in histories of Princeton for having pulled off something much more substantial and imaginative than a simple satire of his own kind.

The Snowman, by Charles Haldeman

For the first fifty-or-so pages of The Snowman, I thought I’d really found a long lost–heck, a never-discovered–gem. I picked up the Penguin paperback edition at a bookstore in Seattle, attracted by several promising clues. The Penguin edition came out four years after the initial hardback release; despite the fact that the novel was written by an American and is set in America, it appeared to have been published only in the U. K.. The blurb on the back read cryptic enough to suggest something worth investigating:

The Snowman is often infuriating, always compelling, a blinding collage of cross-threads, dead-ends, endless tunnels, red herrings and bang-on target salvos of smouldering reality.

Cover of Penguin U.K. paperback edition of 'The Snowman'
And at first, the work itself seemed a wonderfully bizarre treat. The first chapter ones with an entry from The Motorist’s Guide to Upstate New York, 1939: “Joseph’s Landing (232 alt. 729 pop.) 1.6 miles from State 3, is a peaceful lakeside village of wided, shaded streets and roomy old dwellings first settled in 1802.”

Over the next few chapters, Charles Haldeman introduces us to Joseph’s Landing and some of its inhabitants, past and present. It is, to say the least, an unusual place. There is something odd about everyone in the place. Here, for example, is a bit of town history:

Donatien’s death left Melba and Claude Hagen swamped in the peaked and parapeted four-story sandstone monstrosity at the acute intersection of Joan of Arc and Pierre de l’Hôpital Streets. Even when the ground floor had been overflowing with patients and Melba was holding a D.A.R. convention upstairs, the house had still seemed empty, it was so huge. Its original designer and builder, General Gilbert Raye, had obviously suffered from daedalomania. But that wasn’t all he’d suffered from: in 1819, not five years after the last stone was set in his labyrinth, he and a down-eastern prelate were arrested for conducting experiments of an unspeakable nature and sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead and then burnt. Donatien’s great-grandfather Count Joseph de Villiers, a pseudonymous self-made noble who had absconded with the Spanish crown jewels afer the Battle of Waterloo and come to America with grandiose plans for establishing a new French Empire in the North, recognized in the condemned general a kindred spirit and paid him several visits in his cell. On the eve of his execution the wretched man gratefully bequeathed his eyesore to his friend.

This combination of the baroquely bizarre (“daedelomania”; “experiments of an unspeakable nature”) and the down-to-earth (“eyesore”) reminded me in a powerful way of one of the first books I featured on this site, John Howard Spyker’s Little Lives. I could imagine Joseph’s Landing sitting in the heart of Spyker’s Washington County. I even began to wonder if Charles Haldeman was yet another Richard Elman’s pseudonyms.

Unfortunately, the promise is unfulfilled. We move from these lovely odd vignettes into a series of chapters focusing on one and then another resident, most of them leading nowhere and weaving threads never again picked up in the narrative. Penguin’s blurb above is not intriguing praise. It’s a literal description. Haldeman seems to have been unable to decide just what he was writing. In the end, he settles upon a story of misfits and outcasts finding a kind of peace among themselves–the material of a Flannery O’Connor story, but not the end product.

His first novel, The Sun’s Attendant, published just a year or so before The Snowman, apparently suffered from similar problems. One reviewer praised its “Joycean” language but found it an artistic failure. Haldeman told the story of a child survivor of Auschwitz through a variety of textual artefacts but in the eyes of most critics at the time, didn’t manage to bring these pieces together into an effective whole–and he certainly didn’t manage to get past this stage with The Snowman.

The Snowman, by Charles Haldeman
London: Jonathan Cape, 1964

Perdita, Get Lost, by Alan R. Jackson

There are few good reasons to read a 45 year-old light comedy. Like an opened bottle champagne, light comedy doesn’t keep well. Plot and characterization are usually paper-thin to start with. Moods and manners are much of the age in which the book is written and lose most of their meaning within a few years. One character in this book says to another, “I half expected you to begin banging your shoe on the desk.” How many readers would get that reference today?

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'Perdita, Get Lost'I picked up Perdita, Get Lost in the basement of the Montana Valley Book Store in little Alberton, Montana–one of the dwindling number of bookstores where you can plunge into stacks of books from more than a decade or two ago. I probably bought it as much for the fact that it’s a small gold-backed Pocket Book Cardinal Edition, which is up there with the little squarish Dell paperbacks from the early 1960s and the Yale Chronicles of Americas series among my favorite book formats.

The story, about a spunky young woman named Perdita Chandler (Chan for short) and Jerry Blake, the bachelor millionaire who’s sort of her uncle–but not–is about as well constructed as my first balsa wood airplane model. Key moments turn on such creaky pivots as the fact that Blake’s cat is also named Chan and the unexpected gift and theft of a rather ugly classical Greek statue. Even the construct of the millionaire relative with nothing but time on his hands could be something from a B-movie society comedy of the 1930s. As for the context–well, multiple martinis are downed in an average afternoon and all the young women are expected to be dreaming of a big suburban home in Westchester County complete with three kids and a collie. I kept expecting J. Pierrepont Finch to pop up.

So no, Perdita, Get Lost is no timeless classic. The only thing going for it–which is about all any light comedy with legs can claim–is the writer’s style. In Alan R. Jackson’s case, he comes off quite the clever fellow, far more in the know about his characters than they could ever hope to be about themselves. But at least he manages a light touch through most of the book. Here, for example, he dissects a conversational misstep:

“If we had a golden eagle in this apartment, we would all have hay fever. They’re full of pollen. I know!

She had committed a social gaffe, which in English is known as a boner and in German undoubtedly by a polysyllabic portmanteau word that only another German would understand.

Her boner was to make a simple, positive, declarative statement.

This stops conversation.

A social gathering, such as Carla had gathered for whatever devious reasons, is like a saraband. There are certain movements, which must be countered by others. Conversation must flow like the waters of the Villa d-Este. A positive statement (like Carla’s “I know”) stops it.

Even had there been present an expert on golden eagles and their pollination (and there was none), he would have hesitated to dispute his assured hostess. So the “I know,” although strictly out of the blue (where the golden eagles live) brought everything to a full stop.

Jackson wrote another novel, East 57th Street, a year or so before Perdita. From the title alone, I suspect it’s also a light comedy of life in early sixties Manhattan. I’ve no idea what became of him after publishing Perdita. While he’s no Wodehouse, he’s certainly of that ilk, if of a different continent and different decade, and I’ll probably give East 57th Street a try one of these days. Marshmallows do have an occasional place in a well-rounded diet.

Perdita, Get Lost, by Alan R. Jackson
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964

Barnes & Noble launches “Rediscovers” series devoted to out-of-print worthies

Source: “Barnes & Noble Launches Out-of-Print Imprint,” Publisher’s Weekly, 19 August 2009

Barnes & Noble, one of the U.S.’s largest booksellers, combining online and “brick and mortar” outlets, launched a new series devoted to the reissue of neglected books this month. As described on the B&N website:

Barnes & Noble Rediscovers brings back to print — in affordable hardcover editions — books of special merit in history, literature, philosophy, religion, the arts, and science. Many have been long unavailable or hard to find. Each is now reset in a modern design to welcome a new generation of readers.

The Rediscovers initiative is something of an extension to the Barnes & Noble Classics, which includes 200 well-recognized classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and David Copperfield in low-cost paperbacks with new introductions by contemporary writers and critics. However, unlike the Classics, the Rediscovers list is intended to be shaped directly by reader/buyer feedback: “The retailer will include customer feedback and online customer behavioral data as criteria for selecting books to publish through Rediscovers,” according to Retailer Daily.

The B&N Rediscovers series was launched with healthy kick, with 33 titles included in the first release. I am frankly impressed by how diverse and esoteric this list is. Here is a sample of what’s now available:

Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It, by Loren Eiseley

A study of Charles Darwin’s work and ideas within the intellectual context of Victorian England. More a scholarly than a lyrical work, written–as one Amazon reviewer put it–“while Eiseley was wearing his Professor hat instead of his Philosopher cap.”

Cover of Barnes and Noble Rediscovers reissue of 'The History in English Words'

The History in English Words, by Owen Barfield

One of the books I included on my “Editor’s Choices” list when I first started this site, this is certainly the most approachable of Barfield’s books–but it has the same capacity to shake up your world perspective. Essentially a survey of how the etymology of individual and groups of English words can reveal not just where they came from, but the dramatic differences in how the world was seen and understood in other times.

Maimonides, by Abraham Joshua Heschel

From the B&N site: “Originally published in German in 1935—the 800th anniversary of its subject’s birth—Maimonides was Abraham Joshua Heschel’s first important work. In it, the author combines an account of the life of this most influential of Talmudic scholars and most celebrated of medieval Jewish philosophers with a subtle introduction to his writings and their place in the broader tradition of Jewish thought.”

Physics for the Rest of Us: Ten Basic Ideas of 20th Century Physics, by Roger S. Jones

The youngster on this list, dating only from 1993. Jones’ objective was, “To combine a conceptual approach to modern physics with an exploration of its deeper meaning and philosophical significance.” Thus, this book is not only a clear, well-written explanation of ten concepts of physics developed in the 20th century, but a reflection on the benefits and limitations of science itself.

Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, by George Santayana

Drawn from one of his Harvard courses, which could claim T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Conrad Aiken among its students, this book is the text of a series of lectures Santayana gave at Columbia University in 1910. At it’s also a pretty good demonstration of just how strong Barnes & Noble’s faith in the “if you reissue it, they will come” theory is. This is one of those titles that university presses usually trickle out in a few dozen copies a year over the course of a few decades–as it the even more intimidating Philosophical Sketches: A Study of the Human Mind in Relation to Feeling, Explored through Art, Language, and Symbol, by Suzanne Langer. Courage et bon chance, mes amis!

Alpha and Omega: Stories by Isaac Rosenfeld

Rosenfeld has been something of an insider’s legend for decades. After publishing a well-received coming-of-age novel, Passage from Home, in 1946, he wrote some fine stories and influential reviews, labored at some unpublished novels, and eventually faded into complete obscurity. Coming on top of the release earlier this year of Steven J. Zipperstein’s fine biography, Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing, Alpha and Omega should help revive interest in this classic neglected writer–although I suspect D. G. Myers got it right when he wrote in review of Zipperstein’s bio:

Rosenfeld’s name remains alive for two reasons. First, because he impressed, with his personality and literary promise, the reputation makers of his generation—Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Eliot Cohen (the founding editor of Commentary). He was embraced as the “golden boy” of the New York intellectuals, and then died far too early to fulfill their dreams for him. As Theodore Solotaroff recalled, some of his friends spoke the name Isaac as if it were “a magic word for joy and wit,” others as if “it were the most poignant word in the language.” Second, he was Saul Bellow’s best friend.

Bellow wrote the introduction to Alpha and Omega.

Cover of Barnes and Noble Rediscovers reissue of 'Really the Blues'

Really the Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe

Mezz Mezzrow was a clarinet-playing Jewish kid from Chicago who got into jazz back in the mid-1920s and played and hung out with most of the greats from that era–Armstrong, Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton. Unfortunately, his love of jazz was outmatched by his love of reefers. “Mezz” came to be slang for marijuana due to his own use, rather than vice-versa. As a musician, he was no great beans. But teamed up with the young and verbally-inventive Bernard Wolfe, he managed to put together a 400-page swim through more jazz lingo and life that you’ll find between any other two covers. Albert Goldman once wrote of the book and its subject, “Mezzrow was 1) the first white Negro, 2) the Johnny Apleseed of weed, 3) the author of a great American autobiography, Really the Blues, the finest eyewitness account of American counterculture ever published. The book is, likewise, the master-piece of the counterculture’s most characteristics literary medium: the slang-laced, jazz-enrhythmed, long-breathed and rhapsodic street rap and rave-up.” So pick up your shovel and dig it, man!

ABBA ABBA, by Anthony Burgess

One of Burgess’ shortest novels, ABBA ABBA–whose title refers to the sonnet rhyme pattern–is a lively hodgepodge of historical fiction, literary criticism, original translations (and transformations) of poems of Giovanni Belli, and an excuse for Burgess to blow fine verbal riffs on the theme of writing and translation.

On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner

Recently recommended by Maura Kelly on this site, On Moral Fiction was one of the more controversial books of 1978–and one of the best-selling works of literary criticism as a result. Gardner challenged modernism and the pursuit of literary invention for its own sake, advocating a return to the traditons of Dickens and Tolstoy.

Marcus Leaver, president of B&N’s publishing subsidiary, Sterling Publishing, suggests the initiative has much grander ambitions than the somewhat esoteric list of initial titles would indicate:

The Barnes & Noble Rediscovers series opens a new door for us and a new window for writers and estates who have earned no income on their works for years. We plan to expand the capabilities of the program to include both e-book and print on demand options.

This sounds as if Barnes & Nobles is taking a lesson from the Faber Finds venture, which has managed to push out over 400 titles in little over a year, thanks to diligent copywrite research and the magic of publish-on-demand. Both of which put the recently-announced AmazonEncore program (with a whopping one title, from 2006, to its credit).

Thanks to Robert Nedelkoff for passing this news along.

Robert Birnbaum Picks Some Recent Under-Appreciated Novels

Source: “Under-Appreciated Novels,”, 11 August 2009

Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News’ book blogger, recently decided to engage in some of “the anguished hand-wringing that accompanies intoning the cruelty and myopia of the rest of the barbarous world in failing to recognize the brilliance of that which we (meaning I) deem to be genius.” His list of works deserving more recognition and respect than they’ve earned so far has only one unifying criterion: “[T]hey were all read in this century.”

Birnbaum’s list leans heavily to products of this century, too: Don Winslow’s rich novel of drugs and crime, The Power of the Dog, from 2005; Tim Gautreaux’s bayou novel, The Clearing from 2003; Joseph O’Connor’s multi-faceted story of the post-Civil War West, Redemption Falls, from 2007.

But a few fall to the far side of the bell curve: Philip Kerr’s futuristic A Philosophical Investigation dates from 1993, and The Criminalist, the last work published by Eugene Izzi, a Chicago crime novelist, before his suicide, from 1999.

For me, the most intriguing item on the list is Michael Doane’s 1994 novel, Bullet Heart. Chris Goodrich of the L. A. Times had some pretty enthusiastic things to say when the book first came out:

Truth is better captured by fiction, we’re often told, than by purely factual accounts; tied not to external events but to feelings and impressions and ineluctable human character, fiction supposedly brings to life what nonfiction paints by number. Well, here’s one case where the analogy actually works, for in Bullet Heart, Michael Doane Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Bullet Heart'tells the story of a confrontation between whites and Native Americans to which neither journalism nor scholarship could possibly do justice. The novel takes place in South Dakota in the 1970s, when local developers start the short-lived Bones War while building a golf course on an ancient burial ground. The American Indian Movement is at its height, government authorities feel under constant siege, the U.S. appears on the verge of living up to its ideals or of falling flat on its face; Michael Doane uses this real-life civil strife to illuminate the individual troubles, and principles, such rebelliousness brings to the fore…. Bullet Heart, Doane’s fifth novel, may be too thoughtful and too well-written to make headlines, but in its own quiet way it’s a literary milestone.

A couple of Doane’s books are still in print–sort of. In the Path of the Whirlwind is print but “out of stock’. His 1990 novel, Six Miles To Roadside Business is available now–until Amazon sells the one copy they have left. Several of Doane’s works, including Bullet Heart, Six Miles, and The Surprise of Burning garnered 5-star reviews from Amazon readers, so there’s got to be something there worth a look.

Isabel Paterson on “If It Prove Fair Weather”, from September 1939

Cover of the 7 September 1940 issue of 'The Saturday Review'Thumbing through issues of The Saturday Review while in the U.S. this summer, I came across an interesting item. A review by George Dangerfield of Isabel Paterson’s last novel, If It Prove Fair Weather, which I featured here a few months ago, was juxtapositioned with a piece about the book by Paterson herself: “As the Author Sees It.”

In my continuing interest in advancing the cause of Paterson’s fiction, I’m taking the liberty of ignoring whatever copyright may or may not still apply and reprint the piece here in its entirety:

What this country needs is a good stiff course in ethics and moral theology. Why I think so is because I have written a novel–If It Prove Fair Weather. To understand the question fully you might have to read the book; but that does not worry me. The main point is, those who have done so, with advance copies, are almost unanimously severe on the man in the story (his name is Wishart). It is a love story. Especially the men readers seem to feel–well, I don’t know what. He makes them mad. There is an unmistakable implication that they would have behaved far otherwise, in his position.

Portrait of Isabel Paterson from 1939Possibly so; and it may be my fault that they don’t seem to notice there was no way for him to behave well. He had only a choice of behaving badly in different ways. What I mean is that like is like that. Many of the most admired moral examples really will not stand close and logical examination. It is so in the nature of things. Human beings are inevitably in an appalling predicament between their emotions and their obligations; the two elements are not even conveniently distinct, but inextricably snarled in a cat’s-cradle. And the more you try to untable it the worse it becomes.

I admit, of course, that Wishart is not wholly admirable. He is a man. He is an upright citizen, with a business and a family; and he becomes interested in a woman not his wife. This is ethically reprehensible, if you allow any ethical standards whatever. I speak seriously. What is more, you’ve got to have ethics. (At present, some countries are saying that you don’t have to, but the results are not entirely satisfactory). Then ethics apparently tell you that you must, if necessary, be completely insensible, incapable of being interested or of wanting personal satisfactions. That is a very hard saying, surely. Shade it a bit, and say rather that it is your duty to repress and restrain such feelings if they go beyond the boundaries of previously established obligation. That sounds very lofty; but it may still be at the expense of another person, or even two other persons. It is not so nice to be the recipient of duty either.

This is extremely obvious, and twenty years ago was thought to be a complete answer. It was then affirmed to be a higher duty to discard the inconvenient obligations and go ahead on the new path. Now one may see what comes of that. A trail of wreckage. It doesn’t work even as well as sticking to the old line.

But let us imagine duty as the constant lodestar from the beginning. All of us have favorite characters; one of mine is Sir Thomas More. He took and held a straight course. Deeply religious, with a strong intellect and character, and scholarly tastes, as a young man he thought of entering a monastic order. But as he was also robust and of an affectionate nature, he feared he had not the authentic vocation, and decided it was better to be a good layman than a sinful cleric. So he married and was a faithful and kind husband and father, all his days.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'If It Prove Fair Weather'He married twice. The first time, he was undecided between two sisters. His personal preference was for the younger and prettier of the two; one may assume he was in love with her. But out of sheer altruism, he felt it would be invidious to leave the elder and plainer sister slighted. So he married the elder. It is not known whether the younger was in love with him. She might have been. He was a man of charm, wit, and general attractiveness. And if the younger girl was in love with him, I can’t make up my mind–I am very fond of him–which of the two girls had the best right to murder him on the spot. Both of them, in my opinion, had every right to do so. He had injured the girl he loved and insulted the one he married.

Nobody but me has ever noticed that, so far as I know. He is always held up as a model of masculine virtue. I guess he was. That’s what I’m talking about…. In later life, he became a widower, and married again, a woman he didn’t like much, to be a mother to his orphaned children. She should have killed him too, if she cared for him. Otherwise, I suppose it was all right. He was one of the best men that ever lived, so he only needed to be murdered three times by justly infuriated females, if he had got his desserts. He is highly praised by men. Though of course a less worthy man would have married the pretty sister, and then maybe fallen for a more attractive woman later.

Women are annoyed at Wishart. They have reason. Still, women also might examine the premises. That masculine line, “loved I not honor more,” has always filled women with silent rage. Because they can’t answer it. A woman friend of mine says that, reading the book, she hated every hair of Wishart’s head. She ought to. She is married to a delightful and honorable man, a sea-captain. I can’t think what she would answer if compelled to decide whether her husband, in the course of his vocation, ought to go down on the bridge as the rules prescribe, and never mind about her; or should he leap into the first lifeboat and save himself for her sweet sake. The fact is, in such contingency, when a woman might have to think whether her husband must put his duty or herself first, she really believes he ought to do both, and could if he put his mind to it. That’s where there is no other woman in question at all. In case another woman deflects his thoughts from her, she isn’t going to debate the matter for a moment. She will merely scalp him and boil him in oil, and see how he likes it.

[Published in The Saturday Review, September 7, 1940.–Ed.]

Now, if that isn’t one of the most astute and amusing things ever written on the subject of men and women, I’ll eat my hat. The world is long overdue for a Portable Isabel Paterson with a collection of her Herald Tribune columns, Never Ask the End, and excerpts from The Golden Vanity and Fair Weather. Her libertarian tracts can fend for themselves.

Bruce Allen recommends the work of François Mauriac

Cover of 'A Mauriac Reader'Bruce Allen wrote recently to recommend the novels of François Mauriac:

I wonder how many readers remember François Mauriac (1885-1970), whose best novels (e.g., Thérèse Desqueyroux, Vipers’ Tangle, Woman of the Pharisees, A Kiss for the Leper, and at least a half dozen others) began appearing in English translations during the 1960os.

An un-apologetic Catholic apologist, Mauriac has always been marginalized as a writer of narrow sympathes and range. But at his best he’s an eloquent composer of stark tragedies of ancestral and faith-driven conflicts framed as allegories of sin, redemption, and retribution – often complicated by the unruly realities of sex and greed. No novelist ever understood, and engaged the seven deadly sins (and all the other un-numbered ones) as well as Mauriac. He ought to be revived every generation or so, and readers who’ve never sampled the brimstone pungency of his best work have missed out on one of the great 20th century bodies of work.

François MauriacFortunately for would-be readers, a good deal of Mauriac’s work is in print and easily available for purchase online. All of the above books are in print, as are several less-known works: The Frontenacs, The Mask of Innocence, and Young Man in Chains. Actually, A Kiss for the Leper is in print by virtue of its inclusion in A Mauriac Reader, which collects it and four other novels under one cover, with an introduction by Wallace Fowlie. Farrar, Straus and Giroux have heroically kept it in print for over forty years now.

Mauriac is often compared with Graham Greene: both Catholics, both dedicated to writing about modern and his struggle with sin. “I have tried to make the Catholic universe of evil palpable, tangible, odorous. If theologians provided an abstract idea of the sinner, I gave him flesh and blood,” Mauriac once remarked. Asked about the comparison, however, Greene drew a fine distinction between their works: “Mauriac’s sinners sin against God wheareas mine, however hard they try, can never quite manage to.” Mauriac also won, in 1952, the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor that eluded Greene.

The Seventh Gate, by Peter Greave

As recounted in his 1976 memoir, The Seventh Gate, Peter Greave’s life up to his mid-thirties was one no reader could envy. Born in Calcutta in 1910, he enjoyed a few years of privileged childhood as his father climbed the ladder of business success with an English merchant trading firm in India.

Cover of U.K. paperback edition of 'The Seventh Gate'But by the time he was about to start school, he found himself on a tramp steamer on a slow and trouble-filled voyage to New York City as his father took the family off in search of a fresh start. His father, as Greave later learned, had run through a string of failed business schemes, insulted or stolen from much of proper society in Calcutta, and been bankrupted and politely asked to leave the country. He had also, as Greave only came to understand slowly and obliquely, been on the verge of being jailed as a chronic exhibitionist.

With utterly no connections in America, Greave’s father still manages to persuade another English firm to bankroll him in a venture to sell a now-forgotten car, the Dixie Flyer, in South Africa. His tiny stipend forces Greave’s mother to find ever-worse lodgings in ever-rougher parts of New York City. His days were spent avoiding, battling with, or being chased by gangs of young boys “engaged in continuous warfare.” At one point, she fell ill and the boys were taken into the city’s foster care system, spending weeks in a bleak orphanage stuck in the midst of a grey forest. His mother prayed for her husband to return and rescue them.

Instead, he returned accused of having blown through $600,000 in South Africa, and antagonized the Afrikaaners, and run off to the Congo with a black mistress in search of a lost mine. So he took his family off again, back to India on another cheap passage. Greave and his brother were enrolled in a threadbare boarding school where a schoolmaster straight from Dickens loved to beat morality and Catholic virtues into the boys.

Used to running wild in the streets of New York, Greave found the school intolerable and engineered an escape. Smuggling himself onto trains and ferries, hiding from the police, stealing food and finding unexpected support from an occasional Indian, he made his way from the Punjab to the far reaches of Assam. There, he enjoys some months of refuge, peace, and unsupervised play in the jungle from a friendly American couple he had met on ship.

The rest of Greave’s childhood was spattered with brief family reunions, more troubles due to his father’s grifts and sexual addiction, and a variety of poor excuses for schooling. With such an upbringing, it’s not surprising that his own experiences as a young man involve hopping from one job to another, great bouts of drinking, gambling, and whoring, and barely managing to exist on the fringes of Anglo-Indian society.

Then, sometime in his late twenties, he noticed a spot on his face. It stayed for weeks, growing slowly, and then was joined by similar spots on his legs and buttocks. He finally heads to the public hospital in Calcutta, where an Indian doctor calmly informs him that he is suffering from leprosy.

Over the next seven years, Greave spent much of his time holed up in a tiny, squalid room in a boarding house. One eye was blinded by the disease, the other nearly so. Only the tenderness of his lover, a beautiful but wayward Anglo-Indian girl rejected by both races, and an incredible forbearance and patience on Greave’s part, got him through. Finally, in 1946, a letter came to him out of the blue with an offer to take for him for free in a special clinic back in England. Greave tracked down his father–still concocting schemes in India–and begged enough money to pay for his passage. Scraping through the medical inspection, he got on board and set sail, never to return to India.

This is a pretty grim story. I suspect few reading my synopsis would imagine The Seventh Gate as anything but a study in black and more black.

Yet Greave (who died in 1977) seems to have possessed a spirit made of pure stainless steel. In the most degraded and dehumanizing situations, he managed–at least in reflection–to have been able to latch onto the tiniest bits of sunlight. Yes, he was trapped in some god awful boarding school run by a sadist–but he could always escape for a few moments:

Pacing endlessly across the wet, deserted playing field, I forgot the shoddy classrooms and the soaring, aloof grandeur of the Himalayas, and returned to those happy months when I had been free to wander beside the waters of Bombay harbour. Soaked in dazzling sunlight, the smell of the sea in my nostrils, I saw again the white sails of the dhows as the wind carried them towards Africa, and mingled happily with the cosmopolitan crowds that drifted beside the waterfront.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Seventh Gate shows a bright orange sun shining across some Indian river, and despite the many hardships Greave recounts, this is one of the sunniest books I’ve ever read. It may be that in having had so little, having been able to take so little for granted during his childhood, Greave simply developed an extraordinary capacity for acceptance.

It’s also a book rich in description, with remarkable scenes, such as the one where Greave stumbles across a pack of vultures in the middle of the night as he escapes from school. I found it a little like David Copperfield, where you keep turning the pages wondering what worse trouble the young hero was going to face in the next chapter. I zipped through The Second Miracle in the course of a single flight back from the U.S..

A rich and rewarding reading experience. Let’s hope John Seaton at Faber Finds adds this to his list.

Although Greave was cured of leprosy once safe in the English clinic, the disease permanently weakened him and his blindness eventually became complete. Despite this, he managed to write, starting with his 1955 memoir of his cure, The Second Miracle. He wrote several plays and novels and appeared as a monologist on BBC television and radio. He lived in the clinic where he was treated, the Homes of St. Giles, until his death.

The Seventh Gate, by Peter Greave
London: Maurice Temple Smith, Ltd., 1976

Flamingo, by Mary Borden

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Flamingo'Flamingo is a spectacular failure. I kept thinking as I read of the time I saw a Titan III rocket blow up less than a thousand feet off the launchpad. No one would call that a success–but it sure was spectacular, awesome in its size and power, hitting us with a tremendous roar and shock wave seconds after we saw the explosion. Millions of dollars and the work of thousands was scattered in bits over the southern slopes of Vandenberg Air Force Base. A considerable effort lay behind that failure.

I’m not clear exactly what Mary Borden was aiming at, but it certainly was high. The two novels that come to mind when looking for something to compare Flamingo to are The Bonfire of the Vanities and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead–and no one could argue that either one of them lacked for ambition. Flamingo is about the Old World colliding with the New World, about politics and money and art and power, about love, lust, jealousy, and ambition, and about Jazz Age New York City, with all its frenzy, noise, music, low lifes and skyscrapers. It has the potential to be a candidate for the Great American Novel.

Borden’s ambition led her to draft London and New York as characters:

London and New York had been talking all that summer. They had been trying to understand each other, but with very moderate success. They saw things differently, or perhaps New York didn’t try very hard to understand that old woman across the Atlantic, that old fogey.

Take a god-like view of things when she feels like it:

But, of course, in the star swarm that was traveling the heavens, this spinning of the earth through day and night was too rapid to be visible. An eye watching the stars splutter, fizzle, and go cold could not count the rotations of that little top. As for the building activity in New York, that would be less noticeable than the appearance of a slight feverish roughness, a tiny wart, on the side of the earth’s face.

Speak as the voice of fashion:

The Radio Building, Brown, Johnson & Campbell, Associated Architects, was the very latest thing in skyscrapers a year ago. It isn’t now. While I write, other buildings are going up that will put it in the shade, and there is a rumor that a rival firm is going to build just behind it a building that will make it look quite insignificant.

And even make her bold enough to admit her weaknesses to the reader:

From now on this story becomes very confused. It is going to be very difficult to keep track of these people once the Aquitania is tied up to the Cunard pier in the North River. It is going to be like a game of hide and seek, a sort of treasure hunt on switchbacks, in a crowd, in the dark, that jangles and jiggles, in a great confusion of noises, and it will be impossible to keep my eye on the clock and tell a straight narrative of how one thing happened after another.

To Borden’s credit, I have to say that I think Flamingo would have been far more effective if it had been 300-400 pages longer that it is. For what is great about it is Borden’s courage to do what Dickens and Zola and Tom and Thomas Wolfe did–to grab her narrative in her teeth and plunge with it into the depths of her subject, to force us to take time to really get to know someone, some place or some thing.

Here, for example, is the start of her sketch of a supporting player in the story. Ikey Daw is a Jewish financier, a deal-maker who would probably beat up Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe” for their lunch money:

To Ikey Daw, who was equally at home in all the numerous Ritz Hotels of the earth, crossing the Atlantic was so much a matter of habit that he scarcely noticed whether he was stepping on or off a ship. His activities were much the same wherever he was. When the telephone was switched off, the wireless got busy, and the many threads that he spun from his fingers held taut, spreading out from him in a beautiful elastic web that covered the earth. He didn’t appear to be aware of the sea sliding and heaving beyond the rail of the Aquitania. It didn’t affect his appetite, and he didn’t look at it. Natural phenomena like storms, heat and cold, a lot of water, or dry land, and the things described in the geography books, never attracted his attention. Nor did the antics and idiosyncrasies of human beings, except for so far as they came into his scheme, and for the most part they didn’t. He could afford to despise them, and so, wherever he was, he was always in the same place, and although he traveled pretty constantly, he never seemed to himself to be moving and yet never had the feeling of being put. If he had any feeling of being somewhere, it was of being suspended in the air, like a spider at the center of his web, and the web, since he had spun it out of himself, revolved round him, contracting, twisting, and adjusting itself to cover the globe with himself continually at the middle of it.

Borden spends over dozen pages introducing us to Daw, telling about his rise to wealth and power, revealing his passions and foibles, taking us along as he walks along the deck of the ship, smugly dismissing the importance and concerns of the other passengers, hoping to corner Sir Victor in a conversation. It’s wonderfully descriptive and detailed stuff, and as a reader I was happy to plunge in along with Borden and swim through it regardless of where we might eventually surface.

Manhattan, 1928'Not there isn’t any action in Flamingo. There’s a storm at sea, an attempt to manipulate the stock market, an unsuccessful coup on a board of directors, parties, a fox-hunt, even a shooting in a nightclub. Most of the time things move along at a reasonable clip, aside from the dreadful passages about Peter Campbell’s saintly mother and holy fool brother upstate in simple, wholesome Campbelltown.

Unfortunately, Borden’s grand design is undermined by the weakness of its basic story. Peter Campbell, the boy genius of American architecture, has been in love with an Englishwoman he first met when they played together as children on a beach in Cornwall. He’s only seen her three times since, and even then, just in glances–across an opera house in Vienna, entering a car outside the Ritz in Paris. As Peter is about to launch his boldest project ever–a multi-block complex combining train station, corporate headquarters, stores, radio transmitters, and even a church–the woman arrives in New York.

She is Lady Frederika Joyce, wife to Sir Victor Joyce, who is coming to America to tell the President that Great Britain will not repay its war debts. As the Joyces step off the gangplank of the Acquitania (243 pages into a 418-page book), Peter hops on a train to Chicago to pitch a skyscraper for that city. Numerous things happen to both parties, but the net result is that Peter and Frederika do not meet face to face until page 379. Thirty-nine pages later, the book’s over. And no, they don’t run off together to live happily ever after. There are several sub-plots and a cast of dozens, but that’s it as far as the core story goes. And as a protagonist, Peter Campbell leaves a lot to be desired. Even Frederika muses at the end of the book, “He was a great artist but a weak little man ….”

To use an architectural analogy–since Borden devotes a lot of the reader’s time to Peter Campbell’s unique, inspiring designs and constructions–the flaw that topples Borden’s own grand design is the weakness of her foundation. It’s as if she slaps down a layer of tarmac and then proceeds to build the Empire State Building on top of it. For Flamingo to work, it either needed to be equipped with a rock-solid substantial foundation or to have everything that wasn’t essential slashed away in a ruthless fit of editing.

Still, as failures go, this one is awe-inspiring and very much worthy of revival and reconsideration. Among her contemporaries, only John Dos Passos, in U. S. A. carried out a grander design. In neither case does the final product quite fulfill the promise of its initial chapters, but that in no way should suggest that either book is not interesting, as fascinating at times as a kaleidoscope.

Lady Edward Spears (Mary Borden), 1931It’s particularly noteworthy when one realizes who Mary Borden was and what she was up to at the time she wrote Flamingo. Borden was the daughter of a Chicago industrialist, who was married with two daughters and a third on the way and living in England when the First World War broke out. She used her money and influence to establish a field hospital and deployed with it to the Western Front, where she worked as a nurse throughout most of the war.

During the war, she fell in love with Edward Spears, who played a key, if sometimes controversial, role as a liaison officer between the British and French armies. She divorced her first husband and married Spears just before the end of the war. After the war, they set up house in London. Spears went into business and Parliament. They both wrote memoirs of their experiences in the war: Borden’s The Forbidden Zone in 1929; Spears’ Liaison 1914 in 1930.

Somewhere between the war, divorce, marriage, and keeping up an active social life, Borden also found time to write novels, publishing her first book, The Romantic Woman, in 1920. Flamingo, 1927, was her fifth novel and sixth book. Before the end of the decade, her critical reputation had earned her a place alongside Edith Wharton and Ellen Glasgow in at least one survey of American women writers.

Though most of her family fortune was lost in the 1929 stock market crash, Borden continued her hectic pace, publishing seven more books before the Second World War broke out. Once again, she and Spears went to the front. Spears, now a general, served as Churchill’s military liaison with the French government during the desperate weeks in June 1940 when the Germans invaded. Borden, with the help of Lady Frances Hadfield, formed the British-French ambulance unit and went with it to support the French troops in the Alsace. She arranged the evacuation of the unit from France and then led it to Syria and Egypt, where they provided aid to Free French forces. Borden and the ambulance unit returned to France after DDay and took part in the grand liberation parade in Paris. However, Charles DeGaulle soon after disbanded it, reportedly in a pique, having issued a ban on British units participating in the parade.

Woe on he who takes on an industrious woman with a gift for the pen. Less than a year after the war, Borden published Journey Down a Blind Alley, which recounted the many ways in which DeGaulle and others in the Anglophobic Free French leadership went out of their ways to make things difficult, even as French soldiers were lying in the unit’s beds. (I picked up a copy of Journey some months ago in hopes of writing about it, but I found it no better than the average war memoir aside from the uniqueness of Borden and the unit’s circumstances.)

Borden’s pace slowed only a bit after that. Her last book, The Hungry Leopard, was published in 1956 when she was 70. She died in 1968 and Spears passed six years later.

Locate a Copy

Flamingo, by Mary Borden
Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1927

Ruminator Finds added to Sources

Ruminator Finds (originally known as Hungry Mind Finds), which was part of the catalog of Ruminator Books (originally known as Hungry Mind Books), the publishing arm of Ruminator Books, a legendary St. Paul, Minnesota bookstore (originally known as Hungry Mind Books), which also published the literary quarterly The Ruminator Review (originally known as–you got it–The Hungry Mind Review), has been added as a new Source (see under “Sources” to the left) with a list of the dozen or so titles issued during the first five years of Ruminator Books.

The Ruminator Books storeThe story of Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books is a parable of how far a passion for books can take you … until simple economics kick in. David Unowsky, who founded his independent bookstore, Hungry Mind Books, near the campus of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1970, and it acquired a reputation as one of a handful of truly great American bookstores. In the mid-1990s, he and his wife, Pearl Kilbride, along with other partners, started up an independent press, also known as Hungry Minds Books. Over the course of its nearly ten years’ existence, the press published 50 titles, with an emphasis on literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, including a series of reissues of quality non-fiction under the rubrics of Hungry Mind Finds and Ruminator Finds.

In early 2000, they changed the company’s name to Ruminator Books after selling the name to Hungry Minds, publisher of the hugely successful [Fill in the Blank] For Dummies® series. Hungry Minds was later acquired by the technical publishing giant Wiley.

Unfortunately, that move was motivated mainly as an attempt to inject a positive cash flow into what was already a failing business. By mid-2004, the bookstore was forced to close its doors. The press was abandoned as an unsupportable venture, and the literary magazine Unowsky and Kilbride had also established became the last casualty in late 2005.

The Ruminator Finds list is an eclectic sample of some of the best non-fiction writing of the late 20th century and includes such well-recognized classics as Pat Jordan’s baseball memoir, A False Spring, and Bill Barich’s Laughing in the Hills, as well as a few fine but lesser-known works like Carl Raswan’s 1934 memoir, Black Tents of Arabia (My Life Among the Bedouins).

Wettermark, by Elliott Chaze

Cliff Wettermark is a burnt-out case. After burning his bridges with the Associated Press, the Times-Picayune, and a hack PR job for a chiropractor, he’s now stuck in a dead-end job as a reporter for the Catherine, Mississippi Call. He lives in a dump next to a couple of Baptist zealots. He owes the bank $600. His wife needs her teeth fixed and he has something on the side of his nose the local GP says looks cancerous.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Wettermark'As Wettermark opens, he’s sitting outside the office of the local bank manager waiting to ask for an extension on the loan when all hell breaks loose. A bank robber has just held up the drive-up window of another branch and made off with ten grand. Wettermark heads off to get the story, but he can’t shake the bandit’s action from his thoughts: “No wheedling or simpering. It contradicted everything in Wettermark’s experience with the process of securing money from a bank.”

Wettermark has managed to shake the booze that got him into trouble with the AP, and cigarettes, too. But his troubles, the endless tedium of life in Catherine (“a long gray nothing, starting with nothing and leading to nothing”), and the lingering thoughts of having enough cash to live for years without a care lead him to pick up a fifth before covering a local televised press conference. By the time of the show, he’s well-lubed and fires off an unplanned, sarcastic question at the visiting senator. And soon enough, he’s out of a job.

Which leads back to thoughts about the bank job. The reality of the act had opened his eyes to new possibilities:

He had known, of course, that banks could be robbed but before today it never entered his mind that he himself could bring off such a thing. He had thought of a bank robbery the way he thought of having a girl when he was fourteen–it could be done, it had been done, but only by experts who possessed extraordinary courage, skill and persistence. Actually there wasn’t much to it once you had your first girl. The astounding revelation was that some girls really and truly wanted to be bad, and apparently there were banks in the same category.

The quality of the local police also helps build up his confidence in his ability to pull off a similar heist. Of the town’s captain of detectives, Wettermark muses, “He was able to make drinking a cup of coffee look as if the fate of the nation depended on it and this was the primary reason, if not the only reason, for his promotion to captain. He could not track an army tank in fresh mud.”

And so Wettermark stakes out a bank in a town a few counties away and begins making preparations. I won’t spoil the book by revealing whether he successes and what happens after, except to say that Chaze manages to make it suspenseful, comical, sickening, and vivid with some of the best writing in the novel:

He was sweating heavily beneath the rubberized coat. He tried to kid himself into believing that this wasn’t what it was, that this wasn’t the edge of the platform and he wasn’t going to have to make the dive at all; that he was simply farting around out in the country and when he got to Knoll Springs he would stop at a filling station and get a cold drink and exchange a bit of rural-route shit with the attendant. They loved to joke about motorcycles. They grinned and said: “You want me to wipe that windshield, suh?” Or they said: “I see you got yourself some pure-dee air-conditionin’.”

Elliott Chaze, 1969'The writing is what makes Wettermark more than a run-of-the-mill mystery. Chaze, who worked for the Hattiesburg American for thirty years, knew his setting well: the woods and swamps, the sleepy towns, the cheesy politicans and slyly dumb cops, the racism and veiled caste system. He’d also written novels before Wettermark. The Stainless Steel Kimono, about about a group of American paratroopers in Japan, was reputed to be a favorite of Hemingway’s, and his 1953 pulp novel, Black Wings Has My Angel is considered by some to be, in Ed Gorman’s words, “the single best novel Gold Medal published during its heyday”–which is the tough-guy crime writing equivalent being given an honorary National Book Award by Philip Roth.

I do have to say that Chaze considerably undermines the fine writing of most of Wettermark with the clumsy plotting of the book’s last twenty-some pages. But the narrative voice is what makes or breaks most crime novels, and even on page one, Chaze’s writing made me want to follow wherever his story might take me. He’s funny, cynical but self-deprecating, succinct, and a master of picking out little images–the stick orange plastic chair outside the bank manager’s office, the town mayor’s penchant for publicity shots of him pointing at empty space where some warehouse or fast food restaurant is going to be built–that stick in memory long after the book is finished. If the rest of his books have anything like the same style, I look forward to reading more.

Bill Pronzini wrote an admiring piece on Chaze’s work on his Mystery File blog a couple of years ago, which prompted a similar reflection by fellow writer Ed Gorman: “Chaze would have been right at home with the other hardboiled greats, Fredric Brown, Peter Rabe, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and many others.” There was a report back in 2007 that Elijah Wood was going to produce a film version of Black Wings Has My Angel, but it appears that may have gone the way of John Leguizamo’s Esquivel bio-pic and other much-anticipated unproduced works. Black Mask Books has reissued Black Wings and has Amazon in Kindle format, but since it’s in the public domain, you can just download a PDF version of the book from thanks to a user named jvorzimmer. You can also find biographical sketches of Chaze on the Mississippi Writers and Musicians site as well as on Murder with Southern Hospitality, a special exhibit site from the Ole Miss library.

Find a copy

Wettermark, by Elliott Chaze
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969

Short Drive, Sweet Chariot, by William Saroyan

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'Short Drive, Sweet Chariot'“In the summer of 1963 I bought a 1941 Lincoln limousine in New York, so that I might be chauffeur in California to the few remaining dignitaries in my family,” William Saroyan explains at the start of Short Drive, Sweet Chariot. This slim book is his account of his trip to Fresno, accompanied by his cousin John, to take his uncle Mihran and other relatives out for rides in style. Or rather, his account of part of that trip. The part from Ontario to the edge of South Dakota, where Saroyan cuts to the chase and a short postscript saying, in effect, “So anyway we got to Fresno and took Mihran out for a drive.”

This is Saroyan at the point in his career where he’d just about given up any pretence about sticking to any particular literary form, when most of his work consisted of perambulating, wise-cracking monologues. For a few fans who truly love his idiosyncratic meanderings for the loose, baggy messes they are, these books are Saroyan in his purest, most brilliant form. For most of the reading public that had made early books such as The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze best-sellers, a book like Short Drive, Sweet Chariot wasn’t worth noticing.

Personally, I kinda prefer these latter messy books. I still have a copy of his last book, Obituaries, from 1979, which was nominated for an American Book Award and helped–a bit–to restore Saroyan’s critical reputation. Obituaries has the structure of an entry for each day of the day, with each entry discussing someone whose obituary appeared in a paper that day. However, more than a few entries start out along the lines of, “So-and-so died today. I never met him. There was another guy I knew, though, and he ….”

But you don’t read one of these books because Saroyan follows the rules, you read it because he’s almost always at least interesting and occasionally brilliant, funny, poetic, or tender. And when he’s not … well, the momentum along will carry you and him along to the next good bit. Like this little meditation:

In getting from Windsor to Detroit there is a choice between a free tunnel and a toll bridge, which turned out to be a short ride for a dollar, which I mentioned to the toll-collector who said, “One of those things,” impelling me to remark to my cousin, “Almost everything said by people one sees for only an instant is something like poetry. Precise, incisive, and just right, and the reason seems to be that there isn’t time to talk prose. This suggests several things, the most important of which is probably that a writer ought not to permit himself to feel he has all the time in the world in which to write his story or play or novel. He ought to set himself a time-limit, and the shorter the better. And he ought to do a lot of other things while he is working within this time-limit, so that he will always be under pressure, in a hurry, and therefore have neither the inclination nor the time to be fussy, which is the worst thing that happens to a book while it’s being written.

Or this one about the precedent Kennedy set as the first Catholic elected President:

President Hamazasp Azhderian, that’s the man I’m waiting to see in office. I’d like the order to be about like this, for the purposes of equity. After the Catholic, a Jew. Then, a twice-married, twice-divorced beautiful woman, known to be fond of bed and gazoomp. Then, a Negro, preferably very black. Then, a full-blooded Blackfoot. And finally Hamazasp Azhderian.

C’mon now–wouldn’t it be cool to have “a twice-married, twice-divorced beautiful woman, known to be fond of bed and gazoomp” after President Obama?

“Americans,” Saroyan writes, “have found the healing of God in a variety of things, the most pleasant of which is probably automobile drives.” Short Drive, Sweet Chariot is certainly one writer’s celebration of the pleasures of driving a fine vintage automobile along the mostly pre-freeway roads of America, but in Saroyan’s case, there doesn’t appear to be anything he needed to be healed of. More, it was a golden opportunity to expound for hours on end to a capture audience–namely, his cousin John. John comes off as an intelligent and enormously patient man who only occasionally finds it necessary to burst one of his cousin Bill’s bubbles.

And fortunately, cousin Bill was a pretty interesting guy to listen to. No, Short Drive, Sweet Chariot is no masterpiece and not much more than a bit of intelligent, poetic, meandering fluff. But it’s also an entire work, in the sense that Saroyan used that word: “incomplete, impossible to complete, flawed, vulnerable, sickly, fragmented, but now, also, right, acceptable, meaningful, useful, and a part of one larger entirety after another, into infinity. Kind of a modern age equivalent of the Great Chain of Being.

Short Drive, Sweet Chariot, by William Saroyan
New York: Phaedra, 1966

Black Squirrel Books added to Publishers Page

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

DePietro provided the preface to a forthcoming reissue of the novelist Raymond Decapite’s 1961 book, A Lost King. The book was adapted for the screen as “Harry and Son” in 1984 by Paul Newman, who wrote, directed, and acted in the film. DeCapite’s most recent books are still available from Sparkle Street Press. DeCapite passed away just a few days ago at the age of 84, having lived in Cleveland, in which most of his stories are set, all his life.

The Late Great Creature, by Brock Brower

R. W. Rasband writes with a strong recommendation for Brock Brower’s 1971 novel, The Late Great Creature: “In a time when both Stephen King and satirical comedy are so popular, I don’t understand why this novel isn’t more well known.”

In his review on, Rasband wrote of the novel:

The movie documentary “Stone Reader” is about great books that have been lost to public memory or somehow never gotten the attention they deserve. My nomination for a “great lost book” is Brock Brower’s The Late Great Creature, an amazing 1971 novel that needs to be resurrected for a certain-to-be large, appreciative audience. The title character is Simon Moro, the greatest horror Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of 'The Late Great Creature'movie star of the 1920’s and ’30’s (he’s like Lon Chaney Sr. to the nth degree.) We learn of his fall from fame, and his attempted comeback in the phantasmagorical year of 1968. In his prime he made “Ghoulgantua”, the most terrifying film ever made (about a combination Frankenstein’s monster/vampire.) He created the famous monster “Gila Man” (a sort of werewolf lizard) during the war. Later he was blacklisted for political reasons, went to Germany to make a legendary, unreleased horror movie about the Nazi concentration camps that was supressed by both West and East Germany, and gradually sank into obscurity. Then low-budget Hollywood came calling with an offer to make a cheap Roger Corman-style Edgar Allen Poe rip-off titled “Raven!”

The novel has an amazing storytelling virtuosity that suggests, as one critic put it, a younger Nabokov raised on creepy old horror movies. There are three narrators: Warner Williams, a terminally-slick magazine writer who provides the basic back story of Moro’s amazing career. There’s also Terry Cowan, the amoral, cynical director of “Raven!” And there’s Moro himself, who drops some pretty big surprises in his narration that make you question all that has gone before. Like Bela Lugosi, Moro struggled with demons (including drugs and poverty) but Moro developed some real heroism and hard-won insight. As he says, “Where there is no spine, there is no tingle.” He looks out at the corrupt America of the 1960’s and decides to shock it back to its moral senses by scaring the country to death during the publicity tour for his new movie. He does this in grotesque, hilarious ways that you have to read for yourself.

The book is wonderfully satrical about celebrity culture and is also a loving tribute to the horror genre. It’s stunningly verbally agile. There are lines that will stick in your head forever. It’s also got a thrillingly intricate plot, that as you unravel it through the three narrators, will amaze and delight you. In a way it reminds me of Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys” in its compassionate yet blisteringly funny and painstakingly accurate portrait of artistic losers run amok. I read this in high school and it remains one of my very favorite books. You should get hold of a copy immediately, any way you can.

Time magazine’s reviewer was equally enthusiastic when the book first came out:

If this were all Brower had done, The Late Great Creature would be only one of the funniest tours de force of the past few years. But he has done more. With few illusions of ever returning to the great days of Saturday matinee catharsis, he illustrates the salutary nature of terror—its ability to exorcise fears of evil and death. He also toys gracefully with the paradox that fiction is capable of more truth than journalism. The truth about Brock Brower, an experienced freelance journalist, is that he must now be reckoned with as an extraordinarily capable novelist.

As recounted in an article in Publisher’s Weekly back in 2005, however, such positive reviews and even a National Book Award nomination couldn’t get Brower the time of day or a publisher. It was nearly 30 years before he attempted fiction again. The result, Blue Dog, Green River, a somewhat mystical tale of Blue Dog, a one-time chicken thief, was published by the admirable David R. Godine Press and is still in print.

Some Recommendations from Maura Kelly

Maura Kelly, a prolific writer for journals ranging from The New York Times to The Daily Beast and Marie Claire, wrote the other day to give this site a thumbs up. Prodded for a few of her own neglected favorites, she offered the works of James Salter, including Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime, and his memoir, Burning the Days. After decades of genuine neglect–books long out of print, periodic mentions by admiring fellow writers–Salter’s star has finally risen and one might fairly call him America’s best-known neglected writer. All of his books are back in print; he’s been a featured writer in the New York Times, and clocks in with over 300,000 hits on Google. None of which helped pay the rent forty years ago, of course.

She also mentioned John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, which sparked a fair amount of controversy when it first appeared back in 1978. In th John Gardner in 1978book, Gardner attempts to hold the high ground against contemporaries such as Bellow, Mailer, and the fearsome nouveau romans of Robbe-Grillet and others. He argues that,true art “clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns.” Whether his criticism was valid or not, it certainly helped make the book perhaps the best-selling work of literary criticism of its time. In a thoughtful piece for the Atlantic, published back in 2005, the novelist Mary Gordon argues–convincingly, I think–that Gardner was pretty much dead wrong. King Lear, for example, is certainly a work of true art, but one could hardly say that he’s a model of human action. A striking example of human action, yes. A model to be emulated, though? I side with Gordon’s much more straight-forward approach: that it’s the raising of “intriguing and unanswerable questions” that marks great fiction.

Gardner’s own novels, particularly Nickel Mountain and October Light, had a certain cult classic status among college students back in the 1970s, although I suspect the sales had as much to do with the fine cover art by Paul Bacon, which was a distinctive blend of the Gothic and the psychedelic that promised something much different from the grim tales of life in upstate New York one found inside the covers. I suspect that, in the long run, Gardner’s Grendel, a fierce retelling of the Beowulf tale from the perspective of the monster–a somewhat experimental piece more like shudder Barth’s Chimera than Middlemarch, that will maintain his artistic reputation.

“Why Do Some Writers Disappear?” from the Wall St. Journal


“Why do exceptional writers disappear?” a reader of Cynthia Crossen’s regular “Book Lover” column in the Wall Street Journal:

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'That Summer in Paris'Morley Callaghan is my favorite 20th-century novelist. His That Summer in Paris is among the best of memoirs. His writing is splendid, but he is forgotten. Every book lover can list authors who were wonderful and maybe even great (John Marquand, John Dos Passos, Erico Verissimo) but who are gone. Why do exceptional writers disappear?

Crossen admits that Callaghan’s name is unknown to her, but in her defense, notes that,

… even in the 1960s, Mr. Callaghan was “perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world,” wrote Edmund Wilson, who hypothesized that Mr. Callaghan might have been the victim of geographical snobbery. Critics seemed to doubt that even a literary genius comparable to Chekhov or Turgenev “could possibly be functioning in Toronto.”

She concludes with a mention of this site: “A very fine Web site,, has many links to lists of lost classics as well as its own ruminations on the subject.” But then she also points out that, “… a site search showed not a trace of Morley Callaghan.”

Well now it does, courtesy of Ms. Crossen.

Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis

Men of Henry Preston Standish’s class did not go around falling off ships in the middle of the ocean; it just was not done, that was all. It was a stupid, childish, unmannerly thing to do, and if there had been anybody’s pardon to beg, Standish would have begged it. People back in New York knew Standish was smooth. His upbringing and education had stressed smoothness. Even as an adolescent Standish had always done the right things. Without being at all snobbish or making a cult of manners Standish was really a gentleman, the good kind, the unobtrusive kind. Falling off a ship caused people a lot of bother. They had to throw out life preservers. The captain and chief engineer had to stop the ship and turn it around. A lifeboat had to be lowered; and then there would the spectacle of Standish, all wet and bedraggled, being returned to the safety of the ship, with all the passengers lining the rail, smiling their encouragement and undoubtedly, later on, offering him innumerable anecdotes about similar mishaps. Falling off a ship was much worse than knocking over a waiter’s tray or stepping on a lady’s train. It was even more embarrassing than the fate of that unfortunate society girl in New York who tripped and fell down a whole flight of stairs while making her grand entrance on the night of her debut. It was humiliating, mortifying. You cursed yourself for being such a fool; you wanted to kick yourself. When you saw other men committing these wretched buffoon’s mistakes you could not find it in your heart to forgive them; you had no pity on their discomfort.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Gentleman Overboard'In Gentleman Overboard, Herbert Clyde Lewis takes no pity whatsoever on his character’s discomfort. While taking a leisurely cruise from Honolulu to Panama aboard the freighter Arabella, Henry Preston Standish of Central Park West–partner of Pym, Bingley and Standish, member of the Finance, Athletic, and Yale Clubs, father of two–slips on a bit of kitchen grease and tumbles into the Pacific Ocean as he takes an early morning stroll around the ship.

No one notices. Several passengers and crew members think they see him, and what with the rush of the day’s tasks and a general inclination not to bring up unpleasant issues, no one says a thing about his absence until over ten hours later. Grumbling about the loss of time and fuel and the unlikelihood of ever finding a lone man floating in the middle of the ocean, the Captain turns the ship around to search.

Meanwhile, Standish treads water. He takes pride in his mastery of the dead man’s float, something he learned as a boy at the club. After a while, he kicks off his shoes and jacket. A bit later, the shirt and pants go. Finally, he slips off his shorts. This, he realizes, is the first time since childhood he’s been naked in the water.

Overall, Standish does quite well for the first few hours. His spirit is high. He has the self-possession to keep his head in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation. The ship will return for him, after all.

Gradually, though, confidence fades into frustration. It is quite tedious that the ship is taking so long to come back. It does say something about the quality of the Captain and his crew.

He grows hungry and desparately thirsty. “… [N]ever once before in his life had he gone hungry or thisty…. the real meaning of hunger and thirst, to be hungry for bread and thirsty for water, had not existed for him.” He grows tired. Every once in a while he forgets that “he was a doomed man and it was damned annoying when he had to remind himself.”

Night falls. There is still no sign of the ship. Standish grows weaker.

Is he rescued? In a sense, we never really know. Lewis leaves us as Standish’s thoughts grow hazy and dreamy. Perhaps the ship finds him. Perhaps it doesn’t. It’s not really the point. What Lewis does is to take a simple situation–a man falls overboard–and play it out with no fuss or dramatics. So deftly and elegantly that when we begin to feel Standish’s growing fear it comes like a shock, like a plunge into icy waters. What might go through one’s mind? What kinds of emotions would one feel? This is one way it might transpire.

It’s something of an experiment, then. What matters is not whether it succeeds or fails but simply to see what happens. Lewis puts his subject into the experiment and observes. This novel holds his notes. Few scientists could have recorded the results with such an elegant and light touch. It’s been said that a true artist knows when to stop … and does. By this criterion alone, Herbert Clyde Lewis proves himself a true artist with Gentleman Overboard

Locate a Copy

Gentleman Overboard, by Herbert Clyde Lewis
New York: Viking, 1937

Cheever’s Neglected Friends and Neighbors

I recently finished listening to the audio book of Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life. Although I can’t imagine anyone finishing it and then thinking, “You know, I want to know even more about John Cheever,” it’s a remarkable work.

While Cheever often thought himself an unjustly neglected writer, he now stands in the pantheon compared with others he met, befriended, lived near, and/or slept with.

Ivan Gold

Ivan Gold, 1963Gold lived in the same apartment building during one of the worst periods of Cheever’s life, when he was drinking himself to death during a teaching gig at Boston University. Gold, whose drinking problems were slightly more manageable than Cheever’s, had released a short story collection, Nickel Miseries back in 1963. Lionel Trilling praised it as “a masterly collection” and predicted that Gold would become “one of the commanding writers of our time.” Instead, he became overwhelmed by such expectations. He wrote one novel, Sick Friends, that did get published in 1969, but then struggled with alcoholism until he joined AA in 1976. Sobriety did not solve his writer’s block, though, and Gold only published one more book, Sams in a Dry Season, in 1992. Sams picked up the protagonist of Sick Friends, a writer named Jason Sams, and took him and the reader through the slow, difficult process of drying out and learning to live without booze–a process very much based on Gold’s own experiences. Philip Roth praised it as, “a brave, open book, harsh, dogged, and relentless, a confession bursting through the contours of a novel, convincingly truthful and inventively written.” Gold died in early 2008.

Calvin Kentfield

Cover of paperback edition of 'All Men Are Mariners'Cheever met Kentfield during a stay in Hollywood in 1959 and the two men had a brief, intense affair that left Cheever paranoid about his homosexual feelings. Kentfield was a former Merchant Marine sailor whose most successful novel, All Men are Mariners, was published to strong reviews (“… [A] brilliant story told by a first-rate storyteller”) a few years later. But he also had his problems with drink, as well with money and a stormy-tempered wife. He managed to publish a few more stories in the New Yorker after that, but aside from a coffee table book about the Pacific Coast, his only other serious work after All Men are Mariners was his 1974 memoir of life as a merchant seaman, The Great Green. I tried reading it about a year ago but gave up after 50-some pages of self-indulgent, meandering prose. Kentfield died under suspicious circumstances in 1975. It was ruled a suicide, but Cheever claimed that Kentfield’s wife was responsible.

Edward Newhouse

First U.S. editon of 'Many Are Called'Newhouse, who was born in Hungary, started out as a radical novelist whose 1934 novel about the down-and-out, You Can’t Sleep Here, earned him the label, “the proletarian Hemingway.” But Newhouse quickly developed a much subtler sense of things and by the time he and Cheever met and their families shared an apartment house during World War Two, he was on a par with Cheever as one of the New Yorker’s most prolific short story writers. Although out of print for over 50 years now, Newhouse’s 1951 collection, Many Are Called, was considered at the time to be as good as Cheever’s breakthrough collection, The Enormous Radio. Cheever, however, considered Newhouse a sell-out, particularly for his 1954 novel, The Temptation of Roger Herriott, which he thought written expressly for the purpose of selling the story to Hollywood. Other critics had a much different opinion, calling it “one of the really good books of this or any other year” and “a novel of quiet and great distinction.” Newhouse did, in fact, sell a number of stories to Hollywood studios, but he had the wisdom and luck to invest the proceeds in a series of stock purchases that left him very comfortable, probably one of Cheever’s wealthiest friends. He stopped writing and lived off his investments until he died at the ripe age of 91 in 2002, once again illustrating the saying that living well is the best revenge.

Honk if You Love Boise Hafter, by John Wallace

I decided to give Honk if You Love Boise Hafter a try after coming across an enthusiastic review that called it “An Under-rated, lyrical ‘outsider-lit’ classic.” The reviewer, Benjamin N. Pierce, described the novel as,

… something like “Harold and Maude” meets “Celestine Prophecy” but without the strange meanness and over-simplification of “Harold and Maude” (with the exception of this books rather heavy-handed treatment of psychotherapists) and without the horrid pot-boiler writing of Celestine Prophecy. Here is a well-worked out philosophy about the different degrees of non-conformity that I have never seen elsewhere–and the sense of fun is something like Tom Robbins or earlier Kurt Vonnegut. What this book has to offer persons who truly don’t fit in anywhere, would by itself make it worth reading and passing on.

Honk if You Love Boise Hafter was published in 1973, when every other college kid was reading Robbins or Vonnegut, and it’s hard to believe that Wallace’s novel didn’t attract at least a few of these readers, since it’s got just about all the ingredients one could ask for in college cult classic of that era: free love, great clouds of grass, drop-outs and outcasts from the Establishment, and even a big yellow schoolbus turned into a commune on wheels. Well, maybe not so hard to believe when you see that it was published by Bobbs-Merrill, whose neglect of Dow Mossman’s The Stones Of Summer is recounted in Mark Moskowitz’s film, “The Stone Reader.”

Boise Hafter is the tale of one man’s search for his place in the universe. P. R. Riffling is a very unhappy college instructor who spells his time playing “library games” such as searching for unusual stains (shoe polish, lamb chop grease, Kaopectate) and “lost book hunts”, locating books that had fallen behind and under shelves.

In one of these, he finds a letter of rejection from the American Journal of Personality to one Prof. Boise Hafter from Gallitzin College in Pennsylvania. The editor dismisses Hafter’s paper, “Characteristics of Out-of-Sync Personalities: A New Theory of Neuroses,” as “very poor psychology, terrible philosophy, and muddled physics.” Hafter’s paper appears to have been about a series of experiments he’d performed to determine a person’s personality type. In these experiments, Hafter would “sneak up behind him with a sousaphone and blow a concert B-flat on the second line of the bass clef directly at the back of his head.” Oh, and the subject had tuning forks with mirrors on their tips strapped to the sides of his head.

What galvanizes Riffling and leads him to run off in search of Hafter is Hafter’s definition of a special type of personality: the Out-of-Sync. The Out-of-Sync person, according to Hafter, is “Thrust into time a fraction of an inch in front of or in back of the cosmic pulse, the basic unit of space-time,” which leaves them out of sync with the rest of society–particularly the Straights. To the Straights, they are “seen as hopeless failures, usually despised and unwanted by anybody,” despite the fact that they have “the potential to communicate freely among the infinite inner worlds of microtime.”

A hippy-dippy schoolbusRiffling realizes he is an Out-of-Sync, as is Miss Dunnette, the gorgeous red-headed librarian with whom he heads of on his journey. They soon locate Hafter’s former lover, Emma, a 70-year-old toker who still lives on the old farm where Hafter established Gallitzin College in the barn and pulled together a Utopian community of fellow Out-of-Syncs back in the 1920s. Fifty years ahead of its time, Hafter’s commune was awash in organic veggies, free love, and home-grown hemp, and everyone worshipped an enormous painting of a nude black woman with a sunflower bursting from her crotch.

Riffling, Miss Dunnette, and Emma decide to convert an old school bus into a rolling commune and head off in search of other Out-Syncs. Along the way, they tangle with Straights, befriend a couple of high school Out-of-Sights (another personality type, the Bart Simpsons of the world), and rescue a mental patient from the claws of a rabid behavioralist (B. B. Mule viz. B. F. Skinner). It’s a wild and wacky ride, reminiscent of the Merry Prankster’s exploits from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

I’m probably too much of a Straight to hold Honk if You Love Boise Hafter in the same fond regard as Mr. Pierce, but I did thoroughly enjoy it as a lovely bit of hippy-dippy nostalgia. And for any Out-of-Syncs out there: go get yourself a copy and discover the joys of mouth-popping, elbow-cracking, and chanting “Aljiri!”

Locate a Copy

Honk If You Love Boise Hafter, by John Wallace
Indianapolis/New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973

Head Butler Serves Up Michael J. Arlen’s Exiles

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'Exiles'Head Butler, AKA New York City writer and editor Jesse Kornbluth, took a moment from featuring books, movies, music, and other products of today to recognize the merits of Michael J. Arlen’s 1970 memoir of his parents, Exiles: “a book so astonishingly well-written you won’t believe it’s out of print and can be bought, used, for as little as a penny.”

Arlen’s father, Michael Arlen, was one of the most famous and best-selling authors of the 1920s–as well known or better than Fitzgerald back then. Arlen’s most popular novels, The Green Hat
(now reissued by Capuchin Classics). As Mark Valentine summarizes the book in a fine article on the Lost Book Club website,

The novel was quite simply the novel of the year, seized upon as the poetically true testament to a brilliant, daring and doomed generation. The owner of the green hat is Iris Storm, whose wild pursuit of pleasure in the parties, masquerades, night clubs and restaurants of London and Paris has led to her reputation as a ‘shameless, shameful’ woman: but paradoxically there is some calm reserve in her which seems to imply a secret inner grace. The melodramatic narrative, written in what one critic called an ‘opium dream style’, sonorous with exotic and cosmic images, may only draw a wry smile today. The heroine’s first husband, clean-cut ‘Boy’ Fenwick, commits suicide on their wedding night by throwing himself out of their bedroom window. She allows it to be assumed he did this because of something he learned about her, and her reckless career serves to support this view. But an ardent admirer reveals at last the truth to her friends and Fenwick’s family: that her husband had syphilis and she has sacrificed her reputation to protect his good name. Furious at this betrayal of the ‘one fine thing’ in her life, Iris rushes off in her sleek yellow Hispano-Suiza car and is killed in a collision with a great ancient tree, her rakish green hat floating free beyond the flames.

But Michael Arlen the successful novelist, hob-nobber with the likes of Maugham, Churchill, Nancy Astor, and Sam Goldwyn, was something of a chameleon. Born Dikran Kouyoumdjian, he was one of hundreds of thousands of exiles from the Turkish campaigns against Armenians at the end of World War One, the story Franz Werfel tells in his epic, Forty Days of Musa Dagh (also out of print). After his bright successes of the 1920s, however, Arlen quickly fell in the eyes of both the reading public and the critics. By the end of the 1930s, he was completely blocked, and he spent much of the remaining thirty years of his life depressed and isolated.

Exiles was the first of two books Michael J. Arlen wrote about the Armenian genocide. His 1976 travel book/memoir, Passage to Ararat won the National Book Award for that year and is still in print.

Arlen (the son) worked for the New Yorker as a television critic for many years, and two collections of his articles, Living Room War, which was, in part, about news coverage of the Vietnam War, and The View from Highway 1, are back in print from the Syracuse University Press. Thirty Seconds, a 1981 book-length expansion of an article about the making of an AT&T long distance ad, is one of the best and funniest pieces of television criticism ever written and well worth seeking out for a quick evening’s read.

In looking into the works of Arlen (fis), I learned that he had made a stab at novel-writing in 1984, Goodbye to Sam. Although most reviews dismissed the book as “slight” and “less than fully successful,” Time‘s reviewer did comment, “… with much of its detail is so close to Arlen’s life that it is tempting to read the book as therapy or revenge. But it works, elegiacally and sometimes forcefully, as fiction.”

Just added to Sources: 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read, by Karl Bridges

100 Great American Novels You've Probably Never ReadPublished in 2007, 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read is an attempt by Karl Bridges, librarian and associate professor at the University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe Library, to provide a resource for readers of American fiction who’ve read their way through the standard canon of classics. “One goal of this book,” Bridges writes in his Introduction, “is to represent a wide time span–one equaling the length of American history”, and the novels listed cover a full 200 years: from Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walkerstyle=border:none (1797) to Charles T. Power’s In the Memory of the Foreststyle=border:none (1997).

For each listing, Bridges provides:

  • A paragraph or so extract from the work to give a sense of the writer’s style;
  • A synopsis of the story;
  • Bridges’ own critical commentary, informed by what he estimates as over 50,000 hours of reading;
  • A biographical sketch of the author;
  • A selected list of his/her other works;
  • References and other suggested sources about the author and the novel

In some cases, the information Bridges assembles represents more than anyone has ever collected on the author and novel. His choices also reveal a broad and eclectic taste, one that includes not only mainstream fiction but genres such as science fiction, serials, detective tales, and novels for young adults.

You can find the complete list of 100 titles under Sources to the left of this page: Karl Bridges.

What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960, by Gordon Hutner

Cover of 'What America Read'“Why are so few novels remembered while so many thousands forgotten?” This is the question Gordon Hutner, professor of English at the University of Illinois, takes up in his new book, What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960, due out this month from the University of North Carolina Press. In it, Hutner surveys four decades of American fiction from the viewpoint of the reading public and the mainstream critics of the time, and reveals just how shifts in the currents of critical tastes can leave many good works stranded and quickly forgotten.

“There is no critical conspiracy to keep these books from being read,” Hutner writes. Instead, he shows how mainstream critics such as Bernard deVoto, Clifton Fadiman, and Henry Canby were eclipsed by a younger, more politically-oriented generation with the likes of Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and Dwight MacDonald, who favored modernism over realism and the marginalized over the mainstream. With their rise, writers such as John Marquand, who had enjoyed both popular and critical success, came to be considered hacks and reactionaries.

Hutner does not claim that there are dozens of lost masterpieces to be found among the books he surveys. He merely argues that their neglected ultimately represents our own “impoverishment, since their fiction reveals the epic story of a nation’s self-invention as a modern society through the filter of middle-class experience.” Although he doesn’t single out any title for special attention, opting instead for a comprehensive survey, Hutner did mention a few noteworthies in a recent interview:

Really there are just too many! I gained a great appreciation for many women writers I had never heard of before, like Margaret Barnes, who won a Pulitzer for a novel about the rise of Chicago [Years of Grace, winner of the 1931 award–Ed.]. I also liked Josephine Lawrence, who wrote in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s! Her novels were smaller affairs, written to be read in an evening, dealing with problems like how to manage a budget or how to deal with the aged in a world before the Social Security Act. (Reviewers sometimes asked why she wasn’t more highly esteemed.) Margaret Culkin Banning wrote similar novels about women a rung or two higher on the social ladder. Caroline Slade wrote some interesting books about women in the Depression and the sex trade. Maritta Wolff wrote terrific novels in the 40s, including the very best one about women’s experience with returning GIs called About Lyddy Thomas; a posthumous novel of hers came out a few years ago [Scribner’s has reissued three of Wolff’s novels–Whistle Stop, Night Shift, and the posthumous Sudden Rain–Ed.]. I also liked Margaret Halsey’s comic writing: With Malice Toward Some is a delight. She wrote a novel and a nonfiction book about black GIs and race relations, drawn on her USO stint, but the nonfiction book is more trenchant.

There were good books by plenty of men too, and I would be remiss if I did not mention Michael Foster’s American Dream. With such a title, the book better be good, and it is. I really developed a taste for John Marquand too, especially Point of No Return. I also “discovered” wonderful novels by African American writers—Waters E. Turpin’s migration novels of the 30s [These Low Grounds (1937) and O Canaan! (1940)–Ed.] may be known to specialists but scarcely make their way onto many syllabi in twentieth-century African American fiction.

I plan to add Hutner’s book and a list of many of the titles he discusses, to the Sources section on this site later this month, but the above sample provides an excellent start. I highly recommend What America Read to any fan of 20th century realistic fiction.

The Rules of the Game, by Georges Simenon

Cover of UK paperback edition of 'The Rules of the Game'Ah, there’s nothing like a dose of Georges Simenon to remind us of the worms lurking just beneath the surface of normality. He really was a master of finding that loose thread that can unravel the whole fabric of one’s existence with a simple tug.

The Rules of the Game, one of the dozen of so novels set in the U. S. that he wrote during the ten years he lived there, is a perfect example. As the novel opens, Walter Higgins, manager of the local Fairfax supermarket in Williamson, Connecticut, father of four (with another on the way), school board treasurer and assistant secretary of the Rotary Club, finds out his application to the local country club has been rejected–for the second time.

“The application meant so much to him. It was important for his family’s place in Williamson society, in society in general.” He takes it hard. “I’ll kill them!” is his immediate, silent response. The rejection undermines his entire sense of self. “They were telling him he wasn’t worthy of belonging to the community,” he thinks. It strips away the facade of respectability he’d worked so hard to establish: “He was simply ashamed, as if he had found himself stark naked in the middle of the supermarket, among his employees and outraged customers.” “That was, in fact, a dream he had often had,” Simenon adds, tellingly.

He begins to question everything around him. He begins to speculate on silent conspiracies against him, on hushed conversations held behind his back. “Somewhere in Williamson, there was at least one person who must be chuckling contentedly at the thought of the clever trick he’d played on Higgins.” The fact that no one mentions the black-balling, that no one reacts or even seems to know of it, offers no reassurance. “It was almost as though everyone was deliberately behaving normally, giving him nothing to latch on to.”

Simenon then reveals just what Higgins has been trying for years to cover up. His mother, an alcoholic, is reporting missing from her rest home and then found dying in a gutter. He returns to his home town in New Jersey to retrieve her and is reminded of everything he’s worked to put behind him. The squalor of the tenement apartments he’d grown up in. The shiftlessness, drunken neighbors. The petty thieves, shirkers, and child-beaters. His own mother, reeling from binge to binge, often abandoning him to sleep alone, cold, and hungry. It’s as if the country club men of Williamson have always been able to smell the poverty he’d managed to escape.

It’s a nightmarish experience that drives the tee-totalling Higgins to drink and to a short breakdown. But he pulls himself up again and returns to the supermarket and his facade of fitting in. Now, however–in apt Simenon fashion–he no longer believes in what he is doing:

He didn’t have all the details worked out yet, but he was sure he was on the right track. The reason people thought he didn’t count was because he didn’t know the rules of the game. Yes, it was a game–like the games of his childhood. He hadn’t known that, maybe because he’d had to start too young, or too low, he, the son, as his mother said sarcastically, of Louisa and that scum Higgins.

But that wasn’t the main thing. What was important was to conform to the rules, certainly, but most of all, to know it was all a game. If you didn’t know that, you could make things impossible for other people.

This, to me, sums up what is so perfect about Simenon’s American novels: this is very much the American dream viewed through the eyes of a European. It’s not a dream of self-advancement, of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps: it’s a game. A slightly different game from the European game of success, with its older and more intricate rules of religion, property, nobility, and class, but a game nonetheless.

Simenon’s view is certainly cynical, but it has something of the attractive bitterness of a glass of Campari. I wouldn’t drink one every night, but these short, intense novels have that same effect of bringing your senses to attention.

Find a copy

The Rules of the Game, by Georges Simenon
Translated by Howard Curtis
New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1988

If It Prove Fair Weather, by Isabel Paterson

I had mixed feelings as I started If It Prove Fair Weather: I looked forward to reading another novel by Paterson and regretted that after this, there would be no more–at least, no more except for her lesser historical novels. If there’s one writer I’ve come to feel, since starting this site, whose work has been most unjustly forgotten, it’s Paterson.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'If It Prove Fair Weather'Paterson’s three novels published between 1933 and 1940–Never Ask the End, The Golden Vanity, and If It Prove Fair Weather–are marked with an intelligence, humor, and keen sense of feminism that would seem to be a natural fit for many readers today. She writes with a distinctive voice–ironic, self-deprecating, wistful yet pragmatic. Her heroines are women who’ve never defined themselves based on whether there was a man in their lives, even though each has a romantic streak and an attraction to the company of men. These are women who enjoy having a man hold her hand, and yet wonder at men’s utter cluelessness.

If It Prove Fair Weather presents just such a woman, Emmy Cruger, an associate professor of mathematics at a Manhattan college, in her mid-forties, single, happy to own her own apartment: “… the only refuge she had ever owned. Once she was inside, nothing could get at her until tomorrow.”

Out of nowhere, James Wishart, a publishing executive Emmy has known for years, approaches her at a cocktail party and asks her to dinner. Despite the fact that Wishart is very married and very conservative, she has sensed some mutual interest for years. Now, however, he seems to want to take things further.

Or does he? Even in the privacy of Emmy’s apartment, something holds him back. They kiss and embrace, but then he leaves in haste, concerned not to be seen returning to his hotel too late. There are several rounds like this, each stopping short of Emmy’s bedroom.

Emmy deconstructs each encounter with her friend Christine Jackson, trying to understand Wishart’s motivation and intent. The problem, as Emmy see it, is that Wishart is so bound up in convention he himself has no idea. She compares him to a medieval burgher in some painting by Breughel: “The medieval face was squarish, cautious, set; it connoted the land-bound man, who kept within limits, by mark and custom, on the traveled roads, whatever their turns and windings. He feared death and the judgment, comets and portents and plagues; he walled himself in and accumulated things of substance….”
“He’s got himself so surrounded by precautions that it leaves him completely exposed,” Emmy concludes.

These would-be lovers are separated by oceans: marriage, convention, inexperience, and, above all, sex. Wishart is a terrible kisser: “When he kissed her mouth, she thought, he doesn’t know how. Like a child….” Women are an utter mystery to him. “Is there any difference–between one woman and another?,” he straight-facedly asks Emmy at one point–a question she chooses to ignore. He has no idea of how to play the game of love: “… [Y]ou didn’t think of me again till yesterday?,” Emmy asks him one evening together.

“Sometimes,” he said. “I thought about your knees. They bothered me a good deal.”
My knees, Emmy thought, blankly astonished. How can any woman understand a man either? … Women don’t think like that. Never. I thought about–I thought about him.

Wishart is such a stranger to himself he doesn’t even know he’s ticklish. In a friendly tussle one evening, Emmy reaches around and sets off a fit of giggling. Wishart is dumbfounded at his reaction. To herself, Emmy wonders what this says about the emotional and physical coldness of Wishart’s marriage.

The trouble is, after half a dozen evenings together, this is still where things stand. Then, as if to signal just how lost he is, Wishart mails Emmy a clipping about himself from a trade journal, along with a note saying nothing more than, “Sincerely, JNW.” “Why did he take the trouble to write and say nothing?,” she wonders.

Slowly, the truth dawns on her. Wishart wants to have an affair–but he wants her to make the first move. He takes it for granted that she is the more experienced party in such things: “He wants me to. An excuse. To make him do what he wants…. No chance.”

She gives up on Wishart and moves on. Huntley, another married executive–trucking this time–shows an interest. Unlike Wishart, however, he has no hesitation. Their second evening ends with them in bed, Huntley exultant and Emmy mildly amused. She appreciates the contrast and feels a certain physical attraction, but no more. After a few months the affair fizzles out in mutual disinterest.

Wishart appears one more time, to say, in his own clumsy way, that there can never be anything more between them. His wife is suffering from cancer. The perfect moral way out–or at least so Emmy recognizes Wishart’s own view of the situation. This last demonstration of emotional ignorance and cowardice seals the deal, in Emmy’s eyes.

Still, even as she happily parts from this clod, she also mourns the loss of the inexplicable bond she and Wishart felt in some way from their very first meeting. There was, and always could be, some undeniable spark, some attraction that existed on a completely different level from anything she felt with Huntley. Some “… happiness they had no power to resist while they were together, because it consisted simply in being together….”

This affair that ends without ever really taking place would be a pretty thin foundation for any novel, and were it not for the pleasure of seeing it all through the eyes and voice of Emmy–which really means the eyes and voice of Isabel Paterson. It’s a little unfortunate that Stephen Cox’s 2004 biography, The Woman and the Dynamo, has led to a minor rediscovery of Paterson as a libertarian icon, since it leaves her far more substantial literary merit in the shadows.

Paterson was one of the funniest and smartest writers of the 20th century. Employed for several decades as the principle book reviewer of the New York Herald Tribune, Paterson was among the best and most widely read people of her time. The novel’s title comes from an old poem by Sir John Suckling, “The Constant Lover”, in which the poet admits at the end that,

Had it any been but she,
And that very face,
There had been at least ere this
A dozen dozen in her place.

As with Never Ask the End and The Golden Vanity, Paterson riddles If It Prove Fair Weather with snatches of poetry, folk song, and stories that reveal with incredible richness of her reading. I took the time to track down every quote in the book, and this sample from the first 100 pages gives a good indication of how intricately interwoven literature high and low must have been with her own thoughts:

  • “The Corruptible”, a poem by Elinor Wylie (an acquaintance and contemporary of Paterson’s)
  • “To a Woman Young and Old”, a poem by John Keats
  • “Memoirs of the Jukes Family”, a humorous piece by Will Cuppy, one of Paterson’s closest friends, that appeared in The New Yorker in 1931
  • A variation on “Peter Bell”, a poem by William Wordsworth, that appeared in works by Shelley and Charles Lamb
  • A story about Ninon de l’Enclos that appeared in the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon
  • “I’ll go no more a’roving”, an English sea shanty
  • “Ulysses”, a poem by Alfred Tennyson
  • “To a Lady Asking Foolish Questions”, a poem by Ernest Dowson
  • A deathbed quote from the Emperor Hadrian, as adapted by Elinor Wylie

Further on, we encounter bits from Browning, T. S. Eliot, Kipling, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Yeats, Tin Pan Alley, Cocteau, Sappho, and King Harald of the Danes. What is most impressive is that Paterson had to have been working purely from memory–almost every other quote proves to have a word or two wrong or omits a line, just as they would if recalled from years of reading.

She is also a writer who drops in wisecracks and aphorisms as easily as punctuation. Here are just a few from among the many pages I dog-eared:

  • Fame means that one-tenth of one per cent of your fellow citizens have heard your name; not that they care.
  • By the time we know what to do with time there is no more.
  • Friendship exists, complete and absolute from the beginning. You don’t make friends, you recognize them.
  • The fact that other people have their separate being and may continue to exist without us, appears as a kind of treason.
  • Perhaps no man listens to any woman. He understands only that she is amiable or out of humor, as if it were fair or stormy weather.

And, sadly for Emmy Cruger, her true love proves not to understand even this much.

I closed If It Prove Fair Weather with mixed feelings like those I started it with. It was a genuine treat to share Isabel Paterson’s company for 300-some pages, and it was sad to know there would be no more new Paterson novels after this. And it was frustrating to realize that it will soon be seventy years since this book was in print.

Won’t someone PLEASE do America a favor and republish this wonderful woman’s work?

Find a copy

If It Prove Fair Weather, by Isabel Paterson
New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1940

Excellent new article on Jetta Carleton and The Moonflower Vine

Harper Perennial’s reissue of Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine has garnered coverage in a number of newspapers, but by far the best to date–in fact, the most substantial piece on Jetta Carleton’s life and work yet published–appears this week in the St. Louis Riverfront Times: “Moonflower Resurrection.” Staff writer Aimee Levitt penned a long and sensitive article that gives considerable due to both the novel and Carleton’s life and work before and after its publication. I recommend it highly to any fan of this site.

H. M. Pulham, Esquire, by John P. Marquand

If Ford Madox Ford hadn’t already used the line, I might say that this is the saddest story I have ever heard. And there are at least a few strong parallels between H. M. Pulham, Esquire and Ford’s masterpiece, The Good Soldier. Both novels are related in the first person by unreliable narrators–unreliable primarily due to the incredible strength of the cultural and social blinders they’ve grown into–and both narrators are utterly oblivious to the fact that their wives are having affairs with men they consider good friends.

Cover of first U.S. edition of ' 'H. M. Pulham, Esquire'Compared to Ford, however, Marquand is more craftsman than artist. His prose style is never much more than workmanlike, and he has at time a tendency to fill pages more for the sake of providing his audience with a good thick read than for shaping his story. But observation, not artistry, is Marquand’s long suit. He is an ideal observer–a novelist of society, perhaps America’s best after Edith Wharton. Like Wharton, he is both immersed in society, having been raised in family highly sensitive to–if not highly placed in–Boston society, and able to detach himself and note its many ironies and shortcomings. And H. M. Pulham, Esquire is a perfect example of what he could accomplish at his best.

Pulham, gives us a year in the life of Harry Pulham, graduate of St. Swithins School for Boys (think Choate or Andover) and Harvard as he nears 50. Roped into organizing his college class’ 25th anniversary reunion, he narrates the book as one long contemplation on what he’s going to tell his classmates about the course his life has taken.

In his time, Marquand was considered a satirist, but his sensibilities are far more nuanced than that. One could read Pulham, and conclude that Harry Pulham is a one-dimensional man utterly lacking in irony. I use irony here in the sense so well discussed recently by Roger Scruton: “a habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything, including oneself.”

After all, the result of a year’s worth of Pulham’s meditations is a vapid piece for the reunion book with such stereotypical statements as, “I do not believe that either Mr. Roosevelt or Germany can hold out much longer and I confidently look forward to seeing a sensible Republican in the White House.” And, even more strikingly, after being everything but told outright that his wife and best friend have been having an affair, he writes that he “never regretted for a moment” his marriage “since our life together has always been happy and rewarding.”

What is remarkable about Marquand’s accomplishment, though, is how deftly he manages to bring out a number of subtexts in Pulham’s apparently superficial narrative. One is the story of a life defined by the road not taken–the advertising job in New York City he left to return to Boston when his father fell ill, the attractive and challenging woman (“a good deal more of a person than I was, more talented, more cultivated”) he fell in love with and left behind as well. Pulham has based most of his most important choices on what was expected of him:

Romantic novelists have created the illusion that it is hard to find someone to marry. From my own observation I think they are mistaken. There is nothing easier than doing something that nature wants you to do, and there is always someone ready to help you. Before you know what it is all about, you are selecting cuff links for the ushers.

Nature, in Pulham’s case, is society, specifically the proper social elite of Boston. Being a member of that society means belonging to the right clubs, sending your children to the right schools, summering in the Maine isles, and conforming to a narrow pattern of behavior:

I met Cornelia Motford at the Junior Bradbury Dances, the second series that started close to the cradle and ended in the vicinity of the grave. In fact, only two years ago Cornelia and I were asked to subscribe to the Senior Bradbury Dances. If we had accepted we would have seen the same faces that we had seen at the Baby Bradburys almost thirty years before.

Another subtext, then, is the story of a man whose life was defined for him. Of course he married a girl from his own class, a girl he’d know socially since childhood: what else could he do? How could he describe the confines of his life as a prison or straitjacket if there were no other choices offered him?

But if Harry Pulham is not a cardboard conservative, neither is he a pathetic victim. and this is not the saddest story I’ve ever read. Probably the thing I like most about Marquand’s books is how remarkably grown-up a writer he is. He understands that the number one reason you don’t chuck it all in and run off with the secretary or your old girlfriend or rebuild your life from ground up is that it would hurt the people you love.

Pulham is not completely lacking in introspection. He might write to his rah-rah classmates that “life together has always been happy and rewarding,” but to himself he has the capacity to admit, “It might have been better for us both if we had been frank instead of nursing a sort of reticence, and a fear that one would be defenseless if the other knew too much.”

It’s hard to believe, for example, that Pulham is not well aware of the tongue-in-cheek humor of the following:

I was never reminded so much of death as I was when we were engaged. There were certain pieces of furniture that we could have now, but it was necessary to remember that there were lots of other pieces–rugs and sofas and tables and pictures–which we would have when Mother and Mrs. Motford died. When Mrs. Motford died we could have the large Persian carpet with the Tree of Life that was in the parlor. When Mother died we could have the Inness, and it would be much better to plan on having these things some day; and yet when we actually did plan, both Mother and Mrs. Motford would always resent it. They would say that Kay and I talked as though they were dead already, and neither of them was going to die just to please Kay or me; and once Mother said that I wanted her to die, and Kay told me that Mrs. Motford had said the same thing.

And throughout the novel there are wonderful little moments when Marquand gives us wonderful little glimpses into Pulham’s awareness of his own passage through time:

We came into Providence, and the car grew dark and gloomy because of the train shed over it. Then it moved out into the afternoon and the cold rays of the sun came through the left-hand windows and I saw the state capitol. Once long ago when we had to change cars at Providence on the way to some place like Naragansett Pier, Mother had taken Mary and me into the capitol, and we stood in the rotunda, looking at the flags brought back from the Civil War. I might pass that building a thousand times without ever setting foot in it again.

OK, À la recherche du temps perdu this ain’t, but neither is it Babbitt. Pulham is a rich and realistic account of one man and the society and world he lived in by a man with a rich sense of irony. I remember thinking when I read The Good Soldier, “This would be considered a tour-de-force of narrative voice if it were being published today,” and I often had the same thought while reading H. M. Pulham, Esquire. Once again, I have to say that with Marquand’s being out of print and out of favor, a very respectable and interesting body of work is being unjustly neglected.

Find a Copy


H. M. Pulham, Esquire, by John P. Marquand
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1941

Robert Phelps featured in The American Scholar

The American Scholar‘s Spring 2009 issue includes two features on Robert Phelps, who co-founded the Grove Press, edited numerous collections of the writings of Colette, Glenway Wescott, Ned Rorem, and others, was called “the best book reviewer in America” by Garry Wills, and struggled for 30 years to produce a second novel to follow his well-received 1958 debut, Heroes and Orators. The first, “Dawn of a Literary Friendship”, features the first dozen of over 200 letters exchanged between Phelps and the novelist James Salter between 1969 and Phelps’ death in 1989, an irresistable taste from what will be a future collection of their correspondence edited by John McIntyre.

Writing to Salter on Christmas Eve, 1969, Phelps gushes with admiration for Salter’s 1967 novel, A Sport and a Pastime (“my own favorite American novel of the ’60s”), his script for “Downhill Racer”, and his direction of the film, “Three”. Salter replied with praise for Phelps’ compilation of Colette’s autobiographical writings, Earthly Paradise: “I’ve given many copies away. Everything about it is beautiful. I love to pick it up.”

Salter was just hitting his stride as a writer. As Phelps struggled to create something original of his own, Salter slowly but steadily built up an oeuvre and a critical reputation as a writer who, in the words of Richard Ford, “writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” Composer and diarist Ned Rorem has described Phelps’ letters as “witty, lewd, sage, generous, gossipy, aggressively self-effacing, montrously opinionated without bitchery, engrossed by the literary life in general while being always directed to a unique recipient, and generally weaving something extraordinary out of something ordinary.” As this first sample shows, the combination of Phelps’ and Salter’s talents and genuine mutual affective and admiration promises to represent one of the most interesting and enjoyable collections of American letters of the 20th century.

The second piece, “I wanted to Be Robert Phelps”, by Washington Post critic Michael Dirda, shows Phelps both as a man of tremendous erudition and enthusiasm for writers and artists of past and present. Phelps’ study and office in his Manhattan apartment was, in Dirda’s eyes,

… the perfect room. The wooden floors had been stained black, the walls completely lined with bookshelves. Curtains were always kept drawn, blocking out the day and night. A pole lamp stood next to a rather high-tech chrome and leather easy chair, while extension lights were clamped to the corners of bookcases. On a coffee table in the middle of the room there always lay page proofs, literary magazines, publishers’ catalogues. Instead of a sofa, a daybed butted up against the back of a freestanding bookcase and was covered with pillows embroidered with scenes from classical mythology (Becki’s handiwork). Near the music corner—lots of Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Ravel LPs—stood a long low set of white shelves on top of which rested more books, some heavy tumblers and a big bottle of Tanqueray gin.

Beneath the cultured lifestyle Dirda admired, however, Phelps struggled to with his own demons. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease for years, was prone to drinking at times, and agonized over his sexuality, which was one aspect of Heroes and Orators praised by critics such as Leslie Fiedler. And he constantly took himself to task for failing to produce “worthy books”. As he once wrote Salter,

As it is, for 20 years, I have only scrounged at making a living: a low standard of survival and hundreds of articles, reviews, flower arrangements of other people’s prose, etc. Not a good form of hell at all. This has become terribly clear to me in the past 6 weeks when I have been going through sheaves of old printed matter with a view to making our publisher a book called Following. I have been appalled by the waste, the thousands and thousands of irretrievable words on which nevertheless I worked long and hard and sometimes until 5 a.m. No. Somewhere I took a wrong turning. I should not have tried to earn my living with my typewriter. I should have become a surveyor, or an airline ticket salesman, or a cat burglar. As it is, I am far far beyond the point of no return and such powers as I once counted on—the ability to write to order and out of my own battiness, so to speak—are suddenly gone.

Instead of writing more novels, Phelps collected, annotated and edited. Colette’s writings. James Agee’s letters. Glenway Westcott’s miscellania. Ned Rorem’s first diaries. And The Literary Life; a Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene From 1900 to 1950, which one reviewer called “a loving elegy, a larky swansong, a doting, dotty, but undaunted Souvenir Album for books, books, books, and for all the men and women who ever believed in making them.” And Dirda says of it, “I’ve since carried the book with me my whole life; it has been on my bedside table wherever I have lived. I have read it over and over.”

He also taught writing, mostly at the New School, and inspired dozens of his students. Dan Wakefield portrays Phelps as his primary influence in his memoir, New York in the Fifties, as does Derek Alger on the online magazine, Pif.

Perhaps Phelps just didn’t recognize–or value, at least–the talent he seems to have genuinely had, even though he admitted it in one of his early letters to Salter:

Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets…how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.

Certainly the warm spot Phelps’ pastiches of Colette and others continues to hold in the hearts of their readers suggests that his energies may have been better spent in creating them than in writing novels that might well have been forgotten as quickly as Heroes and Orators was.

A Big Man, a Fast Man, by Benjamin Appel

Cover of paperback edition of 'A Big Man, A Fast Man'“I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve ever done. You don’t get to be big without pulling a couple of fast ones. That goes for anybody. A big man is a fast man.” This quote is blazoned across the top of the paperback edition of Benjamin Appel’s A Big Man, a Fast Man, along with two contrasting views of a man: the “Big Man” addressing a crowd of men; the “Fast Man” contemplating a buxom brunette in a slip.

When I start to read an old paperback with a garish cover like this, I always wonder: Is it going to better than the cover–or worse? I think it’s safe to say that a lot of what got published back in the 1950s and 1960s in paperbacks with such teasing covers is worse.

In this case, however, it’s quite a bit better, and not just because the cover’s pretty tame by the standards of the time. A Big Man, a Fast Man is the story of Bill Lloyd, a veteran labor organizer and now president of the United Suppliers Terminal Workers, a union with over 800,000 members. Lloyd’s union is under Federal investigation for corruption. The union’s founder and past president, Art Kincel, recently committed suicide and the head of the East Coast branch was found dead under suspicious circumstances.

Seeking a little relief from all the negative publicity, Lloyd approaches a public relations firm in search of some “dramatic publicity” to distance him from his predecessors. His ideas: a TV series, articles in the Saturday Evening Post, or “an autobiog similar to best-sellers on movie stars/other glamourites.” So one of the firm’s execs sits Lloyd down and lets him tell his life story while the tape recorder is rolling and the rye is flowing.

This aspect of the novel already distinguishes it from the run of the mill. The book consists of six tape transcripts, framed by a series of short memos from the exec to the firm’s head. It’s also a discontinuous narrative, as each tape deals with different periods of time–the current controversies; Lloyd’s childhood as the son of a coal miner; his rise in the union after World War Two; his experiences as an organizer in the steel and warehousing industry.

Appel demonstrates a certain amount of art in his sequencing of Lloyd’s recollections. By his own account, his hands are fairly clean, at least as far as the current problems go. But we also learn that one of the reasons the union was in trouble was that Kincel had been colluding with industry management to downplay worker unrest in return for substantial baksheesh. And that Lloyd himself had seen this sort of backstage dealing on a smaller scale when first working for the union in the 1930s.

As Appel plays out the story, Lloyd went into the labor movement out of inspiration by a few idealistic early organizers, but somewhere along the way, he chose to favor realism over idealism:

It was too much for me, worn out like I was. A fellow can’t stay up on that cross forever. Got to be a Jesus to do that. I tried to calm her down, but go calm down a fanatic. She had her religion even if it was a red one with a red Jesus. What I did was go for the bottle of rye…. Think too much of what a world this is and you go nuts.

Even though he proclaims, “I stayed in the labor movement. I stuck to my principles. By God, I stuck,” you get the strong sense he’s flailing. The audience most in need of some positive publicity is Lloyd himself. Overall, Appel is effective in capturing the tone of a man becoming disoriented as he wanders through his past. Some of it’s the booze, but more of it is Lloyd’s own struggle to understand just how he got to where he is now.

Overall, A Big Man, a Fast Man is better than the average novel of its time, if not quite a significant piece of literature, and certainly better than that cheesy cover.

Cover of paperback edition of 'The Raw Edge'A Big Man, a Fast Man is one of two novels wrote in the late 1950s about the labor movement. The other, The Raw Edge dealt with the conflicts and corruption of the Longshoreman’s Union in New York City, the same territory explored by Elia Kazan in “On the Waterfront.”

Benjam Appel, around 1955Appel’s career as a writer spanned five decades and his work ranged from serious fiction such as A Big Man, a Fast Man to a series of children’s history books with titles like We Were There in the Klondike Gold Rush and science fiction satires such as Funhouse.

His best known work, Brain Guy, is the story of a smart, business-minded gangster, into crime and real estate–rather like a 1930s version of Stringer Bell from “The Wire.” Stark House Press reissued it a few years ago, packaged in volume with Plunder, a 1952 novel about G.I. hustlers in the Philippines. And earlier this year, Stark House reissued two more hard-boiled Appel novels from the 1950s, Sweet Money Girl and in one volume.

Find a copy

A Big Man, A Fast Man, by Benjamin Appel
New York: William Morrow, 1961

Life in the Crystal Palace, by Alan Harrington

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Life in the Crystal Palace'Life in the Crystal Palace may, one day, come to seem a little like one of those prehistoric bugs preserved in resin, as it captures a way of life and work that in many ways has already become a thing of the past.

Based on Harrington’s experiences over three years working in the public relations department at the headquarters of an unnamed firm–one of the largest in America at the time, with over 34,000 employees worldwide–the book is almost an anthropological study of mid-fifties corporation life. This is the real-life equivalent of the World Wide Wicket Company of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”.

Harrington saw that corporate employee as a new species, one that “may be distinguished from other American working people at least in one way, by an absence of nervousness.” This was the era when people could join a company and talk about having “a job for life”

Life is good, life is gentle. Barring a deep depression or war, we need never worry about money again. We will never have to go job-hunting again. We may get ahead at different speeds, and some will climb a bit higher than others, but whatever happens the future is as secure as it can be. And the test is not arduous. Unless for some obscure reason we choose to escape back into your anxious world (where the competition is so hard and pitiless and your ego is constantly under attack) we will each enjoy a comfortable journey to what our house organ calls “green pastures,” which is, of course, retirement.

Harrington joined the Crystal Palace, as he calls the firm in the book, just before it moves into its new headquarters in the suburbs outside New York City–“a fabulous place–a great office-palace on a hilltop surrounded by fields and woodlands.” There, he worked on advertising campaigns, promotional films, and other publicity.

He calls himself a “poodle of journalism” for his work on the company’s monthly newsletter, the Palace Voice:

Nearly every big company has a paper of some kind, and it is certainly reasonable that such publications exist. But why must they be so dull? The answer to that is easy: because they mustn’t contain the smallest hint of controversy or present any idea that is not pleasing and soothing–“all the news that’s print to fit.” Every story in the Voice has to be checked by higher authority to make sure that it is free of roughage. In the end, therefore, the house organ is like the food in the dining hall–smooth, bland, and creamy.

It’s really just a polite form of propaganda, Harrington concludes, closer to Pravda than The New York Times.

Like the Communist Party at its height, Harrington’s corporation wants its members (employees) to believe: “Like the Church, my Crystal Palace removes the burden of belief from me. It removes my need for decision. I have found my rock. I believe only in the company.” And like in the Party, success is less a matter of talent than of learning how to succeed at the organization’s game:

What cannot be learned that quickly is the corporation minuet–the respectful dance with the right partners. The watchful corporation man gradually finds out who is important and who is not; what is acceptable and what is not; what type of project will advance his fortunes and what is not worth bothering about. Experience for him mainly adds up to learning how to behave. The secrets of gaging and responding to the power of others–superimposed on a normal intelligence–will move him slowly upward.

Even though “job for life” corporations started fading from the scene like dinosaurs in the recessions of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, some of Harrington’s observations still ring true for anyone who’s worked in a white-collar organization. Like his assessment of the job of administrators: “After watching scores of them in action, I could swear that their duties consist mainly of frowning over sheets of paper, consulting with others, and then passing on the job-to-be-done to a specialist.”

Or his definition of the disgruntled employee, or “incomplete rebel”, as he calls him: “The incomplete rebel is someone who resents his situation but can’t find the means to improve it.” Or of daily lunch with co-workers:

When we first moved to the Palace a general memorandum (abetted by the Voice) encouraged headquarters personnel to mingle in the dining hall and get to know each other. The idea was that you should not necessarily eat with members of your own department, but sit with people doing other kinds of work. This suggestion has largely been ignored. We eat with about the same companions day after day. The result is to pile incestuousness on incestuousness, and our lunch conversations are for the most part, again, as bland and creamy as our food. I do not mean to say that we are duller than anybody else, but try lunching with the same group day after day. Conversation becomes a sort of filler, a means of avoiding silence.

Even at the height of the great, sheltering corporation, there were signs that this kind of artificial world could not last:

Corporate practices involve a fundamental inconsistency. Management wants simultaneously (a) performance from everyone and (b) protection for everyone. But the impulse to perform and the impulse to protect yourself cannot exist as equals. One must gain ascendancy over the other. To perform, move, swing, the self goes out and takes chances. The reflex of self-protection produces subservience to the group, a willingness to spread responsibility until it doesn’t exist, a binding horror of chance-taking and obseisance to the system. How can these two drives exist together in equal strength?

Alan Harrington, 1959Late in his time at the Crystal Palace, Harrington prepares a number of suggestions aimed at injecting a stronger sense of accountability into the company’s way of working, but then tosses them aside, recognizing they had no chance of being adopted. He had become, in his own words, “a thoroughly tamed playboy.” “Spiritually, my net worth was zero.” Only a lucky offer from Cary McWilliams, editor of The Nation, to write about his experiences finally offers him a way out. The article, and a grant from the Fund for the Republic, led to this book.

Life in the Crystal Palace is not the only book by Alan Harrington worth rediscovering. It’s remarkable, in fact, that he managed to survive three years in the Crystal Palace, since much of his oeuvre reflects a man who consistently approached life from a unique angle:

Revelations of Dr. Modesto

His first book and novel, which is a sharp, satiric poke at the conformist nature of American life in the 1950s. Dr. Modesto’s revelations are that conforming, taken literally and to the extreme, in fact, is the one true path to happiness.

The Immortalist

“Death is an imposition on the human race, and no longer acceptable.” Harrington takes this implausible premise as the basis for an essay on the large and necessary role that death plays in human live.


Again, Harrington takes an irony view of the misfit in society: “Drunkards and forgers, addicts, flower children . . . Mafia loan shark battering his victim, charming actor, murderer, nomadic guitarist, hustling politician, the saint who lies down in front of tractors, the icily dominating Nobel Prize winner stealing credit from laboratory assistants . . . all, all doing their thing” and sees them as new men, model characters rather than rejects.

The White Rainbow

His last novel, about two characters Benjamin DeMott described as a ”rich, leukemia-battling, Yankee-hating Mexican radicalized at Columbia in the Mark Rudd days” and ”Harvard’s wunderkind in his mid-30’s, gifted linguist, man of Viking beauty.” The New Times Book Review picked it as one of the notable books of 1981.

Find a Copy

Life in the Crystal Palace, by Alan Harrington
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959

Brooks Peters recommends The Gilded Hearse, by Charles Gorham

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Gilded Hearse'Brooks Peters, who writes one of the most consistently interesting blogs around (, passed along a plug for Charles Gorham’s novel, The Gilded Hearse, which sounds like a terrific guilty pleasure:

It’s not exactly unknown but seems to have been overlooked lately. Perhaps “forgotten” is a better word since I can’t imagine too many people putting it on their top ten lists. It’s a rather scathing look at the publishing business just before the early beginnings of World War Two. Set in Manhattan in 1938 (but published in 1948), it details a traumatic day in the life of a book exec named Richard Eliot who battles his own demons while depicting his circle of friends and business associates in a very unflattering light. The day is set against the backdrop of the Munich compromise which is not too subtly broadcast throughout the text whenever someone happens to turn on a radio.

The firm, Hutchinson’s, could be several well-known publishing houses of the era, complete with the white-shoe editors, the burly, brusque, hard-drinking salesmen and the neurotic, ambitious “suits” who handle the brash marketing side. None too subtle (the writing style is sort of a cross between Grace Metalious and A. J. Cronin) , it is nonetheless very revealing of past attitudes and mores, as well as a fascinating relic of a time when the publishing world was just beginning to turn corporate.

Gorham nails the ambiance of New York in the late 30s, the jazz bars, the sleazy saloons, the drunken book-signings in overly perfumed department stores, the overt anti-Semitism within polite society (in contrast to the genocide on the horizon in Germany), the sad, listless Village bohemians, and throws in a few hilariously drawn “fags” and “fairies” and one appalling lesbian stereotype to give the story some typical pulp grit and edge. One effeminate book editor named Graham Fatt, who swishes amid his Oriental art, keeps “a large jar of KY” in his purple-hued bathroom.

There’s also plenty of sex between heterosexuals, abortions, lecherous cads, adulterous wives fornicating on trains. One character admits she went “to bed” with a colleague, then corrects herself by saying “to berth.”

Cover of 'Make Me an Offer'The Gilded Hearse was also published several times as Make Me an Offer. Time magazine’s reviewer took a great big haughty sniff when the book first came out:

As an indictment of the book business, The Gilded Hearse is neither good burlesque nor significant exposure. Few readers will be surprised to learn that book salesmen often haven’t read the books they sell, that salesgirls in bookstores are often dumb, that book publishers are increasingly less concerned with literature than with bestsellers. Those with the kind of taste that Gorham deplores will be quickest to see that The Gilded Hearse is just superficial enough, spiced with just enough bedroom business, to make it a likely Hutchinson book.

Brooks sums up just why what Time dismissed as trash seems like a bit of tarnished gold today:

… I thought I’d share the title with you in case any of your readers are eager to take a trip back in time to an era when the book business was a relatively insular world, dominated by a lost generation of self-hating alcoholics and men on the make. All in all, a fun, if purely nostalgic, read.

“He Lived for Money, Women, and Power” trumpets the cover of one paperback reissue of The Gilded Hearse. Toss in drinking, classism, and bigotry to boot–ah, the good ol’ days.

Brooks also recommends another Gorham novel and promises a future post on his own site about Gorham’s life and works.

Gorham also wrote the early gay-themed novel McCaffery, about a lusty male hustler, which is equally graphic. I’m a big fan of his lurid style. It’s pulp fiction with a trenchant eye for detail and nuance, and an insider’s perspective. Gorham’s life story itself reads like one of his novels. I’ve been in touch with Gorham’s daughter Deborah, a noted scholar, about doing a piece on him for my blog, but have been wrapped up in too many things recently to give it my full attention. I hope to get it done soon.

1500 Books added to Publishers List

Thanks to a visitor’s Amazon purchase, I discovered an admirable venture into republishing neglected classics: 1500 Books. Founded by two veterans of the publishing business, Eileen Bertelli and Gavin Caruthers, 1500 Books’ list is devoted to the art of the memoir: “We believe memoirs—when it’s a good story, well told—can be some of the most compelling reading you will ever experience.” Their star release so far is the reissue of Lucy Norton’s three-volume 1967 English translation of one of the juiciest memoirs ever written, that of King Louis XIV’s advisor, the Duc de Saint Simon: 1691-1709: Presented to the King; 1710-1715: The Bastards Triumphant; and 1715-1723: Fatal Weakness. As sober a source as the Catholic Encyclopedia remarked of these memoirs, which were last available from the late Prion Lost Treasures in the UK, “Whatever the historical value of the ‘Memoirs’ may be, they are, by their sparkling wit, one of the most original monuments of French literature.”


The Man Who Lived Backward, by Malcolm Ross

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Man Who Lived Backward'This is the most confusing book I’ve ever read. 400-plus pages and my head still hurts when I try to make sense of it.

The Man Who Lived Backward tells the story of Mark Selby, to whom author Malcolm Ross endows a unique form of time-travelling:

“At dawn each day,” he began again, “I awake and enjoy my breakfast. I go about the business and pleasures of the day. I lunch. I dine. I talk with a friend, as I am doing now, and go to my bed secure in the knowledge that the sun will rise to a new day. As you, I have no idea what the day will bring forth. The only difference between us is this: when you awake tomorrow it will be April 18; with me it will be April 16.”

In other words, Mark Selby goes through each day normally, starting in the morning and going through the day to night. But then he goes to bed and wakes up on the morning of the day before.

This is not a work of science fiction. Ross only uses this arrangement as the pretext to take use through a series of historical situations–the siege of Paris in 1871, Pennsylvania steel strikes in the 1890s, the Spanish-American War. He wastes no energy trying to work out the logic of the situation.

I just couldn’t get past it, though. If he has “no idea what the day will bring forth”, then how is he able to have friends? Wouldn’t all his acquaintances be meeting him for the first time in their lives, even if he’d known them for decades ahead? And how is he able to avoid waking up on top of someone else the next day? He spends most of his nights in hotel rooms. How the heck does he pay for them? OK, so he could remember the day before to book a room so that he could wake up there the day after. But how does he change rooms? Wouldn’t that mean that overnight he travels through space AND time–but only when he changes locations? And he sails back and forth across the Atlantic a few times: how does that work? He travels through space AND time and coordinates his trajectory with the path of the ship?

All this is, of course, pointless speculation. As I said, time travel is just a pretext for Ross, and some readers will find enough else in the book to look past this shaky construct. There are several dozen long entries that record, verbatim, conversations Selby has or overseas as he wanders back through time. Three British clubmen discuss liberty in the 1890s, when that concept didn’t even fully apply to all white men, let alone another sex or race. He spends a good deal of time with Walt Whitman and John Burroughs, to the point that he seems to become something of a Whitman groupie. He tells us about the fine and horrible things that were served up to eat during the siege of Paris.

In the hands of a fine raconteur, these diversions would provide excuse enough to go along on any journey, whether backward, forward, or sideways through time. The problem is that Selby himself lacks a distinct enough character to offer much in the way of color, bias, perception, or any other distinguishing flavor to his observations. As a protagonist, he seems more instrument than human creation.

And, to drive one last nail in this book’s coffin, Ross manages to slap not one, but two framing stories to his work without either adding much in the way of narrative tension or interest. First, Ross presents Selby’s diary as an artifact found in the estate of a wealthy New Englander by his grandson. Long suspected of having made his fortune through some sort of under-handedness in the wake of the Civil War, the grandfather is revealed to be the lucky Union soldier to whom Selby passes along some valuable investment tips on the eve of his fatal attempt to thwart Lincoln’s assassination.

Second, there is Selby’s unique love affair with Helen, who somehow passes twenty-some years in a relationship with Selby–one that starts in her young womanhood and ends at his infancy. Theirs, we are repeatedly assured, is a great love story, but for some odd reason, Ross elects to leave almost all of it out of the book. Only chunks of Selby’s diary are included, and none of them directly covering the years of their time together.

Malcolm Ross, 1950'Fiction was not, I should note, Malcolm Ross’ forte. He spent most of his working life as a journalist and labor relations expert, serving as chairman of the Fair Employment Practice Committee through most of World War Two. His first book, Machine Age in the Hills, was one of the first works to address the hardships and near-bondage of Kentucky coal miners. And his 1939 autobiography, The Death Of A Yale Man, is still considered one of the more revealing memoirs of the New Deal era.

If any of Mark Selby’s tale strikes a familiar note, it’s probably because you’re thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” or its recent film version. Even though it’s one of Fitzgerald’s lesser works, it still towers over The Man Who Lived Backward: it’s got a simpler and sounder fictional premise, a more elegant prose style, and a couple hundred thousand fewer words.

After all, if you have to read a lesser work, make it a short one.

Find a copy

The Man Who Lived Backward, by Malcolm Ross
New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1950

Making Institutions Work, by Geoffrey Vickers


In an increasingly interdependent world, each of us becomes inescapably a member of many systems, each of which makes its own demands on us, as well as giving its own assurances. These demands conflict. If we acknowledge them all, we have to resolve or contain a mounting load of internal conflict. It we deny any, we disrupt some relation on which we depend. Every human association makes some demand on its members for responsibility, loyalty, and mutual trust. We are unaccustomed to respond to, perhaps incapable of responding to so many and such conflicting demands as are generated by our increasing inter-dependence on each other. The memberships we acknowledge fall increasingly short of those we need to acknowledge, if we are to sustain all the relations on which we in fact depend. The conflicts of our day reflect our failure to meet the demands of our multiple memberships.

So we have either to increase our capacity for resolving or containing conflict or to simplify the world (or allow it to simplify itself) by cutting down what we expect of it, or each other, and of ourselves to the measure of our capacities. War, famine, and pestilence will do the second except in so far as we succeed in doing the first.

Editor’s Comments

Cover of first edition of 'Making Institutions Work'“I have an unpopular answer to an unwelcome question,” Geoffrey Vickers writes at the start of Making Institutions Work:

The question is posed by two familiar but staggering changes of the last hundred years. One is the escalation of our expectations; the other is the escalation of our institutions. The two have combined to make demands on each of us ordinary men and women … which few have begun to notice, still less to accept as valid and inescapable. The question is how, if at all, these demands can be met and at what cost. Since these costs are the price we shall have to pay to maintain the systems which now sustain us or any viable alternative, I describe the theme as the price of membership.

I don’t suppose that I can manage to get too many readers excited about a thirty-six-year-old collection of sociological essays from academic journals with such dry names as Policy Sciences, Human Relations, and The Wharton Quarterly. Yet for me, Making Institutions Work has easily been one of the most stimulating books I’ve read a long time, one whose pages I’ve dog-eared, whose lines I’ve underlined, whose passages I’ve been tempted to grab people and force them to listen to. In many ways, it seems to me to be the closest thing I’ve found to a manual for how we need to operate if we have any hope of avoiding having all our conflicts settled by war, famine, pestilence, and climatic disaster.

Sir Geoffrey VickersSir Geoffrey Vickers led a remarkable life. He joined the British Army in 1914 and spent as much time as perhaps any other officer serving in the trenches on the Western Front, earning the Victoria Cross and numerous other combat medals for his bravery. After the war, he returned to university, took a law degree, and worked as a solicitor. He served again during World War Two and as an administrator and board member in government and industry. In his sixties, he turned to writing, particularly on the topic of social systems analysis, and became a leading contributor to the development of systems analysis and thinking, particularly as they related to human society. Making Institutions Work collects eleven articles and lectures Vickers gave in the late 1960s and early 1970s and focuses on the specific issue of how we can learn to deal effectively in a world where we are at all times members of multiple and overlapping institutions–family, culture, nation, organization, religion, teams, clubs, neighborhoods, and others.

I work in an institution. From the day I stopped mowing lawns for money and went to work part-time in a university library, I have worked in one institution or another. And now I work in an instituion–NATO–where competing and conflicting demands of membership can be seen in every activity. The tensions between commitment to the objectives of this alliance and national loyalty are palpable in every meeting of every committee, working group, panel, board, and forum. In NATO, the fundamental mechanism of decision-making is consensus: if one nation does not agree to a decision, the decision is deferred or redefined or taken off the table.

In a consensus-driven institution, no single member ever wins all or loses all. Everything tends to favor not the most popular solution but the least objectionable one. As a result, all solutions that are supported by consensus tend to be sub-optimal. For anyone with the professionalism and pride to strive for well-crafted plans and efficient designs, the experience of working in NATO is one of constant frustration. Military officers, who comprise a good percentage of NATO’s staff at the headquarters level and below, find it particularly frustrating as they have spent their careers trying to boil things down to clear, simple, and quickly-executed orders: defining the shortest path between today and their mission’s objectives. In a consensus-driven institution, the shortest path is almost always guaranteed to lead nowhere but into a brick wall.

Vickers is the first writer I can recall to acknowledge that frustration is part of the price of competing membership demands. He identifies, in fact, “[T]he ability to tolerate greatly increased frustration without lapsing into apathy or escapism or erupting into polarised conflict,” as one of the essential survival skills for life in a world of overlapping and competing memberships. We long ago ran out of frontiers into which we could escape and, psychologically at least, pursue the myth of pure self-sufficience. But relative to the long run of human existence, this situation is still something of a novelty:

This institutions of today carry a far greater load than human institutions have ever carried before. Men are more dependent on them and make greater demands on them than ever before. Their performance is far more exposed to view and is judged by far higher standards than before. They are no longer supported in their task by being regarded as part of a natural order and for the same reason their critics are no longer muted.

Still, Vickers argues, institutions are here to stay: “[A]ny world which generations younger than mine may create or preserve on the other side of the dark decades ahead will include an institutional dimension and will make the same demands on us as players both of institutional and of personal roles.” Since these roles will inevitably create conflicts such as those I see every working day in NATO, there is an increasing need, in Vicker’s view, for what he calls (in a perhaps less than fortunate phrase) “institutionalised persons”:

By an institutionalised person I mean one who accepts the constraints and assurances of membership in all the systems of which he forms part and therefore with the responsibility for managing his share of the conflicts which they involve.

This begins to capture a distinguishing characteristic of many of the people and processes that I encounter working in NATO. Time and time again, when conflicts arise, the value that tends to win out most consistently is that of the importance of preserving the ability to work together again tomorrow. And in this way, this frustrating, multi-national, multi-lingual, bureaucratic, consensus-driven institution seems, like the U.N., the European Union, the U.S. Congress, and many of the other collaborative political institutions we frequently curse, to represent the most realistic approach to dealing with conflict in this hot, flat, and crowded world.

Ironically, the most memorable statement in the whole of Making Institutions Work is not Geoffrey Vickers’, but the epigraph, which comes from an even more obscure paper by Saul Gorn, a pioneer in computer science:

We spend the first year of our lives learning that we end at our skin; and the rest of our lives learning that we don’t.

In Vicker’s view, this task, more than anything else, is a matter of learning to pay our dues:

Those who depend so completely as each of us does on our membership of many human systems cannot afford to withhold the dues which they demand and need from us if they–and consequently we–are to survive and function. These dues are payable not merely in money–though the money dues also will have to rise–but in all the qualities which are needed to resolve or contain human conflict; in responsibility, loyalty and mutual trust; in intellectual effort and informed debate; in extended sympathy and tolerance; in brief, in a dramatic extension of the frontier which divides self from other and present from future.

And to that extent, one can find few better guides to this lifelong task than Geoffrey Vickers.

Find a Copy

Making Institutions Work, by Geoffrey Vickers

New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1973

The Changing Face of New England, by Betty Flanders Thomson

Jack Ayer, professor of law emeritus at the University of California Davis and author of the Underbelly blog, writes to recommend Betty Flanders Thomson’s 1958 book, The Changing Face of New England. In a recent post on cellarholes–the remnants of long-abandoned New England farmhouses–he includes a long quote from Thomson’s book. An even longer excerpt can be found in the online archives of American Heritage magazine.

Nearly twenty years after her New England book, Thomson published a study of the landscapes of the Midwest, Shaping of America’s Heartland. Both titles are now long out of print, unfortunately, as they are highly regarded for their quality of writing and science. Indeed, Connecticut College still remembers Thomson with an annual award for its best student in botany.

Joseph Epstein on I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi

Cover of first U.S. Edition of 'The Brothers Ashkenazi'The Wall Street Journal published one of the very few, I’m sure, pieces in its history devoted to an out-of-print and neglected book recently. Titled “A Yiddish Novel With Tolstoyan Sweep,” the piece, by Joseph Epstein, describes the novel by the brother of the more famous Isaac Bashevis Singer, as “the best Russian novel ever written in Yiddish.” Epstein, former editor of the American Scholar and one of the best essayists of the last forty years, calls The Brothers Ashkenazi I. J. Singer’s best-known work–which tells you how well the rest of his oeuvre is faring these days. Depicting the contrasting careers of two Jewish brothers attempting to get ahead in the Russian Pale of Settlement before the First World War. It ends with a horrific pogrom that leaves the city of Lodz, in Singer’s words, “like a limb torn from a body that no longer sustained it. It quivered momentarily in its death throes as maggots crawled over it, draining its remaining juices.” Such, he leads us to believe, is the fate of a city that “knew that with money you could buy anything.”

Although Singer’s characters do not find the same solace in religion as many in his brother’s works do, the novel is not all bleakness and despair. Still, Epstein credits I. J. Singer for foregoing “a happy ending to render instead a just one.” One hopes this long-out-of-print novel finds some interest among today’s publishers through this rare mention of a neglected book in such a prominent outlet as the Wall Street Journal.

A much earlier piece from Commentary magazine by Dorothy Rabinowitz, about Singer’s 1943 novel, The Family Carnovsky, can be found on the Featured Books section of this site.

Sideman, by Osborn Duke

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Sideman' by Osborn DukeI probably would have filed Sideman under “Justly Neglected” if it weren’t for the fact that it’s about a trombone player in a big band. As an occasional trombone player in a big band myself, I had to give this book a couple of bonus stars.

Sideman portrays a few weeks in the life of Bernie Bell, a trombonist who drops out of college in Texas to take a job with Matt MacNeal’s big band. MacNeal’s band is in the midst of an extended gig at a dance hall near the Pacific Park pier in Santa Monica. Bell’s real reason for joining the band is the chance to study with an Arnold Schoenberg-like modernist composer living in L.A..

Even though the novel comes in at close to 450 pages, the world it describes is a microcosm. All the scenes take place in one of a half-dozen or so sites–the dance hall, the hotel where most of the band members stay, the shack Bernie rents so he can compose on an old piano–close to Santa Monica Beach. Aside from a few marginal characters, most of the interaction is among a few of the band members and a couple of their wives. Although Duke doesn’t lay out a clear timeline, from start to finish the story can’t take longer than four to six weeks. That much is a given, since this is the early 1950s and few working big bands had the luxury of staying off the road very long.

The plot is equally slim: Bernie arrives and tries to fit in with the other band members. He starts in on his composition studies. He gets attracted to the free-spirited wife of a fellow trombonist and agrees to write some original dance music for her. She accidentally poisons herself. Everyone starts whispering about a love triangle and the band’s manager fires Bernie. Bernie heads off to New York City to meet up with an old girlfriend. The end.

In hindsight, I’m not quite sure how Duke managed to fill up so many pages. There is a lot of talking, but not much of it is of any substance. There are lots of details about the life of a working sideman in the big band days. Duke was a trombonist himself and played with Bobby Byrne and Sammy Kaye’s bands after serving as an Army musician in World War Two. The details are probably the main reason anyone would want to pick up this book today–I suspect it’s about as accurate an account of what went on before, during, and after a typical big band performance back in their heyday. But it will linger in memory no longer than one of the lesser numbers that these bands relied on to pad out their books.

There are other autobiographical streaks in Sideman. Like his protagonist, Osborn Duke grew up in Texas and attended college in Texas. Sideman was his one and only published novel, and other than a couple of short stories and television scripts, his list of credits is short. It appears from his obituary that he spent most of his working life as a corporate writer and industrial filmmaker for General Dynamics. His papers are kept in the Special Collections of the University of North Texas, which is one of the premier centers of jazz education in the U. S..

Locate a Copy

Sideman, by Osborn Duke
New York City: Criterion Books, 1956

Neglected Books gets a mention in Publishers Weekly

Source: “Web Site and Author Rescue a Forgotten Book,” by Lynn Andriani, Publishers Weekly, 2/2/2009 (

In anticipation of Harper Perennial’s forthcoming reissue of Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine, Publishers Weekly recently included a story about how the book can to be republished. It turns out that the Neglected Books Page had something to do with it:

The Moonflower revival began when a small press contacted Carleton’s grandniece, Susan Beasley, telling her it wanted to reissue Moonflower, which is set on a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the 20th century. Beasley got in touch with agent Denise Shannon, who didn’t know the book but Googled it and wound up on, a site launched in 2006 that features thousands of books that have been, according to the site, “neglected, overlooked, forgotten, or stranded by changing tides in critical or popular taste.”

The Moonflower Vine is due out from Harper Perennial on 24 March 2009.

This Is On Me, by Katharine Brush

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'This Is On Me'“This is a new kind of book,” proclaims the dust jacket of This Is On Me, and the statement is still true nearly seventy years later. There is yet, as far as I know, another book like this. Time magazine described it as “scrapbook-diary-letter-what’s it-autobiography.” The New Yorker called it “autobiography-cum-short-stories-cum-articles, complete with anecdotes, divertissements, and funny sayings.” Brush herself said that when she started working on the book, it was a “sort of a kind of an autobiography” and at the book’s very beginning, she refers to it as a “vast hodgepodge” and a “shambles.” What it is, more than anything else, is a memoir of Brush’s life as a working writer in the 1920s and 1930s, studded with great chunks of what she wrote.

Brush started working as a writer from the moment she left school. She wrote a daily movie column for the Boston Herald and Traveler, which she admits usually consisted of “short squibs which I clipped out of the press sheets sent out by the movie companies, and rewrote.” After a year or so, she married Stewart Thomas Brush, whose father owned a string of small-city papers, moved to Ohio, and gave up writing. For about two months. But then she bought a second-hand typewriter and started in again. She went back to rewriting movie publicity under the banner of “Prattle About Picture Plays by Barbara Blake.” “I am even afraid that I thought that up myself,” she confesses.

She started sending stories to magazines. Her method was straight-forward and efficient. She took down a list from The Manuscript Market Guide and started sending out manuscripts:

Enclosing stamped, self-addressed envelopes for return, I mailed the manuscripts out as fast as I wrote them; and as fast as they came back, which was as fast as trains could carry them, I ticked the name of each unappreciative market off on the list, and tried the next one. As the manuscripts began to show first signs of wear and tear, I ironed them out with a lukewarm flatiron (another helpful hint culled from the writers’ magazines). When the pages became really tattered I retyped them.

Eventually, Brush sold a bit of comical verse to American Golfer for $5.00. By the end of 1923, she’d made a total of $84.75–most of that thanks to her first story sale, for $50, to Yippy Yarns. In 1924, she suddenly hit her stride, selling a story titled “Pity Pat” (“Oops, sorry!” she writes) to College Humor. Over the next few years, she wrote over forty stories and two novels for College Humor, perfecting the worldly, wise-cracking comical sense that matched the spirit of “Raccoon coats, flapping galoshes, hip flasks, jazz, bobbed hair, petting and necking, flivvers, Flaming Youth, and Mr. Scott Fitzgerald.”

Her first novel, Glitter, written in installments for College Humor, was published in 1925, and Brush was launched into the world of book publicity:

And I learned about reviewers, clipping bureaus, copy-readers, Book Fairs, mistake-finders, and the sweetly well-intentioned people who seek to make an author’s heart rejoice by telling him that they have lent their copy of his book to nineteen friends, just think of it…. The author does just think of it. He broods, to put it bluntly. He says to himself, “Nineteen potential buyers gone to glory, well, that’s fine, that is.”

On the bright side, thanks to an industrious agent, Brush manages to sell Glitter eleven different ways:

American serial, book and movie–that made three. English magazine serial and English book–that brought it to five. Translations into German, Italian and Danish–eight. Newspaper reserialization in America–nine. The book was then reissued in a seventy-five cent (reprint) edition; this was a separate transaction, making ten. And more than a decade after the sale of the silent motion picture rightsm the talking picture rights (which hadn’t been provided for in the original contract because of course they hadn’t been dreamed of at that time) were sold. That was only last year, and it was divine, in a small way. Pennies from Heaven.

Katharine Brush, 1940At the same time as she starting placing stories, Brush also started getting more substantial newspaper reporting jobs, thanks in part to her husband and father-in-law’s connections. Most importantly, though she didn’t think so at the time, was a string of sports reporting assignments, which included the 1925 World Series, college football games, and the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney heavyweight boxing championship fight. “I wasn’t much good on the Dempsey-Tunney fight story,” she admits, but a few years later she recycled the material to good effect as the opening to her biggest-selling novel, Young Man of Manhattan.

Stewart Brush got a job working for the New York Herald Tribune in 1926, and the couple moved to Manhattan just in time to catch the heyday of the Jazz Era. Katharine kept writing and selling, in part to keep up with the increased cost of life in the Big Apple. “I must make vast sums,” she told her mother, “and with no further delay.” Unfortunately, she found that, “Let me need money, really need it badly, and the only stories I can write will run to uncommercial themes, invariably.”

She produced a story called “Night Club.” Six editors in a row rejected it. “It’s all women.” “It has no central theme to hold the reader’s interest.” Then Harper’s accepted it in September 1927 and soon she was getting calls from other editors asking, “Wouldn’t you do us a story on the order of ‘Night Club’?” “Night Club” went on to become an anthology favorite through much of the late 1920s and 1930s–to the point that Brush complains that, “any letter I get with the name of a college or university on the upper left-hand corner of the envelope is going to be from the English professor of that college or university, who wants permission to use ‘Night Club’ in a textbook he is compiling.”

Stewart and Katharine Brush divorced in 1927. During a trip to Europe in 1928, she met Hubert “Bob” Winans, a stockbroker, and they married in 1929, a few weeks after the publication of Young Man of Manhattan. Honeymooning in Paris, they were greeted one morning with the news of Black Monday on Wall Street. Winans lost his job. For the next two years, they camped out on a couch and two chairs in the palatial apartment they had just bought before leaving for Europe. “All it needs,” quipped a friend, “is six or seven Cadillacs.”

Brush became the main bread-winner, which turned out to be a rare lucky break. Young Man of Manhattan was one of the top ten best-sellers of 1930, and her next book, Red-Headed Woman sold nearly as well and was made into a successful movie starring Jean Harlow. Brush tells a little anecdote about the writing of Red-Headed Woman:

Throughout the writing of the first half of the book, I didn’t know what the last half was going to be, and couldn’t decide. (And that’s what comes of letting short stories grow into novels, by the way.) But then one evening in a Broadway night club I heard a girl at the next table quote another girl as having said, “Just look at all these diamond bracelets–and I’ve only been in New York a year!” So there it was, in sixteen words, and that’s the way I wrote it.

Winans’ fortunes rebounded and soon the couple was able to buy a Connecticut house and regular trips back to Europe. But Brush hit a wall when it came to writing: “Now the novel I was trying to write from my restless seat in the lap of luxury was called Don’t Ever Leave Me–and it practically never did. It took me three whole years.” “Now the book progressed a little,” she writes, “and now it lay down in its tracks and wouldn’t budge, and now it crawled away somewhere and tried to die.” The book did not improve with age. Even though she did manage to finish it and get it published, Brush admits that “time and leisure and freedom from financial strain” did not prove the boons she expected them to be:

Any story becomes a habit, after its third year on the ways; it becomes a fixture there; and the wretched author has so long ago passed the point where he should have stopped fussing with it that now he simply can’t stop. He just goes on and on–and of course he thinks he’s improving it, but or course he isn’t doing anything of the sort. He’s just throwing extra monkey wrenches into what were once the works.

The experience left Brush drained. She eked out a couple of stories and took a couple of jobs writing stories for Hollywood. She started another novel and gave up after fifty pages. Finally, sitting in the Persian Room with John Farrar and Stanley Rinehart of Farrar & Rinehart and listening to Eddie Duchin playing, “Get Out of Town,” she pitched the idea for This Is On Me. It was going to be just a collection of new short stories. Farrar or Rinehart suggested she write some informal pieces to “tell the story of each story.”

When she started to write these introductions, however, bits of autobiography kept “creeping in.” Finally, the publishers gave in and what emerged was This Is On Me. Brush says she kept the “serious part” of her life out of the book, but “the rest is here.”

Early in her writing career, Brush sent some samples of her work to then-renown editor William Lyon Phelps, asking for his constructive criticism. “Dear Katharine,” he wrote back, “I have read your story and while it shows cleverness and skill I think you try to be too ‘snappy.'” It would be hard for the reader who makes it through the 400-plus pages of This Is On Me not to come to the same conclusion.

Many of the stories included in the book are very much relics of their time. One of the first in the book, “Football Girl,” was considered something of a comic masterpiece in its day. Today it’s merely stereotyped and silly. A number of others are just as bad. Brush’s other forte was the poignant glimpses of the human situation, like “Home,” about a boy returning from boarding school to divorced parents. These hold up better than the comic stories, but are not significantly better than the average magazine fiction from the time. At the time the book was published, Time’s reviewer thought the stories could just as well have been left out. After reading a few of them, today’s reader would have to agree.

Left on their own, however, the autobiographical sections would wear out their welcome, too. Brush seems so concerned with keeping up a steady stream of wisecracks and self-deprecating remarks that you want to shake her and yell, “Calm down!” at points. It’s almost disturbing at times. I kept thinking of pianist Roger Kellaway’s comment about his fellow musician, Frank Rosolino, who came to a very tragic end: “When somebody cracks four jokes a minute, we all should have known there was something wrong.” Katharine Brush was hardly suicidal, but her book would have been far more effective if she had been able to relax and not tried so hard to be “snappy.”

Still, this book is a fascinating account of how one writer made her way through two decades of professional ups and downs. Despite Brush’s sometimes strenuous comic tone, it’s the closest thing to a 20th century equivalent of Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography and a lot more fun.

Brush continued to work for over a decade after publishing This Is On Me. She published several more collections of stories, along with a collection of newspaper columns she wrote during the 1940s under the banner of “Out of My Mind.” She died in 1952 while undergoing surgery. Her son, Thomas Brush, helped establish the library that bears her name at Loomis Chaffee, a private school in Connecticut.

Locate a Copy

This Is On Me, by Katharine Brush
New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1940

The Secret, by James Drought

Cover of Avon paperback edition of 'The Secret' by James DroughtI was intrigued when I can across The Secret in the stacks of a used book store in Seattle. “At long last, something real on the American literary scene; very powerful,” Paul Pickrel of the Yale Review was quoted on the bright yellow cover. “The only trouble with The Secret is that it makes me feel inferior,” it also quoted from a review by Paul Jennings in the Observer.

Now, I’ve spent many hours scanning through shelves of used paperbacks, so it’s not too often now that I come across something truly new and unknown to me. Naturally, my eyes pricked up at this sight and I bought the book. When I sat down to read it for the first time, however, I quickly grew tired of it and set it aside. That bold banana yellow jacket kept catching my eye, though, and finally this week I sat down and dedicated myself to a discovery of Mr. Drought’s genius.

It was dedication alone that stayed my hand the dozen or more times in the last few days that I felt like hurling this book across the room. This is not a novel. Mr. Drought himself referred it The Secret as an “oratorio.” “Screed” is probably a more accurate term.

If Mr. Drought possessed any genius in this book, it’s of the ilk of that of Dr. Gene Scott or Joe Pyne or the guys I used to run into on the 1AM bus home from downtown after working swings. Here, for example, is Drought’s take on youth’s first realization that success is not all it’s cracked up to be:

For the young, it is like seeing a lovely lady, refined by a fine family, slip out one night in all her silk finery and walk into a woods erect and noble, where suddenly she crouches, rips a bird to pieces and eats it raw, shits in a hole and then kills another refined lady whom she meets at an appointed spot.

It’s that second killing I don’t get. OK, illusion of civilization revealed in its primal barbarity. I get that. But then killing a fellow refinee with whom she’s made a rendezvous? Survey a thousand kids a year out of high school and none of them will come up with that image.

The Secret loosely follows the lines of James Drought’s own life: raised on the outskirts of Chicago, a bit of a loner and rebel. An unsuccessful time in college, then a stint in the Army around the time of the Korean War as a paratrooper. Somewhere in between he meets and marries a beautiful, wonderful woman, and they raise a boy and a girl. He becomes a writer and eventually produces this book, which is intended to reveal to all American youth the secret that the world is out to kill you:

You have to conclude that your country has run amuck, that the people responsible are insane, that you can not trust your leaders, your President, your general, your parents, your friends, your neighbors, you co-workers, your police, your town, your state, your country, anymore because it is liable to turn upon you for no reason at all, except that for its own security it needs a scapegoat, any scapegoat including you, and there is no appeal possible.

The problem, you see, is that virtually everyone Drought’s nameless narrator meets is a shell, a stereotype, a craven one-dimensional drone:

Money was the king in those days; it was the goal for which people used up their lives, it was the prize by which they judged their accomplishments, the energy that made their institutions grown, it was the rationale, the reality, the ring of truth, the religion, it was the one single thing that everyone wanted, respected, cherished, needed, it was the spark, the spirit, the soul of an entire age in America and there was nothing else, no dream that could match it….

It goes on from there, but I’ll spare you the trouble.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found this relentless hammering away at the Great American Myths particularly tiresome was that Drought chose to make his narrator the most insufferably superior being to inhabit a book without the slightest redeeming scrap of humor. Early on, we learn that he and only he is the master marksman and hunter among his fellows:

I found most difficult the very idea I had to accept that my friends could not do these things well, and although I made many excuses for them, soon I had to cease blaming fate and put the blame on their clumsiness, and afterward I could do nothing but smile with boredom as they discussed their theories on how to fish, snare and trap, urging me to try some so they could see if any worked. I shot squirrels out of trees, and I had to admit I was a better shot, either because of a gifted eye, a steadier hand, a determination, or what, but more did fall to the ground, brother, when I shot than fell when my friends fired away hitting limbs, leaves and ticking distant houses, swearing that something was wrong with their goddamn sights, their sleeve caught, something was in their eyes, the gun was bent, etc. so I couldn’t ignore their clumsiness and my skill for long.

Which just goes to prove once more that the one downside to being better than everyone else is that it’s so tiresome having to put up with everyone else’s inferiority. The narrator goes on to tell us that there, along the deserted creeks outside Chicago, he caught or killed “catfish, possum, coon, trout,” “dove, pigeon, a buck, and once on a weekend a deer with arrows, and another time a bear with three arrows.” I can remember guys in junior high school telling whoppers like that. It was always those little details they’d chosen so carefully to impart that final pinch of verisimilitude that tipped you off that it was all a bunch of B.S.. “On a weekend.” “With arrows.” Yeah, right.

Ironically, The Secret proved to be a little American success story in itself, despite its message. Drought first published the book himself and sold it, along with several of his earlier novels, out of the back of his trunk. Eventually, Avon Books offered him a contract and released The Secret, as well as his earlier novels Mover, ii: A Duo, and The Gypsy Moths in paperback. The Gypsy Moths brought him greater fame, if still not much, due to the 1969 film version starring middle-aged Burt Lancaster as the hero and very young Gene Hackman as a sidekick.

Whatever else success did to Drought, it seems to have stilled his pen for a good ten years or more. Only in the late 1970s did he emerge into print again, with something called Superstar for president: An American satire–and on his own nickel once again. According to one biographical account, Drought was nominated by some European critics for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. Now, according to the Nobel website, nominators can be any of:

  1. Members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose;
  2. Professors of literature and of linguistics at universities and university colleges;
  3. Previous Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature;
  4. Presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries.

My bet is on those wacky Académie française guys.

Should you care to sample Drought’s work despite the cruel drubbing I just gave it, you can find several of his works online and free to download, thank to the efforts of his children, who established a few years ago. You will find the texts of The Gypsy Moths (1955), Memories of a Humble Man (1957), Mover: a Modern Tragedy (1959), and, not least, The Secret (1962).

The Secret, by James Drought
Westport, Connecticut: Skylight Press, 1962
New York: Avon Books, 1963

People in Cages, by Helen Ashton

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'People in Cages' by Helen AshtonIts cover (at least of the U. S. edition) may be the best thing about Helen Ashton’s 1937 novel, People in Cages. Ashton, a fine writer who can well be included with other “middlebrows” featured on Lesley Hall’s site, must have approached People in Cages as a set-piece, as its design is as intricate as the mechanisms of a watch.

The novel takes place within the space of a few hours on a hot July afternoon in London. Fate, family outings, and pure coincidence bring together a cast of characters within the confines of the London Zoo. Each person is linked to at least of few of the others, to the point that one almost needs a link analysis tool to keep track of them all. To give you a taste of this world where no one seems more than one degree of separation from anyone else, there are:

John Canning

A former Army officer now wanted for some kind of business fraud and the brother of

Mary Canning

Secretary to Dr. James Grayson, today accompanying

Laura Grayson

Wife of Dr. Grayson, John Canning’s lover, and sister to

Bunty MacIlroy

Socialite and gad-about engaged to

Dennis Elliott

Arctic explorer and son of

Colonel Elliott

John Canning’s former army commander and husband of

Mrs. Elliott

who is being treated by Dr. Grayson for breast cancer.

Once Ashton herds her cast into the zoo, we trail along with one, then another, as they weave in and out of the exhibits, meeting or not meeting, sighting or being oblivious of each other. The narrative tension gradually builds as the police, unknown to Canning, gather and close upon him. And, at regular intervals, Ashton notes the parallels between the circumstances of the people at the zoo and the animals they are watching:

Through this rabble of vulgar and domestic pleasure-seekers the fugitive made his way, looking about him with his bold and shifty stare, thinking them all plain, shabby, harassed and undersized, resenting it when they pushed against him like wandering cattle, not looking where they were going; it seemed to him suddenly intolerable that he should be driven out of the comfortable world that he knew by the prejudice and stupidity of the herd about him….

“… I’ve turned her into a dried-up discontented creature, hungry and barren….”

“Laura is like a young golden lioness in a cage, vain, spoilt, nervous, afraid of her natural duties–and I’m like an old lioness, shut up behind bars, away from my kind, without a chance to breed, because the world is overstocked with us and the menagerie can’t afford another litter.”

… There was something wild and sullen about all these nocturnal creatures, thought the young policeman complacently; the cages were like a row of prison cells and the animals were like sentenced thieves and criminals….

“I don’t think we’ve any right to stand and laugh at them, just because they’re shut up and because they behave like human beings. We’re all in cages ourselves and some of our own performances must be very amusing to God.”

Unfortunately, Ashton’s theme of man as wild, trapped beast is undermined by the mechanical precision of her approach. She weaves her characters’ paths and thoughts together so intricately that the contrast between theme and structure is too stark and the reader soon starts spotting all the joints and hinges. In this zoo, no one idly glances at a stranger. If a policeman notices the “savage and startled gleam” in the eyes of a well-dressed man in front of the dingo cage, it has to be John Canning, of course. If another remarks upon a woman’s “brown and white leaf-patterned gown,” they will turn out to be former sisters-in-law. It’s all so airtight that it’s amazing any life manages to leak through.

Ashton would have been better served by chucking the choreography and letting her characters take the lead. As a creator of interior monologues, she skillfully manages to be true to class, gender, age, and circumstance, and to hop her way through nearly two dozen minds without missing a step. It may be that Ashton felt her readers needed to be guided through this web of interior monologues by a particularly obvious structure. Ashton’s novels were consistent best-sellers, and the expectations of readers for no surprises (“More, but just like the last one”) is a curse of best-selling writers.

In any case, despite my misgivings about People in Cages, I intend to give Ashton’s best-known novel, Doctor Serocold, a try. The admirable Persephone Books has also reissued Ashton’s 1932 novel, Bricks and Mortar.

People in Cages earned Ashton and her publisher a libel charge, by the way. E. M. Forster discussed the case on one of his BBC radio broadcasts, and it’s worth quoting here to illustrate (a) how ridiculously broad the English libel law of the time were and (b) how thin-skinned some people can be:

I’m glad to say that this year a libel action was brought that failed. It was over a novel called People in Cages. There was a villian in the novel and he got arrested in the zoo, and the authoress, Miss Helen Ashton made great efforts not to give the villain the name of any living person. But unfortunately she did not succeed. There did happen to be a very respectable gentleman who bore the same name. This gentleman had some friends of a humorous turn and they used to ring him up at all hours of the night, and make noises of animals at him down the telephone to remind him of his arrest in the zoo–quacking and growling and so on. He got cross; and he brought an action against the publishers, Messrs. Collins, for defamation of character. Well he lost, and I hope that this will be an earnest of saner decisions to come.

Find a Copy

People in Cages, by Helen Ashton
London: Collins, 1937
New York: Macmillan, 1937

What Makes a Book “Neglected”?

D. G. Myers, associate professor of English and religious studies, just posted a fine and admiring review of John Fante’s novel, Full of Life on his always interesting A Commonplace Blog. In passing along a link to the post, he remarked, “I don’t know whether a book is ‘neglected’ if it is still in print, but this is not usually said to be even his best novel (although it is).”

A few years after setting up this site may be a bit too late to get around to defining its fundamental concept, but I thought I would take a moment to disclose the personal preferences that guide my selection of books to feature.

With an occasional exception, I focus on books that are out of print–and out of print for ten years or more. There are a number of fine publishers–Persephone Books, Pushkin Press, Crippen & Landru, and, of course, New York Review Books, to name just a few–that are doing a service to past, present, and future by discovering and reissuing a wide variety of books that have been out of print or just out of the mainstream for years or decades. And I do them all a disservice in not announcing their each and every release and regularly selecting a few for in-depth discussion.

But one of the privileges that comes with doing the work to create the content for this site and pay the bill for hosting it is the right to chose what I do and don’t cover. This is one of my hobbies. I wish it was profitable enough or my needs simple enough that it could be a vocation, but for the foreseeable future, I will have a day job to hold down, kids to raise, and no shortage of other time commitments. So I have to trust that these presses will succeed in getting the publicity, shelf-space, and display table exposure to keep the business of publishing neglected books profitable. And so I will devote my time to the ones they miss.

The fact that a book has been out of print for at least ten years is a pretty reliable indicator that very few people are asking for it at their local bookshop or online store. While it’s easier to locate a used book today than it ever has been in the history of printed books, it still remains, as anyone who’s tried to run a used bookstore can tell you, that far, far, far fewer people make the effort to do it. Most books that are now out of print will never be reissued.

And most of them don’t deserve to be reissued. Set aside all the out-dated reference books, manuals for obsolete machinery and processes, superseded textbooks and other examples of the many types of short-term utilitarian content that gets published between covers, and there still remain thousands of uninspired, unimaginative, unoriginal, and otherwise uninteresting books that barely justified publication in the first place. They may be pot shards for some archaeologist, but they’re no more worth reading than pot shards are worth carrying water in.

But the law of large numbers suggests that the vagaries of publication, book review assignments, display table selection, and publisher’s publicity mechanisms will result in relatively stable number of good books not getting properly noticed and evaluated each year. And just getting good reviews or even good sales is not enough to keep a book from quickly fading away into obscurity. Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine got fine reviews and made it into the New York Times’ best seller list and yet disappeared utterly from any critical discussion for over thirty years–until Jane Smiley covered it in her Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Even then, it’s taken another five years for a publisher (Harper Perennial) to reissue it.

So it’s a sure bet that there are books out there that didn’t get their lucky break. Books like The Moonflower Vine. Books like Winds of Morning that got good reviews and sold OK, if not great, and disappeared. Books like Michael Frayn’s Constructions that got good reviews, never had a chance of selling more than a few copies, and disappeared. And books like W. V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks that got one paragraph in one paper, sold a handful of copies, and barely appeared in the first place, let alone ever attracted notice again.

They deserve better. And so that’s the coalface I’ve chosen to work at. I guess I’m like the kid in Ronald Reagan’s favorite joke:

Worried that their son was too optimistic, the parents of a little boy took him to a psychiatrist. Trying to dampen the boy’s spirits, the psychiatrist showed him into a room piled high with nothing but horse manure. Yet instead of displaying distaste, the little boy clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to all fours, and began digging. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

With all those out of print books, there must be some ponies in there somewhere. My mission is to find a few.

Wrinkles, by Charles Simmons


When he first slept all night with the woman he had fallen in love with he stayed awake in order not to miss the pleasure of her presence. When they moved in together sleep became a problem: she complained that he woke at night, lay tense, and thereby woke her; or he snored or tossed and thereby woke her. Now he sleeps in another room, about which she also complains. He feels that the difference between sleeping and waking is diminishing: when asleep he is aware that he is asleep, and when awake he often falls into reveries. Up and in company after 10 p.m. he will nod, particularly when drinking. Only once in a while will he sleep through the night; he will never sleep so deeply that he does not know where he is on waking. His dreams will most often be confused, extensions of the day’s concerns. Near the end of his life, after not dreaming of his father for years, he will have a dream in which his father taunts him for looking old.

Editor’s Comments

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Wrinkles'Charles Simmons published five novels over the course of thirty-five years, none of them over 230 pages long and even those pages were printed in well-spaced lines and moderate print. And of all of these, Wrinkles is the slightest, sparest. There are 44 chapters or pieces, each between three to five pages long. Each takes a single topic: clothing; smoking; mathematics; movies; doctors; parents; sleeping.

The excerpt above, from the sleeping pieces shows Simmons’ structure for all of them, which is unique, to my knowledge, to Wrinkles. Each begins by describing experiences, emotions, and thoughts that occurred to Simmon’s protagonist in the past–his childhood, his young manhood, his early married or working life. Then it tells us what is happening in the present. Finally, it projects ahead to what will happen between now and his death.

Simmons’ character has no name, but we do learn the basic facts of his life: he was born, lives, and will die in New York City. He is white, divorced, somewhere in his early fifties, a writer and sometime literature teacher. Had Simmons chosen to take a conventional approach to his story, it’s hard to see how it would have held much interest to anyone. He has some troubles and some successes and much that is neither, and there is little drama, at least as far as we are shown.

The lack of narrative distraction allows Simmons to focus on telling details–the amount of his childhood allowance (five cents, later raised to fifteen); the feel of the wool material of his Army uniform; the taste of a cigarette; a bird that accidentally flies into his apartment; one of his professors reaching out and touching his hand. All the details and incidents are related in a spare, objective prose–examined “are held as if before a jeweler’s glass,” as one reviewer wrote. (In an odd coincidence, in searching for Simmons’ other titles, I discovered that a century before him, another Charles Simmons had published something titled A Laconic Manual and Brief Remarker, which is an apt description of Simmons’ style in Wrinkles).

Everything, in fact, in Wrinkles is so carefully chosen and so lightly treated that the work comes to resemble poetry as much as prose. Not that this is a delicate or fragile life: Simmons’ hero has cheated, lied, stolen, smoked, boozed, shirked onerous chores and been expelled from a school. He wrestled in high school and was good at it. He goes to see “Deep Throat” with a famous woman film critic he meets at a party. He will wonder if he would have had more sex if he had not masturbated.

The details accumulate and the novel becomes a mosaic, where the individual pieces gives the reader a clearer and clearer sense of the man. And this is what, in the end, makes Wrinkles a remarkable work of art, a truly original and beautifully realized portrait of a largely unremarkable life with its share of wrinkles, warts, and blemishes. Which is what most of ours are, too–and which is why many readers will find at least a few passages that will cause them to pause for a moment and consider their own reflections.

Find a copy

Wrinkles, by Charles Simmons
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978

“The Gospel at Colonus” now available on DVD

The Gospel at Colonus DVDI’m going to shift my spotlight away from neglected books for the first time to draw attention to the long, long-overdue release on DVD of the 1985 PBS “Great Performances” production of the Lee Breuer/Bob Telson landmark show, “The Gospel at Colonus”. Recently, I was talking to an acquaintance about memorable theater experiences. He and his wife had seen “The War Horse” at the National Theatre in London, and he said the first sight of the horse puppet, designed by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, sent a shiver up his spine.

I told him I had the same reaction to the opening moments of the theatre production of “The Lion King,” when the dancers, in Julie Taymor’s incredible costumes, begin to come onto the stage from the wings and through the aisles. “I think there have only been three or four times I’ve had that reaction something in theater,” I said, but my mind instantly went blank when I tried to think of the others. And then it hit me: “The Gospel at Colonus”, of course.

It was in 1990, when my wife and I went to see Breuer’s revival of his 1985 production for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. About 10 minutes into the show, Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama enter from the left wing, dressed in shining silver tuxes. They are the collective, choral Oedipus. “Daughter, lead me on,” Fountain calls out, and Jevetta Steele, playing Ismene, begins to lead them in a classic sufferin’ gospel show trudge, toward center stage. From the right wing goes out a shout: “Stop!” The Soul Stirrers, as the defenders of Colonus, all dressed in deep burgundy suits, with Sam Butler, Jr. on guitar in the lead, begin moving out to stop them. “Stop, do not go on,” they sing. “This place is holy. You cannot walk this ground.” A vocal battle of sorts then erupts, as the Oedipi come on and the Soul Stirrers push back. With each step, the tension mounts. Behind, a large gospel choir sways back in forth to the rhythm of the march. Butler and Fountain come face to face, duking it out: “Can’t do it!” “I’ll do it!” “Can’t do it!” “I’ll do it!” Finally, in frustration, Fountain lets out with a wild, falsetto howl that slices right through to the heart. I had tears in my eyes, it was so thrilling.

I had first heard about “The Gospel at Colonus” in the Village Voice back in 1983, when it opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the academy’s Next Wave Festival. I was intrigued at the whole concept of the show: an interpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy, “Oedipus at Colonus” in the music of modern American black gospel. I was already a big fan of black gospel music. But the fact that Breuer had been able to enlist the participation of not just the Five Blind Boys but the Soul Stirrers left me dearly wishing I was living on the right, not the left coast.

Fortunately, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan fame was also a fan of the show and arranged to release an original cast recording on Warner Brothers Records in 1984, and I swooped my copy up the moment it hit the racks. I copied it to cassette (remember them?) and played it over and over in the car. Some critics have written that “Stop! Do Not Go On” is the only memorable song from the show, but having listened to the album at least a hundred times over the last 20+ years, I think this is unfair and seriously wrong.

Virtually even number is good enough to take its place alongside the best gospel tunes of the last fifty years. “How Shall I See You Through My Tears?”, Ismene’s plaintive cry for her long-lost father is matched Oedipus’ desparate wish that the Lord would “Life Me Up (Like a Dove)”, so that “I could look with the eyes of the angels/For the child that I love.” The joyous resolution of the choir’s answer to Oedipus’ plea to find a resting place: “Live where you can/Be happy where you can.” The stunning oratio of “Numberless Are the World’s Wonders”, in which the singer lists all the powers of man, spiralling up to a series of “From every wind/He has made himself secure”, only to end with the chorus reminding us, “From all but one/In the late wind of death he cannot stand.” And the stomping, rousing celebration of the peace Oedipus finally finds: “Lift Him Up.” These songs are among the most moving I know.

Although “The Gospel at Colonus” only ran for about two months when Breuer took it to Broadway in 1985, he’s managed to stage a number of revivals at fairly regular intervals, so that by now, the show has been performed over 1,000 times. A second recording of the songs from the show, with mostly the same cast members as the first, was released in 1985 and is now available on CD (although I personally prefer the Warner Brothers version).

PBS recorded a performance in Houston in 1985, when Morgan Freeman was still playing the speaking Oedipus, and showed it on their “Great Performances” series. This was briefly available on VHS tape, but it’s effectively been out of reach until a month or so ago, when NewVideo finally issued it on DVD. Given the show’s record, this release may disappear just as quickly as all the past revivals and recordings, so I urge everyone to buy or rent a copy and see while it’s still available. The video quality is not the best, being just a digitized version of the first release without any apparent touch-up. But the power of the music, the performances, and the visual impact of the staging easily overcomes this shortcoming. Until you have that once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it live, don’t stop and do go on to see it now and DVD. Your life will be richer for it.

“The Gospel at Colonus”

Book by Lee Breuer
Based on “Oedipus at Colonus,” “Oedipus Rex,” and “Antigone” by Sophocles; Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone” adapted by Robert Fitzgerald; Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone” adapted by Dudley Fitts
Music by Bob Telson
Available from New Video (ISBN: 1-4229-1948-X)

Mine Enemy Grows Older, by Alexander King

The 'controversial' cover of 'Mine Enemy Grows Older'Every writer who’s ever been featured on Oprah’s Book Club follows in the footsteps of Alexander King. When he published his memoir, Mine Enemy Grows Older in 1958, he was, in the words of a Time magazine reviewer, “an ex-illustrator, ex-cartoonist, ex-adman, ex-editor, ex-playwright, ex-dope addict.” His book probably would have taken a quick trip to the remainder tables–had it not been for a lucky and path-setting break: on the second of January, 1959, King appeared on “The Tonight Show”, hosted by Jack Paar, to plug his book. As Russell Baker put it years later, “After charming millions on the Jack Paar show, Alexander King came up out of the basement and took off like a 900-page bodice ripper.”

Mine Enemy Grows Older is King’s rambling and very much tongue-in-cheek account of his first fifty-some years. Born in Vienna (as Alexander Koenig), King emigrated with his family to New York City in his teens. With a little bit of art training and a great deal of moxie, he worked his way through dozens of jobs, from decorating department store windows and painting murals a Greek restaurant to illustrating radical newspapers.

Cover of Alexander King's 'Is There Life After Birth?'It was as an illustrator that King’s career finally took off. Throughout the 1920s, he was caught up in the convention-flounting wave of Mencken, The Smart Set, and the Jazz Age and became a much-in-demand illustrator for new, unbowdlerized editions by such scandalous authors as Flaubert, Rabelais, and Ovid. He then worked as an art editor, first for Vanity Fair and then for Henry Luce’s transformed Life magazine. Unfortunately for King, he developed a serious kidney problem that led to a doctor’s prescribing morphine as a pain killer.

At the time, morphine was controlled but legally available in pill form from most pharmacies. And like any addictive drug, it also encouraged a thriving black market, with shady MDs writing scrips on demand for junkies like King who could scrape up enough cash. Eventually, King’s addiction led to his being arrested and convicted on federal drug charges and sent to a narcotics rehabilitation hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. He was able to clean up, get back into painting, and reestablish some of his connections with the publishing world in New York, which led to a contract from Simon and Schuster for Mine Enemy Grows Older.

It probably would have ended there had not King’s wry and outrageous banter on Paar’s show. He was just the sort of taboo-breaker Paar’s audience was looking for: funny, opinionated, unconventional, urbane. Frank and April Wheeler of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road would have loved him. Take this account of King’s reaction to being stuck in a room in Lexington with nothing to read by an issue of the Saturday Evening Post:

It was a waking nightmare of the most sinister dimension and variety. My whole past life was insidiously evoked, ruefully demonstrated, and mercilessly indicted. It suddenly came to me that the reason my three marriages had smashed up was, simply, that they had been frivolously ratified on the wrong kind of mattresses; I realized with unshakable conviction that my social and financial calamaties had been caused by my improperly sanitized apertures; and, as I went on reading, it became brutally clear that all through my life I had washed only with soap substitutes, had worn unmasculine underwear, and had never decently neutralized my offensive bodily effluvia.

For seventy-two hours I wallowed in accusations and self-reproaches, and when the nurse finally let me out of my isolation cubicle I was a psychic tatterdemalion.

I remember saying to the doctor who interviewed me that rather than have another such weekend, I would prefer to spend three days on an army cot, lashed to a belching, gonorrheal Eskimo prostitute, who had just finished eating walrus blintzes.

Funny stuff, for sure. Practically every page of Mine Enemy Grows Older is filled with this sort of caustic, ribald bird-flipping humor. For fifteen to twenty minutes on a talk show it must have seemed like revolutionary stuff. By the end of the book’s 374 pages, however, it has grown monotonous and tiresome.

That didn’t stop Simon and Schuster from releasing four more books by King between 1960 and his death in 1965: May This House be Safe from Tigers (1960); I Should Have Kissed Her More (1961); Is There A Life After Birth? (1963); and Rich Man, Poor Man, Freud, and Fruit (1965). All sold well, though each time in diminishing numbers. There was something about King that really appealed to readers and viewers at the time. My grandparents, life-long Republicans and firm upholders of middle-class values, had two of his books on their shelves, and kept them with the small number they moved to their retirement apartment. Nor did it keep Paar and then Johnny Carson from bringing him back for dozens of appearances.

The 'safe' cover of 'Mine Enemy Grows Older'My theory is that King’s was a safe form of revolt. He mocked convention, but he didn’t exactly offer an alternative–nor did he suggest that people grab torches and set fire to police stations. He was like a Brother Theodore who could write. He introduced America to the term, “raconteur” and opened a door for other talk show guests–including Truman Capote. After a long day at the office and an evening of westerns and sitcoms, a bit of King’s “acid appraisals of modern art (‘a putrescent coma’), advertising (‘an overripe fungus’) and people in general (‘adenoidal baboons’)” (to quote Time’s obit of King) was a refreshing bit of outrage before turning in for the night.

Simon and Schuster were happy to exploit this sense of dabbling in forbidden fruit. After “The Tonight Show” appearance, the publisher released subsequent printings with two covers–a “shocking” one (above) featuring one King’s Dali-esque paintings and, to prevent any awkward glances, a conventional one (right) with a safe grey cover.

King still has a few fans, as you can see from the reviews posted on Amazon. For me, his books, like his art, is colorful, vivid, but ultimately superficial.

Other Opinions

Gerald Frank, New York Herald Tribune, 7 December 1958

This is a scandalous, wonderful, and strangely moving book. The publishers, for want of a better word, describe it as an autobiography. Actually it is less autobiography than memoirs, less memoirs than a series of immpressionistic self-portraits and wildly hilarious anecdotes done so vividly that the book all but leaps in your hands.

Bernard Levin, The Spectator, 4 December 1959

Alas, funny though the anecdotes, or some of them, are, this is the emptiest book to appear for many a year, and even if it were not written almost entirely in the same breathless, sweaty prose, it would still be a waste.

Raymond Holden, New York Times, 4 January 1959

The reader who has a strong stomach and is not irritated by the author’s verbal juggling and sometimes painful name-calling will be made either happy or morbidly excited…. [T]here are sandwiched in between its horrors some anecdotes and personal narratives of rare subtlety and humor. Whether one regards this as autobiography or fiction (the two are not really so far apart), it is at once a story of degradation and depravity and a sensitive and often kindly commentary on human life.

Locate a Copy

Mine Enemy Grows Older, by Alexander King
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1958

Robert Chandler recommends the works of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Robert Chandler, translator of Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate write to recommend “[A]nother great, and still more recently discovered, writer from the 1920s and 30s: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky”:

I included one of his stories, ‘Quadraturin’, in my Penguin Classics anthology Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics). There is also a small anthology of his work published by GLAS: Seven Stories.

And NYRB Classics are bringing out another volume [Memories of the Future] in the next few months.

His work is translated by Joanne Turnbull, and her translations are very, very good indeed. [Turnbull won the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize for Seven Stories.–Ed.]

There is a bit about him at the Complete Review.

You can read his short story, “Quadraturin” online at the Glas website ( and another, “Yellow Coal”, at You can also read about Krzhizhanovsky on Wikipedia and Ellis Sharp’s blog.

Cook’s Ingredients, from Reader’s Digest Home Handbooks

Cover of 'Cook's Ingredients'
I love to cook, and I’ve always tried to apply in the kitchen the advice of the composer Charles Ives, who once said to a listener who was booing a piece of modernist music, “Stop being such a God-damned sissy! Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?” Well, when it comes to food, I believe in standing up and using my tastebuds like a man.

There are plenty of opportunities to do that here in Belgium. Even our small local grocery and the corner store often have things on display that send me home to research what they are and how to cook them. Since 1990, one of my most useful references has been this book, published by Reader’s Digest, of all companies. Produced by Dorling Kindersley, Cook’s Ingredients is a model of DK’s image-intense approach to information.

Although it comes with the diminutive label of “pocket encyclopedia,” it packs into 230-some pages an invaluable wealth of information. Starting with vegetables, ending with meat, and covering fruit, herbs, spices, grains, dairy products, fish and fowl in between, the book covers just about every ingredient you’re likely to find in any good grocery store and plenty of those you’re not. Over 60 different types are shown in the seven pages on pasta. For each item, there is a pristine studio photo and a sentence or two about its origin, taste, production, or use.

Lungo Vermicelli - Riccini - Gramigna

If nothing else, it’s been terrific to have on hand when we have to send one of the kids to the store for scallions or a bag of orzo. Open it up, point to the picture, and say, “This is what you need to get.” We learned this lesson after one of the boys came back with a green cabbage instead of head of iceberg lettuce.

I do keep a couple of other guides: The New Food Lover’s Companion is more comprehensive but lacks illustrations; Waverly Root’s Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World is more entertaining to read, if not the most efficient reference; and the CIA’s 7.8 pound behemoth, The Professional Chef, looms over them all. But for every one time I look at any of these, there are ten times I’ll thumb through Cook’s Ingredients.

I see that there are used copies available for as little as 35 cents plus postage on Amazon. C’mon now, folks: surely you can fork out that for the sake of a book that can hold its place in the kitchen for a lifetime–something few books beside Joy of Cooking can do.

Cook’s Ingredients, Adrian Bailey Contributing Editor
Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Books, 1990