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0 - The Neglected Books Page

In Morocco, by Edith Wharton

Title page of Edith Wharton's 'In Morocco'In anticipation of our trip to Morocco in a few days, I checked to see what guides and histories I could find in the Internet Archive. The most interesting was Edith Wharton’s 1920 book, In Morocco. The first two thirds of In Morocco recount a trip Wharton took there soon after the end of the First World War.

She went as the guest of the French Governor General of the protectorate, Hubert Lyautey, which entitled her to VIP privileges, including her own car and driver and ready access to military assistance when she needed it. Wharton sings his praises as a military genius and wise administrator, though her evidence for the former is a bit hard to swallow.

When the First World War broke out, Lyautey refused to abandon Morocco and return with his troops. In Wharton’s words, “The loss of Morocco would inevitably have been followed by that of the whole of French North Africa outright to Germany at a moment when what they could supply — meat and wheat — was exactly what the enemy most needed.” She trumpets his success in securing Morocco against what were, at most, minor attempts at incursions by Berbers and Mauritanian tribesmen with a little encouragement from Germany.

Lyautey’s support allowed Wharton to gain as much access as a Western woman could to the inner circle of Moroccan nobility, including spending a few hours in the family chambers of Sultan Yusef in the Imperial Palace in Rabat. And there is color aplenty for those who like their travelogues rich in description, such as this one of the busy passageways of Fes el Bali:

Then the populace closes in again, so quickly and densely that it seems impossible it could ever have been parted, and negro water-carriers, muffled women, beggars streaming with sores, sinewy and greasy “saints,” Soudanese sorcerers hung with amulets made of sardine-boxes and hares’-feet, longlashed boys of the Chleuh in clean embroidered caftans, Jews in black robes and skull-caps, university students carrying their prayer-carpets, bangled and spangled black women, scrofulous children with gazelle eyes and mangy skulls, and blind men tapping along with linked arms and howling out verses of the Koran, surge together in a mass drawn by irresistible suction to the point where the bazaars converge about the mosques of Moulay Idriss and El Kairouiyin.

Or this of the lavish parade of fealty to the Sultan, part of the celebration of Eid al-Adha:

The Sultan, pausing beneath his velvet dome, waited to receive the homage of the assembled tribes. An official, riding forward, drew bridle and called out a name. Instantly there came storming across the plain a wild cavalcade of tribesmen, with rifles slung across their shoulders, pistols and cutlasses in their belts, and twists of camel’s-hair bound about their turbans. Within a few feet of the Sultan they drew in, their leader uttered a cry and sprang forward, bending to the saddle-bow, and with a great shout the tribe galloped by, each man bowed over his horse’s neck as he flew past the hieratic figure on the grey horse.

Again and again this ceremony was repeated, the Sultan advancing a few feet as each new group thundered toward him. There were more than ten thousand horsemen and chieftains from the Atlas and the wilderness, and as the ceremony continued the dust-clouds grew denser and more fiery-golden, till at last the forward-surging lines showed through them like blurred images in a tarnished mirror.

The last third of the book is devoted to long and dull chapters on Moroccan history and Moroccan art and architecture. While Wharton displays considerable empathy, an essential ingredient in her success as a novelist, as well as a deep knowledge of Western and Arab art, it’s only too apparent that little she saw truly inspired her. In every city she visits she notes the many signs of the neglect and decay of much of Morocco’s cultural heritage, despite attempts at restoration by the French government. In her eyes, Morocco in 1919 was a civilization that had been in decline for centuries and only the intercession of France could prevent that from becoming irreversible.

There are, as one would expect, many aspects of In Morocco that show its age and the limitations of the privileged perspective of its author. But, as Laila Lalami noted in a short item about In Morocco in her blog earlier this year, “What strikes me about these contrasts [between the degraded Moroccans and the virtues of their French occupiers] is not that they are outmoded, but rather the opposite: the same images, the same tropes are still to be found in travel writing or reportage about Morocco today.”

There are numerous editions of In Moroccoavailable from publishers specializing in print-on-demand editions of books in the public domain, but spare a tree and CO2 emissions and just download a copy from the Internet Archive:

In Morocco, by Edith Wharton
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching, by Henry C. Barkley

Covers of "Rat-Catching" by Crispin Glover (1999) and "Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching" by Henry C. Barkley (1896)If anyone has heard of Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching in the last ten years, it’s undoubtedly due to Crispin Glover’s 1999 reconstruction of the book, Rat Catching. Most mentions of Glover’s book identify Barkley’s work as “a 19th-century non-fiction book” or a handbook on how to catch rats.

Which it is. On one level, at least. Studies purports to be the recollections of one Bill Joy, master rat-catcher, who was enticed into putting them down in print after regaling a country house full of young people with them one weekend. Much of the first two-thirds of the book takes the reader step-by-step through the process of ridding farms and houses of rats for profit, starting with picking the right ferrets, dogs, and shovels and continuing into stories of memorable hunts. There is also a chapter on rabbit-catching, reminding us that, in the days before Beatrix Potter, farmers like Mr. McGregor looked on them as pests, not pets.

But how then to take Barkley/Joy’s introduction to the book?

Ever since I was a boy, and ah! long, long before that, I fancy, the one great anxiety of parents of the upper and middle classes blessed with large families has been, ” What are we to do with our boys ? ” and the cry goes on increasing, being intensified by the depreciation in the value of land, and by our distant colonies getting a little overstocked with young gentlemen, who have been banished to them by thousands, to struggle and strive, sink or swim, as fate wills it. At home, all professions are full and everything has been tried ; and, go where you will, even the children of the noble may be found wrestling with those of the middle and working classes for every piece of bread that falls in the gutter. Nothing is infra dig that brings in a shilling, and all has been and is being tried.

Rat-catching, it appears, is Barkley/Joy’s solution to the problem of upper class unemployment:

I believe kind Dame Nature during the last summer has stepped in and opened out an honourable path for many gentlemen’s sons, that I think will be their salvation, and at all events, if it does not make them all rich, will, if they only follow it, make them most useful members of society and keep them out of mischief and out of their mammas’ snug drawing-rooms.

Thus, he dedicates the book to “the Head Masters of Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Rugby, and all other schools,” Old Joy is no rube, but the son of a country parson, and not completely out of touch with the mores and manners of the upper classes. He is careful to advise his young readers, for example, to “show your respect by not taking ferrets or dead rats in your pockets into her drawing-room, and by washing your hands a little between fondling them and cuddling her.” And he takes pride in his humble but honest and worthy profession. He expresses his hope that his book will serve as a more practical alternative to learning Greek and Latin, which only equips boys to become “such scourges of society as M.P.s who make speeches when Parliament is not sitting.”

So there is clearly more going on here than a simple handbook on rat-catching. Barkley is taking a sly shot at public school education. Most chapters end with Joy instructing his young Etonian readers: “There, young gentlemen, if you have well digested that chapter and forgotten the story at the end, you can put up your books and form up for your usual walk to the second milestone and back again”–or admonishing Croker minor, the trouble-maker of the class: “The top part of Jones’ leg was not made to stick pins into!”

But then, in Chapter VIII, “A Trip to the Seaside,” Joy meanders his way from telling about his annual excursions to a seaside town for hunting rats on “the Denes” to a long-winded story about the rescue of a child from the wreck of a ship smuggling arms to Irish separatists–a story that has nothing to do with rats or educating public school boys. “Oh, dear! oh, dear! What a muddle, what a hodge-podge I have made of this pen work! I sat down thinking it would be quite easy to write a book on ‘Rat-catching for the Use of Schools,’ and I have drifted off the line here,” he laments. “I had hoped to have opened up a great career to many young gentlemen, but have failed,” he concludes, abruptly ending the book.

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching is, then, a practical guide to rat-catching, as its title claims; and an attempt to mock the education and employment prospects of the upper class; and a collection of quaint tales of life and adventures in rural England. It’s certainly not wholly successful in being any one of these, but I’d argue that Barkley managed to create something of an 19th century cut-up–which itself makes the book quite a bit more than just some dull old book Crispin Glover reworked a hundred years later.

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching, by Henry C. Barkley
London: John Murray, 1896

The Private Twilight of Jacko Tate, by Eugene George

Cover of "The Private Twilight of Jacko Tate"I learned of The Private Twilight of Jacko Tate from the wonderful site, Trash Fiction, and I won’t attempt here to repeat what is already well covered on the review of the book on that site.

The narrative curve of Jacko Tate has a swift rise, as we discover the force of Tate’s presence and the grubby corruption of his character, followed by a slow and sour descent that ends with him being dragged away by the police howling like a whipped dog. What makes this book much more than a character sketch is George’s choice to tell the story through the eyes and voice of Ray Gifford, who becomes far more involved in Tate’s slow-motion crash than he should.

The two men meet when Tate is hired into the small London advertising firm where Gifford works. This is the world of print advertising that looks so antiquated when we see it on Mad Men, and it’s every bit as small change and exhausted imaginations as it seems from a distance of forty-plus years. Tate and Gifford are closer to Willy Loman than Don Draper.

Tate, an ex-Army Regular with no pretenses to public school education or manners, turns out to be a satyr of the bed-sit scene who loves to share his accounts of slipping in on wives on weekday afternoons. And Gifford proves an eager audience, ready to sin second-hand.

But the relationship quickly demands more than just listening from Gifford, as he becomes involved in Tate’s deceptions, which include a long-standing mistress for whom he develops an increasingly dangerous dependency. The situation grows more and more uncomfortable, compromising, sad, and sleazy. Tates sucks in Gifford–and the reader–into his self-destructive whirlpool.

For what appears to have been published as a throw-away bit of salacious popular fiction, The Private Twilight of Jacko Tate is a remarkably well-structured and precisely-observed work. And as Alwyn Turner, the creator of Trash Fiction notes in his review, it’s also rich in mid-60s British atmosphere. Eugene George appears to have published just one other book, I Can See You But You Can’t See Me, which came out the year before Tate. Its description in one review–“Emerson, a rich and successful man, sets out systematically and viciously to destroy a marriage”–makes it sound worth seeking out as well.

The Private Twilight of Jacko Tate, by Eugene George
London: Pan Books, 1969

Our Own Set, by Ossip Schubin

As I poke around the less-frequented aisles of the Internet Archive, I continue to stumble across long-forgotten gems. Certainly the loveliest so far came as just the kind of happy accident that encourages me to keep on digging. I had been impressed by the quality of Clara Bell’s translations from the Spanish of several works by Benito Perez-Galdos–himself a neglected giant of the 19th century novel–and decided to see if the archive held any other examples of her work.

One of the dozen or so titles I found was the opaquely titled Our Own Set by one Ossip Schubin. I did a quick Google search on the title and author and found very little listed, so I downloaded it to my Nook and started the book a few days later.

Our Own Set takes place in Rome in 1870. The set of the title is a group of Austrian nobles living in the city on long-term holidays, escaping the provincialism of Viennese society–only to create their own form of it. The harmony of the scene is disrupted when the secretary of the Austrian embassy–not much of a diplomat, but a fine waltzer–is sent off to London and replaced by Cecil Sterzl.

The set instantly takes a dislike to Sterzl, who fails to play its game:

He could never be brought to understand that the flattery and subterfuge usual in company were merely a degenerate form of love for your neighbor; that the uncompromising truthfulness that he required must result in universal warfare; that the limit-line between sincerity and rudeness, between deference and hypocrisy, have never been rigidly defined; that the naked truth is as much out of place in a drawing-room as a man in his shirt-sleeves; and that, considering the defects and deformities of our souls, we cannot be too thankful that custom prohibits their being displayed without a decent amount of clothing.

His situation is not aided by his seating on a relatively low rung on the ladder of Austrian nobility, earned only by virtue of his mother’s slim claim to title:

Baroness Sterzl was a typical specimen of a class of nobility peculiar to Austria, and called there, Heaven knows why, “the onion nobility” (zweibelnoblesse). It is a circle that may be described as a branch concern of the best society; a half-blood relation; a mixture of the elements that have been sifted out of the upper aristocracy and of the parvenus from below, who find that they can be reciprocally useful; a circle in which almost every man is a baron, and every woman, without exception, is a baroness. Its members are for the most part poor, but refined beyond expression. The mothers scold their children in bad French and talk to their friends in fashionable slang; they give parties, at which there is nothing to eat–but the family plate is displayed, and where the company always consists of the same old bachelors who dye their hair and know the Almanack de Gotha by heart.

And, to top it off, he comes to Rome not only in the company of his “onion” baroness mother, but also that of his sister Zenaide–Zinka for short–a stunningly beautiful but naive girl. Soon after their arrival, the charming Count Sempaly, Sterzl’s bureaucratic subordinate but social superior, dashes off a mocking sketch of Sterzl as an auctioneer, holding up a beautiful doll–Zinka–before a crowd of crowned heads: “Mademoiselle Sterzl, going–going–gone–!” Sempaly’s caricature delights his salon, but when he meets Zinka in person, he quickly discovers she is no social climber but a genuine innocent, tender and lovely.

Sempaly becomes entranced by Zinka and soon he is paying call upon her and accompanying her on carriage rides. She, in turn, falls completely for his charms.

There is, of course, a big problem with all this. For Sempaly to marry Zinka would be to stoop far below his standing. Nor is her innocence sufficient to overcome the resistance of the rest of the Austrian set–particularly after the arrival of his well-placed cousins, the Jatinsky sisters, who consider Zinka little more than a rube. And there is the matter of Sempaly’s massive gambling debts, which only his very conservative brother can pay.

Still, he continues to pay court. The truth is that he is genuinely attracted to Zinka–but he is also utterly captive to the perceptions of his social peers and betters. Schubin takes critical weight of his character:

His behavior to her was that of a man who is perfectly clear as to his own intentions but who for some reason is not immediately free to sue for the hand of a girl whom in his heart of hearts he already regards as his own. What did he mean by all this? What was he thinking? I believe absolutely nothing. He went with the tide. There are many men like him, selfish, luxurious natures who swim with the stream of life and never attempt to steer; they have for the most part happy tempers, they are content with any harbor so long as they reach it without effort or damage, and if in their passive course they run down any one else they exclaim with their usual amiable politeness: “Oh, I beg your pardon!” and are quite satisfied that the mishap was due to fate and not to any fault of theirs.

Finally, one warm evening at a cotillion, he takes Zinka for a walk in the garden and tries to have his cake and eat it, too. He proposes to her–but demands her promise to keep it a secret until his debts are repaid and his older brother departed. Unfortunately, someone else sees them depart the ballroom and places a suggestive item in a local society column: Will Mademoiselle S___l “earn her reward in the form of a coronet?” The column, Schubin observes was “abused and condemned by everybody, covertly maintained by several, and read by most.”

Sterzl is infuriated, especially when Sempaly fails to register any outrage or acknowledge any responsibility for his actions–indeed, fails even to see Zinka for several days afterward. Sempaly uses his brother’s visit as an excuse: “He was utterly miserable, but this did not prevent him from allowing his good-natured senior to pay his enormous debts, nor–in order to propitiate him–from paying specious attention to his cousins.”

In defense of his sister’s honor, Sterzl challenges Sempaly to a duel. He only learns afterward of the engagement, but in keeping with his character, cannot reverse course and call things off. In swords as in society, sophistication tops earnestness every time, and Sterzl is carried off with a fatal wound.

Aloisia Kirschner, AKA Ossip Schubin, at the time of the publication of "Own Our Set"True love does win out in the end–but in Zinka’s case the winner is Count Truyn, the quiet, distinguished widower who has remained loyal to Sterzl and Zinka throughout. And Sempaly drifts ever higher in the estimation of Austrian society, wistfully recalling his courtship.

I am no expert on Jane Austen, but Our Own Set struck me as a work very much in the spirit of her work: wise, comic, hyper-attuned to the subtleties of social hierarchies, and full of the business of love and courtship. Particularly given that Ossip Schubin was the pen-name of one Aloisia Kirschner, a woman of Austrian-Slovak origins. Her father was an Austrian noble and she was raised in Prague and in a castle in the Bohemian countryside. The marriage ended, however, in circumstances that are not clear, and Kirschner, her mother, and sister began a nomadic life among the expatriate Austrian societies in Rome, Paris, Geneva, and Brussels.

Early on in their exile, Kirschner began writing fiction, and her mother sent off a piece of hers to an Austrian publisher, who responded enthusiastically, demanding more. She quickly pulled some material into a novel, Ehre, which was published in 1882, when Kirschner was 28. She took Ossip Schubin as a pen-name–Ossip being the Slovak form of Joseph and Schubin from Helena, a lesser-known novel by Turgenev, whom she had met in Paris. A reviewer wrote authoritatively, “Whoever Ossip Schubin may be–we are sure that he can no longer be a young man!” The book sold well and her mother pressed her to write more.

Our Own Set, published in 1884, was her third novel. It was the first to be translated into English and gain attention with English readers. One reviewer offered a somewhat left-handed compliment in assessing the book as “rather more dainty in touch than is usual in German fiction,” while another rated Clara Bell’s translation as “one of the best” of contemporary European writing of the time. An anonymous reviewer in The Critic wrote,

Its interest lies hardly in the story, though the story contains a little plot not unsuccessfully put together and told, but in the character-drawing, and in the author’s terse, bright epigrams, which have the pleasant keenness of one whose gentle and transparent cynicism is not his least attractive quality…. There is not a page that does not hold one with a keen sense of enjoyment, and a certain delicacy running through all the brilliancy justifies one in a pleasure not exhausted by a single reading.

Kirschner went on to publish at least seventeen more novels as Ossip Schubin between 1884 and 1910, but her production appears to have fallen off after that, and her popular and critical recognition–in Germany and Austria as well as abroad–soon followed. Her entry in the German-language version of Wikipedia suggests this had to do with her being Jewish and the influence of National Socialism on literary historians of the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly her English-language readership suffered somewhat as a consequence of the First World War. In the academic world, Schubin’s work has been forgotten for the most part. She has a short entry in the Oxford Companion to German Literature, but nothing in Women Writers of Germany, Austria and Switzerland (Frederiksen), Women Writers of German-Speaking Countries (Frederiksen and Amestsbichler), or The Encyclopedia of German literature (Konzett), and only a passing mention in The Feminist Encyclopedia of German Literature (Eigler and Kord).

Aloisia Kirschner, AKA Ossip Schubin, in middle ageOne of the few texts I’ve been able to locate with any substantive material on Kirschner/Schubin, Wilma Iggers’ Women of Prague, includes a recollection by the poet Hedda Sauer that suggests another reason:

Ossip, led by an intelligent, but presumably autocratic mother, remained … somewhat of an enfant terrible all her life … Her human greatness lay in the fact that she easily made her peace with the vicissitudes of her material life. When the prosperity of her parental home broke down, Ossip and her sister Marie–in a life of hard work–again created an existence for themselves which seemed pleasant to them … in hotels and in rented little castles, with coachmen and servants.

Over-production may have much to do with it. As early as 1893, one English reviewer commented on “the inferiority of Ossip Schubin’s later tales, written as it would seem too hastily, under the pressure of a sudden popularity…. It is unfortunate that a novelist of such marked ability should yield to the temptation to strain and hackney emotional effects.”

Kirschner survived for over twenty years after the last of her books was published, dying in 1934 at the age of eighty. Iggers quotes a sad letter from late in her life that gives a sense of how dependent she had become on the wealth and fame she had gained from her writing:

Having outlived one’s time is a miserable state … Where is the Ossip Schubin whom everybody wanted to know, beginning with Austrian archduchesses and Russian Grand Princesses? … like many has-beens I have been sent from the ‘belle étage’ to the attic … sometimes when I lie down for my afternoon nap, I think it would be nice not to wake up. At other times I would like to throw myself at the inkwell and put down the many things which still bubble inside of me. Then I laugh at myself. In the present jazzy belles lettres there is no room for me any more.”

Around a dozen of Ossip Schubin’s novels are available free online through Google or the Internet Archive. Perhaps not all are truly worthy of rediscovery, but I can highly recommend Our Own Set and intended to check out Gloria Victis, which is something of a sequel, taking up with Count Truyn and Zinka in Paris after their marriage. Asbeïn, from the life of a virtuoso and its sequel, Boris Lensky, which deal with the career of a composer and musical virtuoso, were also considered–at the time, at least–as two of her better works.

Our Own Set, by Ossip Schubin (pen name of Aloisia Kirschner), translated by Clara Bell
New York City: W. S. Gottsberger, 1884

The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, by Mignon McLaughlin

No one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved.

Mignon McLaughlin opened her first book of aphorisms, The Neurotic’s Notebook, with this succinct symmetrical line that hits the reader like a hand grenade.

Mignon "Mike" McLaughlin, author of 'The Neurotic's Notebooks'A book of aphorisms is among the most perishable of publications. It’s too small to command any attention on the bookshelf, too atomic in composition to be considered as a complete work, too light to carry any critical weight. The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, published in 1981, collects McLaughlin’s 1963 book and its 1966 successor, The Second Neurotic’s Notebook, in one volume–of average size because the text is in large print–yet of the three books I can locate just 25 used copies in total available for sale online. Leaves pressed into books survive better than that.

Each notebook is divided into ten identical chapters, each collecting roughly 50 to 60 statements related to topics such as “Love and Marriage,” “Men and Women,” “Getting and Spending,” “God and the Devil,” and my favorite, “The General Orneriness of Things.” Although both put together amount to no more words than Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I doubt anyone could consume them in one sitting if even one in ten statements is given serious consideration. Yet I wouldn’t class it as a good bathroom read, because the truth in more than a few of these aphorisms is pretty grim: “Don’t look for God where He is needed most; if you didn’t bring Him there, He isn’t there.”

Cover of 'The Complete Neurotic's Notebook'Despite the titles, the tone of the books, if one can say a collection of sayings has a tone, is not particularly neurotic. McLaughlin had worked as the managing editor of Glamour magazine, had co-written a Broadway play, Gayden, with her husband, the novelist Robert McLaughlin, and was the mother of two teen-age boys at the time the books were published. There is a strong air of experience and authority, not neurosis, in many of them. Time’s review of the first notebook was titled, “With Dash & Bitters,” and observed that, “McLaughlin’s brand of bitterness is more Angostura than Angst.” Even “bitterness” seems to me off the mark. Her outlook is hardly rosy, but neither is it yellowed with the acidic cynicism of Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary.

More than a few even sound a little like they were first said to McLaughlin’s own sons:

Don’t be yourself–be someone a little nicer.

If it came true, it wasn’t much of a dream.

A car is useless in New York, essential everywhere else. The same with good manners.

It is always safe to tell people that they’re looking wonderful.

Cash is the one gift everyone despises and no one turns down.

It’s easy enough to get along with a loved and loving child–at least till you try to get him to do something.

I suppose one of the reasons that such little books of little sayings get such little respect in a critical sense is that there isn’t much you can say about them. There is no such thing as plot, characterization, structure, themes or symbolism. There are just these sayings, and what can one do but repeat the ones that seem most penetrating, apt or funny. Such as,

Women are good listeners, but it’s a waste of time telling your troubles to a man unless there’s something specific you want him to do.

There. I saved you the trouble of having to read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

When I pick up The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, what usually strikes me most is the wisdom behind so many of its lines:

It does not undo harm to acknowledge that we have done it; but it undoes us not to acknowledge it.

Every group feels strong once it has found a scapegoat.

Everybody can write; writers can’t do anything else.

The only courage that matters is the kind that gets you from one moment to the next.

When threatened, the first thing a democracy gives up is democracy.

If the second marriage really succeeds, the first one didn’t really fail.

It’s not surprising a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times wrote of McLaughlin’s aphorisms, “… you have the feeling they eliminate the need for all five feet of Dr. Harvard’s shelf of books.”

McLaughlin and her husband retired to Florida in the 1970s, where she died in 1983, just a year or so after The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook was published. Copies of the book now command as much as $350, but you can find a number of collected sayings from the book online:

The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, by Mignon McLaughlin
Indianapolis, Indiana: Castle Books, 1981

A Collection of Reader Recommendations

A number of readers have written in the last months to offer their own recommendations of neglected books and authors, so I will take this chance to gather them up into a single post.

These Lovers Fled Away, by Howard Spring

Allen Johnson, Jr. wrote, “I commend to you the pastoral novels of Howard Spring (These Lovers Fled Away is probably the best). Set in Cornwall England in the early 1900s and usually written in the first person, Spring’s novels convey with great clarity the beauties of Southwest England and the hearts and minds of those who watched those beauties being eroded by machines and war.”

He added, “My own novel, My Brother’s Story, was published by a small press that immediately went out of business. It came out as a young adult novel but is enjoyed by all ages. It is available as a free download author-read audio book at”

Howard Spring was one of the most successful middlebrow English novelists of the mid-20th century. A number of his stories have been adapted as successful television mini-series, most notably My Son, My Son and Fame is the Spur. Earlier this year, novelist Tim Stretton compared with A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book in his Acquired Taste blog and gave Spring a slight edge. A few minutes spent Googling Spring’s name soon turns up more than a few readers still enthusiastic for Spring’s gift for characterisation and story-telling.

In Praise of Shadows, by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

Painter Benjamin Varney, who also writes the Bonelab blog, recommended this slim volume by Tanizaki, best known for the novel The Makioka Sisters: “my understanding of the book is that it is the product of a life times’ work. that tanizaki is giving the world his poetic vision of japan distilled: finding vision of its own within a (vernacular) history of japanese spirit and values. to call it asthetics does not do it justice & it is resistent to most categories, it works best as an explication of a complex philosophy, as flawed and as personal as any. it’s a short book read it.”

In the book, Tanizaki meditates upon the blend of aesthetics and spirituality known as Wabi Sabi, an untranslatable term that treats the things of this world as “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.” Zen gardens are perhaps the best known examples of this sensibility, but it pervades much of traditional Japanese culture, from the design of temples to the rituals of the tea ceremony. Tanizaki believed it was a culture that found “beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing another creates.”

Cover of 'The Vienna Girl'

Vienna Girl and The Water Castle, by Ingeborg Lauterstein

Kathy wrote to recommend these two novels by Lauterstein: “It occurs to me that you might be interested in taking a look at ‘The Water Castle’ and ‘Vienna Girl’ two novels which follow a young Austrian girl through WWII–they have a strange magical realist cast and I found them absorbing and quite outside the normal type of stories of this period.”

Lauterstein, who was born in Austria and studied art with Oscar Kokoschka, emigrated to the U.S. and attended the legendary Black Mountain College. There, influenced by the poet Charles Olson and the novelist Caroline Gordon, she switched from art to fiction and began work on the two books. Marriage and family interrupted her work, and the books were not published until nearly thirty years later–The Water Castle in 1981 and Vienna Girl in 1986. Although both were praised in reviews–the New York Times’ reviewer called Vienna Girl “an engrossing story of people in radical transition” and wrote that Lauterstein “transcends pedestrian historical fiction and eschews simplification about the holocaust”–they quickly slipped out of print.

Lauterstein recently republished the books under her own imprint, along with a third novel, Shoreland, so all three are now easily available online.

Winter in the Hills, by John Wain

From Texas, Mary Jo Powell wrote to describe her rediscovery of the works of John Wain: “I can’t remember what awoke my interest in John Wain but I have now read five of his books and am looking for others on the usual sites. As best I can tell his work is only available on used book sites these days. He is not an experimental writer but is concerned with how an individual opposes the forces of standardization in regular life. Hurry On Down–usually called the first Angry Young Man book– and his biography of Samuel Johnson are the books you are most likely to be able to find (in used book stores and sites) these days. I haven’t read the biography and I found HOD all right but much prefer the books in his Oxford trilogy [Where the Rivers Meet (1988); Comedies (1990); and Hungry Generations (1994)] and one set in Wales: Winter in the Hills. His protagonist is always randy and also looking for a way to eke out a living without giving up his soul. If you Google his name, you will be asked if you aren’t looking for John Wayne, although you will be offered some sites to the author.”

Wain, who died in 1995, has certainly fared less well than his contemporaries, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. Professor Krishna Kumar has turned his thesis on Wain’s novels into a website, and earlier this decade, an independent publishing house named after one of Wain’s novels, Smaller Sky, brought several of his books briefly back into print. Winter in the Hills, considered his best novel, is about an English linguist who travels to a remote Welsh village to study the language and gradually finds his way into a very tightly-knit community.

Finnley Wren, by Philip Wylie

Joe Kenney asked, “Have you read anything by Philip Wylie? I’m halfway through his 1934 Finnley Wren, and I like it a lot. It’s very modern, sort of a Tristram Shandy/Swift/Ulysses sort of thing. Also, it has a definite Vonnegut feel.”

Wren is a rambling dialogue between a novelist named Philip Wylie and a character named Finnley Wren over the course of two nights in a Manhattan bar. Wylie called it “a novel in a few manner,” but had it been published forty years later, it would have been called “experimental fiction.” At the time of its publication, it did receive a fair amount of notice and acclaim, particularly for its innovations. Mary McCarthy wrote that “you will find coined words, technical words, archaic words heaped upon each other with fine prodigality.” An older reviewer, William Rose Benet, was less enthusiastic: “”Mr. Wylie can write. There is no doubt about that. After he gets through his sophomore year in letters, he may quite possibly do a novel ‘as is’ a novel.” It’s said that Wylie was so unhappy with the book’s reception that he abandoned experimentation in favor of more conventional novels and short stories.

As always, your suggestions are welcome and will be passed along for the consideration of other lovers of the worthy but little-known.

I Travel by Train, by Rollo Walter Brown

Heading for a Train, from "I Travel by Train"In 1939, Rollo Walter Brown was 59, a former Harvard professor of literature, a popular lecturer, and a dangerous man. In I Travel by Train, he recalls some of his many trips across the United States through the depths of the Depression. His work as a lecturer on literature, politics, and history took him to all corners of the country, from San Francisco to New Orleans and Atlanta, from the industrial towns of Michigan and Ohio to the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and north Texas. Wherever he went, he made a point of venturing out and trying to understand what was going on and why.

On more than a few of these trips, he seems to have found himself in conversation with some businessman, industrialist, clergyman, or other establishment figure. As Brown recounts it, at some point in each of these exchanges, he found himself accused of being a trouble-maker:

The other four smoked and looked toward the floor out in the center of the room, but their spokesman squinted at me, turned his cigar over in his mouth a time or two, and then demanded: “Say, are you a socialist?”

“Why? Does a man who believes that people ought not to starve have to be a socialist?”

“Well,” and he squinted his eyes and the whole of his big face into deeper lines as if he were trying to think and to be amiable at the same time, “it always looks a little suspicious, doesn’t it?”

Three capitalists in the smoking car, from "I Travel by Train"

Brown was born in Crooksville, a small town in the coal country of Southwestern Ohio, and though he went on to teach at Harvard and serve on the board of the MacDowell Colony, his allegiance remained with the working poor, who were hit hardest by the Depression. In many ways, I Travel by Train is a travelogue of the Depression. Brown visited coal miners in Kentucky and Ohio, striking auto workers in Flint, and share-croppers in Georgia; tight-lipped Lutheran farmers in Iowa, and boisterous oil speculators in Norman, Oklahoma. And he ventured deep into the heart of Dust Bowl country several times, offering descriptions of the relentless dust storms that bring this hard time back to life:

When I reached over to turn on the light I had a sudden taste of earth that was not unlike the taste of clay I had known since youth. I sneezed. Then I noticed a strange furry feeling in my ears.

It was eight-thirty.

I walked in bare feet to the southeast window and looked out. In the east there was not so much as a place for the sun. The reddish-gray wall was everywhere, though apparently thinner, more nearly translucent, when one looked straight up toward a sky that might be clear. Off to the south there seemed to be a stream of water in a mist, with reddish flat-land just beyond. In the stiff wind, the clouds of thick dust and thinner dust followed one another slowly. At a moment when visibility was fairly high I saw that my stream was a low, white stucco building, and that the flatland was the long red roof of another just beyond.

I happened to put my hand to my head. My hair was as gritty as if I had been turning somersaults in a sandpile. I lifted a bare foot. The bottom of it was covered with clean-looking dust. I touched a protected window-sill. It was so thick with dust that I could have made a topographical map on it. I walked over to the dresser where a bell-boy had put a pitcher of ice-water when I arrived. Red dust had been sliding down the inner sides of the pitcher until there was a stretch of land entirely around the body of water.

Unemployment Line, from "I Travel by Train"
Even though I Travel by Train depicts a rough time and more than a few scenes of grim conditions, Brown’s outlook is fundamentally optimistic. He’s always pointing out someone refusing to give up, whether it’s a woman who works nine months a year on cotton farms to pay for one quarter’s study at a small Oklahoma college or Ben Cable, an Illinois farmer and sculptor, or a young Texas coed he catches a ride with:

The driver confessed that she herself had been awake all night, but for a different reason. Her fiance had been rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation. She had been unable to sleep at all. And now that she knew he was going to live, she did not want to sleep. It was so good to be alive that she had to stay awake and enjoy the experience. She had invented the necessity of this trip just to participate in the great brightness of the day and the easy rhythm of gliding over low rolling hills that afforded long vistas. In a world where so many people give the wrong reasons for everything they do, her profound joy and unaffected frankness were so startling and so beautiful that I sat in a kind of enraptured amazement and listened all the way.

I Travel by Train is also worth reading if you have any sense of nostalgia for the era of train travel, for every chapter offers a slice of the experience of Pullman coaches, smoking lounges, dining cars, and people jumbled together for long hours:

A man can put in a lot of time in a dining-car if he is experienced. He can order item by item as he eats, and then eat very slowly, with full pauses now and then to read two or three consecutive pages in some interesting book, and with other pauses for the passing landscape. So for an hour and a half I sat and ate lettuce salad, and belated blueberry pie, and ice-cream, and read a little, and reordered coffee that was hot, and looked out at the sea, and heard, without trying, the conversation of the two youths at the other side of the table who professed ardently to believe that their prep school had more class than either Groton or St. Mark’s.

One of them had just bought a yacht for which he had paid more than I in an entire lifetime had ever earned or at least had ever received. He felt sure that his father would be able to stampede somebody into buying several blocks of stock at a good fat advance and by so doing pay for the boat without any drain whatever upon the established treasury.

Back in the sleeping-car I grew weary of the rhythmic jungle cries, and decided to seek out a place in the observation-car. I have made the test through a dozen years, but I made it yet again with the same result: on these Boston-New York trains, as one walks through, there are more people reading books than on any other trains in the United States. It must be said also that there are more feet stuck out in the aisle, more people who glance up in disgust at you when you wish to put the aisle to other use.

Driving across Texas in the night, from "I Travel by Train"
I Travel by Train is available from the Internet Archive, but make sure to read it in a version that allows you to enjoy Grant Reynard’s illustrations as well.

Don’t bother to read the last chapter, “Panorama,” though. Brown launches into a poeto-philosophical fugue about America, progress, goodwill among good people, and other nonsense. I was reminded of the infamous last chapter of War and Peace, which has the same effect of having to sit through a lecture at the end of a memorable and delicious meal.

The Job Hunter

Cover of paperback edition of "The Job Hunter"Allen R. Dodd, Jr.’s The Job Hunter is the flip-side of “Mad Men”. This is what the world of 1960’s advertising–of the white-collar workplace in general–looks like from the outside looking in. Subtitled “The Diary of a ‘Lost’ Year,” The Job Hunter began as an article in the 30 November 1962 issue Printer’s Ink–at the time one of the leading trade journals of the advertising business. Although Dodd acknowledges in his introduction that his first-person narrator is “a composite figure, a typical white-collar job-seeker, created from a variety of sources,” he fully succeeds in creating a believable character from what could easily be a stereotype of one of John Cheever’s middle-aged train-catching commuters.

“It’s going to be tough on the company, of course, but the last thing in the world we’d want to do is to stand in your way,” Dodd’s nameless narrator is told one July afternoon by one of his higher-ups in a mid-sized ad firm. And so he is evicted from the world of the working and left to find another position, a process that takes him the better part of a year. Although many of the practical aspects of job-hunting have changed–Dodd’s narrator has little else besides the help wanted ads and a few business directories to go on–The Job Hunter is very effective in conveying the sense of being a social outcast that inevitably clings to a man without a job, particularly a white-collar professional.

Almost 50 years later, many Americans are still in the same position as Dodd’s job hunter, walking a tightrope on which the combined financial burden of a mortgage, two cars, middle-class social expectations, and limited savings mean just a few months without a job can send a family crashing to the ground. Dodd’s narrator has the added tension of being a child of the Great Depression, having grown up in a time when fathers went years without a job.

One of the biggest challenges Dodd’s man has to confront is that of having so much time to kill:

It all added up to two or perhaps three interviews a week, but I still rode the train almost every day. The cost was acutely painful now; handing a dollar through the ticket window was like pulling a hangnail off and for what? To prowl the train, looking for familiar faces; to nurse a beer at lunch time under Philippe’s contemptuous eye; to sit in the phone booth; to “drop in,” at calculated intervals, to offices where I had long since worn out my welcome; to eat a sandwich at the Automat. Each week I would pick an absolutely blank day–there would be at least a couple–and stay home to get “caught up on the paper work.” There wasn’t much of it–a letter or two to write, shots in the dark at some remote target; or, perhaps, still another reworking of my resume. I was saving the fare, but there was small consolation in that, for I was wasting the day. At home, there was not even the remote chance of running into someone “accidentally” and I was acutely conscious of the time ticking away. Perhaps, if I’d gone into the city, this could have been the day. Sometimes I was hit by a hunch so strong that I wanted to jump into the car and drive in–except that Janet had our one car and I couldn’t drive anyplace.

Although practical circumstances may differ now, The Job Hunter does, in the end, prove a useful handbook to the art of finding a white-collar job. While he suffers from regular bouts of depression, hopelessness, and loss of self-respect, Dodd’s narrator never stops working his connections, chasing the slightest leads, sending off hale letters about “batting around some ideas I have for your company,” and applying and applying and applying. In the end, he does find a job–not as well paid, outside the ad business, and requiring a move to New Jersey.

And his outlook on work has changed fundamentally:

Something seems to have happened to my ability to believe, for example. I like my job, but I have no faith in its permanence of the permanence of any relationship between a man and an organization. No matter how well I do, no matter hose close this relationship becomes, I still expect them to walk in one day and say, “The water cooler’s been fixed and you’re fired.”…. Common sense tells me this is foolish, but I still keep very little personal stuff in my desk. It could all be carried away in an attache case

The Job Hunter: The Diary of a “Lost” Year, by Allen R. Dodd, Jr.
New York City: McGraw-Hill, 1965

An Audiobook Landmark

I want to veer off topic for a moment to take note of a remarkable accomplishment that seems to have gone largely without notice.

I’ve been a big fan of audiobooks ever since I discovered they’re a great way to make short work of a long drive. Nowadays, thanks to the convenience of MP3 players, I tend to have one going for workouts and commutes all the time.

When scrolling through Audible’s new releases about a month ago, I was astonished to see listings for William Gaddis’ The Recognitions and JR. I would never have expected to see these titles released as audiobooks. Together, the two books represent nearly 1700 pages of challenging prose. Neither was written with the slightest expectation of ever becoming widely read, and it took Gaddis nearly twenty years after publishing JR to finally gain acceptance as one of the finest American writers of the second half of the 20th century. The Recognitions is a thick book of dense prose telling a story made up of many layers of symbolism and artifice, but it still generally conforms to the structure of a straight-forward narrative.

JR, on the other hand, is one continuous tapestry woven of snatches of conversation linked by brief descriptions of landscapes and cityscapes, with almost nothing in the way of landmarks to help the reader find his way through the story. And most of the conversations take place in schools, offices, train stations, restaurants that make the stateroom in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera seem sedate. Here’s a small sample:

–What’s that?
–The American flag, said Mister Pecci joining them, glittering at the cuff.
–Oh, the film. It’s on film, a resource film on ahm, natural resources, Mister Hyde’s company was kind enough to provide …
–What America is all about, said Hyde, standing away from the set with a proprietary air. –What we have to …
–To use, or rather utilize …
–like the iceberg, rising to a glittering peak above the surface. For like the iceberg, we see only a small fraction of modern industry. Hidden from our eyes is the vast …
–Gibbs? Is that you? Come in, come in.
–No, don’t let me disturb you …

I tried reading JR a few years after it was first published and had to give up short of 100 pages because I just couldn’t make sense of what was happening in the midst of all that chatter. And even though it’s now earned a place in the modern canon by way of publication as a Penguin Modern Classic, it remains one of the most intimidating texts of the last 50 years.

So, from curiosity alone I decided to make it my month’s selection and give it a listen.

Nick SullivanWithin the first fifteen minutes, I knew that this recording of JR was a work of audiobook narration in a class of its own, a tour-de-force of interpretive skills that represents a real landmark in this medium. Nick Sullivan, the reader, manages to create distinct and convincing voices for the characters in the book’s first scene–the two elderly Bast sisters, one a bit dotty and the other a bit catty, the lawyer Cohen–and to make sense of a collage of dialogue among three people, none of whom is really listening to the others and none of whom manages to finish any of their statements. Then he goes on to tackle a cast of at least ten different characters riccocheting in and out of a principal’s office, including phone calls and in-house televised classes playing on monitors. By the time the book is over, Sullivan has to deal with over 100 (123, to be precise) different characters and easily as many scenes. He manages to be convincing as everyone from an eighty year-old spinster to a twelve year-old boy, as well as lawyers, bankers, brokers, teachers, politicians, low lifes, secretaries, salesmen, artists and ad men.

And not only does Sullivan juggle this huge cast and the many abrupt leaps from scene to scene and viewpoint to viewpoint, but he brings out the powerful moods and emotions to be found in JR–the comedy, satire, anger, pathos, and pessimism. JR is a pretty bleak view of the corrupting effect of capitalism, but Gaddis filters that view through a manic style of comedy that operates at times at the speed of an old Fred Allen routine. This is a very funny book, and, at points, a deeply sad and affecting one. What I recalled from reading it as a somewhat incoherent barrage of words proves, through Sullivan’s interpretation, to be a rich and affecting story.

This is the audiobook equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. There won’t be another one like this for a long, long time.

I was so impressed by his work that I sent Nick Sullivan a fan email, which he promptly and generously responded to, offering some of his own reflections on the recording of JR and The Recognitions, which he agreed to let me quote for this post:

When I agreed to audition for a couple William Gaddis novels I had never heard of him but the two selections I auditioned with were beautifully written. I “booked” the books… and had no idea of the journey I was about to embark upon. The two books together took me nearly three months to complete.

I have never spent so much time preparing a book. You simply couldn’t record JR without carefully unraveling every scene, determining who was speaking solely by context, verbal tics, and other clues.

I’ll admit that at first I was annoyed at Gaddis for being so willfully obscure … but once I began to record it … well, the man was a genius. A bit of a pessimistic cynic with a dark vision of humanity, perhaps … but a genius. I don’t want to give anything away but I was surprised to find myself choked up a bit in several places. And many was the time I busted out laughing at a particular turn of phrase (usually from Jack Gibbs)….

In some respects Gaddis WAS neglected … at least initially. The Recognitions is an astonishing work as well and received very little consideration until after JR. (so maybe he could be considered a “previously-neglected-author-who-got-his-recogntion”). I’d love to hear his name come up when people talk about “uber-works” from Proust or Joyce.

Out of the 300-plus books I’ve recorded, these two are in a class by themselves. And something fans of Gaddis should know: Gaddis’ writing translates exceptionally well into an audio format.

I have to qualify Nick’s last statement: Gaddis’ writing translates exceptionally well into an audio format when read by a virtuoso.

I realize that audiobooks are not always considered much as media go, but Nick Sullivan’s work on these two polymathic novels deserves a standing ovation from anyone who appreciates the aural and mental pleasure of hearing a piece of fine writing read well. Gaddis’ books are probably still too obscure to gain an Audie nomination for his performances, but I encourage any of my readers who are fans of audiobooks to check out JR or The Recognitions and enjoy two of the finest examples of narrative art ever recorded. Bravo, Mr. Sullivan!

Max Schott

Up north, whenever I could get out of the store I’d go out on the desert–lots of big ranches up there–and ride after cattle. I liked it and it kept my blood running; but down here I didn’t even have a store to try to get out of. I’d sit in the cafe and rechew the newspapers, and when I couldn’t take it any more of that I’d go out and drive my pickup around on these desert roads, which are all straight as strings and numbered A to Z in one direction (running east to west) and 1 to 100 in the other, with every tenth one laid right along the section line; easy to find your way wherever you wanted to go, but I didn’t know where that was. After a couple of weeks I began to think, “Well, if this is heaven I’ve had enough of it,” and I decided to go out and shop for a horse.

Cover of "Up Where I Used to Live" by Max SchottMax Schott has published just four slim books–barely 700 pages put together–in the space of 30 years. Even at that, he’d probably claim Pascal’s shortcoming (“I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter”).

Though he taught for over thirty years as a member of the English faculty at the University of California Santa Barbara, horses, not words, were Schott’s first love. A Santa Barbara native, as a kid he dreamed of being a cowboy. When he was able to head out on his own, he headed for the high desert country, where he learned to train horses and started competing on the rodeo circuit. He lived the life of a modern cowpoke for close to fifteen years before deciding it wasn’t how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. So he headed back to Santa Barbara, got his degrees, earned a spot on the faculty, and settled in for a life of teaching and writing.

His first book, a collection of short stories published through much of the 1970s, Up Where I Used to Live, came out from the University of Illinois Press in 1978. It was part of the Illinois Short Fiction series, a noteworthy series that published some of the best short story writers of the 1970s and 1980s–Jean Thompson, Barry Targan, Kent Nelson, Andrew Fetler, H. E. Francis, among others. Schott’s stories drew on his experiences with horses and rodeos, but what drew me in when I first read them shortly after the book came out was his tone: spare, dry, self-effacing, a bit tired, and mildly amused at the world’s foolishness.

Most of Schott’s stories are told in the first person. His narrators come from the world of horses, ranches, and large, sparse, dry places. Schott’s diction perfectly matches his characters: simple, laconic, but with a sly grin. This is a world where the last thing a man’d want to be know as is talkative. Better to keep your mouth shut than to run on like a woman. Hell, even the women in Schott’s world are careful with their words. It’s a world where words are like water–something you don’t waste.

This might explain why Schott has published so little. But not why he’s barely known outside a lucky circle of loyal readers. After all, he had a shot at the big time when his first novel, Murphy’s Romance (1980), was adapted and filmed by Martin Ritt. Unfortunately for Schott, Ritt quickly disposed with most of the story and setting and created a largely new narrative from the remnants. Ritt kept the title, which might at least have pulled in a few unsuspecting readers for Schott’s book, but there was no movie tie-in reprint.

Cover of first US paperback edition of 'Murphy's Romance' by Max SchottMurphy’s Romance grew out of “The Old Flame,” one of the stories in Up Where I Used to Live. The title is actually a bit of fun on Schott’s part. Murphy Jones, a rancher retired to Pearblossom, California after some decades in eastern Oregon, briefly considers romancing Toni Wilson, a no-nonsense and very independent horse trainer, but ends up marrying her aunt Margaret instead. Though Murphy narrates the book, most of the story is about Toni’s turbulent engagement and marriage to Ben Webber, a rodeo vet in his fifties.

Schott carried the story forward–or backwards, rather–in his second novel, Ben. He takes us back to Ben Webber’s first marriage, which was even stormier, but this time we hear the story from Max, a young man probably close to Schott’s own age when he first got into the horse business. We’re still in the world of horses and tough men and women. Even when Ben gets drunk and throws up, Max notes that he has enough self control to do it “all neatly, like a man who knew how.” In the book, Max has to deal with the death of his mother from cancer, but fenced in by the likes of Ben and the other horse men, there’s little risk of getting into anything too sentimental. The only thing gooey in the book is a body accidentally tossed under a bronco’s hooves.

All three books manage to pack a great deal into very slim packages. “Just a chip, then, this little book–but gold all the way through,” Kirkus Reviews wrote of Murphy’s Romance, and the same could be said of Up Where I Used to Live and Ben. Throughout all his fiction, Schott creates remarkably rich and subtle characterizations with the slightest of strokes. The art is all in making it seem completely artless. If he’d lived in Japan he would probably have become a Zen master.

His most recent book, Keeping Warm: Essays and Stories, published in 2004 by the Santa Barbara-based John Daniel and Company, collects short pieces from magazines and newspapers published over the course of the last thirty years. His most intimate piece in the book, “Diary About My Father,” collects reflections on his father’s life and Schott’s relationship with him, and reveals that that same spare, understated voice heard throughout his fiction is Schott’s own:

He died two years ago today. At about two in the morning, so that to us it seemed like the night of the day before–which was five years to the day after Mom died.

After being ill for how long, fifty years? Sixty? She slipped away so easily.

A few years ago, if someone had said to me, “He behaved towards her like a saint,” I would’ve said, or wanted to say, “Yes, but I don’t like saints.” But now it seems to me that the truth is much simpler. No saint, but a man in a situation not of his own making, he did as well as he could.

I think most of Schott’s horsemen would be happy to have that last sentence for their epitaphs.

We might not see another book from Schott, who’s now in his late seventies. But any of the ones he’s already written will do as well as any could to convey his uniquely Western voice and outlook. Forget the movie of “Murphy’s Romance”–do yourself a favor and find the book instead.

The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe N. Salaman

Cover of 'The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe N. Salaman'

The people were famished; to sow their usual crops, was but to invite their destruction. Every seed crop, be it oats or barley, rye or wheat, might be trampled over and ruined in a day; if it escaped that hazard, the garnered harvest might be raided or burnt overnight. The vegetable crops, cabbage and parsnip, were no less vulnerable, at best they were but auxiliary foods, and there was never much of either. It was under such conditions that the potato made its entry into Ireland. Its greedy acceptance by the people was no mere accident, for it satisfied their needs as efficiently as it symbolized their helpless destruction….

In the potato, the weary and harassed cultivator had to his hand a food which was easier to prepare than any of which he had had experience; one which would feed him, his children and his livestock, out of the same cauldron, cooked on his open hearth of burning turves. There was, I believe, a still greater advantage which it offered: the potato could both be cultivated and stored in a manner which might outwit the spirit of destruction, and the malevolence of his enemy.

Weighing it at nearly 700 pages, Redcliffe Salaman’s The History and Social Influence of the Potato, first published in 1949 and updated with corrections and an introduction by J. G. Hawkes in 1985, is truly, as one reviewer put it, “the Epic of the potato.” Salaman, a Fellow of the Royal Society who ran a botanical research center near Cambridge for decades, put a life’s worth of passion for his subject into this polymathic book. Published when Salaman was seventy-five, it was his only book intended for other than an audience of fellow scientists.

Although I doubt that Salaman was aware of their work as he was writing his book, it represents one of the earliest substantial examples of the multi-dimensional approaches to history advocated by the Annales School and its proponents such as Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel. Its pages examine the potato from the standpoint of many different disciplines: archaeology, botany, economics, folklore, religion, cuisine, politics, agronomy, and art–with history providing the narrative spine of his account. And I am sure that more than of the few writers who have attempted similar broad studies of narrow subjects, particularly foodstuffs–such as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt, Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, and Sophie and Michael Coe’s The True History of Chocolate–have taken a lesson or two from it. Larry Zuckerman, author of The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World, and John Reader, who published Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent in 2009 certainly did. Indeed one reviewer of Reader’s book commented that it cites Salaman “so frequently, and leans on Salaman’s research so heavily, that it is sometimes difficult to imagine why he felt the need to write his own book on the subject at all.”

While, as Hawkes acknowledges in his introduction, many specific conclusions reached by Salaman in the course of his survey have been disproved by subsequent research, The History and Social Influence of the Potato remains, after sixty years, a work that surrounds its subject so comprehensively that there is no way for others to launch an assault on the subject without encountering it in one way or another.

Wait for Mrs. Willard, by Dorothy Langley

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Wait for Mrs. Willard'After enjoying Dorothy Langley’s third novel, Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, I was pleased to find that her first, Wait for Mrs. Willard is available as a free text on the Internet Archive. I quickly downloaded a copy and read it a few days ago on my Nook.

In many ways the two novels form a matched set. In Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, a weak man with a rich imagination finds refuge from an unhappy marriage in fantasies that include conversations with God. In Wait for Mrs. Willard, a gentle woman searches for ways to escape her husband’s stifling controls upon her life. Henry Bremble finds himself constantly on trial for his failings with his wife, Amelia, and her mother as judge and jury. Edith Willard’s husband, Charles, thinks so little of her judgment that Charles refuses to allow her to keep her own library card for fear of the fines she might incur from overdue books. But Bremble does at least acknowledge that while Amelia’s efforts towards her various charitable causes lacked empathy, they were usually successful. Charles Willard is nothing but a pusillanimous petty tyrant.

When he loses his job as a professor of archaeology at the start of the Depression, Charles’ response is to retire to his bedroom. His self-absorbed despair gradually drains Edith’s will to fight for the family:

Mrs. Willard had formed a bleak habit of making a daily definite report of the state of the larder to Charles, who groaned. It had become a dreary routine; at five o’clock in the afternoon Mrs. Willard would appear at his bedroom door and announce that there was only enough food left for six days, or five days, or four days; Charles would groan, and Mrs. Willard would go down to the kitchen to cook dinner. She did not know what her purpose was in pursuing this course; she no longer really hoped to rouse him. Her mind was like a sailing vessel becalmed for years in some impossible sea and beginning to decay.

Finally, there comes a day when there is nothing left for supper and the children will go to bed hungry. While Charles hibernates in self-pity, Edith rouses herself and manages to sell an encyclopedia to an equally destitute family. It’s a hauntingly memorable scene, as Edith struggles between her awareness that the family cannot afford the book and her will to see her children fed.

Charles and Edith eventually manage to find jobs and maintain a household, but Charles concedes nothing to Edith’s ability to keep the family afloat. Indeed, he deeply resents the short time he has to look after their two children before she returns from work. One evening, she finds him raging at them for bouncing on a bed and she resolves to take them and leave Charles for good the next day. As she walks with the children to the elevated station the next day, however, she is surprised to find them disraught: “Poor Daddy!,” they wail, and her plan is soon aborted.

As difficult as Charles alone is, when he combines forces with his Aunt Gertrude, who comes to live with them, the atmosphere becomes almost unbearable:

She was a firmly corseted fat woman with a paradoxically hatchetlike face surmounting a medley of graduated chins. She greeted Charles with warmth, Mrs. Willard with resignation, and the children with open dislike. Her eyes, bright, black, and penetrating, darted like roaches toward the corners of the baseboard in whatever room she entered. Mrs. Willard, a casual housekeeper, told herself with dismal conviction that within three days Aunt Gertrude would be down on her knees digging at these comers with a hairpin and displaying the results to Charles.

This was a too-conservative estimate. Within twenty-four hours Mrs. Schnabel had virtually taken over the house-keeping. She lived from morning to night with a dusting cloth in her hand, and Mrs. Willard and the children were literally hounded from room to room as she urged them out of the way of her passionate cleansings.

Edith suppresses her revulsion for the sake of the children, but after years of bearing with Charles’ and Gertrude’s judgment and belittling (compounded when her supervisor, Miss Motherhead, turns out to be a good friend of Gertrude’s), her patience snaps one day and she decides to run away, taking the first bus out of Chicago.

The bus is involved in a serious accident before it even reaches the city limits, though, and Charles appears at her bedside full of tender concern:

“Not only have you forced me into the dishonor of misrepresenting the facts to your employers and to my own children,” continued Charles, “not only have you flouted my authority as head of the family by proposing to go on a trip without consulting me; not only have you insulted me as your husband, forgotten your duty to your home and your children, humiliated me before Aunt Gertrude, and made yourself ridiculous by flying off the handle like a half-baked schoolgirl, but you have actually been guilty of a criminal act. You took money that did not belong to you, money from our common fund, which should have been sacred to you. Do you know what that is called, my dear?” He smiled, showing his teeth. “That is called theft. Theft.”

Fortunately, Edith is rescued by doctor’s orders that she spent two months recuperating at a small resort in the Indiana dunes. Charles confines himself to an occasion nasty letter, and she soon responds to the fresh air, hearty food, and freedom. And, most conveniently, to the care of Dr. Alec Maclane, who shows an unusual level of interest in her case.

At this point, Wait for Mrs. Willard falls into a fairly familiar formula of two wounded souls finding solace in the sanctuary of a place apart from their everyday lives (viz. the 1975 film “A Brief Vacation”, among others). Edith wins the love and acceptance she has long deserved and Charles, we are left to assume, carries on with Aunt Gertrude in smug superiority until they both crawl up their rears and die.

Despite its final surrender to a predictable happy ending, Wait for Mrs. Willard is, overall, a far better-crafted and successful work than Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. While it’s pleasant to watch as Edith and Dr. Maclane fall in love, the story is much more interesting and entertaining in the trials and miseries of the first two-thirds of the book. Langley pulls out her best adjectives to deal with Charles, Gertrude, and other monsters such as Miss Motherhead (who, “… like some slit-lidded saurian of the wild, oozed up over the edges of her littered desk and across to some other desk, bearing disaster and swollen with punctual venom”).

A masterpiece Wait for Mrs. Willard is not. A well-written, quick-reading, and enjoyable piece blending drama and comedy without overdoing either, it certainly is, and considering its going price if you download it from the Internet Archive–free–an excellent bargain.

Find a Copy

Wait for Mrs. Willard, by Dorothy Langley
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1944

Morale, by John Baynes

“This book is an attempt to fill a gap,” John Baynes writes in his introduction to Morale, his classic study of the 2nd Scottish Rifles in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. “In all the mass of histories, studies, memoirs, biographies and novels which have been published about the First World War little has been done to investigate the most interesting field of all–the morale of the front-line soldier.”

Cover of first UK edition of 'Morale" by John BaynesHad Baynes attempted a sweeping study of morale in general, or even morale in combat, or even of morale in combat on the Western Front, I doubt that anyone would remember his book. But Baynes recognized early on that “the subject is too big”:

I decided that I would rather stick to something small and try to get near the truth, and being a Regular serving officer in the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) I naturally chose to study my own Regiment. I decided to look at one battalion in one battle–the 2nd Battalion at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, 9 to 15 March 1915. This battalion, which always referred to itself as the 2nd Scottish Rifles and did not normally use the name Cameronians, started the battle about nine hundred strong on 9 March. Six days later it came out of action. By this time the hundred and fifty men left were commanded by the sole surviving officer, a 2nd Lieutenant.

In approaching his subject, Baynes is guided by Edmund Blunden’s admonition in his poem, “Victorians”: “… read first, and fully shape/The diagram of life which governed them.” The officers and other ranks of the 2nd Scottish Rifles, as he carefully pieces together the “diagram” of their life, are particular, not representative men. He begins by introducing us to the battalion as it stood, garrisoned on Malta, at the start of the war. It numbered about a thousand officers and men–large enough a unit to be self-sufficient by the standards of the day, small enough for there to be a strong level of familiarity among the members–fewer than thirty in total–of the officers’ mess, among the NCOs–roughly fifty–and among the men in each of the four companies.

The battalion was somewhat exception in that it came late for a Regular Army unit to the front, having spent some years in the relative isolation of Malta. The men averaged over five years’ service. The routines of garrison life–the day in, day out grind of inspection, drill, and firing practice–was certainly monotonous and unwelcoming to the imagination, but as Baynes shows, it was remarkably effective in reinforcing the men’s “bloody-mindedness”:

When using the term I do not mean a surly refusal to do what is ordered but a refusal to give way to conditions which might be expected to make a man sour. It has an element of rebellion in it, of course, but the rebelling is not so much against authority as against difficult circumstances. As things get worse the man with this quality becomes more determined to stick them out.

The battalion’s six days in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle put its bloody mindedness to an exceptional test. After marching up to the front trenches through the night of 9-10 March, it stood, waiting, for over two hours, until the artillery fell silent and the attack began. It was a classic example of the disastrous tactic of sending hundreds of men clambering over the top:

Almost at the same moment came another noise: the whip and crack of the enemy machine-guns opening up with deadly effect. From the intensity of their fire, and its accuracy, it was clear that the shelling had not been as effective as expected. Worse than its lack of effect on the enemy was the fact that it had scarcely touched the wire. Instead of being broken up, the wire and the thick hedge looked just the same as they had before the bombardment.

The attack began at 8:05 AM. By 9:30 AM, all but two officers were dead or wounded, and over thirty of the NCOs. Three hundred fifty or so of the other ranks were killed or wounded. They had managed to advance about a three hundred meters.

Further assaults during the day were able to secure the German’s front line of trenches, but progress stopped after that. By the afternoon of 12 March, General Haig, then commanding the First Army, issued orders to “push through regardless of loss, using reserves if required.” Unfortunately, the 2nd Scottish Rifles had no reserves by then, and as Baynes remarks, “From here the story of the battle becomes a sorry tale, except for the courage, willingness, and effort of the soldiers who tried to do the impossible.” On the night of 14-15 March, 2nd Lieutenant Somervail and one senior NCO led one hundred forty-three men back to their billets.

Baynes completes his account of the battle and his assessment of its significance (he calls it “a failure but not a waste” in that it demonstrated the combat integrity of the British forces in the first major offensive action after the stalemate of the previous fall) by page 91 of the book. Then the most interesting material begins.

The 2nd Scottish Rifles on parade in Malta in 1913.

Over the next seven chapters, he focuses on the battalion and the various factors that reinforced–or undermined–its ability to remain intact, on duty, and engaged in the battle for over four days after losing over three-fourths of its men. He describes the officers, who sat roughly half-way up the social and economic hierarchy of the Regular Army. They came from upper middle class families and good schools but not great wealth. They believed in sport and maintaining existing values and social distinctions. They were not bullies or martinets, however, and the worst thing one could say of a fellow officer was that he didn’t take care of his men.

The NCOs and other ranks came from poor working class areas in Glasgow and the surrounding Lanarkshire. The Army was generally considered a step up in the world:

One could almost say that for them the whole of their lives had been a conditioning for the trenches. As children they had learnt to live happily with so many of the things that made life at the front unbearable for those reared in gentler surrounding. Cold, ragged clothes, dirt, lice and fleas, bad food, hard beds, overcrowding, rats, ugly surroundings; these were nothing new to someone whose boyhood had been passed in a Glasgow slum.

Duty in the Army brought order and cleanliness to his life, a healthier diet, and regular exercise. The Army–particularly in the person of his Sergeant–was interested in him: “people cared whether he wore his uniform correctly, whether he progressed in his training, and whether he was a credit to the Regiment.” The Regiment, in fact, was, according to Baynes, “the quintessence of the morale of the pre-1914 Army.”

Discipline and drill were also significant factors. Maintaining a marksman’s rating was one of the few ways in which a private could make a little more money, and hours were spent every week in “pokey drill”–loading and unloading dummy rounds to increase firing speed. Many British Army regulars achieved such a rate of fire that the Germans believed their battalions were equipped with dozens of machine guns (they averaged two guns per battalion, in fact).

The strength of the class system prior to the war was another factor. The officers and men of the 2nd Scottish Rifles came from a world in which class structure and the inherent right of the more privileged to command those in the lower classes was accepted. Many writers have argued that the experience of combat on the Western Front, particularly the relentless years of futile “over the top” attacks, ultimately undermined this acceptance, leading to strikes and the rise of the Labour Party afterwards. But in the early days, when the battalion marched into its first battle, class was, Baynes argues, a greater factor in morale than religion, morals, or patriotism.

Since its first publication in 1967, Morale has come to be recognized as an essential text on its subject. Although only reprinted once, in 1987, you can find it cited in numerous articles in British, American, Canadian, French, and even Israeli military journals. To use it as a guide for dealing with the morale of combat troops in other situations, though, is, I think, a mistake. One could never–should never–attempt to reproduce the factors that enabled the 2nd Scottish Rifles to remain intact through devastating losses.

What makes Morale a book worth rediscovering is not its value as a source of instruction but its high merit as an attempt by one author to deeply understand his subject. Although examining the battalion’s morale provided Baynes with the motivation to undertake this book, I would argue that its greatest value is in offering an exceptional example of reconstructing, in Blunden’s words, “the diagram of life” which governed a particular group of men in a particular time and a particular situation. This is the kind of history that helps remind us that, as David McCullough puts it, people in that past “didn’t live in the past”: “They lived in the present. It is their present, not our present, and they don’t know how it’s going to come out. They weren’t just like we are because they lived in that very different time. You can’t understand them if you don’t understand how they perceived reality and you don’t understand that unless you understand the culture.” And for understanding the culture of the Regular British Army at the start of the First World War, I can recommend no book more highly than John Baynes’ Morale.

Morale: A Study of Men and Courage–The Second Scottish Rifles at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle 1915, by John Baynes
London: Cassell, 1967

Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, by Dorothy Langley

Henry Bremble has “been helplessly gardening ever since the day when, early in their marriage, he had learned to his astonishment from her lips that he adored it.” “Henry simply adores gardening,” his wife had declared to a neighbor, and that was that.

Mr. Bremble’s Buttons starts out as a fairly predictable portrait of a hen-pecked husband, complete with controlling wife and dismissive live-in mother-in-law (Mrs. Corey) and her nasty little dog (Queenie). He keeps the peace by keeping his thoughts to himself, doing crossword puzzles and word games, and occasionally admiring the collection of unusual buttons he hides in the bedroom. He lives much of his life “below the surface, whatever the surface was.” On the rare occasions when he does speak up, he usually regrets it:

Mr. Bremble, who talked as little as possible when they were present, was nevertheless impelled occasionally, sometimes by desperation, sometimes by mere civility, to say a few words on whatever subject occupied the group at the moment; and on each and every occasion, after he had done so, there was a silence during which the eyes of Queenie and Mrs. Corey dwelt upon his face, then sought each other with a dry surmise, then returned as if by clockwork to Mr. Bremble; and at the conclusion of another prolonged stare they sniffed.

But he has an even bigger secret than the button collection: God comes and talks with him, almost every night:

It was the one real mitigation of his lot that almost every night, after he had gone to bed, God came and sat with him. They did not usually talk much, but nearly every time, though the only sound in the room was Amelia’s gently whistling snore, Mr. Bremble went to sleep cradled in God’s love like a child held close in its mother’s arms.

Together, they attempt to understand the world’s problems. When Bremble reads about a child found in a closet, abused and abandoned, he asks why God allows it. “You don’t think I like this sort of thing, do you?,” God replies. God blames himself for letting Satan talk him into giving men and women free will then he created mankind: “Of course, I know now that it was just some more of his finagling. He knew that if I gave the idiots free will he’d be able to make plenty of use of it. But he sold Me on it; he sold Me. A bargain’s a bargain.” God offers no easy consolation for his companion, though. “It will be all right some day, for this child–and others?” Bremble asks. God gives him a stern look, then departs.

This story might have gone somewhere on its own, but Langley introduces several twists in an attempt to force Bremble to surface from his private fantasies. A young woman at his office, pregnant by a married man, asks for his help. A woman who matches his boyhood ideal–“a bright and different being, willowy yet heroic, flowerlike, mysterious, and indomitable”–moves into his neighborhood, and ends up providing a refuge for the wayward. He befriends a young girl who shows an appetite for reading and is enlisted into a good cause by an energetic pastor. His wife begins to wonder about his sanity and arranges for him to consult a psychiatrist.

It all becomes a bit too much like a game of last straw. When the inevitable collapse comes, Langley has only two choices: let Bremble escape all the constraints that have bound up his life, or destroy him. Having such a convenient device at hand throughout the book, should it be any surprise that she reaches for a Deus ex machina–literally?

Despite this weakness, Mr. Bremble’s Buttons is, overall, a light and entertaining read. Langley frequently highlights the limitations of the so-called ideals of his wife and her friends in the “League for Democracy” and other ladies’ clubs, as in this exchange about the purchase of score cards for an upcoming bridge game:

“And try to pick out nice ones, even if they do cost a little more. Something suggestive of democracy. Mrs. Cable had such pretty ones when the ladies met with her: children dancing around a Maypole, really charming.”

Mr. Bremble admitted that this was a charming idea. “How many of them were Negro children?” he inquired curiously after a moment.

Amelia stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

“You said something suggestive of ….”

Amelia compressed her lips. “Really, Henry, there are times when it seems to me you’re not quite bright.”

Dorothy Langley published three novels between 1944 and 1947: Wait for Mrs. Willard (1944), about a woman trying to escape from an oppressive marriage; Dark Medallion (1945), about a poor family in southern Missouri, which won a Friends of American Writers award as the best novel by a Midwestern writer; and Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. According to her biography in American Novelists of Today (1951), she was a mother of two who grew up in the Ozarks, lived in Chicago and worked on the editorial staff of several professional journals. She died in 1969 at the age of 65.

In 1982, Academy Chicago published Swamp Angel. According to the publisher’s press release, Swamp Angel was “originally accepted for publication by Simon & Schuster on condition it be heavily revised… It was so largely revised it became another book, Mr. Bramble’s Buttons [sic], with the original manuscript’s tone entirely changed and former central characters relegated to minor roles… This book is original manuscript rescued from oblivion and published for the first time … presents a fascinating picture of primitive rural Missouri society of 60 years ago in which everything (including) transcribed dialogue rings true.” I don’t have access to a copy of Swamp Angel to check its introduction by Helen Bugbee, but I suspect that the transformed book was Dark Medallion, not Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. “Swamp angels,” by the way, is Missouri slang for what most of the rest of the country calls “hillbillies.”

Find a Copy

Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, by Dorothy Langley
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1947

As I Remember Him: The Biography of R. S., by Hans Zinsser

Cover of first U. S. edition of "As I Remember Him"“Why in thunder should anyone want to write a biography of R. S.?” a friend asks the author of As I Remember Him: “[W]hen he died, the world had no unusual reasons to mourn him.” “R. S.,” as Zinsser never acknowledges in this book, is Zinsser himself. The initials stood for “Romantic Soul,” which is how he sometimes referred to himself.

As I Remember Him is one of the more unusual experiments in autobiography. The book is written in two voices: one of the unnamed author, the other of R. S. himself. The author sets R. S.’ material in context or comments–not always positively–upon it.

In the introduction, the author mentions The Education of Henry Adams as one of his inspirations, and there are a number of parallels between the two books. Both take a rather detached approach to the personal aspects of their stories: Adams writing of himself in the third person, Zinsser refusing to identify himself and framing his own words with those of the fictional “author.” Both are as much intellectual histories as accounts of life events–more so, one could argue. Both men omit mention of what others might consider some of the more dramatic and interesting moments in their lives. And both set the subject as a figure from a particular age and cultural dealing with a time of change and transition to a far different world. In Zinsser’s case,

I approached my task with modesty, therefore, hoping that I might acceptably convey in this study the portrait of a representative of that generation, now rapidly disappearing–like the T-model Ford–whose lives bridged the transition from horses to gasoline to electric bulbs, from Emerson and Longfellow to T. S. Eliot and Joyce, from stock companies to the movies and the radio, etc.–in short, from Victoria to Mrs. Windsor.

Zinsser was hardly more representative of his generation than Adams was of his. Born into a wealthy German-American family, he was privately tutored until college age and taken off on tours of the Continent by an elderly uncle. His life moved back and forth from a Manhattan brownstone mansion to a country house. All his life he loved to ride and participate in the Groton Hunts.

When the Spanish-American War broke out, he and several of his well-to-do friends ran off and enlisted in the Army. He served for two years but never saw combat. Of the time, Zinsser recalls little beyond a humorous story involving Teddy Roosevelt and a startled horse.

Zinsser tried studying painting after that, and then literature, and only somewhat accidentally became interested in–no, fascinated and then possessed by–science and medicine. He graduated with an M. D. from Columbia in 1903 and went to work as a practicing physician. He had to make do with the cast-offs of other Manhattan doctors, starting out with the poorest patients, turning out in the middle of the night for deliveries his better-off colleague could avoid. He soon discovered, though, that the laboratory rather than private practice was his forte, and in 1907, he joined the faculty at Columbia.

Zinsser quickly became one of the leading American researchers in the relatively new field of bacteriology, and his work let him to be selected by the Red Cross to travel to Serbia in 1915 to help deal with an epidemic of typhus there. Of his experiences in Serbia we are told anecdotes about a crazy night in a dilapidated country inn, an Eastern Orthodox bishop, and a charming Austro-Serbian character abruptly arrested and shot as a spy.

More telling, though is what he doesn’t tell the reader. This is about as much as we learn on his work in the field hospitals:

The work was trying on the nerves, since often, while I was doing an autopsy on a case still warm (it was desirable to perform these operations before secondary post-mortem invasion of bacteria had occurred), I could hear the families of other recent dead keening over the bodies on the farther side of a thin partition….

Less than two years later, he was recruited to serve as head of laboratories for the U. S. Army Expeditionary Force in France. His work on camp and hospital sanitation and disease prevention earned him the Distinguished Service Medal. And again one can debate whether his reticence is admirable or aggravating or both:

Of his military service, nineteen months were spend in France. Into these nineteen months were crowded the most stirring events of his life and his most intense emotions–elation, terror, compassion, admiration, disgust, and pride. But he utterly refused to discuss any of his experiences.

Hans Zinsser, 1930To offset such narrative ellipses, Zinsser offers little histories of typhus, syphilis, and other diseases he researched and deal with. These are not unwelcome–Zinsser’s classic text on epidemics, Rats, Lice and History–has never gone out of print since its first publication in 1935. But they’re second best as substitutes for first-hand observations–and comments such as “Into these nineteen months were crowded the most stirring events of his life” are third-rate writing.

Field research was clearly Zinsser’s great passion as a scientist. He traveled to Europe, China, Japan, and Africa to study diseases and bacteria in the midst of their most virulent outbreaks. In Mexico City he alternated between work in filthy alleys and sick wards and nights trying to control the poet Hart Crane’s benders. His work was ground-breaking but supportive: he was able to isolate a germ of typhus from which an effective vaccine was eventually derived, but others developed this into an affordable and usable treatment.

In 1938, he was diagnosed with leukemia, which was then incurable. He began writing this book in response. Although the disease must certainly have been painful and his death long in coming, Zinsser saw this in a positive light:

As his disease caught up with him, R. S. felt increasingly grateful for the fact that death was coming to him with due warning, and gradually…. [H]e was thankful that he had time to compose his spirit, and to spend a last year in affectionate and actually merry association with those dear to him.

Zinsser brings the reader back to the book’s premise at the very end:

… I knew that at the time of his death he was as thoroughly bewildered as any thoughtful individual of our time is bound to be.

All of which goes to prove that, as I pointed out in the first chapter, R. S. was really a quite ordinary person about whom it was hardly worth while to write a book.

Zinsser finished the book and was able to see it published before his death. The Book of the Month Club picked it as a featured title and it became a surprise best-seller–which is why it’s easy to find a copy for just a buck or two today. But it was never reprinted or reissued after this first release and quickly became forgotten. Although I was initially enthusiastic about the book, as the pages worn on, Zinsser’s choice to focus more on context and history and less on his own experiences and emotions grew increasingly frustrating. I think Clifton Fadiman’s review in the Saturday Review summed it up well: “…[N]o classic, but full of good things.”

Throughout his adult life, Zinsser was something of an amateur poet. A few of his poems were published in Saturday Review, The Atlantic and others, but his last sonnet has become something of a standard text for those suffering from terminal illnesses:

Now is death merciful. He calls me hence
Gently, with friendly soothing of my fears
Of ugly age and feeble impotence
And cruel disintegration of slow years.
Nor does he leap upon me unaware
Like some wild beast that hungers for its prey,
But gives me kindly warning to prepare:
Before I go, to kiss your tears away.

How sweet the summer! And the autumn shone
Late warmth within our hearts as in the sky,
Ripening rich harvests that our love has sown.
How good that ere the winter comes, I die!
Then, ageless, in your heart I’ll come to rest
Serene and proud, as when you loved me best.

Find a Copy

As I Remember Him: The Biography of R. S., by Hans Zinsser
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1940

The Art of Slow Reading, from The Guardian

Patrick Kingsley, “The art of slow reading,” The Guardian, Thursday, 15 July 2010

I missed my weekly late Friday afternoon ritual of scanning through Arts and Letters Daily and printing off 6-8 of its featured articles for weekend reading while I was on vacation, so I didn’t get to read Patrick Kingsley’s piece from mid-July until a few days ago. I wanted to take a moment to steer slightly off topic and offer my own response, because Kingsley touches on a couple of themes I find myself often thinking about:

      • The Internet’s impact on reading

      • The benefits of deep and narrow reading versus those of broad and shallow reading–or slow reading vs. skimming

If you’re reading this article in print, chances are you’ll only get through half of what I’ve written. And if you’re reading this online, you might not even finish a fifth. At least, those are the two verdicts from a pair of recent research projects – respectively, the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack survey, and analysis by Jakob Nielsen – which both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.

I can add my own experience as both consumer and producer to this evidence. This is the second website I’ve created: the first, which has nothing at all to do with books, went online in late 1996. And the data from both shows exactly the same trends. Setting aside robots, spiders, links to images incorporated in other sites’ pages and everything thing else that represents automated traffic rather than real people making real mouse clicks, 95 per cent or more of visitor spend a minute or less on the site. Of the rest, most click around a page or three, and a tiny but persistent number spend ten to thirty minutes perusing its contents in depth.

It makes perfect sense. Both sites deal with an esoteric subject and are intended to as an alternative resource, filling a few gaps in material otherwise substantially covered elsewhere. It doesn’t take much looking to find plenty of material aboutThe Red Badge of Courage, just to take an example–nearly as much as there is about the works of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. But for the foreseeable future, I’ve got the corner on stuff about the works Herbert Clyde Lewis or Isabel Paterson (aside from her libertarian tracts).

Which is something about one in a million people have the slightest interest in–and the emphasis is on slightest. But I’m a firm believer that a little thing done well serves, if nothing else, as grit in the machinery of our inevitable descent into entropy. And so I’m not surprised that a tiny, tiny, tiny speck of the trillions of link clicks in the Internet land on my sites, or that most flit off to another page in a heartbeat or two. It’s the one person every week or so who spends twenty minutes truly reading and discovering the sites who tells me this more than the world’s 12th largest ball of lint.

Nor am I surprised that these studies find reading of material on the Internet is more a matter of hopping quickly from lilypad to lilypad than of focused, patient concentration. Now that most of us have speedy connections, the marginal cost of clicking along to the next link is just a moment’s delay. And if the material proves unworthy of the click, just click on. It’s the world’s biggest and best salad bar and you don’t even have to waste the time to chew and swallow what you sample. Just spit it out and click on. There’s a new page, with new colors and different pictures and adifferent arrangement of material on screen. It appeals so directly to the wiring of our minds, bound as they are to sight as our primary sense, that the wonder is not that so much traffic merely skitters across the tops of pages, but that anyone manages the self-control to stop and resist the urge to click on.

So are we getting stupider? Is that what this is about? Sort of. According to The Shallows, a new book by technology sage Nicholas Carr, our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information. Round-the-clock news feeds leave us hyperlinking from one article to the next – without necessarily engaging fully with any of the content; our reading is frequently interrupted by the ping of the latest email; and we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.

I refuse to see this trend as a matter of “getting stupider.” Any father who’s been thoroughly humiliated on a video game by his ten year old son understands that it’s not a matter of smarter or dumber but of a shift from one type of intelligence to another. One could as easily argue that those of us who grew up in a low-speed analog world are the ones getting stupider. Twitter still baffles me, for example. Oh, I fully understand how it works. I just fail to understand why on God’s Earth anyone would use it.

Which means, of course, that I am out of the loop–out of the intelligence loop–when it comes to Twitter’s content, to its function as an element of a nervous system, if you will. I haven’t even got a ticket for that Cluetrain.


While I side with Darwin and believe that adaptation to its environment is a species’ greatest survival skill, I also believe that we have a tendency, at least in the U. S., to think that momentum carries us further than is the case. As Timothy Wilson shows in Strangers to Ourselves, when it comes to self-knowledge, we don’t know what we don’t know–but we’re finding out that it’s a whole bunch. So while some of us are Twittering into the future, we are still only a few steps from the cave in much of our unconsciously-driven behavior.

And our environment is not changing that quickly, either. Our culture still has strong roots going back thousands of years. Our institutions go back decades and centuries. And our knowledge is still deeply bound to materials, practices, and skills that cannot be mastered in a few clicks. I wouldn’t be too happy to learn that my surgeon earned his license by surfing through “Cardiology for Dummies.” There is a vast amount of information relevant to our world that offers almost nothing of value to a skimmer. I well remember highlighting sentences in my calculus of variations text in college that were grammatically correct and mathematically valid and utterly incomprehensible to a non-mathematician. I’m not sure I could even understand them now, thirty years later. There is no way to unlock material such as this aside from time and close attention.

What Malcolm Gladwell calls “the 10,000 hour rule” is just the latest rediscovery of something my mother, who grew up caring for ten brothers on a Kansas farm in the Depression used to say: “There’s no substitute for hard work.” Sticking to material that can be read quickly and lightly leaves merely proves the saying that a little learning is a dangerous thing. I heard a defense company executive recount recently that a senior NATO official had complained that a two-page paper the executive had written was “too long.” Relying exclusively on skimming as one’s way of acquiring knowledge is the intellectual equivalent of eating baby food–which is, essentially, pre-chewed food.

Real men chew their own food and real readers roll up their sleeves and dig in. As John Waters put in his recent book, Role Models, “You should never read just for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick ‘hard books.’ Ones you have to concentrate on while reading.” Or, as Charles Ives one retorted to an audience member who booed a difficult piece of modernist music by Carl Ruggles, “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”

I actually think we’re remarkably fortunate to be living in a time when both types of knowledge are accessible and relevant. In 1985, if I wanted to do something as simple as book an airline flight to another city, arrange for a rental car, and book a hotel room, I had two choices: ferret out copies of the OAG, a hotel register, Yellow Pages for the town, or some other rare and expensive information source–or turn the problem over to a travel agent. Travel agents had access to these vital resources and the specialist knowledge of how to use them. I probably traveled twenty times on business in 1985: I know just how time consuming and unpredictable this process was. Now, I can complete the same transaction myself in a few minutes and a couple dozen clicks. We are living in a time when both skimming and mining have their uses.

[Henry] Hitchings does agree that the internet is part of the problem. “It accustoms us to new ways of reading and looking and consuming,” Hitchings says, “and it fragments our attention span in a way that’s not ideal if you want to read, for instance, Clarissa.”

I mention this quote just to tell a little anecdote from my undergraduate days. One of the first English literature courses I took was some oddly-titled invention of the professor who taught it, in which the class–all ten of us, I think–worked through just two books in the course of a quarter: Bleak House and Ulysses. We spent over two weeks just parsing our way through one chapter–‘Nausicaa,’ I think. I came away in awe of Joyce’s ability to weave meaning and symbolism into every word of every sentence–and of the professor’s skill in revealing how many layers there were to Joyce’s text. It was one the most intellectually stimulating experiences I’ve ever enjoyed.

About a year later, I mentioned how much I enjoyed the course to Prof. Thomas Lockwood, whose survey course on the 18th century English novel I was taking. “Perhaps we should take a similar approach,” he joked. “I can see it now: ‘Attention, everyone! Let’s turn now to Volume 7, Letter XLIV. “My Dear Mrs. Norton: Had I not fallen into fresh troubles, which disabled me for several days from holding a pen ….” Only two volumes and 248 letters left to go, folks!'”

Yes, I confess I skimmed Clarissa. It was about a guy trying to get into a girl’s pants, as I recall.

“Classics lost and found,” from the Independent

Source: “Classics lost and found: Authors pick the modern classic they would like to revive,” The Independent (UK), 30 July 2010

“According to the poet Ezra Pound, literature is the news that stays news. This spring and summer have seen that old saw cut deep,” writes Boyd Tonkin in the Independent last week. Tonkin cites the remarkable success of Alone in Berlin, a masterpiece about resistance to Nazism written shortly after the end of the war by the German writer Hans Fallada but never before translated into English. Alone in Berlin was an unexpected bestseller, making the UK Top 50 list in the spring of this year. When I was in London this April, copies of the book were stacked on tables at the entry of most of the Waterstones and other bookstores I visited.

Alone in Berlin is the title selected by Penguin for their UK edition of the book. Here in the U. S., it’s published as Every Man Dies Alone by Melville House, and culminates a series begun in 2009 that includes three other novels by Fallada (Little Man, What Now?, The Drinker, and Wolf Among Wolves) and a reissue of Jenny Williams’ 2001 biography, More Lives than One.

“To celebrate the second lives of titles from the past,” The Independent asked about a dozen writers to nominate “a work from the first six decades of this [sic] century (1900-1960) that they would like to see in the bestseller limelight again.” Not all the responses qualify as neglected by any stretch of the imagination. The first item on the list, in fact, nominated by Bernardine Evaristo, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has achieved the most telling sign of having been accepted as a mainstream classic: it has its own Cliffs Notes. Paul Bailey nominates The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, but unless my eyes deceive me, those words “National Bestseller” across the top of the Norton paperback edition tells me he already got his wish. Likewise, suggestions that works by Nabokov, Wallace Stevens, or even Henry Green–all of which are in print, readily available, and selling respectably, if Amazon’s numbers are any indication–are holding their own.

I do have to take the mention of Green to veer off topic for a moment and link to one of the neatest things I’ve stumbled across in the last month. Sometime in the last six months, the entire contents of LIFE magazine from 1935 to 1972 have been digitized and archived in Google Book. Among the surprising treats to be found in this goldmine of visual material: “The Double Life of Henry Green,” a nine-page profile of written by Nigel Dennis (himself a fully qualified neglected novelist based on the intermittently-reissued Cards of Identity). The article makes significant use (and fun) of Green’s desire to avoid having his face photographed, and Dennis’ text is lengthy, detailed, and revealing. It’s hard to imagine a major American magazine today devoting so much space to a non-American writer with no significant U. S. sales.

Back to the main topic, though.

Most of the titles proposed, in fact, are in print–not bestsellers, certainly, but still strongly supported by publishers. Thanks to Virago, F. M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera are available, as is Josephine Johnston’s 1934 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of Midwestern farm life, Now in November, thanks to the Feminist Press. (I recommend taking a stroll through the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” display for this last title–it’s like a gallery of a midcentury American middlebrow classics.)

Cover of 'The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones'The only genuinely neglected book on the list–out of print in both U.S. and U.K.–is Charles Neider’s 1956 western novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, nominated by Clive Sinclair. “You’ve probably never heard of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, or its author either,” says Sinclair.

But I suspect you’re more familiar with both than you know. Especially if you’ve seen Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, which is Neider’s novel renamed. Among the scriptwriters Brando employed was Sam Peckinpah, who picked Neider’s brains, knowing that Hendry Jones was Billy the Kid in mufti. His version of Billy’s brief life is hailed as his masterpiece. But Neider’s book is better, better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Not a far-fetched comparison when you consider that Neider — though American-raised — was Odessa-born.

And, in a short review on Amazon, record producer Russ Titelman writes of the novel,

As far as I’m concerned, it is one of the great unsung American masterpieces on a par with A Death in the Family and So Long, See You Tomorrow. It is spare, poetic and honest. The story is a fictional eye witness account based loosely on the myth of Billy the Kid told by his sidekick. Neider uses language the way a photographer uses light. His descriptions of nature and the way the characters speak are so startlingly truthful that it makes you feel as though you had actually been there. I am haunted by this novel.

In a interview years after One-Eyed Jacks came out, Peckinpah called the movie “a piece of shit.” “You see, Marlon has a big penchant for becoming a ….” He went on to say,

Charles Neider, you know, spent two and a half years in New Mexico to get the true story of Billy the Kid. And finally he gave it up, went to Monterey and in six weeks wrote what he called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. It’s a great book. It should be read, and someday the picture should be made. So I was lucky enough at least to write a screenplay of it.

Neider (1915-2001) was a prolific editor, best known for his many collections of works by Mark Twain, particularly the release of The Autobiography of Mark Twain in 1959. He also wrote a number of his own works of nonfiction and fiction in addition to The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. His last book, about his own struggle with prostate cancer, Adam’s Burden, was published just after his death from the disease.

Cynthia, by Leonard Merrick

Leonard MerrickContinuing my journey through the works of Leonard Merrick, the “Forgotten Novelist’s Novelist,” I read Cynthia (1896), recommended by Eric Stott–and an excellent recommendation it was!

This is, quite simply, a terrific piece of work. Cynthia tells the story of the courtship, marriage, separation, and eventual reconciliation of Cynthia Walford, the daughter of a prosperous goods broker of, and Humphrey Kent, a struggling writer. But much of the book focuses instead on Humphrey’s situation as a working writer and his difficulties in achieving financial stability, artistic aspirations, and personal integrity at the same time. And it is a mark of Merrick’s skill at what William Dean Howells called “shapeliness”–the effective use of form–how subtly and indirectly it becomes apparent to the reader that the book is really about two people coming into a mature relationship with each other.

When the two meet at a resort in Dieppe, Kent has just published his first novel to fine critical acclaim. His legacy and the hundred pounds from the sale have taken him the first step into the upper middle class. Cynthia is something of a bourgeois princess and the Walfords quite smug about already occupying a solid place, with a house called “The Hawthorns” in Streatham, servants, and the luxury of taking resort vacations in France. Humphrey is smitten with Cynthia’s beauty and grace, and Cynthia responds to his undivided attention. But engagement is impossible without her parents’ approval. After Cynthia’s father grills him about his prospects and Mrs. Walford begins to fantasize about having a “renowned” author in their family, though, the match is soon made, and the couple move into a house near The Hawthorns, complete with servant, and Humphrey starts in on his second novel.

The bloom quickly comes off the rose. “Companionship, and not worship, was required now, and neither found the other quite so companionable as had been expected,” Merrick writes. Humphrey finds Cynthia’s interests materialistic, superficial, and mundane: “… her manner was as dull as her topics.” He longs to share his daily labors with her, to discuss narrative development and emerging characters, but spends his evenings talking about furniture or enduring visits to the Walfords. And she is more than a little disappointed to have become so marginal in his time and thoughts.

The momentum of the narrative picks up rapidly as their first year together ends. A son–named Humphrey at Cynthia’s insistence–is born. Humphrey manages to finish the novel–a few months behind his self-imposed schedule but much to his artistic satisfaction, and posts it off to his publisher. Two hundred pounds, he thinks, should be a fair price. After all, the household expenses are growing and have consumed much of his inheritance.

Unfortunately, the novel comes back from the publishers a few weeks later with a short note: “The faults seem inherent to the story, and irremediable, and we are therefore returning the MS. to you to-day, with
our compliments and thanks.” He tries a second. Then a third. Then others, as time and what little money he has left slip away. He begins applying for positions, but London has nothing to offer. As a last resort, he accepts an editorial post with an English magazine from expatriates based in Paris.

Humphrey and Cynthia hastily pack up baby, nurse, and a few trunks and head off to Paris. The magazine proves a second-rate affair, mostly full of loosely plagiarized material. Its owner, an English baron with gambling debts and an expensive French mistress, has founded it as a lark and neglects tedious details such as paying his staff. Humphrey and Cynthia are forced to move to cheaper, dingier digs. Soon, they are avoiding the landlady, taking small loans from a sympathetic maid, and pawning bits of jewelry. Humphrey spends more and more time trying to chase down his employer for the week’s pay. As soon as the baron’s own funds start drying up, he pulls the plug, leaving them stranded. At the very last minute, just hours ahead of being tossed on the street with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they manage to arrange for the money to get themselves back to London.

I found the whole Paris sequence as gripping as a thriller. You know their situation is doomed from the start but you can’t look away for fear of missing a single development.

At this point, Humphrey is outright in panic. He faces the reality of losing everything: his family, his right to a place in a respectable class, his right to consider himself a serious artist. He agrees to ghost-write a novel for a highly successful and prolific woman writer. He takes it as a one-time job, but the woman adroitly manipulates his emotions and his financial straints and the arrangement turns into a full-time production line. Humphrey endures the insult of seeing the hack work raised high and his own refused: “There were not in London five papers making a feature of fiction, which did not repeatedly reject the man’s best work, signed by himself, and accept his worst, signed by somebody else.”

Meanwhile, Cynthia has taken the boy and moved to a small cottage in the country to improve her health. Humphrey resolves to visit, but feels he has betrayed her and well as himself and keeps putting it off.

Just as everything about the couple is about to dissolve, the fifteenth or twentieth publisher to review Humphrey’s novel offers him a contract, and the book comes out to glittering reviews. He walks away from his ghost-writing work and heads to the country to celebrate with Cynthia. But now, he finds, the dynamic of their marriage has profoundly changed. Cynthia, he comes to recognize, has grown in perspective and character–has surpassed him, in fact:

The alteration in her impressed him still more strongly now that he had opportunities for studying it ; and the gradual result of three years, presenting itself to him as the fruit of ten months, was startling. His wife had become a woman—in her tone, in her bearing, in her comments, which often had a pungency, though they might not be brilliant. She was a woman in the composure with which she ignored their anomalous
relations—a very fascinating woman withal, whose composure, while it won his admiration, disturbed him too, as the weeks went by. It was in moments difficult to identify her new personality with the girl’s whose love for him had been so constantly evident.

The two have reached a point where they are, effectively, friends living under the same roof, and Humphrey holds himself most to blame. His obsession with his career and work has blinded him to the strength of his feelings for Cynthia, feelings developed as they have weathered the hardships and disappointments. But as Merrick has been showing us–just in touches here and there throughout the second half of the book–there is more going on with Cynthia than she shows, and in the very last few lines, we learn that hope for their love remains.

There is so much going on in Cynthia beside the story of Humphrey and Cynthia. There are some wonderful characterisations, deft observations on the business of writing and the conventions of middle-class life in late Victorian England, and bits of fine comedy, such as this description of a recital by Caesar, Cynthia’s brother, a fat, pompous pretender who’s been led to believe himself a talented basso:

It was a prodigious roar. No one could dispute that he possessed a voice of phenomenal power, if it were once conceded to be a voice, in the musical sense, at all. It seemed as if he must burst his corsets, and shift the furniture — that the ceiling itself must split with the noise that he hurled up. Perspiration broke out on him, and rolled down his face, as he writhed at the gas-globes. His large body was contorted with exertion. But he never faltered. Bellow upon bellow he produced, to the welcome end — till Cynthia struck the final chord and he bowed.

“A performance?” asked Walford, swollen with pride.

Kent said indeed it was.

My admiration for Leonard Merrick’s talents continues to grow and I will head further into his oeuvre in search of more such delights.

Find a copy

Cynthia, by Leonard Merrick
London: Chatto & Windus, 1896

A Honeymoon Experiment, by Margaret and Stuart Chase

Cover of first edition of "A Honeymoon Experiment," by Margaret and Stuart Chase

“Any man that wants a job can get it!”

I believe that this statement, despite the deep groove that it has worn in the average unthinking mind, is utterly without foundation in fact. I want to tell you why I believe that it is not true. I want to tell you how I tramped for nine weeks through the streets of a great American city, and how I was unable upon application to secure work at a wage that would keep me alive.

Thus opens A Honeymoon Experiment, a remarkable little book published in 1916 by a remarkable couple, Margaret and Stuart Chase.

When considering how to spend their honeymoon after marrying in the summer of 1914, the Chases decided to take it as an opportunity to engage in an unusual life experiment. From the start, they had been attracted to each other by a passion for independent thinking. At the age of 23, Stuart Chase had composed as his personal credo, “I must choose my own path… from among the many and follow it in all faith and trust until experience bids me seek another,” and he stuck to it with exceptional success throughout the rest of his life. His wife, Margaret Hatfield Chase, a teacher at a number of alternative schools, shared his willingness to venture outside conventional patterns.

And so, Chase wrote,

We decided to devote our honeymoon to the task of finding out more concerning the matters that so profoundly perplexed us. Ever since our first talks together we had wanted to know how it felt to live beyond the pale of family and class influence. Here was our chance. We could utilize these honeymoon weeks to start clean and clear at the bottom.

What they decided to do–after a few weeks canoeing in the Ontario woods–was to go to Rochester, New York “… as a homeless, jobless, friendless couple, and see what it meant to face existence without an engraved passport.” It was, for 1914, a unique choice, and even in the century since, only a rare few newlyweds have taken such a leap into the unknown.

A Honeymoon Experiment is told in two part: “The Groom’s Story” and “The Bride’s Story.” They picked Rochester based on its size, its industrial base (Eastman Kodak, a shirt collar factory, other light manufacturing), and the fact that they knew no one there. They donned their oldest clothes, boarded a train, and got off in Rochester as “Mr. and Mrs. Chase,” a bookkeeper and his wife trying to make a go after losing jobs in Boston.

Their hypothesis was simple: with perserverance, they would be able to land jobs earning a decent wage and survive on solely on what they made. They gave themselves nine weeks.

They failed.

Each morning they made plans of businesses to inquire at, employment ads to answer, agencies to visit, fending as best they could in an age when there were no state services to help out the jobless. They walked miles around the city as tram fare became a luxury. Food and shelter became their “supreme masters.” As days went on without success, they grew more exhausted and depressed. They conceded their battle against the dust, dirt, and grime pervasive in their quarters: “One’s standards collapse.” And they understood just how precarious life was on 1914’s poverty line.

Stuart applied for 92 jobs in nine weeks, not to count the number of “opportunities”–i.e., scams, such as selling useless cures and shoddy gadgets door-to-door–he investigated. In the end, he landed one–a part-time job as a bookkeeper, and that only through another tenant.

Margaret fared only slightly better. She also applied for 92 positions. She did get hired at several businesses, only to discover just how dangerous and intolerable working conditions, particularly for women, were in the days before occupational safety standards. And she also learned that male employers had no compunctions about intimidating and harassing their female employees. She usually had to leave within two to three days.

The problem of survival was multiplied by the fact that most of what few jobs were available were at wages below the level at which they could cover their rent and food. Stuart and Margaret calculated that, at twenty five dollars a week, a couple could manage to maintain a tolerable quality of life, though one without any type of savings, insurance, or other security. In their best week, they together made fifteen.

“So long as there is steadiness of employment, there is at least some continuity and some hope in existence,” Stuart wrote. They learned for themselves, as well as from other tenants, how quickly the fall into hunger, degradation, sickness, homelessness, and the break-up of families could happen when a living income is lost.

At one point, Stuart–hungry, tired, and frustrated after “when an army of cockroaches invaded” their room–tells Margaret to get her hat so they can head off to a respectable hotel for the night. “You quitter!” Margaret chides him.

When they finally end the experiment and get ready to return to their normal lives, Margaret has a moment’s second thought:

“Let’s stay here and be free and unconventional and and human for ever and ever!”

“In this room,” I asked, “for ever and ever? Could you stick it out?”

“No,” said Margaret soberly; “I don’t suppose I could stick it out in this room for ever and ever.”

Our eyes wandered over the battered furniture, the peeling plaster, the stained ceiling, the unwashed tin dishes.

“How long could we stick it out?” I mused.

They agreed that they would write this book to try to demonstrate to other Americans the consequence of having no legal guarantees of employment and a living wage.

As I read A Honeymoon Experiment, I kept thinking that it would be an excellent text for high schoolers to read. Largely contemporaneous with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which is commonly assigned in English and American history classes, it may lack the same level of melodrama and “gross out” factors, but it’s also very straightforward, told mostly from a very accessible personal standpoint–and not weighted down with Sinclair’s club-footed prose. It’s an effective way to convey what the economic, social, and political conditions were in the U. S. a hundred years ago–or, to steal the title from a book edited by Otto Bettmann: The Good Old Days–They Were Terrible!.

Stuart Chase, around 1960Margaret and Stuart Chase divorced in 1922. Stuart had become by then a crusading staffer on the Federal Trade Commission, attacking industry corruption and practices. When the meatpacking industry strong-armed President Harding into getting rid of Stuart (he was called a “Red accountant” in Congress), Stuart fell back on his personal credo and seized it as an opportunity and chose his own path.

He collaborated with the economist Thorstein Veblen to attack corporate inefficiencies and unfair trade practices. He became a prolific writer on a wide variety of topics and vocal advocate for reforms. His 1934 book with F. J. Schlink, Your Money’s Worth, was one of the first to address the cause of consumer rights. The Tyranny of Words, one of the earliest popular works on semantics, is still in print today. In Roads to Agreement he dealt with negotiation techniques, psychology, and human relations, and in Guides to Straight Thinking he showed how logic can be used to deal with everyday problems.

In the 1950s he wrote and spoke in favor of disarmament; in 1968, at the age of eighty, he was calling for measures to reduce pollution in Rich Land, Poor Land. He died at the age of 97 in 1985 with 35 books to his name.

A Honeymoon Experiment is available from several direct-to-print publishers via, but you can get it for free in ASCII, EPUB, PDF, Kindle, and other digital formats from the Internet Archive.

A Honeymoon Experiment, by Margaret and Stuart Chase
Boston and New York : Houghton Mifflin Company

Praise a Fine Day, by Sigrid de Lima

Cover of first U. S. hardback edition of 'Praise a Fine Day' by Sigrid de Lima
When Sigrid de Lima’s fourth novel, Praise a Fine Day was first published in 1959, it received mixed reviews. Edmund Fuller, writing in the Chicago Sunday Tribune proclaimed de Lima “one of our most deft, accomplished stylists among our younger writers,” and Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review found her “feeling for subtleties and ambiguities sharp, and she has a delicate style that matches her insights.” Time’s reviewer, on the other hand, thought the book offered “more tricks than treats,” and The New Yorker felt the narrative “contains more innuendo than fact, so that the reader, tantalized and interested to begin with, grows tired and finally impatient.” The book was also published in hardback by Chatto & Windus in the U. K., received no paperback release, and would have completely been lost from memory if not recalled and celebrated as a “small masterpiece” in the Independent by Christopher Hawtree in 1999. It is, he wrote, “Everything that Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers is not, it is long overdue a reissue.”

Unfortunately, Hawtree was writing in de Lima’s obituary, and no publisher has, to date, shared his assessment.

Praise a Fine Day is narrated, mostly in flashbacks, by a nameless young American painter living in New York City sometime in the 1950s. The focus of the book is the artist’s recollection of how, while living in Rome several years earlier, he entered into an arrangement to marry the Polish mistress of Isaak, a wealthy Egyptian Jew. The woman, Mara, is officially stateless, having fled Poland during the war, and the couple want to guarantee American citizenship for the unborn child she is bearing. “Sometimes when I am asleep I dream that the police are knocking at the door. They have come to send me away. But when I was little I never had that dream and I don’t want my child to have that dream.”

At first, the artist rejects their offer to pay him thousands of dollars for his participation on ethical grounds, despite being near-penniless, living in a cheap rented room and existing off occasional sales to American tourists. De Lima was the 1953 winner of the Prix de Rome for literature and spent a year studying at the American Academy in Rome, where she met her husband, the American abstract painter, Stephen Greene, and some of the best writing in the book are her characterizations of Roman personalities and habits. One can hear the original Italian in this recollection of his landlady’s abuse:

“Ah, you are a fool. Cosi iddio mi aiuti, to have harbored under my roof all this time a complete imbecile, idiot, moron, stalk of fennel, a simpleton, a barbarian, a goose, a snake, a communist [Everyone of these epithets would have a rich history for a Roman.–Ed.].” And many things more besides, for Signora Donati was gifted along these lines. When she stopped for breath all I could think of was to tell her to calm herself, which started up a new blaze of fury in which I learned that I was an ungrateful monster and a dishonest wretch who owed her for seven months’ rent, and where was I going to get it, would I tell her that. There was an interlude while she described in moving and pathetic terms the difficulties of a poor Italian landlady whose tenants only take advantage of her goodness and the warmness of her motherly heart, for isn’t she a mother herself, a valiant mother who raised six children all by herself and has seen five of them happily settled and married, so out of the incredible warmness and kindness of her motherly heart she waits for the rent from her tenant though heaven knows she can’t afford it and the bill collectors are knocking at her door, and when she turns up a perfectly respectable way of earning a little money at no cost to anyone and doing a good act besides for an innocent, unborn child, what thanks does she get, the kind of thanks that a cobra gives the hand that feeds it, that’s the kind of gratitude, ingratitude and double-dealing and perjury.

The couple persist, and he gradually succumbs to their charm and generosity. He also finds himself falling in love with Mara, however, which further complicates his feelings about the arrangement. When he finally agrees, it is by convincing himself that he will be even more duplicitous than Isaak and Mara, and will take their money and flee to the U. S. without fulfilling his end of the deal.

In the end, their allure overcomes his will and he goes along. He marries Mara in an official Italian state ceremony: “Ah, you will say, was ever a man more confused–to enter into a fraudulent marriage with the full intention of compounding fraud on fraud and yet to claim that in his heart he swore to love and cherish.” The trio head off on a long honeymoon in southern France. At each stop along the way, he and Mara perform as newlyweds to convince a suitable number of witnesses. All the while, the artist falls more deeply in love with her. The whole affair comes to a climax I will leave to other readers to discover, but in its aftermath, the narrator finds himself wondering just what about the whole situation was real and how much a sham played upon him by Isaak and Mara. He returns to New York, meets and marries an American woman, and suddenly achieves a critical and financial breakthrough in the art world. As the book ends, he wonders if Mara is alive, half wishing and half dreading what will happen if she were to turn up.

Sigrid de Lima, 1959
Sigrid de Lima, 1959
I suspect that Time magazine’s reviewer was voicing what I might call a stereotypical American response to a very European situation. I thought de Lima did a marvelous job of insinuating her narrator into a situation rich with moral, emotional, cultural, and even legal complexities and ambiguities. He is astute enough to know there is more going on than he can hope to understand: he refers at one point to the “two thousand years of trading in the market place, the shrill shouting of prices, bitter bargaining, the play-acting rage over each item, the shrewd offer put insultingly low against the proudly inflated demand” that characterizes any negotiation in Rome. But his American upbringing, which its simple and clear-cut morals and straight-forward materialistic values (“No one needs a painting,” his father tells him), puts him rather in the position of a two-dimensional figure trying to comprehend a three-dimensional world.

She also manages to pull off the very difficult trick of writing a whole book in the voice and mindset of another gender. I read this immediately after finishing Wilfrid Sheed’s People Will Always Be Kind, and I found myself stopping at several times to glance at de Lima’s photo on the dust jacket and remind myself that this wasn’t another book written by a man.

De Lima’s three previous novels also received mixed reviews, but there was, by the time of Praise a Fine Day, a rough consensus that she was a writer to be considered with the best of her age–a view reflected by the three columns devoted to her in the 1958 edition of Current Biography: “The critics have judged her work as uneven–imaginative, forceful, at times brilliant, but also at times overly precocious and undisciplined. On one point, however, they are in agreement: she is a serious novelist with a very considerable talent.”

A space of ten years separated the publication of Praise a Fine Day and de Lima’s fifth novel, Oriane. Oriane received few reviews, none of them particularly enthusiastic. In his Independent obituary, Hawtree says the experience devastated de Lima and caused her to abandon writing completely: “It broke her heart,” he quotes Greene.

She died of a stroke in 1999 at the age of seventy-seven. Stephen Greene died less than two months later.

Praise a Fine Day, by Sigrid de Lima
New York: Random House, 1959