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.

  • Find it at Morale
  • Find it at Morale
  • Find it at Morale

  • Find it in WorldCat: 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

People Will Always Be Kind, by Wilfrid Sheed

Cover of Dell paperback edition of 'People Will Always Be Kind'
Does it matter?–losing your legs? …
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

   –Siegfried Sassoon

Wilfrid Sheed’s 1973 novel, People Will Always Be Kind, takes its title from Sassoon’s poem about a paraplegic young war veteran, but Sheed’s protagonist, Brian Casey, is a victim not of combat but of polio. Well over half of the novel (the section titled, “Backgrounder”) recounts how Casey is suddenly struck by polio in high school and how he comes to turn his handicap into an effective tool for manipulating others–because, as Sassoon observes, “people will always be kind.”

In some ways, People Will Always Be Kind is a remarkably perceptive study of politics and human behavior. As his parents desperately attempt every cure, legitimate and outright criminal (leeches, at one point), Casey grows deeply cynical. “I don’t think I owe God any favors, after what he did to me,” he thinks to himself, and one of his Columbia classmates calls him “a man of little faith and much energy, the most dangerous of your human species.”

Casey cuts his teeth on campus politics and finds a natural talent for public speaking and private wheeling and dealing. But he also quickly realizes that campus politics was “like playing poker without money.” When next we see him, in the section titled, “The Perkins Papers,” he is a U. S. Senator, seen through the eyes of Sam Perkins, an idealistic Ivy League grad, part of a small movement trying to court a candidate to run for President on a peace platform. Sheed never mentions Vietnam in the book, referring to the war only as “The Issue.”

Casey takes up the challenge–or at least, he seems to. Although Perkins is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, even he understands that he’s dealing with a level of intelligence and sophistication far beyond his:

He also told me, though he didn’t have to by then, that he liked to hire high-minded people because they would do dirtier work for nothing than low-minded people would for hire. True. If the candidate so much as intimated to me that a principle was involved, it was like unleashing a rattlesnake. A low-minded person would at least have watched his own skin and thought about tomorrow.

During the campaign, a party hack comments, somewhat sarcastically, “That’s some staff you got.” “That’s not a staff–that’s my violin,” Casey responds.

Much like Eugene McCarthy, Casey achieves an unexpected breakthrough victory in New Hampshire and rolls into the convention as the leading candidate. Perkins does note that the transformation had less to do with the candidate that some undefinable combination of media coverage and popular sentiment: “Casey hadn’t changed a hair, but he suddenly had charisma and seemed like a great man.” He drives himself relentlessly, always conscious that any sign of exhaustion would be linked back to his polio: “Other politicians could show fatigue, Casey never. He would have to kill himself to prove his strength.”

Perkins quits the campaign in a childish and pretty unbelievable miff involving sexual jealousy over another staffer, but Casey wins the nomination and comes close to winning the election (a conditional cease-fire before the debate kills much of his momentum). Some observers, however, believe Casey made a deliberate choice to lose. His wife thinks it a matter of his struggle with his faith (Casey is an Irish Catholic): “It’s like an occasion of sin, if you know what I mean. He knows he shouldn’t be in politics.”

Yet brilliant as many of Sheed’s observations about politics are, People Will Always Be Kind fails as a coherent work of art. The two parts of the novel are unbalanced: “Backgrounder” burrows deep into Casey’s evolving psyche, while “The Perkins Papers” shows him through a glass, dork-ly. The campaign has the potential to be a much richer source of material–Time magazine’s reviewer thought that, “Sheed’s only real mistake was to quit writing about 200 pages short of his natural stopping place.” Certainly the book loses much of its strength by substituting Sheed’s profoundly intelligent omniscient voice in “Backgrounder” for Sam Perkins’ fuzzy-headed first-person voice in the second half. And while Brian Casey may be a terrific vehicle for navigating the winding ways of American politics, as a character he becomes something of a Cheshire Cat. In the last dozen pages of the book, he almost entirely fades away, leaving us with only his ironic smile.

People Will Always Be Kind, by Wilfrid Sheed
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973

One Man’s View, by Leonard Merrick

In last month’s post on Graham Greene’s “The Century Library” series, I noted that George Orwell was unsuccessful in his attempt to have Leonard Merrick’s novel, The Position of Peggy Harper, included in the series. Patrick Murtha commented that, “The collected ‘Works of Leonard Merrick’ were issued in a 15 volume set with introductions by some very big names (such as J.M. Barrie).” Now, however, “Merrick doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry; someone ought to remedy that [Someone has! A short entry was tossed one up right after this post appeared.–Ed.]. He is the very model of The Neglected Novelist.”

William Baker and Jeannettes Robert Shumaker, authors of the 2009 biography, Leonard Merrick: A Forgotten Novelist’s Novelist, would certainly agree. As would William Dean Howells, who as early as 1907 wrote enthusiastically, in The North American Review, “I can think of no recent fictionist of his nation who can quite match with Mr. Merrick in that excellence [of “shapeliness” or form in the novel]. This will seem great praise, possibly too great, to the few who have a sense of such excellence; but it will probably be without real meaning to most, though our public might well enjoy form if it could once be made to imagine it.”

Several leading English and American publishers shared this high regard, which led to the release of a 15-volume series, “The Works of Leonard Merrick,” in both the U. S. and the U. K. between 1918 and 1922. Each title in the series was selected by one of a number of well-known writers, including H. G. Wells, James M. Barrie, G. K. Chesterton, and Howells, as well as now less-recognized names such as Maurice Hewlett and Sir Arthur Pinero, and featured a preface written by them.

Writing in Publisher’s Weekly in 1920, as “The Works of Leonard Merrick” series was in the midst of being released, Frederick Taber Copper noted the double-edged effect of Merrick’s typical choice of subject. When J. M. Barrie “assures us, as quite rightly, that ‘Mr. Merrick’s fellow writers are agreed that he is one of the flowers of their calling,’ and has long been ‘the novelist’s novelist,’ he has inadvertently drawn attention to the fact that the distinctive atmosphere of Mr. Merrick’s books is that of the literary, artistic and dramatic circles of London–and, other things being equal, the literary and journalistic setting is a recognized handicap.” Still, he acknowledged that, “one of the most delicate artists of his age, one of the most finished and resourceful craftsmen of his art, a past master of the elusive and the unexpected is at last coming tardily into what is so justly his own.” Yet even this series did not succeed in fixing Merrick’s place in the canon of the English novel. Less than ten years after the first volumes of “The Works of Leonard Merrick” appeared, another writer noted that though Merrick’s work “… [P]ossesses artistry, charm, gaiety, humor, power, narrative inventiveness and fluency…”, “still his position is not what its merits deserve to make it.”

I decided to give one of Merrick’s novels a try. Having experimented with a number of eReaders in the last few months, I also wanted to try out my current choice, the Barnes & Noble Nook wifi. I’m not much interested in B&N’s eBook offerings but wanted to start tapping into the ever-growing library of free books available online, particularly through the Internet Archive. All volumes of “The Works of Leonard Merrick” are available in a variety of formats, including PDF, HTML, ASCII text, Kindle, and EPUB, although, as seems to characterize Google’s haphazard book-scanning, the titles and other metadata are entered inconsistently and defy easy searching. This search link–“The Works of Leonard Merrick” in the Internet Archive–brings up about three different entries for each volume, but it’s a starting point.

I chose, for no particular reason, One Man’s View, first published in 1897, and this edition from the New York Public Library because their standard of scanning and entry seems a little higher and more consistent than others. The EPUB version of the file was relatively free of OCR errors and read easily on the Nook.

The story of One Man’s View would have been controversial at the time Merrick was writing. George Heriot, a rising solicitor, younger brother to Sir Francis Heriot, fantasizes about a pretty young woman he sees on the promenade in Eastbourne. By coincidence, she turns out to be the daughter of a long-lost friend, Dick Cheriton. Cheriton had been a promising artist, but he burned his canvases and took off to America to seek his fortune. His fortune proved to be running a hotel in Duluth, Minnesota, and he has returned to England to foster his daughter Mamie’s aspirations for a career on the stage.

Heriot agrees to help Mamie as much as he can, lacking any acquaintances in the theatre world. For the next year, Mamie makes the rounds of agencies and stage doors, hoping first for a speaking role, then anything–even an extra’s part–that would get her on stage. Merrick–writing from personal experience–is coldly realistic about the possibility of breaking into the theatre at the time:

The Stage is generally supposed to be the easiest of all callings to enter. The girl who is unhappy at home, the boy who has been plucked for the army, the woman whose husband has failed on the Stock Exchange, all speak of ” going on the stage ” as calmly as if it were only necessary to take a stroll to get there. As a matter of fact, unless an extra-ordinary piece of fortune befall her, it is almost as difficult for a girl without influence, or a good deal of money, to become an actress as it is for her to marry a duke. She may be in earnest, but there are thousands who are in earnest ; she may be pretty, but there are hundreds of pretty actresses struggling and unrecognised ; she may be a genius, but she has no opportunity to display her gift until the engagement is obtained…. To succeed on the stage requires indomitable energy, callousness to rebuffs, tact, luck, talent, and facilities for living six or nine months out of the year without earning a shilling. To get on to the stage requires valuable introductions or considerable means. If a woman has neither, the chances are in favour of her seeking a commencement vainly all her life. And as to a young man so situated who seeks it, he is endeavouring to pass through a brick wall.

When Mamie’s stamina finally wears down and she decides to return to Duluth, Heriot confesses his love and begs her to marry him. Mamie agrees–not out of love but merely in hope of finding a more palatable future than life in Duluth or with her aunt in equally dreary Wandsworth. The first few years pass amicably, but eventually Mamie meets and falls madly in love with a rising young playwright, Lucas Field. She leaves Heriot and the two take off for Paris, where passions quickly cool. This is no Anna Karenina, though. Merrick is unashamedly terse about the affair: “If a woman sins, and the chronicler of her sin desires to excuse the woman, her throes and her struggles, her pangs and her prayers always occupy at least three chapters. If one does not
seek to excuse her, the fact of her fall may as well be stated in the fewest possible words.” He’s also coldly realistic about their long-term prospects. “Romance,” he writes, “does not wear any better because the Marriage Service is omitted. A lover is no less liable to be common-place than a husband when the laundress knocks the buttons off his shirts.”

Fields sneaks back to London, where he contracts a fever and dies before having to admit that he has abandoned Mamie. Heriot obtains a divorce and seeks to put it into the past. Mamie seeks refuge with her aunt, insisting only that they move to Balham to avoid confronting any acquaintances, and she resigns herself to a life of quiet desparation: “She lived in Balham; she saw the curate, and she heard about the range in the neighbour’s kitchen. One year merged into another; and if she lived for forty more, the neighbour and the curate would be her All.”

Some years later, having risen to the post of Solicitor General, Heriot decides it would be fit to take a wife again. He convinces himself that his best prospect is the step-daughter of an American billionaire, and he follows her to New York City, trying to decide to propose. In the end, he lacks the motivation and sails back to England. By coincidence–once again–he encounters Mamie, returning from her father’s funeral, and the two end up remarrying.

Overall, the mood of One Man’s View is that of one utterly familiar with the ways of the world high and low, skeptical of miracles, wise to shams, yet still capable of a certain amount of empathy, compassion, and hope. The world, in Merrick’s view, will not give you a break, but a helping hand can be found on occasion.

I think C. Lewis Hinds provides an accurate assessment of Merrick’s work in his 1921 book, Authors and I: “I have read all the prefaces, such capering, delightful Merrick idolatry, and I have read six of the volumes. It was no hard task; each story was a grave pleasure. Leonard Merrick is an artist, not a great artist like Turgenev, not a master of insight like Meredith. He works in the temperate zone; he is never wrong but he never soars. His subtlety is equable; his finesse is exquisite, but I find it difficult to remember the plots and characters of the six Merricks I have just read.”

Subtlety and finesse may be the qualities Howells was trying to capture in writing of Merrick’s excellence in “shapeliness.” He is, without a doubt, a grown-up writer. He holds himself no better or worse than his characters or his readers, and in that regard, he continues to be a rare creature among novelists. There is little of the mustiness of much of the prose found in novels of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and I found his writing splendidly accessible. I plan on reading and posting on other of his works.

Find a copy

One Man’s View, by Leonard Merrick
London: Grant Richards, 1897

The Mad Stone, by Lorna Beers

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Mad Stone'A mad stone is a stone-like mass–a hairball, really–taken from the stomach of a deer and reputed to have a magical power of curing rabies and snake bites. Although an actual mad stone plays a minor role in Lorna Beers’ novel, the Minnesota (or Dakota–Beers does not identify specific locations) countryside serves as the symbolic cure for the “poisoned” souls of her protagonists.

Louis and Ollie are a mismatched pair. Louis is a penniless would-be visionary whose utter failure to provide for his family in the great metropolis (Chicago? Minneapolis?) has finally led Mattie, his wife, to drag him and their three children back to her father’s farm. Ollie is the wife of Vandiver Hackett, a tycoon of some sort, sent off to Hackett’s family home as punishment for a real or imagined adultery. They meet on the train out to the country and quickly recognize the one thing they share in common: an inability to go with the flow of prevailing values and habits.

At some point in the past, Louis was an aspiring preacher, a young man whose fervent sermons drew crowds from all over the area. But he was also fascinated with mathematics, science, and the movement toward a historical view of Jesus popularized by Ernest Renan. He heads off to the city to pursue a self-crafted course of studies, and spends hours scribbling away in endless notebooks while Mattie struggles to feed and clothe their children. When homelessness looms, she forces Louis to return to the country, where at least she has some assurance that their hungry mouths will be fed.

Beers subjects us to many passages of Louis’ passionate monologues about science, religion, and the follies of man, but a small sample should suffice to demonstrate what a windblown pedant he is:

Oh, wandering Jew, doomed to change your essence from age to age, to mirror the vanity of the current custom. Now knight-errant, now Eastern king, now Greek athlete with delectable flesh that felt no pain lifted sensuously from the cross: now a showman exposing the stigmata on your hands and feet … drop your coins into the wicker tray, brethren! Now you have been taken arm-in-arm with scholarship, and you walk about the philosophical peripatetic paths saying “I am the word!”

Louis is hell-bound not to go gentle into his good night. “Never will I bow my spirit to the originator and the torturer of our sentience. Never will I sit and purr on the lap of God!” he exclaims at one point.

Ollie, on the other hand, is sophisticate–well-dressed, well-read, well-traveled, and utterly bored with everything. She enjoys taunting Molly, the Hackett’s cook, about the contradictions of her Catholic faith:

“‘Molly, why aren’t you eating the mince pie?’ ‘Mrs. Vand,’ I told her, ‘this day is sacred with us. I don’t eat flesh of any kind,’ I told her. ‘Flesh?’ she said. ‘Suet, Miss. There is suet in mince pie.’ “Oh, suet,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘What is suet, Molly?’ ‘Fat of beef,’ I tell her, since she knew so little. ‘Oh, it’s fat of beef, is it?’ she said. ‘Your God doesn’t like fat of cows?’ And she reached down and nipped off a bit of the crust of my custard pie and looked at it very sharply, turning it this way and that. ‘Molly,’ she said ‘will you ask something of your Prayste for me? Why your Lord likes fat of pigs and doesn’t like fat of cows. Lard and suet, well, well,’ she said, ‘I had never imagined to find Him so particular.’ Before I could say a word she had her impudent face out of the door.”

Soon after their arrival, Beers manages to bring the two together on long nighttime walks and other escapes from the confines of small town and farm routines. Most of their time together consists of impassioned monologues by Louis and sly cross-examinations by Ollie. Neither manages to notice the richness of life and nature that surrounds them, and Beers’ many lyrical descriptions of the countryside draw stark counterpoint to her protagonists’ arid intellectuality. Ollie literally hates nature: “It was malignant. Malignant. It was only in the marts of men that she felt safe, where their chatter, their irrational habits made her feel secure in her own intelligence.”

Beers also contrasts the two mind-bound lovers (and I use this word very loosely, as there is never a suggestion that there is anything physical in their relationship) with the two other principal characters in the novel, Vand Hackett’s sister Nanda and Louis’ wife Mattie. While Louis and Ollie are off on their fools’ errands, Nanda and Mattie are, at the same time, bound in by conventions and in close touch with Mother Earth:

Mattie leaned over, watching the ants rebuild their houses under the upraised heel of God. And she became aware of a stalk of wild teasel standing in the sod just outside the cultivated soil. She looked at it as she might study the features of one rendered unique by being the object of her sudden falling in love. She looked at its base as it rose above the wild grass. The stalk was thick and ribbed, its irregular hollow circumference grown over with green hairs and spines, a natural armor against sudden closing fingers. Pairs of spear-like leaves were set at intervals up the stem, and like the oval knob of a sceptre, there was borne upon each stalk an oblong head. Several of these cones were green and immature, but upon tow of them were set clusters about the middle of pale lavender flowers.

She sat looking at the weed, wondering about the nature of its existence, of how the sap flowed through its stems, of how it flowered and shook its leaves in isolated being, subject to momentary uprooting by the sharp blade of her hoe.

As The Mad Stone goes on, Louis and Ollie grow more reckless, doing little to hide their meetings. Chaste though they may remain, theirs was a time when just the appearance of impropriety was enough to earn a community’s disapproval. It seems clear that, in one way or another, they are headed on a path to self-destruction.

Yet just before everything spins out of control, Louis pulls himself up by the bootstraps and decides to head back to the city–this time committed to becoming a science teacher and earning an honest living. Ollie also returns to town, kept from crashing by the more obvious restraint of a telegram from her husband calling her back. Mattie stays to help her father and watch her children continue to grow ever more rosy-cheeked on the fresh air and fresh produce of the farm.

This late turn-around in the narrative seems as miraculous and implausible as the mad stone’s cure of rabies. It’s clear that Beers was, at heart, uncomfortable with a world where people crash and burn. Her loyalty lay with the regenerative powers of nature, not the self-destructive powers of man.

The Mad Stone was Lorna Beers’ third novel, following Prairie Fires (1925) and A Humble Lear (1929). It won the Avery Hopwood award for fiction from the University of Michigan and was generally well-received among critics. It was, however, her last published adult novel.

According to her Wikipedia biography, Beers’ career was derailed by the need to care for her husband’s crippling emotional problems. She wrote and published several books for younger readers and, decades later (1966), Wild Apples and North Wind, a memoir of life on a Vermont farm.

Wild Apples is said to have been one of Annie Dillard’s inspirations, and the gorgeous writing about nature one finds throughout The Mad Stone is by far the best part of the book. One sticks with the novel not for the tiresome tragedy of Louis and Ollie but for the lovely epiphanies of Mattie and Nanda as they drink in the energy, beauty, and complexity of the wild and cultivated life all around them.

Find a copy

The Mad Stone, by Lorna Beers

mad stone myth

A bucolic romance, from As I Remember Him, by Hans Zinsser

Hans Zinsser
I’ve been taking great advantage of Hans Zinsser’s unique autobiography, As I Remember Him, to while away long hours of flights from Belgium to California today.

Zinsser wrote the book as he was battling leukemia, incurable when he was affected in the late 1930s. In its way, it’s as much a portrait of a life spanning a great transition as Henry Adams’ autobiography. Unlike Adams, though, Zinsser never retired from life. He was a pioneering medical researcher, one of the best-loved instructors at Harvard, a poet, organizer of professional societies, rider after the hounds. The spirit of As I Remember Him has more in common with Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. It’s hard to imagine Adams taking a role in the following comic skit, from the chapter “R. S. and Women” (“R. S.” stood for “Romantic Spirit”–Zinsser’s stand-in for himself):

One evening we were sitting on the porch. The old man had talked himself to sleep, and began to snooze right in the middle of the Wilderness [Campaign–the old man was a Civil War veteran.–Ed.]. Invention had tired him. Pansy and I were sitting closer together than the temperature warranted, and her arm was pressed caressingly against my shoulder. There was a crescent moon, and a gentle breeze enfolded us with the fragrance of the honeysuckle vine. If her head had followed her arm at that moment, God knows what might have happened. But Pansy, though–I still truly believe–a good girl, possibly intent on a bolder yet–I insist–entirely innocent (innocent in the conventional sense) attack upon my emotions, asked me suddenly whether I would like to see their new calf. It was so darling, she said, and had such lovely eyes and such a soft, wet nose. It was a temptation, for the calf of course was in the barn; and the barn was isolated and dark and full of hay. I fell, and said I’d love to see the calf. Merely for convention’s sake, I think, Pansy lighted a stable lantern, so that we might at least fulfill the ostensible purpose of really looking at the calf. Oh, how sweet and aphrodisiacally caressing is the odor of a cowbarn at night, with its indescribable blending of clover, cow manure, sour milk, and animal! A gentle tremor ascended my spine as I stepped over the threshold, and I drew Pansy’s soft form closer to my side as we stumbled over the rough boards by the dim and swinging light in her hand. I had lost all interest in the calf, and dear Pansy I believe had completely forgotten it. Yet we dared not not look at it–half craving, half dreading what might happen when we had seen it. But here Pallas Athene–ever my guardian goddess–intervened. Pansy walked into the stall, put her chubby arm about the calf’s neck, and held the stable lantern at arm’s length in front of her. And here they were–both confronting me, the dim rays of the lantern illuminating both their faces. Fascinated, I gazed upon them. They appeared like two sisters–helpless, bucolic, kindly; infinite vacuity looked out at me from these two pairs of large, swimming eyes. The expression of Pansy’s warm and moist lips was not more invitingly tender than the soft, velvety nozzle of the calf. There they stood–poor innocents–two calves together; and I gazed and gazed, hypnotically held in the light of the lamp, until I did not know which was Pansy and which calf. And I bent down and kissed the calf tenderly on the nose. Then I went out quietly, and untied my horse from the hitching post. Pansy followed me out. There were tears in her eyes when she said good-night, as I mounted and rode away–sadly, but not without a sense of relief.

As I Remember Him, by Hans Zinsser
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1940

David Nix recommends B. H. Friedman’s “Yarborough”

David Nix wrote with an enthusiastic recommendation for B. H. Friedman’s 1964, Yarborough:

I first read, re-read, and re-re-read this book when I was in college, over 40 years ago. The story of a World War II era bridge prodigy spoke to me in a way that no other book ever has. The descriptions of drug experiences (marijuana and LSD) are vivid and accurate. A few years later I tracked down a copy through a book locator (remember them?), and have re-etc.-read it every couple of years ever since. For me, at least, it has never ceased to be fresh.

Friedman is a wonderful writer who never found popular acclaim. I guess his best-know novel was The Polygamist, which was a NYT Notable Book in its publication year. He was also an art writer in the abstract expressionist era — wrote the first full-length biography of Jackson Pollock [Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible–reissued by Da Capo Press in 1995.–Ed.], and a terrific novel about the museum world [Museum, one of the first three works published in 1974 by the Fiction Collective.–Ed.]

He is still around — must be in his mid-80s by now. I noticed a letter from him in the NYT Book Review a couple of months back, and Amazon tells me he published a new book last year.

Yarborough takes its title from the game of bridge. A “yarborough” is a “nothing hand” without face cards or value. Yarborough follows the life of Arthur Skelton, a bridge prodigy, who searches in vain for a system to give his life meaning. He experiments with many of the temptations available in the first half of the 20th century, finding none and dying suddenly in a car crash while still in his twenties. It was well-received by some of the more prominent papers, such as the New York Times, but most critics and readers outside Manhattan found it too esoteric. It continues to win and keep a small number of fervent supporters such as Mr. Nix.

Much the same fate was suffered by Friedman’s first novel, Circles, published in 1963. It also received positive reviews on the East Coast, but led one Midwestern critic to grouse, “If you deleted the martinis, the sex, the pot (marijuana), the sex, the cocktail parties, and the sex, there would be little left in this novel.” (Which reminds me of a famous line from “Blazing Saddles”).

Friedman continues to write and publish in the new century. His 2006 book, Tripping: A Memoir of Timothy Leary & Co., was probably his most commercially successful since The Polygamist. His most recent novel, My Case Rests, was published just last year.

Graham Greene’s “The Century Library”: Neglected English Fiction Classics

In scanning through W. J. West’s The Quest for Graham Greene, I came across a reference to the Century Library, one of Greene’s initiatives while he was an editor with Eyre and Spottiswoode in the late 1940s. West describes it as “a series reprinting neglected literary masterpieces of the none too distant past; even then literary reputation was evanescent.”

A notice in British Book News from early 1946 set expectations high:

The Century Library, a new series announced by Eyre & Spottiswoode, is planned to do for English fiction of the twentieth century what the World’s Classics and the Everyman Library has done for the classics in general. Each volume will appear in an attractive format and will contain a critical appreciation by a well-known critic or novelist and a full bibliography.

The books were to be listed at a bargain price of five shillings each. The item went on to mention over a dozen prospective titles:

West reproduces an ad from the Spectator that lists two further titles: The Nebuly Coat, by J. Meade Falkner, and The Fifth Queen Trilogy, by Ford Madox Ford. From what I can determine, fifteen books were actually published in the series between 1946 and 1950:

  1. The History of Mr. Polly, by H. G. Wells
  2. The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison
  3. Dialstone Lane, by W. W. Jacobs
  4. The Green Child, by Herbert Read
  5. The Unbearable Bassington, by “Saki”
  6. Widecombe Fair, by Eden Phillpott
  7. The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James
  8. The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells
  9. Frost in May, by Antonia White
  10. The Hampenshire Wonder, by J. D. Beresford
  11. Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman
  12. The Lost World and The Poison Belt, by Arthur Conan Doyle
  13. If there was a #13 in the series, I have been unable to identify it.
  14. Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman, by E. W. Hornung
  15. The Thief in the Night and Other Stories, by E. W. Hornung
  16. Saturday Night at the Greyhound, by John Hampson

It appears that the venture ended in 1950 due to a combination of factors: poor sales, problems with the supply of paper, and Greene’s departure from the firm.

While a number of books in the series–The Wings of the Dove and H. G. Wells’–are now solidly fixed in the literary canon, there are a fair number of titles likely to pique the interest of fans of neglected books:

The Century Library edition of 'Dialstone Lane,' by W. W. Jacobs
The Century Library edition of 'Dialstone Lane,' by W. W. Jacobs

Dialstone Lane, by W. W. Jacobs

Jacobs is best known for that mainstay of middle school English, “The Monkey’s Paw,” but his many stories of sailing and London dockside life have long been highly regarded as works of craft, if not art. Luckily, the text of Dialstone Lane is available free online from Project Gutenberg. Henry Reed’s introduction is also available at The Naming of Parts, a website devoted to Reed’s poetry and other writings.

Widecombe Fair, by Eden Phillpott

In his introduction, L. A. G. Strong (himself a writer whose works are now neglected) wrote, “I am delighted to see Widecombe Fair once more reprinted. It is an important book in the history of the English country novel, for it proves that one can be unsentimental and true to sight and sound….”

The Hampenshire Wonder, by J. D. Beresford

Greene cited Beresford as one of his earliest influences and considered this novel, a fantasy about a superman figure, one of the unjustly neglected classics of the Edwardian era. In his survey of science fiction, critic E. F. Bleiler called it, “The first important novel about a superman, and in many respects still the best.”

Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman

This satire is best known as the source for Alec Guinness’ tour de force comedy, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Long out of print, it’s now easily available thank to John Seaton’s terrific Faber Finds series of reprints.

Antigua, Penny, Puce, by Robert Graves

A comic novel of sibling rivalry over a rare stamp referred to in the title. Now back in print, packaged with Graves’ 1957 novel based on the trial of Doctor William Harper, They Hanged My Saintly Billy, thanks to Carcanet Press.

The Position of Peggy Harper, by Leonard Merrick

As far back as 1928, one critic wrote of Merrick, “For twenty-five years, Merrick has continued in the anomalous position of finding himself lauded for every eminent quality that builds the writer’s craft into an art, without attaining popularity. While planning the Century Library series, Greene asked George Orwell to write an introduction to one of Merrick’s works. Orwell reportedly replied, “I’d jump at it,” and suggested The Position of Peggy Harper. Although the book was never published, a victim of the series’ troubles, Orwell’s introduction can be found in In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950 (Collected Essays Journalism and Letters of George Orwell).

A Waif’s Progress, by Rhoda Broughton

A novelist and short story writer now seen as a pioneering feminist, Broughton’s work still awaits serious rediscovery. As her entry in Wikipedia puts it, “Today most of her works are out of print and even the original ones are very hard to come by. Especially those published after 1900 are very hard to procure.” A Waif’s Progress tells the story of Camilla Tancred, who manages to make the most for herself despite an inheritance of “drink on both sides, immorality on both sides, selfishness on both sides, extravagance and folly on both sides.”

The Case of Bevan Yorke, by W. B. Maxwell

Bevan Yorke is a story about the break-up of an Egyptologist’s marriage over his love for a younger woman. One contemporary wrote when the book was first published in 1927, “Captain Maxwell’s work is extremely well written. He has that happy quality of making his reader feel just what he wants him to feel and he accomplishes this without every becoming loquacious. He does not employ a legion of adjectives to describe an emotion. One well selected word suffices.” Compared to more than a few novels from the period, when the lean prose of Hemingway was just starting to take hold, this is a pretty high compliment. Another contemporary critic, Patrick Braybrooke, said of Maxwell, “It has often been said that simplicity is akin to greatness, not that they are interchangeable. Maxwell is both simple and great and the combinaiton have produced a novelist who is a brilliant artist and a sincere realist. Although he’s managed to earn a mention in Wikipedia, virtually his entire oeuvre is long out of print.

Brad Walker recommends two political comedies

Reader Brad Walker wrote to recommend two neglected novels, both political comedies: “Both are hilarious and utterly cynical,” he writes. “If you can enjoy Perdita Get Lost, you should have no trouble with these.”

The Smoke-filled Boudoir, by Lawrence Williams, 1965.

“I really enjoyed this in junior high. Reread a few years ago and was struck by how slight it seemed. Well, there may not be much meat on them bones, but what’s there is cherce! (Too bad we’ve lost Ted Knight – he would’ve been perfect as the candidate.)” The Owosso-Argus Press called it “a hilarious novel of high jinks and low politics.” Lawrence Williams is probably best remembered for his 1972 novel, I, James McNeill Whistler, in which he carried on from a fragment left by Whistler and filled in the rest with a fictional autobiography.

Let George Do It! by John Foster, 1957.

“More of a period piece than Boudoir, it hinges on campaign practices long superseded, but the mindset is eternal. (I saw the hero played by Sly Stallone with George done by his ‘Lords of Flatbush’ co-star Henry Winkler. Shows my age.)” Let George Do It! turns out to have impeccable street cred: “John Foster” was one of several noms de plume used by Foster Furcolo, two-term governor of Massachussetts. Furcolo later adapted the book for the stage as the comedy, “Ballots Up!,” using another alias, “Larry Sands.” “That’s what I was called when I did a little amateur boxing some years ago,” he told Time magazine when the play debuted at a Michigan summer stock theatre.

Thanks for the recommendations, Brad! They’ve got my vote (gnyuck, gnyuck, gnyuck)!

Molinoff, or, The Count in the Kitchen, by Maurice Bedel

It takes a light touch to make a successful soufflé–or comedy. Maurice Bedel’s 1929 novel, Molinoff, or, The Count in the Kitchen is a perfect example of the skill and care required to produce something of substance while keeping it light as air.

Molinoff is one of the many outcast Tsarist noblemen drifting around France after the October Revolution. His good looks, refined manners, and discriminating palate have landed him jobs as a tuxedo model, desk clerk, maître d’, and sous chef when he hires on with Monsieur Diego Cortés, a rich Bolivian planter who buys up a fine château in the Loire valley. Cortés proceeds to desecrate all the venerable trappings of his new estate, starting with the Gobelin tapestry in the main salon, which he rips down to improve the acoustics.

Cortés soon departs, leaving Molinoff only his corpulent and undemanding wife to tend to. Exploring the countryside on frequent breaks from the kitchen, Molinoff meets Anne and Françoise, daughters of M. d’Eglantier, a local royalist. Mistaking Molinoff as the owner of Cortés’ estate, they sweep up the Count, whom they invest with great mystery and romance, into their little circle of Action Française reactionaries. This group has all the passion and political impact of a chapter of the Flat Earth Society.

Bedel deftly skewers these sycophants as they gather around their favored pretender, the Duchesse de Guyenne:

The Duchess, prompted in whispers by the district secreatries, had the right word for each of her subjects. Her remarks, to be sure, were no distinguished; but, falling from her royal lips, they were gathered up with fervour, and destined to be cheirshed in many family traditions. “As the Duchesse de Guyenne once said to my grandfather,” the descendants of an old huntsman of Poitou would some day say, “hunting is a good sport.”

Although the followers of la Duchesse seem oblivious to the fact, Bedel manages to make it clear that the pretence of a possible return of French monarchy is propped up by a coterie of wealthy Swedes, Americans, and Latin Americans all looking to add a few titled names to their circle of acquaintances.

Maurice BedelMolinoff falls deeper and deeper in love with the illusion of being a genuine nobleman, until it all comes crashing down around him. By then, unfortunately, Françoise d’Eglantier has also fallen in love with the illusion. Rather than burst their bubbles, though, Bedel leaves the final resolution of the lover’s fate to the reader’s imagination. As satires go, it’s a pretty gentle one. Molinoff loses his job, but not his self-respect. And the collaborationist side of Action Française is still a decade away.

Bedel was a physician turned novelist and essayist who enjoyed a mild success with U. S. readers in the late 1920s. His first novel, Jerome: or, The Latitude of Love, won him the Prix Goncourt in 1927. His 1932 novel, Philippine, poked fun at Mussolini’s Italian fascists. Bedel’s 1937 book, Monsieur Hitler earned it the tribute of being burned in Germany. As Leo Forkey later wrote of Bedel’s work, “In the decade 1930-1940, all might have been classified as ‘amusing’, but a re-examination in the period 1940-1946 would change the word ‘amusing’ to ‘tragic’ and also add the word ‘prophetic’.”

Molinoff; or, The Count in the Kitchen, by Maurice Bedel, translated by Lawrence S. Morris
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929

Picture Frames (also published as Window Panes), by Thyra Samter Winslow

Cover of 1945 reissue of "Picture Frames," retitled "Window Panes"I learned of Thyra Samter Winslow from the two New Republic articles from 1934 on “Good Books That Almost Nobody Has Read”. In a letter responding to the articles, one O. Olsen of New York City wrote, “and there are Thyra Samter Winslow’s four books, The People Round the Corner, Picture Frames, Show Business and Blueberry Pie. All of these books are very good, and almost all of them have appeared on the 17-cent counters in the corner drug stores.”

A quick Google of her name produced several interesting links: this biographical sketch from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture and an article reprinted from the Southwest Times Record titled, “Thyra Samter Winslow: Woman Sets Fort Smith on Its Ear”. The encyclopedia piece notes that,

Published accounts of Winslow’s life are often contradictory. The authoritative work is a doctoral dissertation by Richard C. Winegard, who established Winslow’s biography from published records, Winslow’s own statements, and many interviews with informants in Fort Smith and elsewhere. He wrote, “She was restless, witty, independent, shrewd, kind, utterly mendacious, and sometimes completely dishonorable, and yet she is remembered most for her charm.”

The newspaper article offers equally contrasting views:

In New York Thyra Samter Winslow was part of the glamorous, sophisticated set other writers dubbed the “talk of the town.”

In Fort Smith, the “talk” she inspired often began with phrases like “that horrible woman.”

It also claims that one Fort Smith woman told Winegard, “indignantly,” “that he shouldn’t ‘write a dissertation about that horrible woman.'”

With recommendations like that, who wouldn’t want to know more?

From the opening words of “Little Emma,” the first story in Picture Frames, Winslow’s first collection of short stories, published by Knopf in 1923, I knew I liked this woman’s work:

When little Emma Hooper, from Black Plains, Iowa, came to Chicago to carve out her fortune, she did not leave behind her a sorrowing family who wondered about the fate of their dear child in the city. Neither did she sneak away from a cruel step-mother who had made life hard, unbearable. Emma’s family was quite glad to see her go.

Emma’s father was a member of the Knights of Pythias and worked in an overall factory. Her mother, a lazy, whiny woman, kept house, assisted unwillingly and incompetently by such daughters of the house as happened to be out of work. There were three of these daughters besides Emma and they all worked when jobs were not too difficult to get or keep. They spent their spare time trying to get married. There was one son. He was next in age to Emma, who was the second youngest. He smoked cheap cigars and hung around the livery stable and garage. His name was Ralph.

No room for nostalgia in this tough cookie’s heart. Little Emma, we learn, is a cute, conniving, ambitious young woman out to scramble as high up the social ladder as she could. She’s not pass romancing the town banker’s son purely for the financial benefit. After whispers start circulating when the lad and Emma are seen at the ice cream parlour, the father makes Emma a proposition: “If Miss Hooper would leave town, over the winter, say, a check for five hundred dollars would belong to her.” Emma takes the money and hightails to Chicago with no regrets. “She didn’t like Clarence much, anyhow. he was a silly, conceited thing, who told long tales about himself, and hadn’t changed much, in fact, since his sniffy boyhood days.”

Thyra Samter Winslow, attending a film premiere in Manhattan, 1937
Thyra Samter Winslow, attending a film premiere in Manhattan, 1937
Like Little Emma, Winslow escaped the claustrophic life of a small town–Fort Smith, Arkansas in her case–for the bright lights of Chicago. She worked at a vaudeville theater, then a newspaper. She married a writer, John Winslow, and soon began placing stories in various magazines. Her breakthrough came when H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan chose her story, “In the Case of Lou Terry,” to appear in the November, 1914 issue of Smart Set, the first issue the pair jointly edited. Mencken and Nathan were attracted by the forceful and unapologetic feminism of Winslow, which opened with the sentence, “The sexes seem to have changed places since the days of the first man.”

In “Corinna and Her Man,” the last story in Picture Frames, Winslow shares the thoughts of one of her sharp young women: “In spite of her mother, she realized that men weren’t superior people, after all. They were rather more stupid than women, on the whole, a bit heavy, with a thick sense of humor. Men were ashamed to show emotions, easy victims of flattery.” This outlook allows characters such as Mamie Carpenter, the subject of another Winslow story, to work her way from the wrong side town into a mansion on Maple Road solely by manipulating the emotions of Marlin Embury, heir to one of the town’s few fortunes.

Winslow’s characters live in of “sets.” The desirable set, of course, is the “society set,” because all others are considered outcast, uninteresting, or shameful. One suspects the fact that Winslow’s family was Jewish and her father a shopkeeper put her at a permanent disadvantage in Fort Smith’s hierarchy of sets. Not that places like Fort Smith or Millersville, Mamie Carpenter’s town, had been around long enough to claim any real roots to their sets:

Mamie scorned Millersville’s social pretentions. She knew that in some cities, London and New York, maybe, there was society, real people with generations of good blood back of them, and money and breeding. People like that Mamie could look up to. But she knew Millersville. In Millersville, what did society amount to? A joke, that’s what it was. No one really came to anything, did anything.

The Elwood Simpsons, the leaders of Millersville society–look at them! There was a little grave in Oakdale Cemetery that Mamie knew all about–and it was closely connected with the girlhood of Mrs. Elwood Simpson–and there were other babies who did not die but who arrived at equally inopportune times. The Coakleys were one of Millersville’s oldest and best families–and Frank Coakley’s half-brother spend most of his time in jail, and his other half-brother, Bill, was half-witted, went around with his tongue hanging out and saying silly things. The Binghams–ugh–they had to get their servants out of town, and sometimes at the last minute had to break engagements because some one in their third floor would cry and scream–their oldest daughter, some said it was.

Passages like think make Picture Frames seem a bit like Winesburg, Ohio writ by Dorothy Parker: it’s a hard world, but one where cynicism goes a long way as insulation against the bitterest blows. Winslow’s sensibility also shares much with that of Balzac: the selfish always end up on top, the soft-hearted get used and forgotten, and everyone is keeping score.

Not that escape from small towns is any panacea. A number of the stories in Picture Frames focus on the realities of city life.

In “A Cycle of Manhattan,” the longest and weakest story in the collection, Winslow takes a family of Lithuanian Jews, the Rosenheimers, from the day they step off the boat onto Ellis Island to a time, some thirty years later, when “Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln Ross, well-dressed, commanding, in their fifties” come to visit the Greenwich Village studio of their son, Manning Cuyler Ross (nee Emmanuel Rosenheimer). Step by step, the family moves up the economic and social ladder. With each step, something of their roots is shed. Rosenheimer becomes Rosenheim, which in turns becomes Rosen and, finally, the ethnically-blank Ross. The father shaves his beard and forelocks, the mother abandons her shawl. By the time the story ends, the family has left so much of their original selves behind that only the father recognizes Manning’s studio as the same tenement apartment in which they started their life in Manhattan. “This is the way to live! None of your middle-class fripperies. Plain living–this is the life!” proclaims Manning.

In “City Folks,” in fact, the story pivots around the choice facing Joe and Mattie, a couple living in a small apartment in Manhattan. Joe’s father is ailing and wants them to return to Burton Center and take over the family store. “Burton Center will look awfully good–folks take an interest in you, there,” Joe muses. But in the course of the day, they both get caught up in–well, not much more than the mere pace of city life. Despite the fact that they stare out of their window “across to the factory-like, monotonous row of apartment houses opposite, where innumerable lights twinkled from other little caves, where other little families lived humdrum, unmarked, inconsequential, grey,” they place more importance on such coincidences as seeing James Montgomery Flagg at a Liberty Bond rally or Billie Burke getting out of a limousine. “We’re city folks!” they conclude.

Picture Frames received an enthusiastic critical welcome when it was published. Edna Ferber, one of the most successful novelists of the time, led the applause: “These short stories are character studies, penetrating, keen, pitiless. No one in this country is doing this sort of thing as well as Thyra Winslow.” She did, however, regret Winslow’s lean style, referring to it as, “Hard, tough, common, little Anglo-Saxon words about hard, tough, common little American people.” Burton Rascoe, reviewing for the New York Tribune, called the stories “hard, metallic”–but also described Winslow’s work as “distinctly original, the method of presentation new, the point of view fresh, challenging and distinctive.”

Winslow published four other story collections–The People Round the Corner (1927), Blueberry Pie (1932), My Own, My Native Land (1935), and The Sex Without Sentiment (1957). She also published one novel, Show Business (later republished as Chorus Girl) in 1926.

Although not one of the legendary Algonquin Round Table set, Winslow was an active and well-known member of the New York literary scene through the 1920s and 1930s. Several of her stories were made into movies and she worked at times as a writer for studios. As the rage for magazine fiction began to fade in the 1940s, she was forced to take jobs writing diet books and place stories with less mainstream magazines such as Amazing Science Fiction. Although she returned to Fort Smith on occasion, townspeople were unwilling to allow her picture to hung in the town library.

I look forward to reading more of her “hard, metallic” stories. After all, one could use these words to describe most fine jewelry.

Locate a Copy

Picture Frames, by Thyra Samter Winslow
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923
republished asWindow Panes
Cleveland & New York: The World Publishing Co., 1945

Hans Otto Storm

In 1940, after immersing himself in the works of Marx and other 19th century thinkers to write his masterpiece, To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson turned his attention to lighter, more contemporary writers with a long piece for the New Republic, titled, “The Boys in the Back Room.” Of the mostly-California-based writers he discussed, all are still in print–James M. Cain, John O’Hara, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck.

All that is, save one: Hans Otto Storm. Wilson had the following to say of Storm’s work:

With Hans Otto Storm and John Steinbeck, we get into more ambitious writing.

Both stories had a concentration of form and a kind of conscientiousness in their approach to their material that were rare enough to excite interest in the author.

An engineer who thus goes in for literature is such a novelty that Hans Otto Storm is able to carry us with him because we have never listened to precisely his story before.

Add to this equipment–to this first-hand knowledge of aspects of American life which few American writers know at all–a mentality which is culturally closer to Europe than that of most American writers (there is a suggestion of Conrad about him); and you get something quite unique in our fiction.

Hans Otto Storm writes with a refreshing subtlety and with a distinctiveness that draws his novels quite out of the familiar orbit. His qualities are so individual that a review and convey only an inadequate impression of them.

Hans Otto Storm. A poor image from the NY Times.Born in California in 1895, Storm studied engineering at Stanford and went into the nascent field of radio engineering. His first novel, Full Measure (unnoticed by Wilson, who calls Pity the Tyrant his first book) was published in 1929. It’s something of a romance of radio engineering with a strong autobiographical flavor. Like Storm, the young hero starts out at a powerful shore station providing telegraphy service to ships at sea, then goes on to install the first major station in a fictitious Central American country. And as is often the case with novels about technology written by technologists, the engineering aspects of Full Measure are far more interesting and well-developed than any of the characters.

Full Measure received mildly positive reviews but sold little over a thousand copies. Whether chastened by the lukewarm reception or caught up in the concerns of his day jobs, which included posts with the Federal Telegraph and with Globe Wireless Company, Storm did not publish again until eight years later. Then, in just four years, he published three major works: Pity the Tyrant (1937), a political allegory about a South American dictator; Made in U. S. A. (1939); and Count Ten (1940), a long bildungsroman about flying, radio, business, love, and independence. None of them have been in print in over 50 years.

Cover of first UK edition of 'Pity the Tyrant'These are three quite different books. Wilson considered Pity the Tyrant, set in Lima, Peru, Storm’s best work. Storm’s protagonist is, once again, a radio engineer. The Tyrant of the title is certainly based on Augusto Leguía, President of Peru from 1919 to 1930, whose rule was marked by rebellion, suppression of his opponents, and widespread corruption. In the book, the Tyrant mostly hovers in the background. Much of the story involves a series of set pieces that combine incident and philosophical meditations and debates, rather along the lines of one of Voltaire’s novels. But unlike Candide, Storm’s engineer does not retain his naivete in the face of violence, cruelty, and injustice. As the book closes, the engineer, having been ordered out of the country, sails off on steamship:

“Where do you think we are now, anyway?”
“Just off Trujillo,” he replied.
“Oh, why don’t we put in at Trujillo?”
“No,” he said, “the port’s closed.”
He didn’t tell her that at Trujillo there were a thousand dead, real dead, actual dead, people one knew by their first names or owed little bills to; tortured, mangled, decapitated, left to rot.
What was the use?

Storm is precise and telling in his choice of details, so there is a strongly realistic thread throughout the book. In more than a few ways, it’s a precursor of the magical realism of Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers of the 1960s.

Made in U. S. A. is somewhat more obviously allegorical. A tramp freighter with a small contingent of paying passengers runs into an uncharted sand bar somewhere in the South Pacific. The initial attempts to free it fail, and what was thought to be a brief delay turns into a protracted ordeal. As days wear on and the situation grows more serious, tempers grow raw, and suddenly the ship is divided into two camps. A short, clumsy battle of fists and clubs breaks out, after which the sides retire behind barricades of hay. The captain manages regain his senses and stare down the mutineers. Storm’s description of the morning after gives some sense of his style:

Such feelings and a good many other like them ran, expressed and unexpressed, through the minds of those two thirds of the passengers who found themselves abaft of the hay. They were not the only things that ran there through. They were the what you might call public feelings, and they by no means filled the foreground–most of the passengers had private things to think about that were more vivid. They got up late, many of them nursing cuts and bruises and sore joints, things which got worse rather than better with the night. Last evening they had marveled at themselves that they could fight–now they were even more surprised to find how frightfully one can get himself bunged up at it. Limbs ached just from the sheer exertion where they couldn’t even show a black and blue spot. More than one man of forty-two spent the time wondering with private apprehension how he had happened to get in that fight.

This is not a breakdown of civilization. It’s more like a violin string wound too tight and vibrating off-key.

Cover of first US edition of 'Made in U.S.A.'Storm’s work in radio, along with years of dealing with the maritime business, shows in many telling details that anchor his story in a credible reality. But there is also a sense of Storm as puppeteer, manipulating his players, pushing them into extremis just to see the violence of their recoil. I found myself thinking of Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard and Isa Glenn’s Transport–two other neglected books set on ships somewhere out in the vast Pacific. All three novels play on the artificiality of shipboard life utterly isolated–save by radio–from the rest of the world.

Pity the Tyrant and Made in U. S. A. are relatively short books–around 200 pages each. Storm’s fourth novel, Count Ten weighed in at over six hundred pages. Rather than a short period of time, Count Ten covers over thirty years, following the life of Eric Marsden from boyhood, when his father teaches him to fly as well as bail out (he tells the boy to “Count ten” as he jumps from a crashing plane) through time as a conscientious objector in World War One, an ordinary seaman, a campaign worker, and finally an executive in business. The New York Times’ reviewer, William Jay Gold, proclaimed, “It is not only safe, it is necessary now to say that Hons Otto Storm has become one of our first-rank writers. His new novel, Count Ten, is one of the finest books of fiction produced in America for more than a decade.” Gold grouped it with other novels about the meaning of life: The Last Puritan, Of Human Bondage, and Jean-Christophe–not all of which remain quite their same standing.

Count Ten was widely advertised and sold by far the best of Storm’s books. In Wilson’s estimation, it was “very much inferior on the whole to the ones that had gone before.” He also thought that it showed “what seemed internal evidence of having been written earlier than they,” giving off the air of “one of those autobiographical novels that young men begin in college and carry around for years in old trunks.” Having read Full Measure, I would have to agree with Wilson. The book bears stronger resemblance to that early work than to the much more artfully conceived and concisely written Pity the Tyrant and Made in U. S. A..

Storm died in December 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbor. He was electrocuted while working on an Army Signal Corps transmitter station in San Francisco. He was 46. David Greenhood collected Pity the Tyrant and other fictional and nonfictional pieces Storm had written about life in Central and South America into Of Good Family, which was published by the small Swallow Press in 1948. And that was about the last the reading public heard of his work.

The Very Strange and Exact Truth, by Ben Piazza

Ben Piazza, around the time of the publication of "The Exact and Very Strange Truth"Ben Daniel Piazza, we learn from his bio on The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, “was born on July 30, 1933, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Charles Piazza, a shoe repairman, and Elfreida Piazza, a homemaker. He was the eighth of nine children, having two sisters and six brothers.”

Alexander Gallanti, the narrator of The Very Strange and Exact Truth, is the son of Rudolfo Gallanti, a Little Rock shoe repairman, and one of eight children. “This is a work of fiction, and therefore the characters and events in this work are fictional,” states the Author’s Note at the start of the book, but it’s clear that the autobiographical elements of this, Piazza’s first and only novel, are many.

Ben Piazza in "The Blues Brothers"You’ve probably seen Ben Piazza. His entry on the Internet Movie Database lists over 90 television and movie productions in which he appeared between 1957 and 1991. He started acting while attending Princeton, went to Broadway and then Hollywood, was considered at first a promising lead, something like a young Brando or Newman, but became more of a character actor as time went on. In later years he often played a stereotypical upright and uptight establishment man, as in a memorable restaurant scene in “The Blues Brothers: The Movie.”

He took over from George Grizzard as Tom in the original production of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and appeared in several other Albee plays. The Very Strange and Exact Truth is dedicated to Albee. He also wrote and produced a number of his own plays in New York and Los Angeles. He died at just the age of 57, of cancer, in 1991.

If Alexander Gallanti bears any resemblance to the young Ben Piazza, he had a strong theatrical streak early on. In a climactic scene in the novel, Alexander fantasizes about receiving a standing ovation for his rendition of “We Gather Together” at his junior high school Thanksgiving pageant, and when his mother is struck down with a stroke, he insists on wearing his Pilgrim costume for days afterward. And late in the book, Alexander and his younger sister and brother insist on applying great gobs of makeup to their mother’s half-paralyzed face before hauling her in a wagon to a moviehouse, despite whispers of passers-by that she looks like a clown.

Cover of the first US paperback edition of "The Exact and Very Strange Truth" by Ben Piazza. Bought for just 54 cents from V. E. M. DrugsThe Very Strange and Exact Truth is a heart-breaker: first Alexander’s father dies, then his mother becomes a mute and limp shadow of herself, suffers for months, and dies, too. Alexander and his younger siblings are split up and he is sent in the end to a boarding school. The warm, affectionate world of his early childhood, in a house built by his father, a kitchen warmed by his mother’s cooking, and a yard full of vegetables, fruit trees, chickens, and flowers is taken apart bit by bit. Two older brothers leave to fight in World War Two. An older sister marries and moves across town. In the end, nothing is left of the world he first knew.

But well before any of the tragedies, Alexander is aware that there are things going on that are not of the child’s world. Piazza’s viewpoint was undoubtedly influenced by Albee, Tennessee Williams, and other contemporary American playwrights whose works he performed, and it shows in passages like the following, in which Alexander feels a strange attraction to a man and woman he sees through their bedroom window, sleeping naked on a warm summer morning as he makes the rounds of his paper route. Eventually, he feels so drawn that he goes behind some bushes, takes off his clothes, and attempts to enter their house and climb into bed with them, only to find all the doors locked.

I went back in the bushes and put my clothes on and my paper bags and delivered the rest of the papers as best I could after all that. I felt very badly about them not wanting me after I had found my secret with them. I still watched at their window every morning until summer ended and I gave up my paper route. But it was different because I knew that they didn’t want me at all and that I would never be with them. I would always be on the outside of their house, looking in.

It’s hard to imagine that scene and that last paragraph appearing in any novel written before Salinger, Albee, and Williams. Or the story of Jesus Elizabeth Jones, the son of the family’s housekeeper, who runs away one day, leaving his mother a note saying that he has bought a pair of red high heels and is wearing them on the bus to Chicago.

There are numerous scenes like this in The Very Strange and Exact Truth, scenes that are certainly too symbolic to have been autobiographical. After their mother’s stroke, for some unexplained reason Alexander and the younger children are left for a few days on their own, and they make up their own country as they play each day in the back yard:

They made up rules about the new country. In this new country nothing bad could ever happen to anyone because there were lots of angels looking out for everyone. And in the new country nobody got sick or died and everyone loved everyone else. In the new country you could holler and scream and say whatever you wanted to and all anybody ever ate was candy or ice cream and cake.

Although The Very Strange and Exact Truth earned good reviews when it was first published in 1964 and was aided by enthusiastic blurbs from Steinbeck (“A darn good book”), Williams (“A truly brilliant novel”), and Albee (“The sort of novel that will leave you a changed person for having read it”), it sold only moderately well in hardback, received one paperback release (with a completely misleading cover), then vanished. lists 66 copies for sale online, with most of those starting at $25 and up–even for the paperback version that originally retailed for 60 cents.

I was alerted to the book by the enthusiastic reviews on Amazon, but I was a little reluctant to commit to it after a quick scan told me that it was about childhood and death. But I quickly grew engrossed by the power of Piazza’s imagination and prose and polished off most of the book in the course of a trans-Atlantic flight. It’s a remarkable work and makes me regret that Piazza never found time to come back to fiction after his first attempt. The Very Strange and Exact Truth is a fine, beautiful, memorable novel.

The Exact and Very Strange Truth, by Ben Piazza
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1964

The Wonder-Worker, by Dan Jacobson

Like a few dozen million other people, I am waiting to learn in a few days just what the point of watching six years’ worth of “Lost” was. At this point, I’m convinced it will turn out to be the world’s longest and most expensive shaggy dog story. Even so, “Lost” has been remarkably effective in getting viewers to accept that seemingly unrelated narratives are, in fact, linked in some elusive but profound way. Which is very much the feat Dan Jacobson pulls off in his 1973 novel, The Wonder-Worker.

Cover of Penguin edition of 'The Wonder-Worker"The Wonder-Worker opens on the night that Timothy Fogel is conceived. His mother wakes up screaming. Other people in the boarding house are stirred, thinking she was hurt or raped. She had had a sense that “all the devils of hell” were after her husband, Gerhard, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Timothy’s advent, Jacobson writes,

… was thus accompanied by omens. Within the moist, lightless crevices of Maureen Fogel’s organs of generation, two minuscule germs came together, and the result was that her entire system was convulsed with terror and wonder. As well it might be. But neither she nor Gerhard had any inkling of the significance of her cry. Nine months had to pass before they were to be enlightened.

Nine months from then, Maureen goes into labor in the newsagent’s where she works. Summoned to her side, Gerhard knocks over a small stove and part of their house burns down.

“A windy blue and white sky outside,” the next chapter opens. The nameless first-person narrator describes his hotel-like room, and tells us that he was writing. “Gerhard! Maureen! Timothy! At best they’re caricatures, cartoons, cheap satiric spooks and might-have-beens.” Apparently, the first chapter is a novel he’s writing. But then he tells us, “I wait for the doctor to arrive.”

As the next few chapters alternate between Timothy’s story and the writer’s, we learn that the hotel-like room is in Doctor Wuch’s exclusive sanatorium somewhere in Switzerland. The doctor, an older, refined man in well-tailored suits seems to have a most casual relationship with the writer, although he does stress the need to reach some level of Selbsverstehen (self-understanding). It is quite clear that there is much we are not being told by the writer.

Timothy’s story, on the other hand, is rich in small, magical details. Jacobson’s prose in these chapters is the most deftly poetic I have read in years:

The house itself seemed to remember that it was his, and made him welcome every time he returned to it. Some places inside it, however, were more grudging than others in their welcome, especially when the light began to fail at the end of every day. The kitchen was always a safe and cheerful place to be in, it was always glad to have him; the little front hall, on the other hand, contained more than a hint of menace, which not even his mother’s presence could entirely abolish. In the kitchen there was warmth and activity: pots on the gas stove, peelings and tea leaves in the rubbish bin, steam on the windows insulating the room from the darkness beyond. In the hall, the narrow staircase silently debouched strange reflections of itself on to a floor of polished linoleum; the hallstand leaned back against the wall with a trapped, desperate air, and held before it the only weapons it had, its prongs for coats to hang on. From the ceiling, much the tallest in the house, there hung a lightshade that was as copiously befringed as a lady in an eastern tale, and that looked quite capable of lowering itself and advancing in stately fashion on a boy whose back was turned.

It is not just Jacobson who animates these everyday objects. Timothy discovers that he has a magical power–the ability to project himself into objects and take on their senses and viewpoint. All he needs to do is take an object–soap, sugar, brick, brass–place his forehead against it, and close his eyes. Soon, he can spend hours inhabiting a thing such as the desk of a schoolmate who fascinates him. He wonders “what it would be like to be wind, words, a cloud, a star, a note of music, not his eye or his mother’s but the glance between them.”

Meanwhile, all is not well with the writer. “There hasn’t been a word from them all day,” he writes in one entry. “I don’t know how to fill in my time.” His father comes for a brief visit. Offered the manuscript by his son, he reads a few pages and then hands it back: “Very amusing.” He leaves advising the son to trust in Doctor Wuchs, having seen something quite disturbing.

We continue to follow Timothy’s story interspersed with the writer’s meditations until, within a dozen pages of the end of this short novel, a transformation takes place. In the space of fifteen paragraphs or so, Jacobson manages to pull these parallel narratives together just as simply and miraculously as one creates a Möbius strip from a flat piece of paper with a single twist. He does it so subtly that I went back and read the passage again just to convince myself that my mind hadn’t played a trick on me. I won’t spoil the effect by explaining any more. But in its way, it’s as stunning a moment as when Aureliano Babilonia sees the pig’s tail on his dead infant son in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And I will say that when I finished the book, I went back and read it again–and found it was as if I was reading it for the first time. It’s the kind of reality-warping experience a fan of “Lost” could appreciate.

The Wonder-Worker, by Dan Jacobson
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., 1973
Boston: Little, Brown, 1973

New List Added to “Sources”: The New Republic, 1934

Malcolm Cowley, around 1940In early 1934, Malcolm Cowley, then literary editor of The New Republic magazine, sent out a series of letters to a number of America’s leading novelists and critics. “Each year,” he wrote,

… a few good books get lost in the shuffle. It may not be the fault of the publisher, the critic, the bookseller–it may not be anybody’s fault except that of the general system by which too many books are distributed with an enormous lot of ballyhoo to not enough readers. Most of the good books are favorably reviewed, yet the fact remains that many of them never reach the people who would like and profit by them, the people for whom they are written. Then, after a while, the publisher remainders them and they are forgotten.

Some week we should like to run a list of books like this, as a means of making amends to their authors–and perhaps also to the public that has so far missed the chance of reading them. Couldn’t you think of two or three or four and jot down their names, preferably with a few sentences identifying them?

About a dozen writers responded–and they include some of the biggest names of the era: Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, and Edmund Wilson. Cowley reprinted their lists and comments in two articles: “Good Books That Almost Nobody Has Read,” which appeared in the 18 April 1934 issue; and “More About Neglected Books,” which appeared on 23 May 1934. In addition, several readers responded to the first article with suggestions of their own, and their letters appeared in the 30 May 1934 issue. Although Cowley concluded the first article with an observation that, “American criticism ought to be given a chance, too, for sober second judgment of the books that deserve it,” the New Republic did not return to the subject until its brief series, “Lost and Found”, which is included among the Sources on this site.

Several titles came up on multiple lists–most notably Robert Cantwell’s Laugh and Lie Down, Catherine Brody’s novel of striking Detroit autoworkers, Nobody Starves, and Rudolf Brunngraber’s Karl and the Twentieth Century. Of these three, none has ever been reissued. The few available copies of Cantwell’s novel start at $150 and Brody’s at $55. Brunngraber’s novel, a fable of how Taylorism and mechanization ground down the common man, commands a mere $14.95 for a good copy without dust jacket.

Although a few titles, such as Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Kafka’s The Castle are now well-established classics, there are more titles that even I haven’t heard of than in perhaps any other of the Sources included on this site so far.

So dig in and enjoy this treasure trove of forgotten books.

See the full list at The New Republic, 1934

And Sleep Until Noon, by Gene Lees

Gene Lees, 1958Gene Lees, one of the finest jazz writers ever, passed away a few days ago. Without a doubt, his best work was the series of jazz portraits and memoirs he published in his long-running journal, Jazzletter, which were collected in such books as Cats of Any Color and Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s. He was also a fine lyricist, best known perhaps for his English version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado,” which Lees transformed into the lovely “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.”

But Lee also made two ventures into fiction. Late in his life, he published the nostalgic Song Lake Summer, set in upstate New York in the late 19th century, which received generally positive reviews. His first book, And Sleep Until Noon, his first novel, did not.

Lees started writing And Sleep Until Noon in the late 1950s, but only got the book published in 1966.

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'And Sleep Until Noon'
The book focuses on Jack Royal, a kid from Chicago who evolves from student of classical piano to jazz musician to jazz singer to pop star to star of baguette Westerns and adventure movies. Lees portrays Jack as a talented jerk, the kind of temperamental celebrity who tries to get hotel managers fired when the wrong drink shows up on his room service cart. Jack’s life and ways are turned around in the course of a week or so in Stockholm when he meets a beautiful journalist, Disa Lindahl. Unlike Jack, Disa is true-hearted and pure in spirit. Her effect on Jack is like that of a tuning fork, putting his mind and life back to the right pitch, and even though they go their separate ways in the end, it’s clear that Jack will now take his work, art, and other people seriously.

If that plot sounds thin, Lees’ characterizations do little to compensate. He attempts to draw some kind of parallel between Jack’s meandering career, marked mostly by a series of self-indulgent decisions, and that of Bud Weston, Jack’s boyhood friend, who drops jazz for medicine after meeting–and falling in love with–a Costa Rican prostitute scarred in an auto accident. As young men, both Bud and Jack are liberal users of booze, pot, and women, and there are numerous accounts of their debauches, none of them particularly convincing. Jack postulates at one point that “an entertainer’s popularity with women, who formed the majority of his audience and determined the tastes of the rest of it, varied directly with his utility as a focus for sexual fantasies, and any one of them who thought otherwise was a damn fool.”Library Journal called the book “sophomoric with puerile gaps predominating in the earlier parts.” I’m guessing the Journal’s critic was thinking of the scene where Bud masturbates a horse with a violin bow.

As a lyricist, Lees’ writing could be subtle and poetic. As a budding novelist, his work was on a par with those tired old lines about how the love of a good woman’ll set a man straight.

The only bright spots in the book are a few passages where Lees gets down to his true passion, music. There’s a wonderful little essay toward the end about the art of the pop singer, particularly on record:

Recording was an intimate medium. The listener’s ear was brought to a distance of only inches from the singer’s mouth. It was not only unnecessary to shout; it was rude. Making it even more intimate was the fact that the record was usually heard by one person, sometimes two, rarely as many as three at a time. If there were more persons present, he was fond of saying, nobody was listening–they were too busy talking.

And so, in recent years, there had been a steady evolution of his conception. He had dropped the volume of his voice. Not that he had abandoned the use of dynamics; he had simply made them more subtle. As a result his records had an arresting quality of intimacy, of private urgency, and a woman who listened to them tended to be drawn into the illusion that he was singing directly to her; while men, oddly enough, were inclined to feel that he was speaking on their behalf, saying those thing, making those confessions that they would make themselves were they only eloquent enough ….

Lees himself later told an interviewer that he hated the book. Perhaps the kindest thing one can says about it is that it provides convincing evidence that Lees made the right decision when he abandoned fiction and concentrated instead on writing about what he knew and loved best: jazz, pop, and the remarkable musicians who play it.

And Sleep Until Noon, by Gene Lees
New York: Trident Press, 1966

Straight and Crooked Thinking, by Robert H. Thouless

Cover of 1953 Pan Book issue of 'Straight and Crooked Thinking'
Robert Thouless’ little book, Straight and Crooked Thinking, has been considered a classic guide to ferreting out untruths, half-truths, and other distortions of facts in political and social discussions since it was first published in 1932. It’s been reissued at least a half-dozen times since, most recently in 1990 by Hodder Arnold. But from then until April 2011, it was out of print and copies on Amazon started at $27.00–for what was at most a $2 paperback.

Although there are many other texts on applying logic to argument, Straight and Crooked Thinking remains one of the most succinct and practically-applicable books ever written. One blogger named it as his favorite book of all time, describing it as “a concise work of supreme genius.”

One of the strengths of Thouless’ discussion of various argumentative fallacies is his recognition of the significant role that emotions play in our responses to them. As a psychologist, he doesn’t believe that logic alone is likely ever to win an argument or even budge a skeptical listener. Here, for example, is a short passage from the opening chapter on the use of emotionally-charged words:

Psychology is still a young science and the clearing away from it of emotional words has not gone very far. ‘Passion’, ’emotion’, ‘sex’ are all terms which carry strong emotional meanings, so that it is difficult to discuss a controversial matter in psychology without using words which rouse strong emotions and confuse all issues. Yet there is a psychology of the laboratories which is scientific and tries to use its terms as factually and unemotionally as they are used in any other science, A prominent educational psychologist has said: “When I say that a child is intelligent, I am describing him and not praising him.” In other words, he is using the term ‘ intelligence’ in a factual and emotionally neutral way.

The difficulty of this use is that he cannot be sure that his hearer will also understand it in that way. So emotional neutrality can often be obtained more easily if we stop using the terms of ordinary speech which have accumulated emotional meanings and replace them by new terms which we have invented ourselves and can define as we like. Thus Spearman made it more easy to think about intelligence without being confused by emotional irrelevancies, when he used instead the term ‘general intellectual factor’, which is a term with much the same factual meaning but more precisely defined and carrying no emotional meaning. Some day a psychological genius will give us X or Z to replace the old emotional conception of sex, and we shall be able to discuss psycho-analysis as objectively as a mathematical physicist can discuss the quantum theory.

On a hunch, I did some rooting around in the back stacks of the Internet–otherwise known as the world of peer-to-peer file sharing–and amazingly enough, located an electronic copy of the book scanned in from the 1952 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition whose cover is shown to the right. It was a little ragged, as such things often are, but essentially intact.

So I took the liberty to clean up the formatting and put it into a more presentable layout for printing or e-reading and am making it available for anyone interested. My U. K. readers might find a quick scan useful in preparation for cutting through the campaign rhetoric ahead of the May 6 General Election:

Straight and Crooked Thinking
(PDF file)

Out of respect for Mr. Thouless’ legatees, I will be happy to pull this file as soon as a new edition becomes available… Which it has, thanks to Hodder Education: < a href:"">

Libertarianism has its Benefits: Download Isabel Paterson’s “Never Ask the End” for Free

Libertarianism has never struck me as more than anarchism with a day job (which comment will probably bring a heap of abuse upon this site). But the good folks at the Ludwig von Mises Institute have brought at least one benefit to lovers of neglected books: the ability to download one of the best books I’ve ever written about, a novel so intelligent, adult, and female in its sensibility that it’s almost unfathomable that it’s not sitting on every bookstore’s shelves alongside the works of Jane Austen: Never Ask the End (the full URL:

When I featured the book about three years ago, I wrote:

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

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

Fortunately, there is much to reward the careful reader.

To tell the truth, I really didn’t do Never Ask the End justice in my original post. It inspired me to seek out and write about Paterson’s three other contemporary novels (she wrote several historical novels that are scarce as hen’s teeth and probably about as rewarding to locate): The Shadow Riders, The Golden Vanity, and If It Prove Fair Weather. All three are fine novels that deserve to be brought back in print, but Never Ask the End is a genuine masterpiece. (Actually, I consider If It Prove Fair Weather something of a masterpiece, too, but more on the order of a minimalist masterpiece along the lines of Henry Green’s Nothing, something one out of two readers probably wants to hurl out the window after the first twenty pages).

To the reader willing to take a while to tune into Paterson’s unique voice and style, Never Ask the End offers a wealth of pleasures: razor-sharp but deft observations of the manners of women and men, a running commentary on American and European life full of wit and historical insight, and literary references as dense as anything in Joyce but far more effortless.

So, until some publisher puts this book into formal print, let’s salute libertarianism for a moment and download our individualistic copies of Never Ask the End.

A Dozen Neglected Titles from Mencken’s reviews for “The American Mercury”

I came across a synopsis of H. L. Mencken’s literary criticism from the ten years he wrote and edited The American Mercury with George Jean Nathan. Mencken was one of the magazine’s regular book reviewers, publishing at least one review in each issue. In total, he reviewed eighty-nine works by fifty-eight different authors. Many of the authors–Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway–are still familiar and widely read today. But at least a dozen that received his enthusiastic praise have slipped away into obscurity:

The White Robe, by James Branch Cabell

Cabell “… has never done a better piece of work.” Mencken went on to write that, “No man writing in America today has a more strongly individualized, or, on the whole, a more charming style.”

Stuffed Peacocks, by Emily Clark

Mencken wrote that Clark displayed “… plain signs of a fine talent,” and that her characters had “brilliant color, fine insight, and a sort of hard, scientific mercilessness.”

Harvest in Poland, by Geoffrey Dennis

He called Dennis, “[A] story-teller of unusual talent, with a great deal of originality.” The novel was an “… impossible story told in terms of the most meticulous realism.” Mencken praised Dennis’ style with an adjective that probably says less to today’s readers than to his: “His prose has a Carlylean thunder in it; he knows how to roll up gorgeous sentences.”

Backfurrow, by G. D. Eaton

Mencken felt, “There is not much finesse in the story, but it is moving.” But he went on to say that, “Few first novels show so much seriousness or so much skill.”

The Keen Desire, by Frank B. Elser

Mencken found it, “…immensely better than any of its predecessors,” and that Elser had a “sensitive feeling for character,” depicting his protagonist “… with great insight and unfailing skill.”

Wolf Song, by Harvey Fergusson

“[An] extraordinarily brilliant and charming story,” he wrote.”The Old South-west is made to palpitate with such light and heat that they are felt almost physically, and the people that gallop across the scene are full of the juices of life.”

Roundabout, by Nancy Hoyt

“It is a tale of calf love—-not done with superior snickers, but seriously and even a bit tragically.”

A Hind Let Loose, by C. E. Montague

Mencken declared it “satire in the grand manner,” satire managed “superbly.” The work was a “charming and uproarious piece of buffoonery, carried on with the utmost dexterity from start to finish.”

Pig Iron, by Charles G. Norris

Mencken read it, “… with immense interest, and enjoyed it … unflaggingly.” He argued that Norris’s novels “have received a great deal less critical attention than they deserve.”

Rainbow Round My Shoulder, by Howard W. Odum

A “… work of art that lives and glows,” a “story of extraordinary fascination,” and one “managed with the utmost skill.” The book inspired him to summon up the names of the two finest American writers of the 19th century: “Walt Whitman would have wallowed in it, and I suspect that Mark Twain would have been deeply stirred by it too.”

Spring Flight, by Lee J. Smits

Mencken wrote that he could not “recall a first novel of more workmanlike dignity. There is absolutely no touch of amateurishness in it … It would be absurd to say that it shows merely promise.” The writer had handled his “machinery … in an extremely dexterous manner” in producing “an extraordinarily sound and competent piece of work.”

Iowa Interiors, by Ruth Suckow

“Who … has ever published a better first book of short stories than this one? Of its sixteen … , not one is bad—-and among the best there are at least five masterpieces.” The characters were “overwhelmingly real, and not a word can be spared.”

Louis Auchincloss

I must admit that I did not note Louis Auchincloss’ passing at the age of ninety-two in late January. For at least the last ten years, Auchincloss, whose career as a writer spanned over sixty years and produced over sixty books, seemed either to be someone I’d thought had already died or just assumed would live forever. For more than my entire life, he’d been publishing, publishing, publishing.
Louis Auchincloss, around 1975, in his office
His productivity and energy seems to have come from another generation, from the Victorian and industrial age. He worked for over forty years as a lawyer in the heart of Wall Street and the East Coast establishment. He sat on the boards of museums and academies, and he knew everyone. He was president of the Century Association, probably the most exclusive cultural association in America, and a member of New York’s best clubs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Gore Vidal were related to him through second- and third-marriages. His wife was related to the Sloanes and Vanderbilts. He attended Groton alongside FDR’s son John and shared a room with William Bundy. He lunched with Brooke Astor at the Knickerbocker Club. In 2003, he was feted, along with Princess Yasmin Aga Khan and Blaine Trump, as one of seven “New Yorkers who make a difference.”

His father was also a New York lawyer and confidant of the wealthy and powerful. Auchincloss would always demur about his family’s place in society: “We were wealthy by the standards of the globe, not by the community.” But they managed summers at Bar Harbor, Maine, where Prescott Bush set up a family summer house. Not that the Auchinclosses and Bushes mingled: he once remarked to a Financial Times interviewer, “I just think the Bushes are a big family of shits. They might have existed anywhere.”

There is so much in that short quote. It’s not President George W. Bush, who presented Auchincloss with the National Arts Medal in 2005, that he condemned–it was the whole family, and for, one suspects, crimes against manners and culture rather than society. Then there is the use of the word “shits.” Most Americans would be more inclined to say something like, “full of shit,” but to call someone a “shit” is very much an upper crust idiom.

The world of New York, of wealth, elite society, and the law was the world Louis Auchincloss lived in and wrote about. For the first two, he was often and will forevermore be written of as the successor to Edith Wharton (and indeed, Edith Wharton: A Woman in her Time was the first of a number of biographies he published). He dismissed suggestions that he took a narrow view in his choice of subjects. He told an Atlantic interviewer in 1997:

If you look through the literature of the ages you will find that ninety-five percent of it deals with the so-called “upper class,” from The Iliad and The Odyssey through to Shakespeare with his kings and queens. If you go through the nineteenth-century novelists you will find much the same thing. Take a novel like War and Peace — the characters are taken not only from the upper class but from the very small upper-upper class that ruled Russia at the time. And yet Tolstoy is given credit for having written a “world” novel. It’s as if Norman Mailer had written The Naked and the Dead and made every Marine or Army man on that island a graduate of a New England private school. That would be quite a shocker to people, yet that is War and Peace.

Cover of 'A World of Profit' by Louis Auchincloss
I’m not sure he convinced many people with that argument. In her 2007 biography, Louis Auchincloss: A Writer’s Life, Carol Gelderman quotes Lady Bird Johnson–a sharper judge of character than she’s usually given credit for–on meeting him: “… polished, very Eastern. I couldn’t imagine him living or writing about life west of the Mississippi River.” “She could have said Hudson River and been just as accurate,” Gelderman adds. The Christian Science Monitor’s book critic, Heller McAlpin, had a lovely, if fainting damning, comparison for his work:

There’s something oddly comforting about reading this patrician novelist of manners, successor to Edith Wharton. You know, to a certain degree, what you’ll be served – rather like eating at an exclusive social club. The food is rarely exciting, but it’s never alarming, either, and it’s impeccably presented. Manners are genteel, language is as proper and crisp as white linen napkins, and everyone is educated and well-heeled. It all feels like a throwback to a more gracious time.

Heller’s description recalls this passage from Dinitia Smith’s 1986 profile of Auchincloss for New York Magazine:

The Downtown Association, for instance, is Louis Auchincloss territory, the world of old money, of deals made behind closed doors. Like a number of the great clubs, the DTA, as it’s called, doesn’t even have a sign over the door. Your’re just supposed to know it’s there. The decor is a bit understated. The food is uninspired–one choice is tuna fish in a shell of tomato with dollops of mayonnaise for decoration, and desserts include those WASP staples, rice pudding with raisins and cabinet pudding.

But Auchincloss was no idle spender of old money. He was a working lawyer, which got him into rooms that would never have been open to Wharton as a mere woman and writer. He started out with the prestigious firm of Sullivan and Cromwell before World War Two, and later ran the trust and estates department of Hawkins, Delafield, and Wood. Vidal once wrote of him, “He is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs … things that we don’t often meet in fiction.”

The law was always his second choice, though. While attending Yale as an undergraduate, he wrote a long novel modeled on Madame Bovary. When it was rejected by Scribners, he decided to renounce literature and become a lawyer. While studying at the University of Virginia Law School, though, his passion for writing returned: “I stumbled into Cardozo’s opinions, I became fascinated by his style and realized that the two occupations, law and writing, are more or less synchronized. I began the two careers I would follow from then on, law and writing. That summer I started a novel; the second summer I finished it.” Even as a lawyer, his talent for writing came out. Auchincloss loved to relate a comment made by the young Mario Cuomo upon reading a brief of his while clerking for the New York Court of Appeals: “The guy who wrote this ought to be a novelist!”
Cover of 'The Unholy Three' by Louis Auchincloss
Graduating in 1941, Auchincloss was barely able to get started in his career in the law before being pulled into the Navy, where he served in Panama and captained an LST on DDay. He started a third novel, The Indifferent Children, which he originally published in 1947 under the pseudonym of Andrew Lee at his mother’s insistence. She thought it “trivial and vulgar.”

On nights and weekends while working at Sullivan & Cromwell, he started writing short stories, a few of which he managed to sell to The Atlantic Magazine and Town and Country. In 1950, he sold his first collection to Houghton Mifflin, which remained his publisher until his death–a record itself rare, if not unique, in the world of publishing. The Injustice Collectors (first published in paperback as The Unholy Three and Other Stories) was the first of many short story collections he would publish during his life–the last being The Friend of Women and Other Stories (2007).

He was never a typical writer. Though he was friends with Ralph Ellison, travelled as a cultural ambassador with Arthur Miller and Allen Ginsburg, and served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, his work as a lawyer kept his routine within strict limits. He once told an interviewer,

When I married Adele, she said, Oh, we’re going to see all these wonderful writers. One night Calder Willingham called just as we were about to go to bed. He asked if we’d come out and drink with him. I said, Well, I don’t think Adele wants to do that. Then why don’t you come? His idea was we’d sit up all night. I said, No, I don’t do that. I had to get up in the morning.

That routine–and the support of an effective agent and a loyal publisher–paid off. Auchincloss published 31 novels, 17 short story collections, 17 works of nonfiction, at least a half-dozen coffee table books such as J.P. Morgan: The Financier as Collector, and contributed introductions and afterwords to dozens of other books, including numerous reissues of works by Edith Wharton.

How did he manage such a volume of work, particularly during forty years of Monday-to-Friday work as a lawyer?

One secret was a knack for writing in little snatches of time. He told George Plimpton for his Paris Review interview in 1994:

I’ve always had to use bits of time. For example, I would have little notebooks with me in court, and if I was waiting for something I might write a few paragraphs at a time. By mastering the ability to use five minutes here, fifteen minutes there, I picked up a great deal of time that most people allow to drift away.

I remember seeing an opera rehearsal once in which the conductor put down the baton, the singers stopped, and then he picked it up to go again. If I was singing I’d have to go back to the beginning. But no! They picked up right on the particular note they left off on. That’s what I’ve learned to do with my writing.

I can pick up in the middle of a sentence and then go on. I wrote at night; sometimes I wrote at the office and then practiced law at home. My wife and I never went away on weekends. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else try this method, but it worked for me.

Not worrying over what got scribbled into his notebooks helped, too. It was rare that he spent much time on rewrites. “… [O]rdinarily I find that when I have to rewrite, there’s something basically wrong. My best stuff usually comes out quite straight almost the first time,” he told Plimpton.
Cover of 'The Rector of Justin' by Louis Auchincloss
Writing the same book over and over–or, at least, using the same formula over and over–also kept his rate of production high. The use of multiple narrators and mixing first and third-person voices, which was cited by many as the distinguishing feature of his most critically successful book, The Rector of Justin, was, in fact, his standard approach to a novel. As Jonathan Yardley summarized it in his “Second Reading” of the book in 2008:

The novel begins in September 1939 and ends in April 1947. It is told principally through the diary of Brian Aspinwall, who comes to Justin Martyr at the age of 27 as an instructor in English and soon believes “that I may have a call to keep a record of the life and personality of Francis Prescott,” who “is probably the greatest name in New England secondary education.” Five other narrators contribute to the portrait: David Griscam, chairman of the trustees, chief architect of the school’s wealth; his son, Jules, expelled by Prescott for an act of defiance; Horace Havistock, Prescott’s oldest friend, “a remnant of the mauve decade”; Cordelia, Prescott’s rebellious daughter; and Charley Strong, one of Prescott’s “golden boys, Justin ’11, senior prefect and football captain, a kind of American Rupert Brooke,” who fled to Paris after World War I and underwent a crisis of identity and faith.

One can find the same technique in such works as The House of the Prophet, based on the life of Walter Lippmann, The Embezzler, inspired by but not entirely faithful to the story of Richard Whitney, one-time president of the New York Stock Exchange, and Honorable Men (loosely taken on the careers of his Groton classmates Bill and McGeorge Bundy).

In some cases, the line between his short story collections and his novels is hard to determine, particularly given his penchant for publishing stories linked by a particular theme or setting. The stories in Powers of Attorney, for example, revolve around partners and attorneys in the fictional firm of Tower, Tilney & Webb. The novel East Side Story is a series of eleven portraits of members of the Carnochan family from colonial to modern days. Fellow Passengers: A Novel in Portraits made the construct explicit in its subtitle, as did The Partners, which cautions the reader that it is, “Not a novel in the conventional sense,” but rather a series of sketches of another fictional law firm, Shepard, Putney & Cox. But even novels lacking these disclaimers, such as The Education of Oscar Fairfax, The House of Five Talents, and False Gods were essentially collections of character sketches rather than strong linear narratives.

The same can be said of many of his non-fiction works: The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age, Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle, The Man Behind the Book: Literary Profiles, and Writers and Personality are all collections of biographical sketches, most of them originally published in magazines.

And, in truth, the magazine piece–whether fiction or non-fiction–was Auchincloss’ forte. Open one of his books at random and you’re likely to find, on the copyright page, a note to the effect that, “Some of the [stories/pieces] in this book have appeared in …” followed by a list that ranges from the Saturday Evening Post, American Heritage, and the New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, and the Atlantic to McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Redbook to the Virginia Law Review and the Yale Literary Magazine.

This is not to dismiss his accomplishments, however. To publish hundreds (thousands?) of pieces in such a variety of mainstream magazines over the course of six decades required a remarkable ability to consistently produce an interesting, well-written, and fairly succinct story. And if the character sketch was what Auchincloss was best at, then he truly had few peers. Back in 2002, Russell Baker reviewed Edmund Morris’ 772-page second volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt alongside Auchincloss’ 155-page work in Arthur Schlesinger’s “The American Presidents” series, and it’s easy to see who emerged the winner in Baker’s view: “Louis Auchincloss’s concise Theodore Roosevelt, which compresses the full life, cradle to grave, into an elegant 136 pages, is a dandy handbook for the reader seeking guidance through Morris’s great forest.”
Cover of 'Powers of Attorney' by Louis Auchincloss
Throughout Auchincloss’ works, the example of the Duc du Saint-Simon, the legendary memoirist of the court of Louis XIV, keeps popping up. Indeed, he once wrote a novel–The Cat and the King–fantasizing that the duke kept on writing after his memoirs were published. “The Single Reader,” a story from Powers of Attorney, was about a lawyer who was secretly recording the life of Manhattan society in a diary inspired by Saint-Simon’s:

Inevitably, he came to think of his people as they would one day appear in his diary. If a judge was rude to him while he was arguing a case, if a government official was quixotic or arbitrary, Madison would reflect with an inner smile that they were marring their portraits for posterity. Yet he took great pains to avoid the prejudices which he suspected even in his idol, Saint-Simon. Most of the people whom he knew, like many of Saint-Simon’s, would survive to posterity only in his own unrebuttable pages. If he succumbed to the temptation of “touching them up,” of making them wittier or nastier or bigger or smaller than they were, nobody in a hundred years would be any the wiser. But his work would have become fiction, and he had no intention of being a mere novelist.

So, in making my closing argument in the case of Louis Auchincloss, let me quote from just one of the thousands of character sketches to be found in his oeuvre, a body of work certainly not packaged like Saint-Simon’s but certainly rivalling it in the wealth of observations about men and women in work and society. And it’s fitting that it be one of a lawyer–in this case, one Waldron P. Webb, partner of Tower, Tilney and Webb, the firm depicted in Powers of Attorney, in the story, “The Ambassador from Wall Street”:

Webb himself was a trying visitor, almost impossible to entertain. He was one of those lawyers who were frankly bored by everything but the practice of law. He was a big, stout choleric man, with a loud gravelly voice that was made for the cross-examination of hostile witnesses and not for gossip under the umbrellas. He indulged in no known sports, would not even swim, and expressed his contempt for the country in the uncompromising black of his baggy linen suit and the damp cigar that was always clenched between his yellow molars. He wandered about the house, pulling books out of the bookcases which he would then abandon with a snort, and asking for whiskey at unlikely hours. Mrs. Webb, the kind of forlorn creature that loud, oratorical men are apt to marry, contemplated him with nervous eyes, hoping, perhaps, that he would wait until they were alone before abusing her.

Auchincloss’ industry has not yet stopped producing, despite his death. In December, 2010, Houghton Mifflin will publish A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth–a successor to his 1974 memoir, A Writer’s Capital.

Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy

Earlier this year, the Daily Telegraph published a piece by Charles Moore on Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, or, as the author referred to it, “The Writing on the Wall.” Over the course of the last ten years, mostly through word-of-mouth recommendations, these three novels–They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided–originally published in Hungary between 1934 and 1940, have become recognized by a small but enthusiastic band of readers as one of the finest works of the 20th century.

Miklos BanffyBanffy, or, to use his full title, Count Miklos Banffy de Losoncz, was a member of the Hungarian nobility and a liberal politician, influential in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and an early foreign minister of Hungary after the ouster of Bela Kun’s communist regime in 1920. After retiring from that office over differences with the Regent, Miklos Horthy and the ruling conservatives, Banffy retired to his ancestral home, Bontida Banffy Castle, in Transylvania–in an area now part of Romania.

Not only did Banffy’s politics run counter to most of the Hungarian establishment, but soon after his trilogy was first published, his country had the misfortune of falling under the control of the Nazis and then the Soviets. That Banffy’s last venture into diplomacy was an attempt to persuade Romania and Hungary to break with Germany and take sides with the Allies did not help. As reader Malcolm G. Hill wrote in a fascinating comment on Moore’s piece in the Telegraph,

About a year after having read them I travelled by motorhome through all the areas in Transylvania mentioned in the trilogy, now part of Romania, with the aid of a map giving the original Transylvanian names of the towns and villages which had been changed into Romanian. The saddest place to visit of all locations directly connected with the book was the Banffy Castle at Bonchida, Bontida in Romanian, some 30k to the north of Kolozsvár(now Cluj Napoca) the one-time home of the Banffy dynasty and which doubles as Balint’s country estate home of Denestornya in the trilogy. The ruination of this once gorgeous country house which Banffy never tires of lovingly describing in so many parts of his epic novel is a terrible tragedy, brought about solely due to its wanton and deliberate destruction as an act of spiteful vengeance by the retreating German forces in WWII owing to Banffy’s part in negotiating Hungary’s withdrawal of support for Germany towards the end of the war. The Germans not only left the castle a smoking ruin but destroyed all its furniture and paintings as well as Banffy’s priceless library and family archives. The present Romanian government is endeavouring to restore some parts of the castle complex that were least damaged but it seems a forlorn task to me.

Bon?ida Banffy Castle - then and now
Even within his own country, his books were viewed unfavorably by both regimes and fell out of print for over thirty years. It was not until 1982 that the books returned to print. Patrick Thursfield first brought the work to the attention of English-speaking readers in the Contemporary Review in 1995. As he summarized the story then, “The three books of the trilogy cover ten years in the life of one Count Balint Abady, like the author, a Transylvanian aristocrat, landowner and high-profile politician and, parallel to his story, the sad tale of the wasted life and degradation of Abady’s first cousin, the talented but hopeless Count Laszlo Gyeroffy.”

Banffy took his titles from God’s condemnation of Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon. As written in the Book of Daniel,

But thou hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified: Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written.

And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.

As the New Statesman review of They Were Counted put it, “The ‘they’ in question is Hungary’s ruling class, who drink, dance, quarrel and gamble their way into the disasters of this century as unprepared as Belshazzar himself.” Or, as Banffy himself wrote in They Were Counted,

As far as most of the upper classes were concerned, politics were of little importance, for there were plenty of other things that interested them more. There were, for instance, the spring racing season, partridge shooting in the late summer, deer-culling in September and pheasant shoots as winter approached. It was, of course, necessary to know when Parliament was to assemble, when important party meetings were to take place or which day had been set aside for the annual general meeting of the Casino, for these days would not be available for such essential events as race-meetings or grand social receptions.

Thursfield located Banffy’s daughter, Katalin Banffy-Jelen, and together they worked for several years in the late 1990s to translate the mammoth work–over 1500 pages long–into English. The books were then published by a small U. K. publisher, Arcadia Books, between 1999 and 2001.

The covers of the original Arcadia Press releases of 'They Were Counted', 'They Were Found Wanting,' and 'They Were Divided'
Thursfield and Banffy-Jelen worked hard to convey the intricacies of Hungarian politics and culture to an audience separated by decades and a general ignorance of Banffy’s settings aside from paprika and Dracula. Their effort was remarkably successful, earning them the 2002 Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for translation.

Each of the books received highly positive reviews in the major U. K. newspapers. Ruth Pavey wrote in the Independent: “This is the sort of book that is hard to finish: not in the sense of getting through because, despite its length, that’s easy. Rather, it’s because The Transylvanian Trilogy is so successful in recreating its lost world – a world which after turning the last page, the reader, too, must leave behind.” The Scotsman’s reviewer exulted,

[Th]is is a novel of great events and the private lives of a huge cast of characters told with gusto and amplitude…. If it is the Romantic elements that make the novel so enjoyable, so irresistible, it is the author’s keen political intelligence and refusal to indulge in self-deception which give it an unusual distinction. It’s a novel that, read at the gallop for sheer enjoyment, is likely to carry you along. But many will want to return to it for a second, slower reading, to savour its subtleties and relish the author’s intelligence.

Jan Morris named They Were Found Wanting as one of her books of the year for 2000 and Caroline Moor wrote in another year-end wrap-up, “My great find of the year is a reprint of the magnificent trilogy, set in pre-war Transylvania by Miklos Banffy–which stands comparison with the great Russian and French masters. Banffy vies with Tolstoy for sweep, Pasternak for romance and Turgenev for evocation of nature; his fiction is packed with irresistible social detail and crammed with superb characters: it is gloriously, addictively, compulsively readable.” More recently, the playwright John Guare called the work, “… revelatory … the fastest 1,700 pages you’ll ever read.”

Despite the praise, however, the books remained difficult to locate and it appears that Arcadia did not reprint them after their initial runs. Thursfield died in Tangier on 22 August 2003, a few months short of his 80th birthday. A few readers managed to find copies, though, and keep the grapevine pulsing in the work’s favor. In 2007, Michael Henderson proclaimed it “A masterpiece in any language” in the Telegraph: “… please give this civilised Hungarian a go. Ignore the tyranny of approved lists, and those breathless claims made on behalf of novelists said to be ‘at the height of their powers.’ Plunge instead into the cleansing waters of a rediscovered masterpiece, because The Writing on the Wall is certainly a masterpiece, in any language. And if, having read it, you feel let down, I shall provide reimbursement.”

The covers of the new Arcadia Press releases of 'They Were Counted', 'They Were Found Wanting,' and 'They Were Divided'

Luckily, Arcadia began bringing The Writing on the Wall back to print in 2009. They Were Counted and They Were Found Wanting are available now (at least in the U. K.) with new covers a slightly more likely to attract readers, and They Were Divided will be re-released in October 2010. The original Arcadia covers, by the way, featured a drawing of the entrance to Bontida Banffy Castle from the mid-19th century. Blogger Andrew Cusack celebrated their resurrection earlier this year, writing of the novels, “Three volumes of nearly one-and-a-half thousand pages put together, they make for deeply, deeply rewarding reading, transporting you to the world that ended with the crack of an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo, 1914.” And Charles Moore, as mentioned at the start of this piece, acclaimed in the Telegraph: “This growing acclaim is deserved. Banffy’s trilogy is just about as good as any fiction I have ever read…. Although they are very funny, they are deeply serious. They are like Anna Karenina and War and Peace rolled into one. Love, sex, town, country, money, power, beauty, and the pathos of a society which cannot prevent its own destruction–all are here.”

So what are you waiting for?

The Best of H. T. Webster

H. T. Webster was probably the best-known cartoonist in mid-20th century America.

Who, many of you are asking?

H. T. Webster.

His picture made the cover of Time magazine in 1945:
Cover of Time magazine, 26 November 1945

Cover of 'The Best of H. T. Webster'Webster published over 15,000 panels over the course of 40-plus years as a newspaper cartoonist. A memorial collection of his cartoons, The Best of H. T. Webster, published in 1953, a year after his death, featured an introduction by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Robert E. Sherwood, and made the best seller lists. In his introduction, Sherwood wrote,

On April 4, 1953, the last new drawing by H. T. Webster was published in the New York Herald Tribune and a hundred and twenty-five other papers, and for many of us timid souls, this day marked as one of life’s darkest moments. There will be other fine artist-cartoonist-critics to inspire use with joy or indignation from day to day, but never another to span the years and the range of human emotions in the same extraordinary way that Webby did.

Webster based many of his one-panel cartoons on a number of recurring themes, and Sherwood managed to work two of them into his statement above.

“Life’s Darkest Moments” were, like many of his pieces, wonderfully succinct takes on the ways in which life consistently pokes a pin into the bubbles of our fantasies of self-importance.

Life’s Darkest Moments

Life's Darkest Moments--An Admiral Walks Through the Station
I had this happen to me the first time I flew home in my shining second lieutenant bars. While waiting at the baggage carousel, a woman walked up to me and asked if I was the driver and where my bus was parked.

But Webster also had a gentle sympathy for the big role that little things often play in establishing our sense of self, as illustrated in his cartoons titled, “The Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime.”

The Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime

The Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime - The Provider

Another of Webster’s series was titled, alternately, “How to Torture Your Husband” and “How to Torture Your Wife.” These illustrated the remarkable capacity husbands and wives have for obliterating each other’s self-esteem with the most well-intentioned remarks:

How to Torture Your Wife

How to Torture Your Wife

Some of his features, particularly those dealing with bridge, may not have aged as well as others. Many of these collected in The Best of H. T. Webster depend on more of a familiarity with terminology of the game than most people have today. Yet even some of the bridge cartoons work with no explanation at all:
Bridge - The Five-Handed Game

But by far the best-known of all Webster’s series was “The Timid Soul,” which introduced a character whose name has outlived that of his creator: Caspar Milquetoast. “Millions of Americans,” wrote the uncredited author of Time’s cover story, “know Caspar Milquetoast as well as they know Tom Sawyer and Andrew Jackson, better than they know George F. Babbitt, and any amount better than they know such world figures as Mr. Micawber and Don Quixote. They know him, in fact, almost as well as they know their own weaknesses.”

As Michael Quinion writes on his World Wide Words site, “The name is just a Frenchified respelling of the old American English term milk toast, an uninspiring, bland dish which was created from slices of buttered toast laid in a dish of milk, usually considered to be food for invalids.” Like the dish, Milquetoast is uninspired, bland, and utterly lacking the ability to stand up for himself. He takes all forms of authority at face value:

The Timid Soul

The Timid Soul - Watch This Space

Webster himself described Milquetoast as, “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” Although at times he clearly understood that not speaking at all was the best way to avoid the big stick:

The Timid Soul

The Timid Soul - The Census Taker

As Time’s writer noted, “In all Webster’s years of preoccupation with the psychology of timidity he seldom points up, even gently, the littleness, meanness and guile which timidity so often develops, and almost never touches on the propensity for bullying.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons Webster’s work has been so largely forgotten: at heart, Webster was too kind towards his subjects. As he so often showed in “The Timid Soul,” life has a way of bulldozing over the gentle and kind.

But that’s also why it’s refreshing to page through The Best of H. T. Webster Philo Calhoun, one of Webster’s close friends, who wrote the biographical sketch for the book, sums up his approach to his subject by quoting another writer’s description of the 18th century essayist and playwright, Joseph Addison: “His tone is never that of a clown or of a cynic. It is that of a gentleman, in whom the quickest sense of the ridiculous is constantly tempered by good nature ….”

The Best of H. T. Webster: A Memorial Collection
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953

The distant past, from The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs, by Bryher

Excerpt: the opening of Chapter I

When I was born in September, 1894, Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam was a secretary. Mallarme had just retired and was no longer teaching English to French schoolboys. The death duties that were to obliterate most of our feudal estates had been introduced in that year’s budget while the Fram was drifting through the polar ice and would-be explorers Cover of the first U. K. edition of 'The Heart to Artemis'dreamed about Bokhara, a fabulous city that was then more difficult to access than Tibet. I opened my eyes upon the end of not only the nineteenth century but of a second Puritan age. An epoch passed away while I was learning to speak and walk. Its influence remains as the start of memory and as a measuring rod for progress that even Edwardian survivors lack.

There were no motor cars, no taxis and no aeroplanes. The garden flowers were different; speech followed a more complex and leisurely patten, the houses were usually cold. The real background to these formative years, however, was the sound of hooves; the metallic thunder of the big animals drawing the carriages called landaus, the lighter trip-trop of the hansom cabs. On land, apart from a few trains, horses comprised the whole of transportation. I only realized how largely they formed a part of my earliest consciousness when I woke up in Lahore over fifty years later to listen to the passing tongas and wonder why the clatter seemed so familiar and comforting in that otherwise strange land? It took me some minutes to discover that it was because I was back in the world of the horse.

I remember reading this passage in the stacks of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington back in the late 1970s and thinking, “I really must read this book.” It was nearly 25 years later that I got around to it.

I think the second paragraph is one of the best and most succinct descriptions of the differences between a present and a past. Overall, The Heart to Artemis is a lively and interesting memoir. As the New Yorker reviewer put it, “Never afraid to get her hands dirty, she rode donkeys in Egypt, climbed mountains in a skirt, changed the hot and messy carbons in lights on early movie sets, flew airplanes, and helped people escape from Nazi Germany.” She had drinks with Man Ray and Gertrude Stein in Paris, was psychoanalyzed by Freud, travelled to much of the civilized world at some time or other, and enjoyed many of the benefits of being an heir to one of England’s biggest fortunes.

On the other hand, as memoirs go, The Heart to Artemis is remarkably depersonalized. If Bryher were to take a Myers-Briggs test, I’m pretty sure she would prove to be an NT. We learn a great deal about her thoughts and very little about her feelings. For a life so full of experiences, it’s almost creepily dispassionate.

The Heart to Artemis, by Bryher
London: Collins, 1963

They’ve Shot the President’s Daughter!, by Edward Stewart

A while ago, The Denver Bibliophile wondered why I didn’t cover more neglected thrillers. The simple answer is that I’ve never been a big fan of thrillers, perhaps out of a long-standing aversion to best-sellers in general.

But his comment did get me thinking that there might just be something worth finding if I could look past this prejudice. So while I was rooting through the stacks of the wonderful Montana Valley Book Store in little Alberton, Montana, about a half hour west of Missoula–probably America’s best book store located in the middle of nowhere–I decided to pull a few lurid titles from the terrific stash of old paperbacks in the basement.

Cover of first U. S. paperback edition of 'They've Shot the President's Daughter!'I couldn’t resist starting in with the most ridiculous title in the bunch: They’ve Shot the Presidents Daughter!, by Edward Stewart. “A Super-Bombshell of a Thriller that Surpasses the Best of Fletcher Knebel and Allen Drury!” proclaims the cover. At the time, this meant something to potential buyers. Thirty-plus years later, those names either mean nothing or (in Drury’s case) great lumps of pedestrian prose.

But within the first couple of pages, it became quite clear that this was something other than a typical thriller. It opens with the President, the First Lady, and a nameless general riding in a limousine out to Andrews Air Force Base for a trip on Air Force One. Stewart describes the scene through the eyes of the First Lady, and her perspective is hardly what you might expect from the usual stereotypes that populate such books:

And as happened from time to time lately, when she sat in a closed space near her husband, she could neither slide away from him nor summon any thought of her own strong enough to war off the even-edged blade of his voice. And it seemed to her, no disrespect intended, that these litanies of problems and crises and billions (of dollars, she supposed), there proposals and rejections that were whispered at her elbow, these schemes and tragedies and intrigues that fell from his lips in ever so slightly mocking a monotone were–though enough–for him only mantras, aids in meditation, ways of getting his mind off petty aches and woes that would have submerged him if he had ever tried to cope.

They’ve Shot the Presidents Daughter! takes place in a post-Nixon America (at one point the Vice President is seen reading Nixon’s memoirs), but an America dealing with most of the same problems: race riots, student protests, and a dirty war (this time in Costa Rica). President “Lucky Bill” Luckinbill–tall, steely-jawed, with blue eyes and greying temples–comes straight from Central Casting, but seems mostly ineffectual. Kissinger is gone, but one Nahum Bismarck has taken his place at the President’s right hand. J. Edgar Hoover is gone, too, along with the F. B. I., but in their place are now one Woodrow Judd (whose Watergate apartment features paintings of his favorite poodles) and the Federal Security Agency. John and Martha Mitchell have been replaced by Vice President Howard Tyson and his talkative and media-struck wife, Maggie (who’s also more conniving and ambitious than the worst Republican stereotype of Hillary Clinton).

And political assassinations involving ex-C. I. A. men are still the stuff of the best conspiracy theories. The trip the First Couple are taking is to the President’s home town of Whitefalls, South Dakota, where he will lay a wreath on the grave of his mother. While the President is offering some token remarks, a lone gunman in a nearby church steeple shoots his daughter Lexie, sitting on the dais.

There is some panic and a rush to the nearest hospital, but Lexie proves to be only slightly wounded. The gunman disappears without a trace. The President seems unable to respond and the incident soon becomes a source of satiric attacks on the Administration.

At this point, Stewart takes a long and seemingly tangential detour in the narrative. He introduces Frank Borodin, a burned-out agent in the Federal Security Agency, who is assigned to read through hundreds of letters intercepted in the Whitefalls post office in search of clues about the gunman. We read along with Borodin through letter after letter of utterly mundane material, most of it from one Darcy Sybert, a sad young woman who’s recently disappeared from the town:

I’ve just discovered casseroles and the meat grinder, which means that not much gets thrown out in the way of food–there are so many different ways of serving leftovers, things that even Mom didn’t discover! Sometimes in the kitchen I feel like Christopher Columbus–I guess Dad and Bobby do too when I bring out the dinner. Last night we had “supreme de supreme” (my own name for it), soft of a cauliflower and pork hash thing in jellied chicken soup.

Gradually, though, Borodin picks up a thread that leads him from Darcie to Hiram Judd, another F. S. A. postal inspector, who’s also disappeared, and eventually follows it back to Washington and some high-level people in the Administration. At this point, Stewart starts switching the reader rapidly through a variety of perspectives–the First Lady spinning into ever-higher reaches of paranoia; Maggie Tyson–the Second Lady–fomenting right-wing fury on television; several Senators pushing through a gun control bill with a rider giving Congress the right to suspend the Bill of Rights; Lexie Luckinbill falling in love with one of her Secret Service men.

This last brings out some priceless bad popular novel prose from Stewart:

And then they snapped together like two ropes yanked into a knot. The breath was crushed from her lungs and her heart hammered at her ribs as though to break an opening and fly out. Her eyes half shut and she stared into his, seeing herself bent and reflected as in the lens of a camera, and silently, with fierce, entreating telepathy, she dared him, begged him, commanded him.

The mechanical integrity of Stewart’s narrative also leaves a lot to be desired. At a certain point, he begins slapping on pieces like a roofer before a thunderstorm, more interested in finishing the job than in getting the shingles well placed. For most of the book, I was willing to tolerate the slipshod construction because of the regular and bizarre excursions into the First Lady’s mind:

The First Lady had spent her married life mired in the type of syllogism the senator was trying to force on her now. The reasoning seemed logical, it seemed right even, but if you looked closely you saw that terms kept shifting their meaning and premises were as shaky as condemned buildings; and now that she had crawled out, she had no intention of crawling back and letting the beams fall on her head. She did not care much for logic when the conclusion of every argument was do my bidding. War must end–do my bidding. Taxes are high: the poor are rebelling; your daughter may die–do my bidding.

They’ve Shot the Presidents Daughter! ends with a grand operatic scene in the Senate chamber that’s inept, implausible, and unconvincing, but Stewart loses control of his own book well before this point. As thrillers go, it’s average at best, and for much of the book, the narrative tension is slack. If I’d been reading for the story, I’d have given up soon after Frank Borodin starts wading through Darcie Sybert’s letters (“Guess what–I passed biology!”).

To me, the interest–the fascination, almost–of the novel was in the interior monologues of Monica Luckinbill and a few other characters. Borodin, for example, remembering how his marriage fell apart:

He had begun noticing small things, dust building up on the window ledges, smudges on the panes that seemed to indicate a face had been pressed against them. He had once found a half-finished letter in the typewriter, left there perhaps for him to find; and because it was part of his work and he was training to read other people’s mail he read it, even though his sense of self-preservation told him not to; and the letter said, I spend most of my time moping, but at least I have a decent stereo.

There are wonderful little passages like this through much of the book, things that could almost have come out of a Raymond Carver story. It’s as if Stewart wanted to write something very odd, dark, and ironic, but felt bound to slap together something the reading public might take for a political thriller. It’s easy to tell where his heart was in his work and where it wasn’t.

As a whole–and certainly as what it was marketed to be–They’ve Shot the Presidents Daughter! is a failure. But I’m glad The Denver Bibliophile prodded me to take a closer look at a few thrillers, because in this case, at least, I discovered a few gems scattered among the fodder.

They’ve Shot the President’s Daughter!, by Edward Stewart
New York: Doubleday and Company, 1973

Beyond the Stable State, by Donald Schon

“Please don’t read this post!”

It seems as if there is some reader repellent that takes effect when I write about books on management and organizational behavior such as Geoffrey Vickers’ Making Institutions Work, so I might as well warn you off at the start. Fans of neglected books are rarely interested in such a dry topic and readers of management books usually couldn’t be bothered to consider anything written more than five years ago, unless it was written by Peter Drucker. So the intersection of the two is a tiny set of which I might just be the only member.

If not, cough or something. It would be nice to have some company.

But management is the stuff of my working day and I sometimes find that work and hobby cross paths. Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Beyond the Stable State'Donald Schon’s Beyond the Stable State represents one such intersection. I discovered it after reading Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness, which is devoted to a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about on my job: how to foster a community of practice within an organization.

I love the way Schon opens this book:

I have believe for as long as I can remember in an afterlife within my own life–a calm, stable state to be reached after a time of troubles. When I was a child, that afterlife was Being Grown Up. As I have grown older, its content has become more nebulous, but the image of it stubbornly persists.

In every organization and in every job I’ve ever held, this belief seems to be the bedrock of how people approach whatever change is going on or looming on the horizon: “Things are crazy right now, but eventually things will settle down and get back to normal.”

They never do, of course. And they certainly never revert back to something we were used to. Tomorrow’s change is not quite the same as yesterday’s, and it’s safe to assume that neither will next week’s or next years. Yet still we cling to this sense that things will settle down, calm down, stabilize. And we do the same thing when it comes to our own lives. At the moment, my stable state is life after the kids have all left home and finished college–but how stable (unchanging) will it actually turn out to be?

Schon takes it as a given that things will never settle down. The appropriate response to any change, in his view, is to understand it, not to fight it or even to surrender to it: “The task which the loss of the stable state makes imperative, for the person, for our institutions, for our society as a whole, is to learn about learning”–to become capable, in other words, of making continual transformation a given rather than reacting to it as an anomaly.

Beyond the Stable State is not quite neglected–it’s in print and easily available online, if not in stores. Nor is it that easy to read–the passage above is contrasted by more than a few stretches of fuzzy prose: “The loss of the stable state carries with it continuing mismatch between specific elements and their situations, and thereby precipitates movement up the ladder of functional aggregation.” Ten bucks to the first reader who can translate that.

But Schon’s core message is so simple and yet profound: change is here, it’s pervasive, and it’s accelerating, so learn to handle it. Constant reorienting is a crucial skill, as is that of not being too afraid to make mistakes one can learn from. In a more condensed and perhaps more accessible format, this could well be an essential text that should be passed out and taught to high schoolers already forming the illusion that things will settle down once they finish college and get a job. Until someone writes that book, though, it’s necessary to roll up the sleeves and dig into Beyond the Stable State.

Beyond the Stable State, by Donald A. Schon
New York: Random House, 1971

Unfinished Business, by Stephen Bonsal

Cover of first U. K. edition of 'Unfinished Business'Being selected for the Pulitzer Prize is no guarantee of that anyone will remember your work–at least not more than ten years afterward. Take Stephen Bonsal. Unfinished Business, his diaries and reminiscences from the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference, where he sat between President Woodrow Wilson and Wilson’s assistant, Colonel Edward House, translating the speeches and remarks of the other attendees, won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for History. Sixty years later, the book is as obscure as, say, Forgotten First Citizen: John Bigelow by Margaret Clapp–the 1948 winner, by the way.

That fact alone is no great crime. There are plenty of award winners that soon lose whatever aura of excellence they might have held. And there are some, we must admit, that won only because advocates were divided over better works, opening a crack through which they slipped as dark horses of lesser merit.

When it was selected in 1945, the primary significance of Unfinished Business was probably seen in light of the impending end of World War Two and the creation of the United Nations. All parties involved in the establishment of the United Nations recognized that they had an obligation to learn from the mistakes of the past, and of the Peace Conference in particular.

The legendary version of the Peace Conference was that the idealism and altruism of the American, Wilson, was undermined by the self-interest and small-mindedness of Old Europe–of France and Italy, who insisted on reparations that gave Hitler fuel for his rise to power a dozen years later. The reality, as recalled with remarkable candor and dispassion by Bonsal, was much more mundane.

Wilson was long on ideas and brittle in character, lacking the leather-assed patience required of an effective diplomat. Small words in little clauses consumed hours of talk over fine points, and much of the time big issues pivoted on the most trivial matters:

Last night M. Larnaude [Ferdinand Larnaude, a French delegate to the Conference] again drooled along for hours in criticism or rather in misrepresentation of the Monroe Doctrine reservation, and many of his hearers feared that a filibuster was under way, but such was not the case. Suddenly pulling out his watch with an expression of alarm that was comical to behold, the learned dean muttered, “Ciel! I have only twelve minutes to catch my train, but I warn you, M. le President, that I shall resume the statement of my objections at the next Plenary Session.”

The older I get, the more I come to view politics and diplomacy as the most difficult of all arts. Bonsal’s diaries and reminiscences of the Peace Conference vividly illustrate the obstacles that lie in the path of any forward movement of mankind when it operates in a political setting. Self-interest is only the simplest and most obvious one. Personalities, temperaments, quirks, habits, and eccentricities are minefields that lurk beneath the skins of every individual at the table. Differences in working hours–Clemenceau, like Churchill, was one for naps and late hours; Wilson preferred a predictable day-time routine–toss grit in the machinery. Language, language, language: even with the finest translators (and Bonsal provided a simultaneous translation at every session Wilson attended), words and phrases are misinterpreted and misunderstood. And technology always gets in the way:

Hughes of Australia, indeed, made several outrageous attacks on the President, which, however, Wilson did not take up at one or even later because, as on the Australian secretaries explained to all present, Hughes did not understand the President’s point of view owing to the fact that, as so often before, his electrical hearing apparatus had failed to function.

Stephen BonsalBonsal’s book opens on the eve of the Armistice and ends a little over a year later, with the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty. He worked alongside House, and later Wilson, through the preparations and initial sessions of the Conference. A veteran foreign correspondent fluent in a number of European tongues, he acted as an emissary to many of the other delegations and as a personal advisor to House and Wilson. He remained at the negotiating tables throughout most of the Conference, taking only a break of a few weeks to accompany South African General Jan Christian Smuts on a mission to Austria, Hungary, and Serbia in March and April 1919.

This trip, along with a later journey to Berlin after the Conference, provide the most memorable sections of the book. Bonsal had lived in Vienna for a number of years and reported on the Balkan wars in the years leading up to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. He notes everywhere how quickly the structures of the Hapsburg Empire crumbled away after Emperor Charles I relinquished the throne in 1918:

I visited Francis Joseph’s apartment. I saw that, as the tradition had it, there was no water laid on. I scrutinized his Gummi portable bathtub and saw that now it was full of holes. The starving mice that had formerly lived on the fat tidbits that fell from the imperial table, reduced to starving rations like all living things in the Danube capital, were gnawing on it.

Later, after the Conference, he traveled to Berlin, where he’d first met House in 1915. Bonsal found the Kaiser’s former capital in disarray, with well-meaning but overwhelmed socialists attempting to reconstruct a government while Unter den Linden was filled with wounded veterans from the war: “crouched against the cold, damp walls as though ashamed for the stranger to see their distorted leg and arm stumps, their dead eyes, or their faces scarred almost beyond recognition.”

Coming back from Berlin, his train is joined at Verdun by hundreds of veterans and their families, returning from some anniversary celebration of the great battle. Just as in Berlin, he finds the war’s destruction surrounding him: “This train, crowded with those who survived, was a more horrible sight than any of the many ghastly battlefields I have witnessed in so many lands. All about me were’ groups of grand blessés, many with grotesquely distorted faces…. As I traveled with this cavalcade of misery and of suffering, I realized more fully than ever before the terrible price our generation has paid for his victory.”

Arriving in Paris late at night, he watched the train’s passengers depart the station and head back to their homes:

The train hobbled into Paris about midnight. After standing in the crowded corridor with my heavy pack for eight hours, I found I could hardly walk. I leaned against an iron pillar and watched and watched and waited. Slowly the silent mob of the lame, the halt and the blind, the crape-draped widows, and the pale-faced, sad-eyed orphans of some of the four hundred thousand gallant soldiers who died defending the great fortress against the onrush of the invading Germans, dissolved. For me the pomp and pageantry of war had vanished for a long time, perhaps forever, and what remained was misery and tears, loneliness and squalor. It was hours before the last of the war widows, carrying children who would never see their fathers, disappeared into the darkness of the city where victory perched. But I shall see them always?always.

Neglected though it may be, Unfinished Business is an exceptional book worth rediscovering by anyone interested in history and politics. There are not many writers who can cover the posturing and manoeuvring of the greatest men of the time and, a few pages later, describe the sorrows and woes of the lowest in society–and in neither case losing his sense of perspective. As Time magazine’s reviewer wrote, “”no one else has presented the plight of the plain people of Europe, in relation to the strained secrecy of the Conference, and few have written of their agony as does Colonel Bonsal in terms so hardheaded and so poignant.” I hope one of these days to catch up with his 1937 memoir of his years as a foreign correspondent, Heyday In A Vanished World.

Find a Copy

Unfinished Business, by Stephen Bonsal
London: Michael Joseph, 1944

Fireside Books of Baseball and Other Sports and Games

I’m not a big sports fan. I stopped watching baseball after the 1975 World Series. I used to leave college football games in the fourth quarter when I worked them as an usher. My sons and I followed the San Antonio Spurs to their NBA championship in 1999, but that had a lot to do with living in the city and having access to cheap tickets. And I’ve attended hundreds of practices, games, and competitions our kids have participated in over the last dozen years. But years will go by before I even glance at a sports page or a game on TV.

I’ve always enjoyed sports writing, though, especially about baseball. I’ve read a couple dozen memoirs of players, such as Paul Hemphill’s Heart of the Game: The Education of a Minor League Ball Player, and many of the “literary” meditations on the game, such as Donald Hall’s wonderful Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball and Joel Oppenheimer’s loving account of the 1972 Mets, The Wrong Season.

Cover of the 'Fireside Book of Boxing'I think it was in the long-gone Filippi’s Books in Seattle that I came across the The Fireside Book of Baseball, a collection edited by Charles Einstein first published in 1956. It’s a big magazine-sized volume with nearly 400 pages of prose, poetry, photos and illustrations from the first 100 years of American baseball, and it’s a goldmine for any fan of good writing on baseball.

Most of the good pieces of fiction and nonfiction writing on baseball published up to that time can be found between its covers–Ring Lardner, Red Smith, Branch Rickey, John Tunis, Heywood Broun, Zane Grey (yes, he wrote more than westerns), Bob Considine, Arnold Hano, and of course, Ernest Thayer. Some of the pieces were reprints; others were originals. In between the articles and stories are wonderful photos of plays and players, artifacts, mementos, and other hits of baseball lore. At the very least the pieces are all good, most of them vivid and lively, and some great. As Einstein later recalled,

It got enormous reviews. I mean, not just in terms of acclaim, but also in terms of where the reviews appeared: John Chamberlain with a full column in the Wall Street Journal; Charles Poore, the entire daily review of the New York Times; the Sunday book review section of the New York Times; so forth and so on.

Baseball even paid an unintended tribute to the book: its publication date, 8 October 1956, was also the day that Don Larsen pitched the one and only perfect game in a World Series (to date). The response from readers was also good, far exceeding Simon and Schuster’s expectations, and they hired Einstein to put together The Second Fireside Book of Baseball two years later. It included one of the best demonstrations of respect from the players themselves–an introduction by Ted Williams, still taking the field back then.

Ten years later, Einstein compiled The Third Fireside Book of Baseball. This might be the best of the three, since it had the advantage of pulling from both the classics and a new generation of sports writers, which included Roger Angell, Jimmy Breslin, William Price Fox, George Plimpton, and even John Updike.

Nearly twenty years after that, Simon and Schuster released the last of the series, confusingly titled The Fireside Book of Baseball, Fourth Edition. Whoever came up with that bright idea would probably have argued that Colonel Sanders should call his restaurants Hot Dead Chicken. Einstein himself considered it the best of the four in terms of content:

… I think the fourth Fireside Book of Baseball is the best of the four, I really do … certainly in terms of the fiction and poetry. Each book as a strength, and in the fourth I think the fiction is just stunning. Because there had been 19 years since the third book and there’d been an accumulation of great stuff: Chaim Potok’s chapter from The Chosen on that softball game; and that long section from Will Kennedy’s Inronweed on the guy who played third base for the Senators; and that ballgame in the insane asylum from Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. You read this stuff and your mouth just drops open. And Robert Coover and Irwin Shaw and on and on, one great piece after another.

The packaging, on the other hand, Einstein compared to “a Crazy Eddie catalog.”

Taken together, the four books truly represent, as The Ultimate Baseball Book (itself a pretty fine anthology) called it, “baseball literature’s finest monument.” Einstein himself twice culled from the books to produce yet more anthologies–The Baseball reader: Favorites from the Fireside books of baseball–and The New Baseball Reader: More Favorites from The Fireside Books of Baseball. A prolific writer, Einstein also contributed one of baseball’s better novels–The Only Game in Town–and one of its better biographies, Willie’s Time, from 1979.

Cover of the 'Fireside Book of Boxing'Simon and Schuster published at least seven other Fireside books on sports and games, including:

Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, by George Leonard Herter and Berthe E. Herter

I flew back to Seattle this week to help settle my father’s affairs. Sorting through his books I kept an eye out for anything out of the ordinary but didn’t find much. When I was a kid, the mainstays of the living room bookshelves were titles from the Book of the Month Club. There were a few exceptions, most notably several Grove Press hardback editions of Henry Miller–the Tropics and Black Spring, which were probably considered hot stuff and discussed with arched eyebrows in the mess.

Then I happened to glance up at the cookbooks over the fridge and spotted the distinctive metallic gold spines of Herter’s Bull Cook books and knew I’d struck gold (pardon the pun).

My dad went through a big huntin’ and fishin’ period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and one thing you could always find in the reading basket next to his chair was a copy of the latest Herter’s catalog.Herter’s was a big mail-order hunting and fishing goods store in Minnesota, and every single item in the catalog had some hyperbolic write-up. There was something of a formula to these things. First there would be some dismissive mention of popular assumptions (“Carborundum is widely believed to be the finest material for sharpening the blade of a knife”). Then this notion would be tossed aside as poppycock in favor of some alternate theory that was far-fetched on average and downright absurd on occasion (“In truth, you will find no sharper edge than can be obtained from vigorous application of duck fat”). I’m making these examples up, but I’m really not far off the mark. Finally, there would be the pitch to convince you that buying an 8 oz. tin of Herter’s rendered duck fat was not merely the smartest choice you could make but the least that could be expected to demonstrate your fitness to remain walking the streets instead of bouncing off the walls of some rubber room.

Herter’s also sold a few books in the catalog, and somewhere along the way my Dad ordered two volumes of their most famous title: Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices (Volume Two added the subtitle, “Plus Famous Restaurants and Night Clubs of the World”).

'Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes'These were not at all like my mom’s cookbooks. These were cookbooks written for men by a guy without a shred of doubt about his studliness. What cookbook written by a woman would put “Meat” at the front, on the very first page? And lead off with, “How to Make Real Corned Venison, Antelope, Moose, Bear and Beef”? The last is just a concession to the little ladies, I’m sure. The author, George Leonard Herter, provides a short preface explaining the public service he is about to perform:

I am putting down some of these recipes that you will not find in cook books plus many other historical recipes. Each recipe here is a real cooking secret. I am also publishing for the first time authentic historical recipes of great importance.

For your convenience, I will start with meats, fish, eggs, soup and sauces, sandwiches, vegetables, the art of French frying, desserts, how to dress game, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to make wines and beer, what to do in case of hydrogen or cobalt bomb attack. Keeping as much in alphabetical order as possible.

I know I for one am relieved that someone finally thought to include nuclear attack survival tips just after the recipes for Prunes Maxim’s and “How to Make Puff Pastry or Flaky Pastry Dough.”

For the record, the first tip for surviving an attack is to “Get in any kind of cave, ditch, or valley as far away from buildings as you can and lie on the ground face down.” In case you missed the point, Herter adds, “If at all possible get in a cave.” Staying in your house means “the water pipes will burst and flood the basement drowning you like rats in a trap.” So find that cave–got it?

Helpfully, two pages before the list of H-bomb tips is a short article on the “Norwegian Method of Getting Rid of Rats.” The recipe? Simple and lethal–plain white bread, spread with lye, then topped with syrup. Just make sure the kids know not to confuse it with French toast. Serves 4-6.

A few readers will recognize this oddball classic, a genuine “pure product of America,” as Fitzgerald would put it. Among the cognoscenti, George Leonard Herter is treasured as one of the great American nutcases of all time, a man who never let nonsense like facts or objective sources tarnish the immaculate lunacy of his notions.

And who managed to turn his ravings into a fairly profitable business, at least for a couple of decades or more. Herter’s catalog copy went from three-ring binders passed from hand to hand in the early 1960s to editions of 3-400,000 copies by the time my dad got into them. And the Bull Cook went through something like fifteen editions between 1960 and 1970. The little business George Herter started in 1937 was on a par with L. L. Bean (which also, somewhere back in the dark ages, was mostly a supplier for hunters and fishermen) before the whole thing went bust in 1981 and Herter was forced to file for bankruptcy.

Recall that Herter promised to keep things in these cookbooks “as much in alphabetical order as possible.” It doesn’t take more than a few pages of the Bull Cook to make it clear that Herter’s sense of order is on a par with Joyce’s ability to tell a story in straightforward manner. Had Herter lived about 200 years earlier, he might have produced Tristram Shandy ahead of Sterne.

By the way, to pop back to nuclear holocaust for a sec, make sure to note the item on page 337 explaining that, “Red Pepper Good for Radiation and Upset Stomach.”

“Everything you know is wrong”, declared the Firesign Theatre on an early album. Their inspiration was, of course, George Leonard Herter:

• Never Use Charcoal for Broiling

The “fumes given off as the briquets burn are extremely toxic.” The right answer: hard coal. “The use of hard coal instead of charcoal in Minnesota for broiling has always been the accepted practice.” Which is why, of course, Minnesota ranks #1 among the states for fine restaurants.

• A real old buck past the sexual urge stage makes the best eating venison

However, Herter does admit that, “I have never known an Indian who would not trade ten times the weight in deer meat for either beef or pork or for that matter, although this may seem strange to you, dog meat, which is also good meat.” And you thought they were pets. Bonehead!

• Avonnaise–“the only new sauce invented since mayonnaise was invented”

You take mayonnaise and mash it up with an avocado. You should use it on “fruit salads, lettuce salads, and on baked potatoes instead of sour cream sauce, on roast beef instead of gracy or Bernaise sauce, on hamburgers use lettuce, pickles, and avonnaise.” It “was invented by famed Belgian cook, Berthe E. Gramme.” “Once you have tried this sauce you will be using it often.” You may now invent your excuses for not knowing this.

• The Swedish Method of Preparing Rutabagas is “the only correct way ever invented to prepare them”

Mash two thirds boiled rutabagas with one third boiled potatoes. “Served in this manner they are one of the finest vegetables you can serve with any meal.” And how have you been fixing them? In shoestring fries, I suppose. Sad.

If one volume of Herter’s ramblings on food is not enough, you need to locate volume two, which weighs in at over 750 pages and includes meditations on restaurants throughout the world and anecdotes of world history I’ll bet you’ll never find in any textbook. Herter sticks to his proven formula. The first page is, of course, “Meats.” This time, however, he adds a half-page grayscale of the Toulouse-Lautrec painting, “Two Friends”.

'Two Friends' by Toulouse Lautrec

Herter misnames the painting as “Friendship,” then adds a sly comment that, “The name of this painting is probably one of the greatest understatements ever made.”

You fellas all get it, right?

This to introduce “Toulouse Lautrec Chicken,” which Herter claims was something ol’ Henri often pined for. I won’t bother to summarize it: the fact that it involves a chicken breast cooked for one and a half hours, one quarter pound hamburger, and six strips of bacon is enough to suggest that we’re not exactly in Eric Ripert territory.

Yet a thousand-plus pages on food did not begin to exhaust George Leonard Herter’s capacity for airing his crazy ideas. There are at least five other Herter books to be found, including such irresistable titles as Herter’s Professional Course in the Science of Modern Taxidermy (which failed to spark a wave of D-I-Y critter stuffing); Secret Fresh and Salt Water Fishing Tricks of the World’s Fifty Best Professional Fishermen Plus the Professional Secrets of Fishing Rods and How Fishing Rods Are Made (Revised Fourth Edition); How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live on $10 a Month (move to Alaska; zap fish with car batteries or bags of quicklime); George the Housewife (with such handy tips as, “Be Careful to Avoid Touching Synthetic Cothing with a Gasoline Lantern”); and the ode to marital bliss, How to Live with a Bitch. Although his catalog business went bust in 1981, he kept beavering away for over ten more years, mostly inventing inventions such as a Rube Goldberg-esque process for refining petroleum, before hitting his last carriage return in 1994.

Paul Collins brought Herter’s work back into the spotlight in late 2008 with a fond tribute to “The Oddball Know-It-All” in the New York Times. But don’t settle for second-hand Herter. Get the pure product in all its insanity, uncut and unashamed:


You’ll thank me when the Big One drops.

Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, by George Leonard Herter and Berthe E. Herter
Waseca, Minnesota: Herter’s, 1960

Irvin Faust

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Steagle'“Opening this book is like clicking on a switch: at once we hear the electric hum of talent,” Stanley Kauffmann wrote in his New Republic review of Irvin Faust’s first book of fiction, Roar Lion, Roar. And if there’s one characteristic of Faust’s work, it’s energy. For over 45 years–30 of them working nights, weekends, and vacations while holding down a regular job as a a high school guidance counselor–Faust has written some of the liveliest, noisiest, most vibrant prose published in America:

Vegas. Ocean’s Eleven. Sinatra. Judy. Thirty thousand a week. Sun. Desert. Red neon. One-armed bandits. Action. Faites vos jeux. Les jeux sont faits. Nothing Monaco. Nothing Reno. Pools. Tanfastic. Bikinis. Action. Vegas.

That’s from Faust’s first novel, The Steagle (1966), about a college professor who suffers a psychotic breakdown over the Cuban Missile crisis and goes blasting off around the country on thrill-seeking spree. Of Faust’s most commercially successful book, the 1971 novel, Willy Remembers, Elmore Leonard wrote (in his introduction to the 1983 Arbor House reissue, reprinted on his blog):

There’s no one in American literature quite like Willy T. Kleinhans. And there is more sustained energy in the telling of what he remembers than in any novel I’ve ever read.

Willy Remembers takes off within the first two sentences, climbs, swoops, glides, does loops-all effortlessly-and doesn’t touch down again until he’s told us how things were. Really were.

It’s beautiful. More than that, Saturday Review describes it as ‘a great, big, beautiful hunk of Americana, “The New York Times calls it “a Book of Wonders.”

It’s so good I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped right here and turned to the first page, because all I’m going to do is tell you why I think it’s great.

A World War Two veteran who served in both Europe and the Pacific, Faust took advantage of the G. I. Bill and became a teacher in the New York Public Schools. 1954, while teaching math and English in Harlem, he decided that, “I wanted to relate to [kids] differently from the way I could in a classroom,” so he returned to school, earning a doctorate in Education at Teachers College. He returned to public schools and worked a regular Monday-to-Friday job in high schools around the New York City area for the next thirty years.

Irvin Faust, 1966As he told Don Swaim in a 1985 interview (available on the website), he had been jotting down story ideas for years, and in the mid-to-late 1950s, he began submitting stories to a variety of small magazines. His first book, Entering Angel’s World, however, a casebook for practitioners, was based on his doctoral research and early experience as a guidance counselor. Faust once told an interviewer,

Guidance counseling hasn’t slowed me down. Actually, in many ways it has helped me to produce by getting me into the mainstream of life….

Both of these things are terribly important to me, and I love doing both. One is introverted, the other extroverted, and these are aspects of my personality. I’m very lucky to have found two things that work together for me and turn me on. I couldn’t give up either one, really.

Both Faust and his wife, Jean, were working professionals, and early in their marriage agreed that Faust would devote his precious spare time away from work to his second career as a writer. Faust’s quiet routine of working and writing has always provided a striking contrast to the vibrant, often chaotic tone of his fiction. “This pop novel pops so violently that it cannot safely be perused without welding goggles,” Time magazine’s reviewer wrote of The Steagle.

Popular culture is one of Faust’s primary energy sources. His characters revel in it, tossing in song, dance, movies, television, radio, tabloids, magazines, celebrities, and historical figures great and small with more Bam! than Emeril with a pepper shaker. A Time magazine reviewer once wrote that Faust’s protagonists “are consumed by a world of mass-produced trivia and popular mythology. They generate authentic obsessions about the inauthentic.” Again, from The Steagle:

He decided to pub-crawl and play it by ear on the outside chance of running into Selznick, who might be looking for new properties. He began drinking at eight at the hotel and worked his way along the Strip. At Lou’s Century Club he won a dance contest with a little white-haired lady who said you’re cute as a bedbug, Mr. Rooney. In the One Two Three he asked if he could sing with the combo and did “Rose Marie,” “High, Wide and Handsome,” “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” “The Piccolino,” and “Mairzy Doats.” At ten he called Selma Zorn and said baby, I’m in an all-night story conference at Metro and may have something very big. Get this: an American girl from Ohio is smuggled into Havana on a yacht owned by Harry Morgan and she does this Hayworth bit in a local bistro called Rick’s and Castro see her, and well, you get the picture, Mata Hari and Florence Nightingale, see … No, baby, I’m sorry, not tonight. No, I’m sorry. Listen, babe, listen … Selma, I’ll call you.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Roar Lion, Roar'In the title story of Roar Lion, Roar, a Puerto Rican boy’s obsession with the New York Lions football team blurs into fantasies of becoming gridiron star himself, and much of Faust’s work is devoted to the shifting lines between reality and fiction. The very first two sentences of Willy Remembers demonstrates how easily memory can jumble up facts and create its own version of history: “Major Bill McKinley was the greatest president I ever lived through. No telling how far he could have gone if Oswald hadn’t shot him.”

Reflecting on his writing in an interview from 1975, Faust remarked,

It seems to me that thus far my work has dealt with the displacement and disorganization of Americans in urban life; with their attempt to find adjustments in the glossy attractions of the mass media—-movies, radio, TV, advertising, etc.—-and in the image-radiating seductions of our institutions—-colleges, sports teams, etc.. Very often this “adjustment” is to the “normal” perception a derangement, but perfectly satisfying to my subjects.

Yet while his characters take off into flights of fantasy at the drop of a hat or the first bar of a melody, Faust has always kept his own two feet solidly on the ground. Willy Kleinhans may have confused McKinley and Kennedy’s assassins, but Faust clearly recognizes that Willy’s reveries are closer to psychotic fugues than cute, if muddled, nostalgia. Although Willy Remembers was marketed as the comic memoirs of an eccentric but lovable old man, at the core Willy’s story is full of sadness. His recollections are his escape from the grim reality of a man growing old without the comfort and company of his wife and son, who died many years before.

Sad things happen to Faust’s people, but sadness is certainly not the mood one takes away from his writing. Not everyone might be so accepting of how his characters choose to cope with their realities, but it works for them, and–with the possible exception of Faust’s 1970 novel, The File on Stanley Patton Buchta, which Jerome Charyn called “a curiously humorless book”–it usually sparkles with invention and passion.

All of Faust’s novels and short story collections are currently of a print, but all are easily available for as little as $0.01 on Amazon and elsewhere. And if you happen to wonder into a used book store that actually has inventory older than the clerk behind the counter, you shouldn’t have any trouble locating his books–they’re the ones you see glowing and buzzing on the shelves.

More on Irvin Faust

Irvin Faust’s books

The Great Fake Book, by Vance Bourjaily

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Great Fake Book'It pains me to start 2010 with two pans in a row, but few books have disappointed me as much as Vance Bourjaily’s little-known 1986 novel, The Great Fake Book. As an amateur jazz player, I was attracted by the title, a reference to fake books, the cheat sheets many working musicians use to memorize popular tunes. [Barry Kernfeld wrote a short history of them, The Story of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians, a few years ago.]

Bourjaily’s name often pops up on lists of neglected and underappreciated novelists. Despite a career spanning six decades and a nomination for the National Book Award (for his 1970 novel, Brill Among the Ruins), none of his books are currently in print. [Amazon reports that Doubleday will be publishing Brill in hardback at $7.95 this month. Probably a data entry error–but if not, grab it! When’s the last time you could get a new hardback copy of a good book for $7.95?] One reason for this lasting reputation, particularly among other writers, was his 23-year stint at the influential Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he mentored numerous young writers of the 1960s and 1970s.

Though Bourjaily wrote The Great Fake Book while in his sixties, the book certainly demonstrates that his appetite for narrative experimentation hadn’t diminished over the years. To tell the dual stories of young Charles Mizzourin and his father, Mike Mizzourin, a newspaperman and jazz musician who died in an auto wreck before Charles was born, Bourjaily uses letters, phone calls, archival documents, oral histories, and even a novel-within-a-novel. He switches decades, narrators, perspective, and tone as fast as Charlie Parker could play changes on “Cherokee.”

Unfortunately, Bourjaily’s experiment is doomed from the onset by unreliable ingredients. The correspondence between Charles Mizzourin and John Johnson (one of the few believable names in the book) that opens the story tries to create the impression of a fencing match between a child of the 60s and a man of the Establishment but just comes off as an inept tussle between two patently made-up stereotypes. We are led to think there is some kind of mystery behind Mike Mizzourin’s death and perhaps also his flip-flopping between journalism and jazz, perhaps having something to do with the Red Scare and McCarthyism–or perhaps not. Frankly, after finishing 100-some pages, I gave up caring and shelved the book. Not, regrettably, before coming across what I truly believe to be the most stomach-turning passage of prose I’ve ever read:

“Is that my finger-lickin’ chicken?”
“Hello Darlene.”
“Whompsie, did you get an answer from your friend Mr. Johnson?”
“I just found it in the mailbox.”
“I got one, too. To my li’l physical description of you.”
“That right? What’s he say?”
“He sent me his Style Book, and a bill for three dollars.”
“Going to pay?”
“What’s your letter say?”
“I’m about to pour me a drink and sit down with it.”
“Be sure it’s not a letter bomb. You’ll get vodka on your podka.”
“Night, Darlene.”
“Night, light.”

And that’s not the only saccharine attack from Bourjaily’s Kewpie doll creation. I kept hoping Charles would take a lesson from Groucho Marx and warn Darlene, “If icky baby keep talking that way, big stwong man gonna kick all her teef down her fwoat!”

No such luck.

Jo Walton Stirs Up a Hefty List of Neglected SF/Fantasy Authors and Books

Source: “Neglected Books: the list,” at

SF novelist Jo Walton put out a call for recommendations of “authors that should be getting the sales and the attention and yet remain obscure” on the SF/fantasy website, Tor. It generated a tremendous number of responses, which she’s compiled into a list organized into four categories:

  • Books and authors Jo’s reviewed elsewhere on Tor (with links to her reviews)
  • Books and authors she’s read but not reviewed
  • Books and authors she hasn’t read
  • Books and authors that are well known and shouldn’t be on this list

Cover of early U.S. paperback edition of 'Children of the Atom'The last shows that Walton’s kept a discriminating filter on her list. Of Steig Larson’s novels, which someone nominated, she writes, “These are a stupendously successful non-genre best sellers. The opposite of obscure.” I’ve seen them on the end caps of airport bookstores in Belgium, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S. in the last two months: definitely NOT neglected.

On the other hand, she notes, “Other times I was surprised to find an author I’d never even vaguely heard of who published several books. I read a lot, and I’ve spent a lot of time online and in conventions hanging out talking about books.” Two authors in particular she cites are Wilmar Shiras and Wilhemina Baird.

Shiras’ short story, “In Hiding,” is considered one of the best SF short stories of the 20th century. She later incorporated it into her 1953 novel, Children of the Atom. Children, which was something of a precursor to the X-Men series, is back in print in a fine facsimile edition from Red Jacket Press, although cheaper copies of several different paperback editions can be found on Amazon.

Baird is the pen name of Joyce Carstairs Hutchinson, a Scottish woman who quickly turned out four “cyberpunk” novels in the mid-1990s and then stopped–at least for the moment–publishing. Her first book, Crashcourse anticipated the rise of reality TV.

What Became of Anna Bolton?, by Louis Bromfield

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'What Became of Anna Bolton?'I picked up a copy of Louis Bromfield’s 1944 short novel, What Became of Anna Bolton? at one of my favorite bookstores, Magus Books, during a Christmas visit to the U. S.. Magus, located just a block from the University of Washington campus in Seattle, opened while I was going to school there 30-some years ago, and it’s one of an ever-diminishing number of bookstores where it’s still possible to find interesting old paperbacks from the 1960s and earlier.

I decided to take Anna Bolton along as my flight reading when we returned to Europe a few days later. From the title, I expected the story would be something about her disappearance or miraculous transformation. Taking the voice of David Sorrell, an American foreign correspondent, Bromfield introduces us to Anna Bolton at a London soiree in 1937. The widow of an American inventor and industrialist, she has come to London to work her way up the social ladder.

Sorrell, it turns out, knows Anna from their days growing up together in Lewisburg, Ohio. Anna–then Anna Scanlon–came from the wrong side of town, the daughter of a house cleaner and a town drunk. She falls in love with Tom Harrigan, from one of the better families in town. When Anna becomes pregnant, Tom elopes with her against his family’s wishes and they set up house in Pittsburgh. A year or so later, Tom dies in a car wreck and their baby follows soon after. It takes Bromfield about twelve pages to blitzkrieg through these first twenty years.

Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of 'What Became of Anna Bolton?'Sorrell next crosses paths with Anna some years later in the lobby of a pricey New York hotel, on the arm of Ezra Bolton, a fictional hybrid of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. A year or so after hiring her as a secretary, Bolton marries her as a trophy wife (although the term hadn’t been invented yet). The marriage is an arid sham, but luckily for Anna, Bolton dies before it gets too tedious for her. Millions in hand, she takes off for Europe.

Hitler’s invasion of France puts a crimp in her plans for social ascent. Caught up in the tide of refugees from Paris, she catches the Joan d’Arc flu and adopts a village of the homeless and helpless as her cause:

The truth was that Anna had found something to do. She had great health and great energy and great ability as an executive, and now setting up a canteen gave her an outlet for all these qualities. She liked the trips to Lyons, to Orleans, to Paris, even as far as Marseilles and Geneva to buy soap and medicines, chocolate and cigarettes.

Clearly, Bromfield had not a clue about life in occupied France. At this point, the book was halfway over and nothing of interest had really happened. Yes, a number of events were related, but Bromfield hadn’t managed to make Anna Scanlon/Harrigan/Bolton much more than a cut-out doll. “I’ve seen you grow a soul,” Anna’s paid companion, Miss Goodwin, tells her after a few months of the humanitarian relief. Miss Goodwin’s eyes were sharper than mine. But for another six hours of flying, I would have given up.

In hindsight, I wish I had. Anna continues her black-market magic, manipulating an S.S. officer who’s convinced he’s in love with her. “I want to marry you,” he tells her, “because I am tired and sick and corrupt and you are strong and healthy and young.” No, I am not making that line up. She meets Jean Lambert, a handsome Russo-French officer who’s the spitting image of Tom Harrigan. After a bit of pallid “Taming of the Shrew” nonsense, they marry, then escape to Algiers to avoid imprisonment after the U. S. enters the war. Sorrell meets Anna again and finds her transformed. We have to take his word for it.

When I got back home, I did a little research and learned that Edmund Wilson gave What Became of Anna Bolton? a right bashing when it was first published.

Louis Bromfield used to be spoken of as one of the younger writers of promise. By the time he had brought out Twenty-four Hours, it was more or less generally said of him that he was definitely second-rate. Since then, by unremitting industry and a kind of stubborn integrity that seems to make it impossible for him to turn out his rubbish without thoroughly believing in it, he has gradually made his way into the fourth rank, where his place is now secure.

Cover of later paperback edition of 'What Became of Anna Bolton?'Although he began by calling the book “one of his [Bromfield’s] most remarkable achievements,” after devoting about four times as much text to a recap of the novel’s plot with only an occasional dig, Wilson then dismissed it as, “a small masterpiece of pointlessness and banality.”

To which I can only add, “Amen, brother!”

Despite the book’s utter lack of interest and distinction, What Became of Anna Bolton? managed to be reissued at least five times in paperback. Which just proves again how right Bo Diddley was when he sang, “You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover.”

What Became of Anna Bolton?, by Louis Bromfield
New York City: Harper and Brothers, 1944

Jonathan Yardley’s Second Readings added to Sources

Source: Second Readings, from the Washington Post:

In early 2003, Jonathan Yardley, dean of the Washington Post’s book critics began what was modestly called, “An occasional series in which The Post’s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.”
Jonathan Yardley
Ever month or so, Yardley would set aside his stack of review copies of new books to take up one that had been in or out of print for a decade or more–“books I remember with affection and admiration but have not read in many years, books I would like to encourage others to discover.”

His first piece dealt with John P. Marquand’s H.M. Pulham, Esq., also featured on this site about a year ago. His choice of Marquand, as Yardley put it, was motivated not because, “His are not the best books I’ve ever read, but they are among the books I love most, and the neglect into which they have fallen is a literary outrage.”

When he concluded the series almost seven years later, with a fond revisit to The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor, he wrote,

With that, this series of Second Readings comes to an end. It began in February 2003 and has covered nearly 100 books. Probably it could go on a while longer, but it’s best to quit before you start repeating yourself. Let me say by way of wrapping things up that except for a couple of the books I’ve written, nothing in my career has given me so much pleasure as these reconsiderations, not least because they have elicited such warm, generous responses from you, my treasured readers. I hope that I’ve steered you to a few good books you might otherwise have missed, and that those books gave you as much pleasure as reading and writing about them gave me.

Not all of the books Yardley covered can be considered neglected–certainly not such fixtures of the literary canon as Pride and Prejudice or The Catcher in the Rye. But he did often reach beyond the limits of the well-known and well-remembered to bring back to light titles such as Edwin O’Connor’s novel of a veteran vaudevillean,I Was Dancing (“I’d be hard-pressed to say that any book discussed therein is more undeservedly neglected than this one”), and The Second Happiest Day by John Phillips (pen name of Marquand’s son John Phillips Marquand, Jr.). He even took time to consider a book such as Philip Wylie’s rather dated critique of American society of the mid-20th century, Generation of Vipers to demonstrate that sometimes the test of time is a fair judgment of a book’s merit.

I’ve added the full list of books Yardley reviewed as a new Source list on the left.