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0 - The Neglected Books Page

Human Being, by Christopher Morley

After forty-plus years of nosing through the stacks of book stores, it’s hard to surprise me. When I came across a Modern Library edition of Human Being by Christopher Morley while browsing in the Harvest Book Company store in Philadelphia, it was a double punch: not just a Modern Library title I’d never seen before, but a Christopher Morley novel that I couldn’t recall.

I know most of the Modern Library list by heart–even the early oddities like Artzibashev’s Sanine and Kuprin’s Yama (The Pit). I should devote a post, in fact, to the curiosities that can be found in the full Modern Library backlist. And, of course, I’ve seen hundreds of copies of Morley’s best-known books, particular his two bibliophile novels, Parnassus on Wheels (1917) (a Modern Library title from 1930 till the early 1950s) and The Haunted Bookshop (1919), and his biggest best-seller, Kitty Foyle (1939). And I must have come across Human Being before, as it went into at least six printings when it first came out in 1934. If I had, though, the memory has gone with the wind.

For a solid three-plus decades, between the late 1910s and early 1950s, Christopher Morley was one of the best-known literary figures in America. A prolific essayist, reviewer, and writer of every type of literature, from plays and poetry to short stories and novels. He was one of the founders of the Saturday Review magazine and one of the first members of the Book of the Month Club review board. He did not aspire to creating great art, although he has an enthusiastic proponent of bringing literature to the masses–editing, for example, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets for the popular audience.

Yet, at the same time, he appears to have been happy to follow his whims wherever they led, taking it for granted that enough readers to pay his mortgage would want to come along. And anyone who would read Human Being needs to be ready to follow Morley’s meanderings, as he happily takes many a detour from the narrative.

Starting with the narrator himself. The core of Human Being is based around the attempt by Lawrence Hubbard, a semi-retired accountant, to construct a biography of Richard Roe–a man he meets just once, over lunch with some other acquaintances, a few weeks before Roe’s death. But from the very beginning, another voice, clearly that of Morley, takes over, and reaches over Hubbard’s shoulder to grab the pen whenever the spirit moves him. “This is not the biography of Richard Roe,” he interjects at the start of Chapter Three, “but a biography of that biography.” And, where needed to move things along, an omniscient narrator steps in to let us into the minds of Roe, his wife, his mother-in-law, and even his Pekinese dog.

In giving his protagonist the name Richard Roe, Morley makes it pretty obvious that he wants to tell an Everyman story. Which requires, of course, a character with few distinguishing traits. Recalling Roe from their one lunch together, Hubbard remarks, in fact, that Roe “had a talent for not being noticeable.” He does, however, remember one thing Roe said: “Not long ago, I went up Riverside Drive at night on a bus. Suddenly an electric sign across the river flashed on in the dark, caught me right in the eyeball. It said THE TIME IS NOW 7:59. You know that damned thing frightened me.”

A short while after the lunch, Hubbard finds a short notice in the paper:

Richard Roe of 50 West 81st Street, manufacturer of stationery novelties with an office in the Flatiron Building, was taken ill on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat last night and died before the boat reached Hoboken. A heart attack was said to be the cause.

This leads Hubbard to decide to write a biography of Roe. Partly because “He had reached that period–it usually comes somewhere in the fifth decade–when a man decides that if he is ever going to do anything worth while he had better get started.” And partly because, as an accountant, “He was a great believer in the only law that is unerringly enforced, the law of averages.” Who better, then, to study, than an essentially unknown human being, to answer the question: “What was the basic alloy involved in being human?”

Richard Roe’s story is simple: he gets a start as a go-fer in a touring theatre company and works his way up to house manager. He switches to publishing when offered a job and works his way up to a regional salesman. Then, on a suggestion and a little financing from one of his customers, he starts his own company, making and selling things like ink stands and deskpads. It fares well, even into the start of the Depression. And then he dies.

Morley tries to build a great tragedy upon this slight foundation. Roe marries the box-office manager, Lucille, while they are both working for the theatre company, but she turns out to be a shrew. Years later, he meets Minnie Hutzler, who manages the book section in a Chicago department store. The two are attracted to each other. Minnie inspires Roe to form his own business and comes to New York to help him run it. They eventually have an affair–a very tentative one–but Roe finds himself trapped. Morley would have us believe that Roe dies not of a heart attack but of a heart broken for a love he can never fully express and enjoy. It helps, of course, that Lucille is a bitter, jealous, and relentless harridan, while Minnie is what Alice Kahn called a “gal”: sympathetic, supportive, but also as wily and worldwise as an Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter character.

In truth, what makes Human Being a rich and wonderful book is not the story but the detours. For although Roe’s life “cuts a narrow groove along the canyons of Manhattan,” as Morley puts it at one point, it’s full of intersections that lead down fascinating side streets.

So Roe’s time in show business leads Morley into a three-page meander into the classified ads in Variety. His office supply company gives Morley an excuse for a soliloquoy about inkstands and universal desk calendars. His time as a travelling salesman leads him to wander for seven pages through The Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Cuba:

The Railway Guide became Richard’s Outline of History, his Story of Philosophy. There was the Toledo, Peoria & Western (“The Peoria Road”) which doesn’t seem to go near Toledo at all on its own rails, but begins at Effner, Indiana. He found himself in imagination on a Mixed Train (“passenger service connections uncertain”) passing a long night on the way to Keokuk. Number 3 leaves Effner at 8:30 p.m. It arrives Peoria Yard at 5:20 a.m. There must be a chance for coffee and sinkers at the Peoria Yard? And he would go out on Number 103 (good old Number 103!) at 7:45, arrive at Keokuk 2:30 p.m.–“Is there a bookstore in Keokuk?” he asked Miss Mac.

And there are endless wanderings into the diverse pleasures of mid-20th century Manhattan itself: the Flatiron Building, where Roe moves his offices; the L, which Roe takes to and from work each day; the Museum of Natural History, one of his favorite haunts. And the seasons:

New York is never so lovely as in early summer. In Richard’s familiar region of Central Park West awnings burst out on apartment windows; asphalt streets feel soft under the point of a walking stick. Drug stores are draughty with electric fans, which blow out the gasoline cigar-lighter every time you snap it into flame. In the inner airshaft of apartments housewives indignantly observe little flocks of fuzz that come drifting over the sill from dustpans higher up.

In an essay on Human Being published in The American Scholar magazine back in 2003 (another reason I should have remembered the book), James McConkey described it as “more essayistic than fictional in nature.” “Within the personal essay,” McConkey writes, “subject is inseparable from authorial presence.” If the fictional framework of Human Being is slight, what does that matter in the end, if all its display windows are packed with goodies to delight the eye of the streetside passers-by?

Usually, in the interest of having material to post on a regular basis, I tend to read books quickly. With Human Being, I took my time, happy to get dragged down another side street by such an enthusiastic and amiable tour guide as Christopher Morley.

Human Being, by Christopher Morley
New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1934

Diary of a Self-Made Convict, by Alfred Hassler

Cover of the first US edition of 'Diary of a Self-Made Convict'In the spring of 1944, nearly two and a half years after registering with the Selective Service as a conscientious objector, Alfred Hassler was sentenced to three years in Federal prison for refusing to accept the draft or participate in an approved civilian program. Had his hearing been held a week later, he would have been released, as the Selective Service stopped drafting men of his age (34). Instead, however, he spent almost a year in the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania penetentiary, until he was pardoned in March 1945.

Hassler assembled his Diary of a Self-Made Convict from his prison journal and letters to his wife and friends. The book wasn’t published until almost ten years after his sentencing. It’s a unique document, as Hassler was far from a typical prisoner. A member of the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest organization in the U.S. devoted to nonviolence, he was married, well-educated and, as his title indicates, something of a self-made convict in that he could have chosen to serve as a conscientious objector without going to prison.

Hassler wasn’t separated or isolated from other prisoners, and mixed freely with bank robbers, racketeers, rapists, and murderers. It’s clear he was an approachable guy who gained the trust of a wide variety of men–both prisoners and prison officials–easily, and he recorded the stories of dozens of his fellow inmates: from a black man busted for heroin use to “Nucky” Johnson, one-time political boss of Atlantic City. At the time, Federal prisons were full not just of “traditional” prisoners but also draft-dodgers, deserters, conscientious objectors and suspected spies such as members of the German Bund. As a result, Diary of a Self-Made Convict portrays a remarkable cross-section of 1940s American society, or at least a peculiar subset of it.

Although Hassler seems by nature to have been a discreet and gentle man, he is frank about the worst aspects of prison life. He notes that effeminate men are preyed upon and is approached at least once by a prisoner looking for a homosexual partner. Masturbation–or, as one of the prison’s psychologists refers to it, “learning to live with yourself”–he finds “widely–almost universally–practiced.” Racism is institutionalized, with blacks segregated from the white inmates through a variety of Jim Crow measures. He observes theft, brutality, and intimidation–and also despair:

Last night some wild geese passed overhead, flying low. Their honking was quite clear as they flew south, and for just a moment I caught a glimpse of the long “V” of their flight silhouetted against the patch of sky visible from my cubicle. At the very moment of their passage, from some other near-by cell I could barely hear the deep, almost silent sobs of one of my fellow convicts. It is no longer a novel sound, but it wrenches my whole spirit with wretchedness whenever I hear it. During the day, the men maintain the cloak of bravado in which they wrap their self-respect; at night, alone in the darkness, their grief and fright sometimes become too much for them to bear.

I suppose that the very unpopularity of their subject keeps prison books from staying in print for too long. Malcolm Braly’s classic, On the Yard, is out again as a New York Review Classic, but that’s something like the third or fourth time it’s been reissued over the course of the last forty-some years. Still, I’m surprised that Diary of a Self-Made Convict hasn’t attained at least an equal or better standing. It’s a simple, honest, objective and well-written account of prison life that makes it quite clear that even a man who made a deliberate choice to go–and then served less than a year–found it a soul-testing experience. If learning about prison is part of a basic education in life, and I think it is, then it would be tough to find a better basic text than Diary of a Self-Made Convict.

[Diary of a Self-Made Convict is, in fact, in print from a company that calls itself Literary Licensing, LLC. and appears to be a small-time operator in the direct-to-print, copyright-free publishing business. But I recommend finding a used copy instead via Amazon or AddAll.]


Diary of a Self-Made Convict, by Alfred Hassler
Chicago, Illinois: Henry Regnery Company, 1954

Worth Remembering: Books by Some of My UW Professors

Stumbling across the text of The Politics of Irish Literature, written by Malcolm Brown, who taught a survey of 20th century English novels I took in my sophomore year at the University of Washington, I was reminded of a number of my UW professors whose books qualify for a notice on this site.

My own copy of Politics has Dr. Brown’s autograph on the inside flap. Published by the University of Washington Press in 1972, it fared better than the average academic work. Reviewing for the London Evening Standard, Michael Foot wrote that, “Mr. Brown’s masterpiece has made me want to hire a nearby housetop and recite whole chunks to every passerby…,” and Sean O’Faolain called it, “A brilliant study … Reading it one feels about one the breath, warmth, and passions of the dead all come alive again.” You can find the full text of Politics and Brown’s equally well-regarded study of George Moore: A Reconsideration can be found online at www.astonisher.com, a site run by Brown’s son, Bruce.

I long ago devoted a Sources page to Roger Sales’ article, “Neglected Recent American Novels,”, from the Winter 1979 issue of The American Scholar. I took Sales’ nonfiction writing course in my junior year, and it remains the single most useful class I’ve ever had. Sales expected his students to turn in a piece of 3-5 pages on a set topic twice a week. His goal was, by sheer volume and frequency, to teach how to get from first to final draft in the shortest possible time. It’s a skill I rely upon almost every working day.

Sales’ most popular book–still in print after over 30 years–is Seattle: Past and Present, which has become the standard history of the city. His most influential book, Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White (Harvard Paperbacks) (1979), played a major role in bringing children’s literature into the academic curriculum and remains one of the best introductions to the subject.

Although he’d retired by the time I entered the University, Giovanni Costigan still occasionally delivered lecture series, and I had the privilege to attend one of his last, on “Makers of Modern History.” Costigan was something of a local legend for a famous 1971 debate he had with William F. Buckley on the Vietnam War. It filled the University’s Edmondson Pavilion to capacity and was broadcast on the UW’s PBS station. With his wild shock of snow-white hair, rich Irish brogue and feisty style, Costigan was quite a contrast to Buckley’s slicked-back hair and purring Eastern aristocratic tone, and even my deeply-Republican grandfather rated Costigan the winner in the end.

Costigan wrote several books, including a short biography of Freud that Colliers published in paperback in 1968 and a history of modern Ireland. Makers of Modern England: The Force of Individual Genius in History is probably the best example of Costigan’s writing. He was very much in the spirit of Thomas Carlyle and such masters of biographical sketches as Gamaliel Bradford and Stefan Zweig–perhaps not the style in favor today, but wonderful reading if you’re willing to have your historians pass judgment on their subject’s characters.

Another professor emeritus I had the honor to get to know was W. Stull Holt. I was taking a course on World War One from Dr. Donald Emerson, and for some reason my interest in the subject–and probably the fact that I was in officer training–led him to invite me to lunch with Holt one day. Holt–a former Chairman of the University’s History department and one-time head of the American Historical Assocation–had joined the American Ambulance Field Service in 1917 and served with John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings, and others on the Western Front. He enlisted in the American Army after the U.S. entered the war, trained as a pilot and bombardier, and flew with the 20th Aero Squadron.

Holt died in 1981. Almost 20 years later, his letters and diaries from the war were collected and published in The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt, which is still in print from the Sunflower University Press. His best-known work as a historian, Treaties Defeated by the Senate: A Study of the Struggle Between President and Senate over the Conduct of Foreign Relations, is available as a reprint, but most of his other books, including a long series of histories of executive departments, are probably of limited interest.

Holt and Emerson first met in 1943, when Holt commanded a U.S. Army intelligence unit based in England that worked in liaison with the British M.I.9. Holt headed the team responsible for training American flight crews on escape and evasion, and worked to help Allied prisoners to escape from German P.O.W. camps. He once showed me some artifacts from that time, including playing cards with hidden maps and board games whose pieces could be assembled to form compasses and used to create forged identity documents.

While serving with Holt, Emerson was responsible for interrogating hundreds of Germans captured in fighting after D-Day, and became something of a specialist in dealing with former members of the S.S.. That experience may have helped years later when Emerson wrote his only published book, Metternich and the Political Police: Security and Subversion in the Hapsburg Monarchy (1815-1830). Although very much an academic work, it makes for chilling reading, as it demonstrates that the opening and censorship of private letters was routine–almost universal–and a primary instrument of state control back in Metternich’s time.

The last course in English I took at the UW was taught by Ivan Kolpacoff. At the time, I didn’t know much about his background, but several years later, I came across a copy of his 1967 novel, The Prisoners of Quai Dong, in the stacks of Moe’s bookstore in Berkeley. Prisoners deals with the interrogation and torture of Viet Cong prisoners by Americans in an isolated unit. Kolpacoff wrote the book without ever having set foot in Vietnam, but his account was effective and convincing, and earned the book prominent reviews in the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Irving Howe wrote of the novel, “It is completely absorbing; it focuses on a subject of large contemporary interest; it is compactly formed; and it is written with a verbal discipline that, in this moment of cultural yawp, seems remarkable.” Stanley Kauffmann found it, “The structure of the novel is simple, and therefore carefully designed. The artifice is not concealed: it is formal, innocent, classic. There is a purity in the form that perfectly fits the basic purpose of the book.” Although neither reviewer considered Prisoners to be on a par with The Red Badge of Courage, they both felt the book benefited from Kolpacoff’s lack of personal experience, in that it made his account all the more abstract and timeless. Given America’s recent experiences with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and water-boarding, there might be an audience to interest a publisher in reissuing The Prisoners of Quai Dong.

My first course in English, by the way, was a survey of best-sellers, taught by Dr. Elinor Yaggy. She was a wonderful lecturer who loved to read out favorite passages in a booming voice that seemed as if she hoped to jam her enthusiasms into us by its sheer force. She actually managed to find something worth liking in the gawd-awful Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. She may also hold the record for the most successful book published by any of my professors, though I wouldn’t recommend it to any casual reader: her How to Write Your Term Paper went through at least four editions from Harper and Row and provided a valuable crutch to at least a generation’s worth of college students–including me.

The Widowmaker, by M. Fagyas

Cover of Dell paperback edition of 'The Widowmaker'In the opening pages of M. Fagyas’ 1966 novel, The Widowmaker, Peter Kozma staggers into his hamlet of Ladany in Hungary after seven years of being away at the Russian front with the Austro-Hungarian army and then a prisoner of the Russians. Instead of the warm homecoming he had imagined thousands of times over those years, his wife eyes him coldy.

“‘It’s me–I’ve come back!’ he finally managed to squeeze out the words.

“‘So I see,’ she said as unemotionally as if he had been away only five minutes.”

While her husband has been away, his wife Tereza has had to manage their small farm on her own, and after some struggle, succeeded in doing better than Peter had–adding a few acres to their parcel. Some free labor–and later some company in bed–from a Russian prisoner, Nicolai, helped–and helped change her perspective on her marriage.

Within a few days of his return, Peter is found dead. The suspicions of a local constable are raised, particularly after he finds their cat buried in the yard, the apparent victim of arsenic poisoning.

He fails to find enough evidence to arrest her, but over the course of the next months, other men in Ladany and surrounding towns start dying in suspicious circumstances–many betraying signs of arsenic poisoning. He suspects the local abortionist of supplying the arsenic and also of instigating the murders. But he also runs into a wall of silence among the women.

Although The Widowmaker is on one level a straightforward detective story, if in an unusual setting, it’s also a somewhat gruesome twist on Aristophanes’ feminist satire, Lysistrata–only in this case, the women take revenge on their men for the pain and disruption caused to their lives through war, physical abuse, alcoholism, and laziness by something a little more ruthless than just withholding sex.

As other readers have noted (see the comments in this post on The Devil’s Lieutenant), Fagyas had a knack for writing the kinds of books that you pick up and don’t put down until you’ve finished it hours later. In my case, I had the advantage of a transatlantic flight, but reading The Widowmaker was a four-hour blur to me. Her prose is nothing out of the ordinary, but she was clearly at home in a world in which bloodlines ran back centuries, where the importance of the ownership of even the barest scraps of land could drive people insane, and and when layers of customs were only just beginning to be stripped away by the twentieth century, and the novel gains most of its power from her mastery of her setting.

Many thanks to Karen Ronan for passing along her copies of The Widowmaker and The Devil’s Lieutenant.


The Widowmaker, by M. Fagyas
New York City: Doubleday, 1966

Brown Face, Big Master, by Joyce Gladwell

Cover of first UK paperback edition of 'Brown Face, Big Master'Knowing I would have the chance to hear Malcolm Gladwell speak at the PMI Global Congress last week, I stuck the fairly beat-up paperback copy of his mother Joyce’s 1969 memoir, Brown Face, Big Master, in my backpack and read it on the plane from Amsterdam to Dallas.

Aside from the family connection, Joyce Gladwell’s book has little in common with her son’s best-sellers. Although Brown Face, Big Master has been reissued by MacMillan Caribbean as part of its series of Caribbean Classics, it was first published by InterVarsity Press, the publishing arm of the InterVarsity Fellowship, and its focus is very much on tracing the development of the author’s faith and relationship with God, with a lesser theme of coming to grips with racism in its overt–and more often, subtly covert–forms.

The child of the principal and one of the teachers of a rural Jamaican school, Joyce Gladwell (nee Nation) grew up relatively isolated from the society around her. Her schoolmates were cautious not to get too friendly with Joyce or her twin sister, fearing that any secrets shared would find their way back to the school’s master. She and her sister were then sent to St. Hilary’s, a strict, though integrated, girls’ school, where the students were instructed to avoid speaking with the school’s staff and where private screenings were arranged in the local cinema to ensure no “inappropriate” contact with local boys.

St. Hilary’s had high standards, high moral standards, high standards of social behavior. We learned to believe in these standards, to accept them as the best, to live by them and to pass them on without compromise. I gave my unquetioning loyalty to St. Hilary’s. This was what I wanted–to belong, to be identified, to be approved, and St. Hilary’s filled that need.

Adding to school’s artificial isolation was Joyce’s own severe inhibitions. “I made myself comfortable in the security of being told exactly what to do and I was pleased to abdicate responsibility for my actions.” The cocoon was further extended when, shortly after graduation, she was asked to return as a teacher, and stayed for three more years, until she was offered a partial scholarship to London University.

Although she joined her twin sister, who had started at the university two years before, Joyce knew she was ill-prepared for the move from a sheltered girls’ school in Jamaica to a major university in the heart of one of the world’s great cities. “The world of people–that was where the trouble lay,” she writes. She proved an excellent student, and gradually, with the help of acquaintances in the school’s InterVarsity chapter, came out of her shell.

She fell in love with a fellow student, Graham Gladwell, a mathematician and InterVarsity member. Graham’s parents were initially resistant to the idea of their marrying, but eventually softened (“All marriages are mixed,” a family friend quipped). Still …

The moments of embarrassment that we feared did come. On one of our early visits to my parents-in-law, an old friend of the family called after long absence. We stood together with Graham’s sisters as Dad identified each one of his now grown family. “And Joyce, Graham’s wife,” he ended.

The visitor searched the faces round him in silence, seeking and failing to find the extra one that suited that description. We were paralysed by the dread realized, caught unprepared in an aberrant social moment for which the rules did not prescribe.

The couple went through some tough years, with Joyce struggling simultaneously with motherhood (she had had little preparation in domestic matters), long dreary grey English winters, and an ever-present undercurrent of prejudice. Finally, after a number of years and the birth of her third child–Malcolm–she had a breakthrough when she turned to God after a local boy shouted “Nigger” at her one afternoon. Ironically, she found her prayers answered not in understanding but in a challenge: “He showed Himself to be not only love giving Himself for me even to death, but also jealous God making demands on me”–demands to which she was now ready to yield.

Brown Face, Big Master is a restrained, subdued memoir, marked more than anything by a pervasive sense of humility. It is not at all an evangelical account: Joyce Gladwell’s own faith came to her gradually, over the course of many years, and with more than a few set-backs, and she makes no claims or and sets no expectations for others. In that respect, it is an account of one person’s faith that even non-believers can appreciate.


Brown Face, Big Master, by Joyce Gladwell
London & Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969

Fred Allen’s Letters

Fred Allen on the air for NBCFred Allen. To ninety-nine out of a hundred people under the age of sixty, that name means about as much as John Smith or Jane Doe. I recognize it because I was suckered into sending off for one of those old-time radio compilations they used to hawk at every other commercial break during the Saturday afternoon showing of old movies featuring W. C. Fields, Mae West and the Marx Brothers. One of the records included a routine from “Allen’s Alley,” Allen’s hit NBC radio comedy series from the 1940s, that was full of fine and horrible puns, barbed put-downs, and various other antics, all delivered at machine-gun speed.

Allen’s nervous energy seems not to have been just an act, and he burned himself out early, dropping dead of a heart attack on a New York street at the age of 61. He’d made the switch from radio to TV and was a regular on “What’s My Line?” but he’d also slipped from star to wise-cracking character on a show that, hit though it was, was still just a game show. Had he survived into the 1960s or 1970s, he might have been remembered as well as Jack Benny.

Cover of first US edition of 'Fred Allen's Letters'In 1965, Doubleday published a collection on Allen’s letters edited by Joe McCarthy (no relation to the Senator): Fred Allen’s Letters. I use the word “edited” because that’s what it says on the jacket. I suspect he just tossed a boxful of the letters down a staircase and let that determine his sequence. The book is divided into sections with titles such as “The Early Days,” “Old Friends,” and “Show Biz People,” but there’s no particular rhyme or reason to what goes where.

Not that it makes much of a difference. There’s a certain appropriateness in the randomness of the selections that fits with Allen’s sense of humor, and it guarantees you never know quite what’s coming next.

Allen composed at the typewriter and rarely bothered with the shift key, so these letters might remind some of Don Marquis’ The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel (which is a Penguin Classic now–wow). I’ve kept this book by the bedside, dipping into every few nights, and my wife is heartily sick of having me shake the bed with muffled chuckling.

Here are a couple of samples to whet your appetite:

To Mabel Dawson (a fan)

dear miss dawson …

thank you for your letter.

you will be glad to learn that the honey arrived in excellent condition. portland had some at breakfast yesterday and reported it was the best she had ever tasted.

we don’t get much honey here in new york. we have had one bee for some time. we have no flowers and have to let him out to sneak into the various floral shops in the neighborhood. i think our bee is nearsighted. it must spend a lot of time on artificial flowers, for the amount of honey it gives some months is negligible.

our bee has no comb. it carries the honey on its person. when we want honey we summon the bee, point to the biscuit, or whatever object we want honey on, the bee flies to the table, squats and buzzes a little and when it arises we have about enough honey to float a caraway seed.

we can imagine what a boon it is to us to have three large jars of honey. we are sending our bee down to florida for a good rest this winter. i am sure that when it returns, brown and healthy, it will be ready to pick up where it left off and keep us in honey for years to come.

we are having a difficult time finding guests to use on the program but i guess we will manage to keep going some way during the coming season. if not, some week, i may put our bee on the show and there will be a real b on n.b.c.

To Ed Simmons and Norman Lear (yes, that Norman Lear), two comedy writers who had sent Allen a joke letter asking his permission to start a polish fan club.

… for many years, i have been against fan clubs. i remember back in 1902 a group of girls got together in littleton, new hampshire, to form a guy kibbee fan club. mr. kibbee, even at that early age was as bald as a boy scout’s knee, and the girls all shaved their heads to look like their idol. all through the summer the little baldheaded girls had a jolly time. they had guy kibbee meetings, they talked like guy kibbee and when field days were held the fan club would rush out and spell guy kibbee in different formations and in different languages. with their little bald heads they were a shiny sight. when the cold weather arrived, however, it was another story. thirty of the baldheaded girls contracted penumonia and within three months the entire guy kibbee fan club was wiped out.

that is only one reason i hesitate to sponsor a fan club. if beri beri or scurvy breaks out in your group how is it going to look with little emaciated bodies lying around the streets of california wearing my fan club buttons.


Fred Allen’s Letters, edited by Joe McCarthy
New York City: Doubleday, 1965.

The Survivor, by Carl Marzani

I have to admit that I rarely pick up a book without at least Googling its title, confirming that it’s out of print, and checking if it has at some time had something favorable written about it. Finding Carl Marzani’s The Survivor in a $1 book box outside a bookstore while getting my son settled at Drexel University last month, however, I bought it and then stuck it in my backpack for the flight back to Brussels without the usual due diligence.Cover of first edition of "The Survivor" by Carl Marzani

One could argue that it’s best to approach a book with as little prior knowledge as possible, to prevent one’s perceptions from being contaminated by others’. After almost 50 years of reading, however, that’s almost impossible for me. Turning the first pages of The Survivor while sitting in the passenger lounge of the Philadelphia airport–and then through much of the seven hour flight home–was the closest I’ve come to an unadulterated encounter with a book in many years.

The Survivor starts strongly and I read the first hundred pages almost without a break. Marc Ferranti, a senior State Department official, has been asked to appear before a departmental hearing on his fitness for maintaining his security clearance. Although a veteran of the Official of Special Services (OSS)–the wartime pre-cursor to the Central Intelligence Agency–Ferranti had been an activist as a student in the 1930s. He left a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and after his return to the U.S., he dabbled with membership in the Communist Party. Having sniffed out his radical connections, the department’s security officers want to make a showcase of Ferranti, anticipating President Truman’s decision to require Federal government employees to sign a loyalty oath.

The hearing is chaired by former Senator Richard Aldrich Bassett, a liberal Virginia Republican in his eighties. Much of the novel focuses on the meeting of minds between Bassett and Ferranti. Although a symbol of the American Establishment, Bassett had been strongly influenced by the Populist views of Tom Watson, a Populist politician from Georgia he ranks with Jefferson and Eugene V. Debs as the most important radicals in American history. An ally of FDR and recently-appointed Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Bassett is repulsed by the tactics of the Red-baiters now rising within the Truman administration and Congress. Through the efforts of his superior, an assistant secretary, Ferranti has learned that Bassett is, at least in principle, sympathetic to his case.

By far the strongest elements of The Survivor are the conversations and reflections of Bassett and Ferranti on the realities of politics and power in Washington:

“… You do not know much about the art of compromise, perhaps, but I do. Indeed I do. The Senate is the finest training ground for the art. You thunder no, and you murmur yes. Everyone saves face, always, everyone obtains a little of what he wants, alway. Compromise is the very soul of statemanship. The one time it failed in America we had a civil war, and the fault, in my judgment, lay squarely in the lack of a compromiser in the South, for the North had one of the greatest compromisers in our history: Mr. Lincoln.”

The Survivor takes place over the course of the three days of Ferranti’s hearing. The novel was Marzani’s first and only attempt at fiction, and one of the many ways in which this shows is the amount of activity he manages to shoe-horn into less than seventy-two hours.

Another is the awkward use of an manuscript Ferranti has written–a novel about his early years in America as an immigrant child. Ferranti believes he’s been singled out for persecution in an attempt by the Catholic Church to ally itself with reactionary forces within the Federal government, aided by his brother, a conservative Congressman. Ferranti manages to pass along the manuscript to Bassett, who then reads it in what appears to be one marathon evening. The passion and truth of Ferranti’s novel tugs at long-dormant radical allegiances within Bassett, and also evokes an empathy for the plight of foreigners learning to survive in America.

By this point, two hundred or so pages into The Survivor, my initial interest began to shift toward irritation. Through much of the middle of the book, Marzani tries to weave the narrative of Ferranti’s encounters between sessions of the hearing, the text of the manuscript, and Bassett’s reflections on Ferranti’s novel and life. It all becomes a rat’s nest I doubt anyone should ever bother to unravel.

In the end, Ferranti passes muster, keeping his job and opening up his chance to move on up the State Department ladder. Bassett is driven home to his Virginia estate, wondering if he hasn’t failed to live up to the radical ideals of his early mentor, Tom Watson: “The men and women his era has shunned and ridiculed might well turn out to be the precursors of a new life, a new country, perhaps a new civilization.” And this last line should give you a strong hint that The Survivor has a lot more in common with the works of Tom Clancy than those of Camus or even Koestler. It’s certainly not well-written or constructed, although I would say that it’s full of fine observations of bureaucratic manners.

Only after finishing The Survivor did I have a chance to research the book, and that’s when things became really interesting.

Carl Marzani, around 1958
Carl Marzani, it turns out, bore more than a little resemble to his fictional counterpart, Marc Ferranti. Like Ferranti, he was born in Italy and emigrated with his family to the U.S. in his early teens. He excelled academically, earned a scholarship to Oxford, and left to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the Lincoln Brigade. He did not just dabble with Communism: he joined it outright and worked as an organizer in the late 1930s. After the U.S. entered the Second World War, he was recruited into the OSS and then moved over to the State Department.

As early as 1942, he was questioned by the FBI about his Communist Party membership. Feeling secure in the support of his OSS superiors and reluctant to give up his position, he lied. There were no immediate consequences.

In 1946, however, he was questioned again and determined to have perjured himself. In instructing Marzani’s jury, his judge said: “This court is not concerned with Communist vices. The issue is whether the defendant knowingly, willfully and feloniously made false statements to Government loyalty examiners.” Although he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, his conviction was upheld and he served three years in prison. While in Federal prison, he wrote We Can Be Friends, a call to reserve the policies of the Truman Administration–influenced by George Kennan and others–to contain the Soviet Union’s expansions and maintain a relatively hostile diplomatic stance.

After being released from jail, Marzani worked as a professor of economics, a film producer, and co-owner of an independent publishing house, Marzani and Munsell. According to KGB archives, as detailed in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Marzani was also a Soviet agent, operating under the code name of NORD. His firm owed at least some of its financial backing to the KGB, in return for publishing such sympathetic titles as Cuba vs. the C.I.A., which Marzani co-authored with Robert Light.

Marzani published The Survivor–before he began taking money from the KGB, it appears, but not long enough after the McCarthy era to have much chance of getting any recognition in the mainstream press. About the only magazine in the U.S. to take note of its publication was New World Review, the journal of the Friends of the Soviet Union. Although David Caute calls The Survivor “the best and one of the most important novels” of the Cold War in his recent book, Politics and the Novel during the Cold War, there appear to be few considerations of the book not colored by sympathy or distaste for Marzani’s own history.

Which leads one to wonder what Marzani intended to accomplish in writing it. Marzani may have been a victim of Red-baiting, but he doesn’t appear to have been an entirely innocent one, and The Survivor isn’t really an attempt to exonerate or justify himself. Although Marc Ferranti is portrayed as an exceptionally bright and shrewd operative, his actions are often more self-serving than heroic. If the book has any heroic figure, it’s Marc’s sister, Tessie, who shows herself ready to fight for both Party and family.

It could be that the novel was an experimental foray into autobiography. In the late 1980s, Marzani began writing a memoir titled The Education of a Reluctant Radical. It eventually spanned five volumes: Book 1: Roman Childhood; Book 2: Growing Up American; Book 3: Spain, Munich and Dying Empires; Book 4: From Pentagon to Penitentiary; Book 5: Reconstruction. The first volume, with an introduction by Italo Calvino, was published by the Topical Press in 1993, shortly before Marzani’s death in 1994. The last volume was not published until 2001, but is still available from Amazon.


The Survivor: A Novel, by Carl Marzani
New York City: Cameron Associates, 1958

Fables by Modern Writers

After enjoying Seumas O’Brien’s daft collection of fables, The Whale and the Grasshopper, I realized that I should take a moment to acknowledge the small (naturally) collection of fables by other modern writers that I have been assembling over the last few years.

According to Wikipedia,

A fable is a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities), and that illustrates a moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.

A fable differs from a parable in that the latter excludes animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as actors that assume speech and other powers of humankind.

Not every writer who’s called his little pieces fables has observed this distinction. Marvin Cohen’s fables, for example, always take place in the world of men and their imaginations, with rarely if ever a critter to be found in them. The greatest of all modern fabulists, George Ade, never thought to disguise his small tales of man’s pretensions and predicaments by cloaking his characters in animal costumes. And though most do keep their fables within the 3-4 pages or less that’s considered the limits of the form, some stretch out to as many as twenty or more.

The one thing modern fabulists do seem to share is the sense that the didactic purpose of fables should always be taken with a grain of salt. It might be that a life could be bettered by their lessons, but it’s more likely that people will keep on making the same mistakes–for which the fabulist ought to be grateful, as it ensures a steady of new material. And few modern writers imagine that readers will take their words as seriously as did Aesop. Instead, they recognize that pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes doesn’t mean that the rest of the crowd won’t happily go on pretending he does.

Black Sheep and Other Fables, by Augusto Monterroso

Cover of 'The Black Sheep and Other Fables'If a fable is a “succinct fictional story,” then the fables of the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso are easily the most succinct examples to be found. Monterroso is said to have written the world’s shortest short story: “And when he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” In his fables, he stretches out a bit more–but not much. Here, for instance, is the complete text of “The Imperfect Paradise”:

“It’s true,” the man said with a melancholy air, his gaze fixed on the flames dancing in the fireplace that winter night; “in Paradise there are friends, music, some books. The only bad thing about going to Heaven is that from there you can’t look up.”

Monterroso switches back and forth from man to animals in his stories. It’s fitting that he takes as the epigraph to this collection a quote from one K’nyo Mobutu: “So much are animals like man that at times it is impossible to distinguish between them.” And it’s fitting that when you look into the index, the entry for Mobutu contains the parenthetical note, “Anthropophagite.” Cannibal. So the joke is on us–he’s not referring to how we behave: he’s referring to how we taste.

Monterroso’s love of jest seems all the more remarkable when you learn that he was jailed as a member of the opposition and spent most of his adult life in exile. While his tales are often satirical, there is never any bitterness in his tone. Indeed, his response to oppression is to note the same flaws it shares with every other human endeavor. It’s hard for me to believe that the following wasn’t meant as a reflection on the CIA’s interference in Guatemalan politics:

Once upon a time there was a Lightning Bolt which struck twice in the same place; but it discovered that it had done enough damage the first time, and that it was no longer needed, and it became very depressed.

Onion Soup and Other Fables, by R. O. Blechman

Blechman, whose stable of fans is much smaller but no less fervid than that of his fellow New Yorker illustrator, William Steig, published this slim collection of cartoon fables back in 1964, but most of his topics (e.g., “Gluttony”) are timeless.

The Zebra Storyteller: Collected Stories, by Spencer Holst

Although none of Spencer Holst’s various story collections had the word “fable” in their titles, he’s still inarguably the leading American fabulist of the late 20th century. Luckily, his tales have been collected from a half-dozen out of print books and are available in paperback from Barrytown Limited (part of Station Hill Press). And a number can be found online, including “The Language of Cats,” “The Zebra Storyteller,” and “On Demons”. And here you can read his shortest and loveliest fable, “Mona Lisa Meets Buddha”:

Up in heaven the curtains fluttered, the curtains fluttered, and the Mona Lisa entered at one end of a small hall, which was hung with many veils. Up in heaven the curtains fluttered, fluttered, fluttered, and the Buddha entered the hall at the other end. They smiled.

Holst and his wife, Beate Wheeler, were painters and benefited greatly from a rare example of civic generosity towards artists: the Westbeth housing complex for artists in west Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He often appeared in city clubs and galleries to tell his stories, which he also–to our fortune–took the time to write down. There is, at times, a slight flavor of Roald Dahl in Holst’s tales, such as the one about the man who takes a woman in a bat mask home from a costume party … only to discover that, um … it’s not a mask. But Holst has none of Dahl’s cutting cynicism–if his princess refuses to marry the frog because he turns out to be a junkie–well, could anyone who’d lived in the Village for forty-some years have blamed her?

The Last of the Redskins, by Jean Dutourd

Cover of 'The Last of the Redskins'“When I learned to read ‘good books,'” Jean Dutourd writes in the foreword to this collection–also from 1964–“I was constantly and badly deceived. I read charming stories with happy endings.” The problem, of course, is that real life is nothing like these pleasant stories: “Everyone knows that the world of children is a universe of ferocious beasts, where naked force and cowardice flourish.”

So Dutourd’s response was to create a set of fables that reflect “how things really take place in this world where financiers are generally happier than cobblers….” He leads off, appropriately, with “Poverty Does Not Make Happiness,” in which a cobbler gains a little cash windfall that eases the worst of his worries and his wife is wise enough to advise him not to try to repay it. In Dutourd’s version of Cinderella, the prince is not the least bit charming: “fifty-three years old, wore eyeglasses, and had very set habits.” And, as Cinderella learns after the wedding, the whole affair was designed by the husband to get a free governess for his three kids so he would have more time to spend with his mistress of many years.

Some of Dutourd’s fables are so cold-blooded as to verge on the cruel. In “Two Amputated Legs,” Georges, whose legs are blown off by an enemy hand grenade, learns “that the fate of man is to lose, successively, legs, eyes, arms, love, years, memories, and never to find them again.” On the other hand, he has a certain cynical faith in the future. In “Pearls Before Swine,” a man literally tosses handfuls of pearls into a pen full of pigs. “But all that treasure gone to waste!” cries an observer. “Bah,” the man replies. “Nothing is altogether wasted…. The dung heap is full of them…. And when I am dead, there will be a rich harvest.”

Fables at Lifes Expense, by Marvin Cohen

Cohen is easily the most obscure writer in this bunch. Only one of his seven or eight books–The Monday Rhetoric of the Love Club & Other Parables (yes, he does parables, too)–is in print, and that thanks to the astonishing fidelity of New Directions Press to its writers. It hasn’t helped that he’s given his books such titles as, Others, Including Morstive Sternbump: A Novel.

No less a figure than Thomas Merton, however, once said, “Marvin Cohen’s wacky humor, has something of Thurber, something of Steinberg, Buster Keaton, the Surrealists, the French pataphysicians.” Another reviewer has called him a surrealist puppeteer, and it’s an accurate description, as Cohen’s characters are more like puppets he moves through absurd situations than full-fleshed people.

I don’t know if Cohen is still alive, but I recommend checking out any of his books if you enjoy seeing logic and language at play in the hands of a master juggler.

99 Fables, by William March

William March’s work was nothing if not variable. His first novel, Company K, now considered a classic work about World War One, was a collection of sketches of all the men in a single company of Marines. Nearly 20 years later, he published perhaps the greatest novel about l’enfant terrible, The Bad Seed. And in between he wrote over a hundred fables, which he edited down to 99 shortly before his death. Collected and edited by William T. Going, it was first published by the University of Alabama Press in 1960. Although it fell out of print for some years, it was reissued earlier this year by the University press as part of its “Library of Alabama Classics.”

Of all the modern fabulists, March held closest to the model of Aesop. The majority of his tales take place in the animal world–“The Insulted Rabbit,” “The Escaped Elephant,” “The Wild Horses,” and “The Kissless Lovebird,” for example. But he also delves into the human situation directly, even making Aesop a lead character in several fables. And of all the writers discussed here, March is certainly the bitterest in his outlook, as might be expected of a man who spent most of his working life being referred to as a neglected writer.

By the way, if your taste does run to parables rather than fables, I highly recommend locating Howard Schwartz’s anthology, Imperial Messages, first published in 1976 and reissued in 1991, which collects 100 parables from writers ranging from Dostoyevsky and Borges to Kobo Abe and Marvin Cohen.

Recent Reader Recommendations

I’ve received a bumper crop of recommendations in the last month, including a few titles that are new to me (an increasingly rare treat). So I want to offer a consolidated list with some commentary from the submitters and others, in hopes that others will seek out this forgotten gems.

The Trees of Zharka, by Nancy MackenrothCover of 'The Trees of Zharka'

Allison Kassig wrote to recommend two books well off the SF mainstream that she came across in an odd lot of paperbacks she’d bought. I’ll quote from her own Amazon.com review, which appears to be one of the very few–professional or amateur–that this intriguing book has ever received:

I intended to try to locate the author, Nancy Mackenroth, after I finished reading her book for the first time. I thought she’d like to know that her book was still being read, and if I found more books by her I’d put them on my “To Read” list. Unfortunately she died of ALS less than a year ago. But her work lives on, and is worth reading. The Trees of Zharka is a fast read: that alone is a relief from the bloated over-long books so often published today. I don’t read much sci-fi, especially novels, but decided to start working my way through a box lot I bought years ago. (The second one I’ve read from there was also well worth reading). The book easily escaped being outdated by new technologies because technology isn’t very relevant: this is book about characters, human nature, right and wrong, and ideas. Two mysteries compelled me. One is the mystery the main character is driven to solve, although that knowledge is both forgotten and forbidden. The other was what would have put this idea in the author’s mind. Why would she think to write about a Puritanical society ruled by priests who maintain a grove of sacred trees? In the end I knew the answer: Mackenroth may have started with the ending. The people of Zharka are the descendants of emigrants from Earth. What happened seemed dated at first, but we’re not that much advanced from the world of 1975. I could easily imagine this story as a Twilight Zone episode (hour long). I started to say that The Trees of Zharka deserves not only to be remembered, but to be read. But I don’t really look at it that way. I’m glad I had the opportunity to read a provocative story about redemption.

The Eskimo Invasion, by Hayden HowardCover of 'The Eskimo Invasion'

From what I can gather about this book, which like Mackenroth’s, appears to have been the author’s only published novel, it’s a tongue-in-cheek satire of conspiracy theorists and the kind of “they’re after us” paranoia that inspired the Red Scare, McCarthy’s witchhunts, Nixon’s enemies lists, and George W. Bush’s world view. Allison’s Amazon review provides a good overview:

Despite its almost 400 pages this 44-year-old sci fi novel is a fascinating page-turner. I’ve forgotten more books than most people ever read, but this one has two (at least) unforgettable scenes. I’ll leave one for you to discover for yourself, but you shouldn’t miss an incredible description of the history of the world as read in the fossil record–from the bottom up. Start digging more than a half-mile down in the Earth, and take the trip upward from the dinosaurs on. Very well written, full of provocative ideas, and answers a question no one else ever asked: Are the Esks Eskimos, or are they not even human at all? This is a good-humored read with scenes of terror. If that seems contradictory, it’s because Howard takes us on a wild trip (it’s 1967, remember?) from Canada to Berkeley to China, from the CIA to the latest in penology, from cryogenics to mind control, with a poignant look at the law of unintended consequences. True to the era, bureaucracy is skewered, and political correctness takes a prescient beating. This one sat in a box lot of old sci fi paperbacks in my garage for years, until I had the good sense to give it a try. And found I couldn’t put it down. How many other great books are out there to be discovered? If you want to join me in finding out, you won’t go wrong with trying this one.

Salt of the Earth, by Jozef Wittlin

Writing from Sweden, Bengt Broström recommed the anti-war novel “Sol ziemi” (1936), which was published in English as Salt of the Earth in 1939, by the
Polish author Jozef Wittlin (1896-1976): “With its mixture of irony, sarcasm, parody and the grotesque it is simple brilliant, It is not in print but used copies are can be bought online.” At the time of the book’s first publication in English, Charles Neider wrote of it in the Virginia Quarterly Review,

Peter Neviadomski is a wonderful person, someone never to be forgotten. A railway porter in a little Galician town, the most he wants of life is an official railway cap (to permit him to salute people), a cottage with a mouse-trap and cheese and a bride with a dowry.

Wittlin’s irony is Biblical as compared with Thomas Mann’s, for example, which is musical. His irony and quiet fury are those of the idealistic ascetic steeped in the Old Testament and the Odyssey. His compassion for the ignorant and lowly of the earth, breathed into his work, imparts to it a glowing poetic quality and a sublimity of soul that may well be treasured in these troubled times. This first volume takes Peter Neviadomski through the ordeals of mobilization and preparation for the front. It is a volume to be read again and again. It has the satisfying quality of good music.

Salt of the Earth was to have been the first of a series of novels to be known as “The Saga of the Patient Footsoldier,” but Wittlin abandoned the effort during World War Two and never published another work of fiction.

In This Sign, by Joanne Greenberg

Poet Greg Baysans wrote in to recommend a book that’s in print but that’s been mentioned more than a few times as a life-long favorite by others who’ve contacted me. As Greg puts it, “Written by Joanne Greenberg (whose “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” I had read previously, perhaps as an 8th or 9th grader, and which is more well-known; she also has published under the nom de plume Hannah Green), the book is In This Sign. The story of two deaf parents and their children, it takes place just before, during and after the Great Depression. I am impressed again by Greenberg’s ability to take the reader into these character’s world and get a real sense of what it must be like to have to learn language without the sense of hearing. While not particularly deep or philosophical, it is very well written and compelling, not saccharine at all. I’m anxious to finish it again, all these years later.”

Equal Distance, by Brad Leithauser

Andrew Kozelka wrote to suggest Brad Leithauser’s first novel, Equal Distance, which amazingly has been out of print for over twenty years. As Andrew write, Leithauser’s “still alive and has written a half-dozen novels since; this is the only one I’ve read so far. I have to say it’s the best novel I’ve found in the sub-genre of ‘westerners in Japan’—as someone who has lived there I can attest that he gets everything right—but it’s also just a great read and a very fine novel. The reviews at the time were enthusiastic. I really feel it is more than worthy to be brought back into print. Unfortunately, these days publishers won’t do that unless a later novel becomes a top seller or, perhaps, there’s reader demand.”

The Devil’s Lieutenant, by M. FagyasCover of 'The Devil's Lieutenant'

Writing from Los Angeles, Karen forwarded some information on “a book I have admired for years”: The Devil’s Lieutenant, by M. Fagyas. “This lurid cover is misleading because the book is not pulp fiction.I bought it at a library sale and since bought all books by this author (unfortunately, there weren’t many). You may be interested in its (few) Amazon reviews which are all 5 stars.”

At the time of its first publication, The Devil’s Lieutenant received not one but two separate and enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times. W.G. Rogers wrote that Fagyas had “packed her novel with strain, tension, suspense–and, to boot, a wealth of political and historical relevance.” Thomas Lask called it, “a top-drawer psychological thriller that unrolls like a whodunit, so artfully constructed, so smoothly readable that you will find yourself devouring it at a single sitting.”

M. Fagyas was the pen name of Marika Bush-Fekete, who came to the U.S. with her husband, Ladislasz Bush-Fekete, a Jewish Hungarian playwright who’d collaborated with Franz Werfel and had success with his own plays in Budapest and Vienna. She began writing in the earlier 1960s to try to earn a living. Her first novel, The Fifth Woman, published in 1963, earned an Edgar Award, although it was–as were all of hers–a mix of historical fiction and mystery. In the case of the The Devil’s Lieutenant, the mystery is why ten members of an elite Austro-Hungarian Army unit had died from swallowing cyanide capsules. To quote another reader’s Amazon review,

The “detective” in the novel is Captain Kunze, a judge advocate, who investigates the case.

You get a fine view of Austria and especially Vienna in 1909. War is in the air, and there is an appetite for the army to invade the Balkans. What is particularly interesting is the portrayal of social life in the Kaiserlich und Koniglich officer corps, and that the case is handled by the military rather than the civilian police. Emperor Franz Josef is not anti-semetic and does not want war: his son, Archduke Ferdinand is the opposite. Both want the case handled so it doesn’t reflect bady on the army. Kunze finds a suspect, who was 18th in the class and thus not promoted and given a position in the General Staff. But in military cases, circumstantial evidence is not sufficient for a death sentence, unlike a civilian case. Better evidence or a confession is needed, or, preferably, the suspect is put in a room with a loaded revolver with the suggestion about doing the honorable thing.

In another Fagyas novel, The Widowmaker, veterans of the First World War returning to their home village come to bad ends as their wives try to preserve the independence and social status they attained during the long years of the husbands’ absences at the front. Reading through a variety of reviews of all of Fagyas’ six novels while preparing this post, I ended up adding at least three of her titles to my Wish List.

Sweepings, by Lester Cohen

Eric Stott wrote in with great enthusiasm for Lester Cohen’s first Sweepings, a book he’s stumbled across and was still reading at the time of his note:

This 1926 book was a huge critical and popular success. It was made into an excellent film in the 1930’s–a King Lear-like story of a man who builds up a department store only to find his children have no interest: they sell off their shares and the faithful (but long suffering) store manager secretly buys them and saves the store from ruin. Sounds simple and heartwarming–right?

Well, the book is another thing. It’s a sprawling example of the realist novel as spawned by Dreiser with a lot of psychological touches that Hollywood wouldn’t have been able to deal with at the period. There’s a woman who’s had repeated abortions until her doctor refuses to perform another. When she does get pregnant her mind seems to unhinge. She idly cuts herself and dabs spots of blood on her face and clothing. The eldest son is a Good Old Boy type who idles through life, cheating on his wife with a series of prostitutes- one of whom wants him to hit her hard before sex. He does fall in love (after a fashion) with one girl (who he likens to a whipped cream confection) and when confronted by his father declares “She’s as good a woman as my wife!” (“she probably is” thinks the father, who doesn’t like his daughter in law much). When the son breaks off the relationship the girl fires a shot at him which goes wild and kills his best friend. He escapes recognition but develops an eating disorder in an effort to block out the memories.

But he never could forget. The thing would come back and come back. Violet, the whipped cream woman; his smashing her; the fury that drove her to shoot; the form of his friend that had fallen like a punctured balloon. These things would force themselves to his lips Like one who downs a specter rising out of a grave by throwing another shovelful of sod over it, he ate another steak. For hours he would feel gorged and drowsy. Then those fancies would fight their way back through the fog of food. He would feel his lips atremble. Then controlling himself he would trundle into the nearest restaurant.

The book as a whole seems a bit overwritten (it was the author’s first novel and feels like one) but at times it comes vividly to life like a vignette of Christmas sales at the store:

Above the stamping and surging of the bargain hunting mobs sounded the groans of the sales machine. There was a frantic clamoring for “Cashgirl! Cashgirl!” Clerks at counters in the same departments were appealing, threatening, shouting for shoppers to buy. Each clerk had a quota that night. If the quota were not met–… Each clerk shuddered at the thought, pulled at the arm of a bargain hunter, cried “Buy it here! Here ya are! A doll for the baby. Was ninety-nine cents. Take her home for a dime!”

This may not be a neglected classic, but so far it’s worth reading.

Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas

Last but not least is one that comes not from a reader’s email but from a recent listing in The Week magazine’s regular feature in which noted authors are asked to name a half-dozen or so favorite books. A few weeks ago, English novelist Penelope Lively named, among her other titles, which are usually fairly well known and widely available in print, . Of it, she said, “I read a lot of history, and this 40-year-old work is the kind I’d been waiting for without knowing it—history that examines how people behaved in the past and why. Focused on England, it brought the 16th and 17th centuries alive for me.”

Religion and the Decline of Magic is a massive tome, nearly 900 pages, devoted to the efforts of the Church of England to stamp out all aspects of folk myths and rituals in the 16th and 17th centuries. Commenting on the book ten years after its first publication in 1971, Paul Slack wrote “History Today”: “Few historians have that ability to surprise and convince with unfailing regularity, to say something absolutely original and make it seem self-evident. That is why Religion and the Decline of Magic remains a commanding work, one of the three or four outstanding pieces of historical writing to have appeared in the last thirty years.”

Dictatorial Literature

Muammar Gaddafi reading his Green BookWherever Muammar Gaddafi may be at the moment and whatever may be left of his powers as a dictator, it’s safe to predict that the number of readers of his famous “Green Book”–or, to call it by its full title, The Green Book: The Solution to the Problem of Democracy, The Solution to the Economic Problem, The Social Basis of the Third Universal Theory–is headed for a swift decline. Such is the fate of long, dull, dogmatic diatribes written in the oxygen-thin atmosphere of absolute power (and without the benefit of an impartial editor) when one can no longer command them to be handed out in triplicate to all of one’s subjects and made the object of hours of close study and memorization.

Libyans will no longer profit from the insights of the Third Universal Theory–although they can now freely ask what happened to the first two. They will have to search for a solution to the problem of democracy without Gaddafi’s handy crib book. And they may find themselves struggling with the basics of human reproduction without the Great Leader’s wise advice:

Women are females and men are males. According to gynaecologists, women menstruate every month or so, while men, being male, do not menstruate or suffer during the monthly period. A woman, being a female, is naturally subject to monthly bleeding. When a woman does not menstruate, she is pregnant. If she is pregnant, she becomes, due to pregnancy, less active for about a year, which means that all her natural activities are seriously reduced until she delivers her baby…. The man, on the other hand, neither conceives nor breast-feeds. End of gynaecological statement!

Gaddafi’s The Green Book now takes its place on a shelf much over-filled with the works and memoirs of former dictators. No longer mandatory reading, these volumes languish, neglected by all but die-hard loyalists, masochists, and those inclined to morbid curiousity.

Admittedly, there is something about these books that makes watching paint dry seem thrilling. Vladimir Lenin set the tone a hundred years ago with such cliff-hangers as Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, and Stalin followed suit with Economic Problems of Socialism in the U. S. S. R. and other page-turners. Mao had the bright idea to package his best tid-bits in what became a global best-seller, Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, otherwise known as the Little Red Book. Although perhaps it sold a little too well, for a couple years later he released a tract titled, Oppose Book Worship.

At least Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao wrote their own material. Seeing the number of volumes that comprise the collected works of Kim Il Sung or Enver Hoxha, it’s hard not to speculate about secret forced-ghostwriting camps.

One odd tribute to the freedom of the Internet is the fact that one can get free access to most, if not all, of the works of late 20th century’s dictators. Gaddafi’s Green Book is available at www.mathaba.net/gci/theory/gb.htm, for example, and Lenin and Stalin’s works at the Marxists Internet Archive. Although Saparmurat Niyazov, otherwise known as Türkmenbashi, Leader of all the Turkmens, died in 2006, you can still savor the wisdom of his magnum opus, Rukhnama: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen at www/ruhnama.info, at the official Turkmenistan government site, and at several Rukhnama (or Ruhnama) fan-sites (although Ruhnama.com is now defunct).

Rukhnama: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen is my favorite dictatorial opus. In addition to more Turkmen geneaology that you could possibly imagine, there are little parables that I am still pondering the meaning of, such as:

Once upon a time, a wife and a husband without any children were preparing to go to Mecca on pilgrimage. However, they could not decide what to do with the two hundred sikkes, which was their life-savings. Finally they divided the sikkes into two equal bundles. They left one of these bundles in the care of one of their neighbors. And they left the other bundle in the care of their Turkmen neighbor.

The Turkmen neighbor said to them: “Open the box in that corner and put the bundle in it.”

On returning from pilgrimage, the husband and wife went to take their money.

The first neighbor said them: “Oh neighbor, I used your money and increased your 100 sikkes to 150 sikkes. I have taken some of them for myself.”

Then they went to their Turkmen neighbor and asked for their sikkes. Their Turkmen neighbor said to them: “Open the box in the corner and take your money.”

Nothing happens by chance in life. A Turkmen saves the goods left in his care better than his own goods.

Niyazov appears to have taken this particular lesson very seriously. Estimates of his personal holdings in private Swiss and German bank accounts range as high as $3 billion. As one report during his time in power put it, “A figure such as Niyazov, who is not subject in practice to any basic checks and balances, can dispose of state funds through the banking systems of Germany and other European countries without anybody knowing what exactly it is that he does with the money.” A Turkmenbashi, it seems, saves his countrymen’s goods much, much better than his own goods.

North Korea is now headed into its third generation of Supreme Leaders, and we can only hope that Kim Jong-un will produce something to rival his father Kim Jong Il’s On the Art of the Cinema, where we learn that “The director is the commander of the creative group” and that “A director, however talented, cannot imagine a new and audacious cinematic presentation if he does not know the Party’s policies well.” Here we see the fatal weakness that undermines the capitalist boss-gang productions of Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Scorsese: utter ignorance of PArty policies in the absence of helpful “field guidance” from the Supreme Leader. Thanks to the spirit of Juche, we can all spend hours clicking through the E-library of the works of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Suk (wife to the first, mother to the second).

Not all dictators have had their works preserved online, however. There appears to be just one copy of the English translation of Haitian ruler Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Essential Works Volume 1: Elements of a Doctrine available for sale, and that at a price of $200. Ugandan strongman Idi Amin appears to have been a man of few written works, although a few copies of his pamphlet, The Middle East Crisis: His Excellency the President Al-Hajji General Idi Amin Dada’s contribution to the solution of the Middle East crisis during the third year of the Second Republic of Uganda can be found–the book surviving better than his solution to the crisis. It’s not been transcribed for the web, but there are still plenty of copies of Answer to History, the rambling memoirs of the ex-Shah of Iran, who was dying of cancer as he worked on the book–the very last thing he dictated, so to speak.
Cover of Enver Hoxha's 'With Stalin: Memoirs'
The pinnacle of dictatorial literature, though, has to be Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha’s With Stalin: Memoirs, written a few years before he died (and available online, thanks to Marxists International). In it, Hoxha recalls five trips he made to Moscow to meet with Stalin, between 1947 and 1951. As far as I know it’s the only book in which you get two dictators for the price of one.

In their first conversations, Stalin seemed most interested in how effectively Albania was serving as a buffer against encroachments from Greece, which was coming out of its civil war and headed towards western democracy. But most of the time they discussed such timeless topics as whether the trains ran on coal or oil and how much cotton per hectare the collective farms were producing. Stalin seems to have been especially fond of agriculture. As they parted company for the last time, he and Hoxha had this memorable exchange on the subject of seeds:

“What about eucalyptus? Have you sown the seeds I gave you?”

“We have sent them to the Myzeqe zone where there are more swamps,” I said, “and have given our specialists all your instructions.”

“Good,” said Comrade Stalin. “They must take care that they sprout and grow. It is a tree that grows very fast and has a great effect on moisture. The seed of maize I gave you can be increased rapidly and you can spread it all over Albania,” Comrade Stalin said and asked: “Have you special institutions for seed selection?”

“Yes,” I said “we have set up a sector for seeds attached to the Ministry of Agriculture and shall strengthen and extend it in the future.”

“You will do well!” Comrade Stalin said. “The people of that sector must have a thorough knowledge of what kinds of plants and seeds are most suitable for the various zones of the country and must see to getting them.”

Stalin clearly saw that people who had been farming their lands through many generations desparately needed party cadre officers to tell them what to plant. One had only to look at the remarkable results the Soviets had achieved through collectivization to know that.

Hoxha did see Stalin in person one time after that, in 1952 at the 19th Party Congress, where “for the last time I heard his voice, so warm and inspiring.” He closes by assuring his readers that “the Party of Labour of Albania would hold high the title of ‘shock brigade’ and that it would guard the teachings and instructions of Stalin as the apple of its eye.” One can see the teardrop forming as Hoxha finished this line.

So, as one more dictator debates that eternal choice: suicide or exile?, we can take comfort in the knowledge that no matter what may follow in his wake, there will, at least, be the consolation that a captive audience no longer has to read his nonsense and be expected to take it seriously.

The Chosen Valley: the Story of a Pioneer Town, by Margaret Snyder

A few days ago, President Obama stopped in the town of Chatfield, Minnesota while on a bus tour of the Midwest. He visited a kids’ summer camp and posed for some photos with them.
President Obama joking with kids in Chatfield, Minnesota on August 15, 2011
By pure coincidence, I just finished reading a book about Chatfield and had started this post when the President’s stop brought this small town into the spotlight for an hour or so. Margaret Snyder’s 1948 book, The Chosen Valley describes how a quiet spot, a small valley where a creek joins the Root River, a tributary of the Missippi, was settled and grew for its first fifty or so years.

Most Americans have a general notion about how we got from the days of the American Revolution to today–about hunters and trappers exploring ever westward, followed by settlers who set up small farms, then small towns, the railroads, industrialization, wars big and small, and somehow, to now. How many, though, have any notion of the step-by-step changes that took us from wilderness to land claims to towns to sewer systems, electic lights, and school districts? The Chosen Valley does just that for Chatfield, population (2010) 2,779, and it’s a story that deserves to be far better known than either Chatfield or Snyder’s book are today.

Chatfield got its start in 1853, when one Thomas Twiford, who was essentially a would-be land developer, scouted out an area along the banks of the Root River, a small tributary of the Mississippi in the far southeast corner of Minnesota. He hurried back to the nearest town of any size and managed to get several other men interested enough to pack family and chattel into wagons and head to the place they decided to name Chatfield after a prominent judge of the new Minnesota Territory. As Snyder shows, through careful tracing of what at times were often intricate arrangements of ownership and financing–particularly during the rush of land speculation surrounding the mapping out of possible railroad routes–money, politics, and wheeling and dealing was far more often at the heart of development than anything we might nostalgically call the “pioneer spirit.”

Not that there weren’t plenty of hardships:

When January let loose its fury the hills were no shelter against the blizzards that blotted the world in a frenzy of snow, or the sly cold that crept into bed with the sleepers. John Luark’s wife died in the depths of that winter’s cold, despite the care of two doctors. Every man in town took his turn in the sad labor of chipping out a burial place in ground flint-hard with frost. They made her grave on the slope between the little house she lived in and the road that wound up the side of Winona Hill The townsfolk stood silent about the grave that January of 1855 as the first of their dead was buried.

The first few dozen settlers were followed by others the next spring. Within another year, the town had a flour mill, several general stores, regular church services if not a church building, a one-room school (private at first), and a land office. The last was set up by one Jason Easton, an ambitious young man from New York state who had arranged through a family friend in Washington, D. C., to win the job of opening a land office for the partitioning and sale of properties throughout the area of southeast Minnesota around Chatfield.

“The biggest thing going in Western business was undoubtedly land and the lending of money for the purchase of land,” Snyder observes. And here we begin to learn that, contrary to the myth of how the West was won, the transfer of land from its uncharted, undeveloped state to small farmers and businessmen–orchestrated through government land offices and countless political arrangements large and small–was the single most important factor in the transformation of the Midwest.

Jason Easton of Chatfield, Minnesota (circa 1876)Jason Easton embodied the zeal for deal-making that was an essential survival skill for an effective entrepreneur in the growing Midwest. He cajoled banks in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia to get loans or attractive rates on his deposits. He fired off volleys of letters asking for patience when money was tight and delighted in managing to foist off a lot of dried peaches that “were wholly worthless but brought 5 cents per pound.”

For Chatfield and its surrounding counties, Easton was at the center of what was perhaps, for the Midwest, its most controversial and significant development: the routing and building of its first railroads. Chatfield had significant competition with nearby towns in the decision of where lines linking St. Paul and other growing cities and towns to Chicago. It failed to win a spot along the main line, but Easton was able to convince the Southern Minnesota Railway Company to run a spur to Chatfield from Winnebago, and to get himself appointed as president of the Southern Minnesota Railway Extension Company. He founded the town’s bank, bought up large plots of property around the town that he hired out to tenant farmers, and organized and invested in dozens of enterprises, more of which succeeded than not.

Easton apparently found it difficult to shift his attention from his latest batch of deals. Snyder recounts that, “there was one direful passage when Easton, deep in a cut-throat fight for the wheat markets of the state, refused to go to his mother, who had begged him to come in her serious illness. His letter to his brother, who had written for the mother, said: ‘. . . the demands of my business are just now so great that it is impossible for me to leave. My comfort must be in knowing that you are giving our mother every care.’ He enclosed ten dollars and urged his brother to ‘call on me freely if anything more is required.'”

In terms of wealth, Easton was an exception in Chatfield. One man did make a small fortune with a dry goods store, but he then moved his family to Minneapolis. Most of the people in and around the town were poor. Some, like the man who set up the town’s first mill, fared better. Everyone had no choice but to work hard. As a result, Snyder notes, there is no evidence of any art or literature, beyond amateur poems for ceremonial occasions, being created in the town.

Most of the first decade’s settlers were Americans–some first generation, some with American roots going back over 200 years. All but three states were represented in the 1860. Nearly a third of these came from New York, where poor families had a harder time getting enough land for a working farm or were moving west as Irish, Poles, and other immigrants began taking jobs for lower pay.

In 1860, one in four Chatfield residents was foreign born. Snyder traces the paths some of these followed to come to the town. Norwegians were spurred by the revolution of 1830. Germans by the revolution of 1848. One man snuck across the border from Bohemia into German one night to escape an abusive miller he was indentured to. The miller, James Marsar Cussons, “son and grandson of millers and with uncles and cousins beyond number in the trade,” came from England to have an opportunity to run his own mill. Ireland accounted for the greatest number by far–in large part due to the great potato famine of 1845-1852. As the figures from the census show, none of them came from southern Europe.

Foreign-born inhabitants of Chatfield, Minnesota (from 1860 Census)

Perhaps as much as a third or more of the new settlers moved on after a year or more. There were enough failed farms and stores to keep anyone from getting too complacent. The soil in the valley was excellent. Wheat was probably the most common crop, but almost everything one could plant was tried by someone at least once. Apples, plums, hops, sugar beets, potatoes, pumpkins, cabbages, and most other plants familiar from northern Europe did well. Most farms had some cows and hogs, but only the latter were raised for meat. Milk was too valuable to let a cow get killed for.

Dairy farming grew to be one of the town’s biggest businesses. In 1889, a few of the dairy farmers formed the Cooperative Creamery, which became a model for much of the country and one of the few employers to meet its payroll throughout the Great Depression.

By the late 1880s, Chatfield was no longer a frontier town but a well-established, prosperous, and stable. Which meant that opportunities were no longer so easy to find. “When the Dakota country opened up,” Snyder writes, “considerable numbers of the younger Chatfield men, some of them with wives and children, turned to that West to seek their fortunes.” Others moved on thanks to the educations their parents’ hard work and success had allowed them. When the local paper surveyed a group of young men who had left the town’s school a decade earlier, it found that over half worked “in business” rather than on the farm and most of these no longer lived in the town.
A postcard view of the main street of Chatfield, Minnesota in the late 1800s.
The town’s social values began to set like concrete, too. “As the population became relatively stable, and the excitement of change and conquest was lost, new ways were found for satisfying the individual’s sense of his own worth,” Snyder writes. It’s hard to believe that sentence wasn’t written with tongue in cheek, though, because the “new ways” she then describes are the Masonic Lodge, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Columbus.

The town’s infrastructure also matured. The common well dug in 1854 led to a simple system of distribution through hollowed-out logs and continued to grow until a full system with a pumping station, sewers, and drains was built. The groves of trees that greeted the first settlers were wiped out within a decade to build houses and make fence posts. The telegraph arrived within a few years. Electricity, which made it possible to gather in the evenings for more than a sing-along or a dance, arrived in the 1880s and the telephone not long after.

What I most enjoyed about The Chosen Valley was that Snyder describes almost all these developments by telling us who took the first steps–which were usually to a neighbor’s door to try to stir up interest and support. Three men decide the town needs a cemetery, and arrange to have a plot of land on the ridge behind the town set aside for it. The town’s first Catholic residents bring a priest over from nearby Winona to say the first mass in 1854. By 1874, they had their own church, paid for entirely from their own contributions. An amateur bucket brigade becomes the Fire Company and eventually the town fire department. Through all these stories, The Chosen Valley makes it crystal clear that the pioneer spirit was as much about interdependence as it was about independence.

If the book has any significant weakness, it is Snyder’s limitations as a writer. There is little romance in the story of the settlement and development of Chatfield, but that didn’t prevent her from inserting lyrical little passages that read like bad high school literary club prose. And as she brings the town’s story up to her present day, she seems to have run out of ideas completely. Instead of any stock-taking or long view of the ninety years she has covered, the book ends with a description of the start of World War Two and its effect on the town that is one of the worst pieces of writing I’ve come across in quite a while: “For the future, in its turn, would become the present, and no present can wholly escape the effects of its past. Where should the people begin the task of understanding the things-that-are, if always they set it aside for the headier wine of things-to-come?” Just typing that out was painful.

The Chosen Valley appears to have been the only book Margaret Snyder ever published. Aside from the few and brief passages of purple prose, it is well worth reading if you have any interest in American history with a small h. Through the small example of Chatfield, Minnesota, you can learn a great deal about a patch of land with trees and a little river running through it became a microcosm of America (at least up to the middle of the 20th century).



The Chosen Valley: the Story of a Pioneer Town, by Margaret Snyder
New York City: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1948

The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, by Seumas O’Brien

Now I know where Samuel Beckett really got his inspiration.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Whale and the Grasshopper'Seumas O’Brien’s The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables is one of the most absurd books written before the rise of surrealism, full of tales tall as Paul Bunyan that serve as the backdrop for a series of philosophical debates that wrap nihilism in a cloak of old country weave.

At heart, it’s nothing more than a collection of Pat and Mike stories–except in this case, it’s Padna and Micus. “I want to tell you about the morning I walked along the beach at Ballysantamalo,” Padna says to Micus at the start of the title story.

So I ses to meself, Padna Dan, ses I, what kind of a fool of a man are you? Why don t you take a swim for yourself? So I did take a swim, and I swam to the rocks where the seals go to get their photographs taken, and while I was having a rest for myself I noticed a grasshopper sitting a short distance away and ‘pon my word, but he was the most sorrowful-looking grasshopper I ever saw before or since. Then all of a sudden a monster whale comes up from the sea and lies down beside him and ses: ‘Well, ses he, is that you? Who’d ever think of finding you here? Why there’s nothing strange under the sun but the ways of woman.”

“Tis me that’s here, then,” ses the grasshopper. “My grandmother died last night and she wasn’t insured either.”

“The practice of negligence is the curse of mankind and the root of sorrow.” ses the whale. “I suppose the poor old soul had her fill of days, and sure we all must die, and tis cheaper to be dead than alive at any time. A man never knows that he’s dead when he is dead, and he never knows he’s alive until he’s married.”

That’s a pretty good taste of the whole book. Each tale is nothing less than fantastic. The Czar of Russia comes to visit the Mayor of Cahermore. Johnny Moonlight meets up with the Devil and Oliver Cromwell on a lonely country road. The King of Montobewlo finally gives up cannabalism after an encounter with his first Irishman. Matty the Goat seeks the advice of the King of Spain on whether it would be better to commit suicide in New York or Boston. Shauno the Rover, feeling underappreciated by the world, dresses up as Henry the Eighth and cons a Royal Navy captain to take him on a royal cruise to Sperrispazuka, where he pays a visit on the Shah. (Shauno, by the way, is “a gentleman withal,” Padna assures Micus: “Never known to use his rare vocabulary in the presence of ladies, but would wait until their backs were turned, like a well-trained married man, and then curse and damn them one and all to perdition.”)

But the actual stories themselves, even at their most ridiculous, are just excuses for Padna and Micus to play games of platitudinous one-upmanship. In the first few pages of the book, it seems as if O’Brien is doing nothing more than using some wild tales as an odd way of celebrating naive folk philosophy. “Decency when you’re poor is extravagance, and bad example when you’re rich,” Micus counsels Padna at the start of “The Whale and the Grasshopper.”

OK. I’d accept that as a wee bit o’ wisdom from the Oud Sod. But take a close look at what follows:

“And why?” said Padna.

“Well,” said Micus, “because the poor imitate the rich and the rich give to the poor and when the poor give to each other they have nothing of their own.”

“That’s communism you’re talking,” said Padna, “and that always comes before education and enlightenment. Sure, if the poor weren’t decent they’d be rich, and if the rich were decent they’d be poor, and if every one had a conscience there’d be less millionaires.”

“But suppose a bird had a broken wing and couldn’t fly to where the pickings were?” said Micus.

“Well, then bring the pickings to him. That would be charity.”

“”But charity is decency,” Micus replies. At which point it becomes clear that Padna and Micus are less country sages than precursors of Vladimir and Estragon. Indeed, one could argue they have even less of an idea what’s going on than Beckett’s pair waiting for Godot.

I suspect that the whole book is nothing more than an attempt to pop the bubble of fuzzy nostalgia surrounding the softer-headed elements of the Irish Renaissance. In O’Brien’s view, Crazy Jane isn’t insightful–just crazy. Indeed, H. L. Mencken wrote in one review that the book, “saved the Irish Renaissance from its prevailing melancholy.”

Seamus O’Brien was born in Cork and trained as a sculptor and taught at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. He took up writing in his mid-twenties. His play, “Duty” (available with four other O’Brien comedies on Project Gutenberg) was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1913, and has been called the best Irish comedy every written. But soon after that he moved to America, where he remained for decades. The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables was published in 1916, after which he appears to have written nothing but an occasional article or short story. The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables is available in print from a number of direct-to-print republishers, but don’t pay their exorbitant prices: get it free and use your eReader or print out a copy. After all, as O’Brien writes, “Flies never frequent empty jam-pots, but money always brings friends.”

Whatever that means.


The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, by Seumas O’Brien
Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1916.

Harper Perennial to release lost Jetta Carleton novel, Clair de Lune, in March 2012

Cover of forthcoming release of 'Clair de Lune'Robert Nedelkoff passed along Harper’s list of new publications for Winter 2012, which includes a listing for Clair de Lune, a hitherto unpublished novel that came to light after the Harper Perennial release of her first novel, The Moonflower Vine.

I wrote about The Moonflower Vine in late 2006 after finding a piece about it in Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. That post garnered more of a response than any other on this site. Since then, several dozen people have written to express how much they loved this book, many saying that they’re read it ten times or more.

Carleton wrote Clair de Lune between 1995 and 1997, after the death of her beloved husband, Jere Lyon. She wrote the novel, which had a working title of The Back Alleys of Spring, on a friend’s computer. Neither the writing nor the use of the PC (she’d never touched one before) was any mean feat for someone in her early eighties at the time. Before she had the chance to start looking for a publisher, however, she suffered a stroke that took her ability to speak. She died in 1999.

The story in Clair de Lune derives from Carleton’s own experiences as a young teacher in Joplin–in the same area of southwest Missouri that The Moonflower Vine is set in. Harper’s Winter catalog provides a fragmentary synopsis of the plot:

The time: 1941, at the cusp of America’s entry into WWII. The place: southwest Missouri, on the edge of the Ozark Mountains. A young, single woman named Ailen Liles has taken a job as a junior college teacher in a small town, though she dreams of living in New York City, of dancing at recitals, of absorbing the bohemian delights of the Village. Then, in her seminar, she encounters two young men: George, a lanky, carefree spirit, and Toby, a dark-haired, searching …

I’m sure it will prove less Danielle Steel-y than that last sentence suggests.

Harper’s announcement says it’s planning on a release of 30,000 copies in trade paperback, along with release in several eBook formats. Let’s hope it’s as good as The Moonflower Vine fans would wish for.

Digging into the Popular Libary at the Montana Valley Book Store

Every summer for the last few years, our family has spent a good chunk of the summer in Missoula, Montana. Each time, I take a day and travel about thirty miles west on I-90 to the little one-street town of Alberton (pop. 418) to visit the Montana Valley Book Store. Housed in an old frame building with a store front straight out of the 1900s, the store holds over 100,000 books–mostly hardbacks upstairs, with paperbacks only in the basement. It’s also–amazingly–open 365 days a year.

There is a long set of trays with relatively recent books that leads from the door to the cash register, but in general the inventory dates from the 1920s to the 1960s. Its stacks run floor to ceiling and are always worth at least a few hours of careful browsing. My favorite section is the basement, which is a treasure trove of old paperback fiction. I find it’s harder and harder to find bookstores that have more than a handful of paperbacks from earlier than the mid-1980s, so it’s a real pleasure to pick through the basement, where there’s only a handful of paperbacks newer than that.

This time, I made a point of pulling many of the titles I didn’t recognize and comparing the publication dates of the original and the paperback edition. Back in the heyday of pocket-sized paperbacks, when Pocket Books, Dell, Avon, Signet, Bantam, and other publishers were pumping out a relentless flow of releases, grabbing a dusty title from the past and slapping a gaudy cover on it was a quick and cheap way to pad out a catalog. Perhaps no other company was as fond of this practice as Popular Library, which didn’t have the advantage of being tied to a major publisher with an active line of new hardcover titles to draw upon. And sure enough, my excavations dug up a number of interesting Popular Library artifacts.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'Johnny Bogan'The earliest title, Johnny Bogan by Leonora Baccante, published by Popular Library in 1959 with a typically suggestive cover, dates from 1931. It’s the story of two young people struggling between their desires and social mores (this was a time when pre-marital sex was still a largely taboo subject) and ends with a rape and then a murder. When first published, by Vanguard, the book received pretty positive reviews. One reviewer called it, “the finest novel I have read this year,” and the New Republic’s reviewer wrote, “Her technical method is vigorous and sure, her projection of character, especially that of Johnny, is admirable in its honesty and veraciousness [veracity?], and there is no trafficking with sentiment in a theme in which opportunities for it are endless: she accomplishes, neatly and precisely, what she sets out to do.” Johnny Bogan appears to have been the only book she ever published, although there are notices that Vanguard was going to release a second novel, Women Must Love in 1932.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'Dusk at the Grove'The next, going in chronological order, is Samuel Roger’s Dusk at the Grove, which won the Atlantic Monthly’s $10,000 Prize in 1934 for best English-language novel of year–the first American novel to do so. At the time, the award was the biggest in the publishing business, but the list of prize winners could easily be added as another of this site’s Sources (does anyone remember the 1936 winner, I am the Fox by Winifred Van Etten? Or 1940’s winner, The Family by Nina Fedorova (also reissued by Popular Library in the 1960s)?). Opinion among contemporary reviewers, however, was mostly unanimous that Roger’s book well deserved its prize. “There should be little complaint, however, with the judges who picked Dusk at The Grove for this year’s $10,000 Atlantic Prize Contest. The still waters of this quiet novel run deep. Author Rogers deals sparingly with what his people do, more with what they say, most with what they think,” wrote Time magazine’s reviewer. The New Frontier rated it “… too good a book to be known as “‘a prize novel.'”

Dusk at the Grove follows the lives of the Warings, a family of no great means, through a series of scenes set at “The Grove,” their summer house in Rhode Island, between the years 1909 and 1931. Rogers relies heavily but apparently effectively on use of the stream of consciousness technique–indeed, one reviewer wrote that he had taken the technique as far as anyone could go with it. The story ends with the sale of “The Grove” to avert a bankruptcy, but Rogers seems to have taken an open attitude toward such changes: “I cannot help having still faith in life,” thinks Linda, the Waring’s daughter, even as she reflects on how much she regretted leaving “The Grove” as the end of each summer neared. Dusk was Roger’s third novel. He went on to publish five more, of which Lucifer in Pine Lake (1937), a study of an egotistical college professor (Rogers taught French at the University of Wisconsin for many years) was the best received.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'The Anointed'Next in line is Clyde Brion Davis’ The Annointed, from 1937. I wrote about Davis’s second book, The Great American Novel, in one of the earliest posts on this site. Davis was a pretty prolific novelist through the 1930s and 1940s, but his work has utterly dropped from site. This is a real shame, as he’s one of the most likeable writers you’ll ever come across. A veteran newspaper reporter, he’d seen enough by the time he took up fiction to have a very clear-eyed view of human nature, but he was just too generous and optimistic a soul to let his cynicism cut too deep. Reviewing The Annointed for the New York Times, Robert van Gelder called it one of the two best first novels he’d ever read (the other was Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, which I see finally made it in the ranks of the Penguin Modern Classics last year). And the New Republic‘s reviewer wrote, “There is a Mother Goose-like combination of naivete and shrewdness to the book, a simplicity of style, an acuteness of characterization and observation”–a good summation of Davis’ approach in general. The Annointed was often compared to one of the 1930’s biggest best-sellers, Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse. While both books told the story of young men who got into a series of adventures at sea and on foreign shores, Davis managed to fit his into about one-sixth the number of pages.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'Ceremony of Innocence'Last on the list is Elizabeth Charlotte Webster’s Ceremony of Innocence, which was first published in South Africa as Expiring Frog (not a title that even the folks at Popular Library would have taken on) in 1946. The book was selected for the Afrikaanse Pers prize (along with Daphne Rooke’s first novel, A Grove of Fever Trees). Webster was not South African, however: born in Scotland, she was living there for health reasons. To no avail, sadly–she died just two weeks after receiving the award and several months before the book actually found a publisher.

Popular Library’s cover for Ceremony of Innocence does show a nun–but it’s easily the most misleading of this batch. Ceremony, which uses the figure of a young novice, Sylvie, living in a convent outside Geldersburg (read Johannesburg), rather as Voltaire does Candide–to highlight the vanities and hypocrises of contemporary religion and society. Sylvie is found to having some kind of healing power, but this disturbs the quiet order of the Catholic church and she is smuggled out of sight while the church leaders figure out the right “spin” for her story. Unfortunately for them, she falls for one of the men hiding her and ends up bearing his child. As with Candide, Sylvie is an instrument rather than a character, and Webster uses her to cut deeply into her targets. “Several of her scenes are expert in her caustic malice,” Orville Prescott in the New York Times. Writing in 1948 for , novelist Alan Paton wrote, “I thought it was an extraordinary book. I have just read it again, and am still of the same opinion. It is not only written with a fine economy of words, but it is written with a fine economy of narrative as well; it moves on, and I do not find myself being impatient for any chapter to end.” Prescott differed, rating the book “diverting rather than moving. The rapturous acclaim which it has already received in this country seems wildly extravagant.” Nonetheless, it’s probably well worth discovering and assessing now from the distance of sixty-five years.

These Popular Library titles are just a sample of the armload I took away from this summer’s visit to Alberton. I expect at least a few of the rest to show up here in the course of the months between now and next year’s visit.

The Jester’s Reign, by Boyne Grainger

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Jester's Reign' by Boyne GraingerI was immediately intrigued when I came across the dust jacket of The Jester’s Reign in the Digital Gallery of the New York Public Library several years ago. The Jester’s Reign, according to the dust jacket blurb, is “A series of mysterious cosmic phenomena broke upon a startled world, defying the laws of nature and baffling the scientists” that takes place in the course of one month somewhere in the 1930s. After months of being put off by the fact that the handful of copies for sale all commanded prices of $40 and up, I finally broke down and bought one in March.

I wish I could say it was worth the wait and expense.

It starts with promise. An odd, loud, but unmistakable noise like laughter sounds for just a moment throughout the entire world. Most people are startled. Those of good humor feel the better for it. Those with shriveled up hearts feel uneasy and fearful. And a small collection of people in Manhattan sharing a small open space not much larger than an airshaft begin to find their lives coming together in unexpected ways.

At the center of this group is Mister Ergo. A quiet older man, Mister Ergo seems to have some connection with the “phenomenon,” as the newspapers quickly dub it. Or phenomena, to be more accurate, as the laughter is soon followed by a series of fantastical and gently whimsical occurences. In one of the earliest, everyone in the world stops for a moment to greet each other:

Diplomats said “How do you do?” to messenger boys, bank presidents said it to the charwomen. Functionaries said it to elevator boys. Spinsters said it to bachelors, stenographers to street sweepers, sweepers to ladies in limousines. An opera singer said it to a coal heaver, magnates said it to beggars, policemen to cab drivers, a queen said it to a lunatic, a duchess to a ragpicker. Theives said it to ministers, chorus girls to managers, general to privates, ships’ captains to stokers … and so on all through the walks of life where life was walking at that moment occurred this involuntary interchange of mutual recognition and solicitude.

Certainly the like had never been known on this planet before.

It was true that there were strange complications as a result of the phenomenon. Some were chagrined afterwards, and even mortified. For instance, two lady club members, deadly enemies, who chanced to stand side by side at a bargain counter went home and had nervous prostration because they had spoken to each other. A farmer and his wife in Vermont, who had shared farm, and farmhouse, and even bed, for forty years but had not spoken to each other since 1907, immediately applied for a divorce, unable to survive the shame of the breaking of their resolution.

Soon, the phenomena bring together a cast of characters a bit like a collision between “Major Barbara” and “Golden Boy.” There is a wealthy playgirl; an even wealthier armaments magnate; a boxer with the soul of a poet; his poor but gorgeous neighbor with an operatic voice; her snivelling gonif of a brother; a sweet spinster; and roughly a dozen others. Not one of them acquires the slightest depth of characterization in the course of the book’s 300-plus pages.

If a novel’s characters are flat and undeveloped, then its narrative could make up for that. And at first, it seems there might be some direction, some shape, some meaning to the various phenomena. Some are a bit dewy-eyed, like the rain of flowers that drop from the skies and sprout from the mouths of every cannon and rifle. Others are downright worth wishing for in real life:

… every frenzied activity was suspended, every adult straining muscle and thought relaxed, surrendered, enjoyed the mysterious hiatus in which the very idea of Hurry melted out of the human brain. In that marvelous fragment of time mankind had an experience never known before. It saw, down a vista like a deep green tunnel of woodland boughs, the future stretching thousands and millions of years away, with time for everything to be done without haste or concern.

By the time the book is nearly 95% done, however, nothing much more has happened than a month’s worth of phenomena and a lot of scurrying around by the various characters. Mister Ergo tries to explain what it all means in the climactic scene : “The New Hope will come. A New Hope always has come, created out of the need that is the core of Desolation. What will it be? Who can say … and how does it matter?” There is more of this, but it’s all essentially New Age-y babble.

Personally, I have always found that when a novel ends with a speech in which one character that tries to explain what it all means, what it really means is that the novelist ran out of ideas and is trying to substitute argument for imagination. It’s like cutting directly from Shakespeare to a Presidential debate. Whatever it is, it ain’t art. Is what Mister Ergo has to say really going to make a difference to any of other characters–or the reader?

If this technique ever worked–and if it didn’t for Tolstoy in War and Peace, why would it for a lesser writer?–then criticism would be indistinguishable from art. But it isn’t, and The Jester’s Reign doesn’t succeed where War and Peace failed. You’d be better of stopping 10-15 pages short and making up your own ending.

From what little I could piece together about her, Grainger was born Bonita Ginger, either in Colorado or England, in the late 1800s. She moved to New York around the time of World War One and was one of the colony of writers and artists like John Reed and e. e. cummings who settled in Patchin Place at the end of the war. She wrote a novel called, The Hussy, which was published by Boni and Liveright in 1924. It appears to have been a satire on the double standards of romantic/sexual behavior that existed between men and women at the time. Aside from The Jester’s Reign, she only published a short bundle of poems (Five poems) and a sweet memoir of Greenwich Village life in the 1920s (We Lived in Patchin Place). She apparently ran an informal speakeasy called “Bonnie’s Office” to make ends meet during the Prohibition, and befriended artists and writers old (brothers Theodore and Llewellyn Powys) and young (Esther McCoy) during her time in Patchin Place. She died sometime around 1962.


The Jester’s Reign, by Boyne Grainger
New York: Carrick and Evans, 1938

Life of Campestris ulm, the Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis

Title Page of 'Life of Campestris Ulm'I’ve read the biography of a dog, of a cow, of an elephant, of a lion, and of a seagull (yeah, that one). But this is my first biography of a tree. Life of Campestris Ulm: Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common is a quirky tribute written by Joseph Henry Curtis, a Boston native, around the time of the 130th anniversary of the oldest living tree on Boston Common.

Campestris Ulm, the oldest tree on Boston Common, around 1910Campestris ulm is the scientific name for the English elm. Although a different elm–the Old Great Elm, an American elm sometimes known as the Liberty Tree–was better known until it fell in an enormous galestorm that hit Boston in 1876, this elm was one of a number planted at the behest of John Hancock, prominent signer of the Declaration of Independence (literally) and first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachussetts, around the time he took office in 1780 and outlasted it.

At the time, cows grazed on Boston Common. The Common itself survived only because it served practical concerns, although Hancock–very much a lover of fine clothes, fine living, and beautiful public spaces–was beginning to change things. Still, Massachussetts at the time was a state strongly under the Puritan influence. Curtis recalls Sundays in the early years after the tree’s planting:

From midnight Saturday to sunset Sunday was weekly a day of rest for Campestris. He hardly dared to stir a leaf; even the cows abstained in large measure from chewing their cuds and the Common was deserted. One Sunday, however, he was astonished and shocked to observe the Governor taking a turn in the mall on his way home from church. He was glad to learn the next day that the Governor was fined, and, much as he respected his sponsor, felt that it served him right.

As Curtis tells us, Hancock fell afoul of a relatively recent statute, that ruled that “travelling or other secular employments, unless for some purpose of necessity or humanity, was prohibited on the Lord’s day; and wardens, tithingmen, and other functionaries, were clothed with unusual powers to enforce its observance.”

As time passed, certain of the old time prohibitions lapsed and the beauty and benefits of the Common came to be increasingly accepted and protected–particularly after the return of Oliver Wendell Holmes and others from Paris, where, as David McCullough describes it in his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, they marvelled at the Garden of the Tuileries and other public spaces. Yet not so fast that a few victims of pragmatism remained. In 1820, for example, a local bit of folklore was obliterated on the simple policy that a boulder takes up valuable productive soil:

One morning in 1820, in his fortieth year, Campestris observed a cluster of workmen around his old friend, the Wishing-Stone, one holding a drill, while another was swinging a heavy sledge-hammer. After a time this ceased, and another man seemed to be busy ramming and tamping something into a hole. Shortly after there was a great scampering of cows driven wildly at a distance and the cluster of men dispersed in various directions along the several paths, waving their hands as a warning. One man left behind lingered a short time, and then ran rapidly away. There was a flash, an explosion, the air was filled with smoke, and when it cleared, to the astonishment and grief of Campestris, his beloved boulder, the friend of his youth, was observed blown to fragments.

In the language of trees, Campestris exclaimed, as he shook his limbs, “What have you done, you stupid louts, you churls and sons of churls? Know ye not, that it was no common stone; that, hallowed as it was by the vows of countless swains and maids, it possessed a sentimental value which, translated into dollars and cents, the only measure of value your vulgar, commonplace lives can appreciate, would amount to a sum you could never replace by your labor, if your lives were prolonged beyond the age of Methuselah? Would that you were buried in the debris of your own blast. “Alas, alas!” he soliloquized, “a large part of the pleasure of my life has departed,” and sadly he watched the stupid, indifferent men load the fragments on a drag and carry them away.

In after years Campestris could never allude to the destruction of his old friend without manifesting his grief and sorrow.

The tree survived the great storm that felled the Liberty Tree, as well as some man-made cataclysms such as the construction of the MTA and of public restrooms in gloriously hideous late Victorian style within its eyeshot. Curtis writes of regular visits to converse with the elm and reports on some of its recent complaints. “He lately had been greatly disturbed by the borings for the new Cambridge Tunnel,” Curtis tells us.

I don’t know if this tree is still standing on the Common. Other than Curtis, no one seems to have taken particular notice of it within the last century. And though Life of Campestris Ulm: Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common is certainly no more than a pleasant bit of amusement, Curtis deserves some credit for having managed to organize an interesting social and historical panorama around the figure of a simple sturdy tree providing some shade to those walking along one of the paths through the Common.

Life of Campestris ulm, the oldest inhabitant of Boston Common is available free online through the Internet Archive in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, ASCII, and other formats.


Life of Campestris ulm, the oldest inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis
Boston: W. B Clarke, 1910

The Search for Good Sense, by F. L. Lucas

Cover of first U.K. edition of 'The Search for Good Sense'“It seems to me,” F. L. Lucas writes in the introduction to The Search for Good Sense, “mere common sense never to undertake a piece of work, or read a book, without asking, ‘Is it worth the amount of life it will cost?’ … ‘Will it make life more vivid, more intelligent, more complete, more real?'”

To which, in this case, I can answer, most heartily, Yes!

On the rare occasions when the name of F(rank) L(aurence) Lucas comes up these days, it’s in connection with his masterpiece, Style, which is one of the best things ever written about writing prose and, sadly, scarcer than hens’ teeth. Lucas wrote dozens of books–novels, poetry, drama, essays, history, political pieces, great swaths of historical literary criticism, and numerous compilations of the works of writers major and minor. Of the last, T. S. Eliot once wrote that Lucas was “the perfect annotator.” Pretty much none of it is in print today.

The Search for Good Sense deals with four masters of eighteenth-century English literature–Samuel Johnson, Lord Chesterfield, James Boswell, and Oliver Goldsmith. Its companion volume, The Art of Living, covers four more: Hume, Burke, Franklin, and Horace Walpole. “It would have been easier,” Lucas acknowledges, “to combine both in a single volume; but in this age of growing bustle and mounting prices there is, more often than ever, truth in the adage of Callimachus, librarian of Alexandria–‘a big book is a big evil.'” And this is a perfect example of the pleasures that come with taking an excursion into some past lives with such a profoundly well-read and yet profoundly pragmatic guide. Hardly a page goes by without a delicious quote that begs to be repeated.

Each of Lucas’ biographical essays is between 60 and 120 pages long. He “attempts to omit nothing that is really vital, and to include nothing that is not….” Yet he manages to include more than a few detours that no one would choose to delete for the sake of a page or two. Though Lucas is a passionate defender of the essential importance of the main principle of the Age of Reason–namely, that civilization depends upon our ability to master our emotions through the application of reason–he acknowledges that, “Part of the composure of the educated in the eighteenth century came, I suspect, from their power still to digest what was known….”

In fact, as he later shows in his essay on Goldsmith, even in the eighteenth century, working writers sometimes had to venture well beyond what was known–at least to them. “If he can distinguish a cow from a horse, that, I believe, may be the extent of his knowledge of natural history,” Dr. Johnson once said of Goldsmith. That didn’t prevent Goldsmith from writing an entire book–and a big one–on the subject, one which included gems such as the account of the tragic squirrel flotillas excerpted here recently.

Dr. Johnson is, of course, the grandest figure of the four men covered in The Search for Good Sense. “We treasure his memory partly because he was often wise and good, but partly–let us own it–because he could also resemble an intoxicated hippopotamus.” Although Lucas gives credit to the merits of Johnson’s own works, he is clear-eyed enough to admit that much of it embodies the worst of eighteenth-century English prose: verbose, oratorical, and inclined never to take the shortest path between two points. Yet “few men seem to me to have struggled more against the constant human temptation to say and believe, or pretend to believe, what is comfortable, conventional, lazy, or pleasant.” For Lucas, who had survived gassing and shelling on the Western Front, witnessed the devastation caused by Fascism and Communism, and railed against the evils of groupthink long before Orwell gave it a name, this was no small accomplishment.

In contrast to Johnson and his war with conventions Lucas then offers the example Lord Chesterfield, who held good manners above all other values. “I am very sure,” chesterfield wrote in one of his once-highly-regarded instructional letters to his son, “that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention, and labour make himself whatever he pleases.” To which Lucas responds, “In what world, one wonders, do people live who can imagine such nonsense?” Having watched his own children grow up, Lucas rates “inborn nature definitely more important than upbringing.” As a father of twins, I put myself squarely on his side: most of what they are or ever will be comes with them out of the womb. “All the pages ever penned in defence of Chesterfield’s paternal preachments do not seem to me worth four words of honest old Augustine Birrell–‘Ugh, what a father!'”

Lucas is not one to kick a man when he’s down, though:

After all, it is fair to remember that we have one unfair advantage over him–he is dead, and we live later. Let us not abuse it. If we find much to critize in him, he would have found much to disdain in us–in our follies and vulgarities, in our press and our advertisements, in our literature, our art, and our society.

From stuffy old Lord Chesterfield, Lucas then launches into messy, earthy, pushy, self-obsessed James Boswell: “The central dissension over James Boswell turns on the question–ass or genius?” Lucas had the benefit of writing after the discovery and publication of Boswell’s journals. The journals helped set Boswell’s Life of Johnson into their proper context–that of an extract from Boswell’s magnum opus: “part of the far vaster, journalized autobiography of Boswell himself. The Life of Johnson is really only an outwork of a far huger Life of Boswell. Still, he rates Boswell’s obsession with recording events in his journal “an attitude to me as fantastic as the ancient Egyptian feeling that what happened to one’s body living mattered less than having it properly pickled for eternity.”

All the same, despite Boswell’s constant indulgences of his appetites, Lucas most definitely positions himself on the side of those who consider Boswell a genius:

In this aspect Boswell was a kind of grotesque anthropologist–a species of scientist. But he was also an artist. Biography, like history, remains art as well as science. Its paramount duty is truth. But though it should tell nothing but the truth, it cannot possibly tell the whole truth. It must select, or die of its own unwieldly corpulence. The thoughts of a single day might burst a whole volume of autobiography; sufficient research might swell the life of a single man to the size of an encyclopedia in thirty volumes. But it would leave the man’s personality, which is the central theme of biography as of portrait-painting, swamped and blurred. To read it would be as tedious and impractical as a walking tour of Siberia.

Boswell’s genius, in Lucas’ estimation, was in two crucial choices: to choose Johnson, of all the contemporaries he could have taken up with; and to have “the further good sense to select Johnson’s talk as the main feature of that subject.” If he had erred in either decision, the Life would have been no better remembered today than any dozen other biographies published the same year.

Lucas rounds out his quartet with a sketch of the life and works of Oliver Goldsmith. The Vicar of Wakefield is no longer the staple work of 18th century literature it was in my father’s and grandfather’s day (my sons and probably most of their contemporaries read Candide instead), but for Lucas, he earns his place through the quality of his character and humanity as much as through the quality of his pen: “Goldsmith remains an example of what goodness, good sense, grace, gaiety, and simplicity can do, even in a harsh world preoccupied with many meaner things.”

I dog-eared so many pages while reading The Search for Good Sense that even if I quoted from just one in four, this post would have to run on for another thousand-plus words. But out of respect for Lucas, who once wrote that “Brevity is first of all a form of courtesy,” I must confine myself to just one final aphorism from the many gems that lie waiting in this book:

In lovers’ quarrels, only the lovers know all the facts, but cannot judge them dispassionately; while those who might judge them dispassionately, cannot possibly know all the facts.


The Search for Good Sense, by F. L. Lucas
London: Cassell and Company, 1958

Operators and Things: Barbara O’Brien’s classic memoir of schizophrenia–now in print AND online

Cover of first US edition of 'Operators and Things'The always-alert Robert Nedelkoff just tipped me off on the release of one of the most memorable and–until now–rarest neglected books discussed on this site: Barbara O’Brien’s 1958 memoir of schizophrenia, Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic. First published by an obscure press, Arlington Books, then reissued as an Avon paperback with a cover that probably led more than stores and buyers to consider it a pulp SF novel, O’Brien’s book remains unique in its depiction of schizophrenia as experienced from the inside out.

In the book, O’Brien describes waking up one morning to find herself living in a world populated by “Operators,” who are the ultimate embodiment of the paranoic’s concept of the people in control, the ones working according to a secret plan, the ones pulling the strings of power and influence–and by “Things,” the puppets manipulated and exploited by the Operators. She, of course, is a Thing, and she spends the next six months travelling around the country by Greyhound bus, following (but also trying to resist) the instructions of the Operators.

Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic was reissued back in the mid-1970s as a mass-market paperback in both the US and the UK, but it’s been out of print since then, commanding prices ranging between $25 and $250 in the last decade. Now, however, it’s available in trade paperback from Silver Birch Press with an introduction by Michael Macoby, who’s better known for his books on leadership in the business world, a preface by scriptwriter Melanie Villines, and an afterwood by Colleen Delegan. Villines and Delegan have written an unproduced screenplay based on the boook.

However, I also found that, over a year ago, someone published Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic as an eBook on Smashwords.com. You can read it online or download a copy in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, and other formats–with Macoby’s introduction but sans Villines’ and Delegan’s pieces.

Either way, I recommend discovering this remarkable book–which moved 14 different people to post 5-star reviews on Amazon despite its being out of print and virtually unheard-of in the last decade.

Update

After posting this, I received an email from Melanie Villines with some additional information about the new release:

The Silver Birch Press edition of Operators and Things includes a NEW (!) interview with Michael Maccoby (conducted in Sept. 2010) that offers some fascinating insights into the book. Our edition also includes beautiful period photos by iconic photographers Esther Bubley, Russell Lee, and John Vachon. My foreword also offers an overview of how the book has been received by the public and press since its publication and includes info about my personal interactions with some of the original players (agent, publishers, and others connected with the book). Thanks for your kind consideration and thoughtful attention.

Bubley, Lee, and Vachon were all members of Roy Stryker’s remarkable team of Farm Security Administration photographers, by the way, which created one of the greatest photographic records of American life during the 1930s and 1940s.

Second Reading, by Jonathan Yardley

Cover of 'Second Reading' by Jonathan YardleyNext week, Europa Editions, a New York-based publishing house with ties to the Italian publishing firm Edizioni E/O, releases Second Reading, which collects 60 pieces from the series of the same name, which appeared in the Washington Post between March 2003 and January 2010. Frustrated at having his column in the Post’s renown “Book World” section taken away without explanation after twenty years, Yardley was casting about for new ventures when the idea of a series based on his reconsiderations of selected books from a lifetime of reading came to him. As he soon discovered, he was not alone in appreciating the chance to step away from the weekly onslaught of press releases and review copies:

It didn’t take long for me to realize how much fun it was to reach back into my past reading–as you’ll see, the word “fun” appears frequently in these pieces–or to discover how much pleasure it gave many of the Post’s readers to be offered discussions of (mostly) worthy older books. The fixation of journalists on the new and the trendy is a forgivable occupational hazard, but it neglects the interests of readers who want something more substantial than the latest Flavor of the Day. My own tastes certainly are not everybody’s tastes, but the steady, heavy volume of incoming e-mail convinced me that I had stumbled onto something that readers wanted.

While I’ve never been deluged with a “steady, heavy volume of incoming e-mail,” I can certainly second the view that wandering away from best-seller lists–and even from the stock of a good bookstore’s stock of in-print titles–can be great fun. It’s certainly part of what had kept me going for a little over five years now.

The full list of the 94 books that Yardley covered over the course of seven years can be found on this site at the link to “Jonathan Yardley’s Second Readings” in the list of Sources at the left of this page.

It should also be noted that Europa Editions has already done its share in rescuing neglected books, having brought two worthy novels–Alfred Hayes’ The Girl on the Via Flaminia and Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square back to print in handsome paperback editions.

The Tragic Fate of Squirrel Flotillas, from Oliver Goldsmith’s A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature


I’m reading E. L. Lucas’ The Search for Good Sense. In his chapter on Oliver Goldsmith, Lucas reprints the following particularly fantastic yet wonderful passage from A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, one of the many works written by Goldsmith in the interest of keeping a roof over his head.

In Lapland, and the extensive forests to the north, the squirrels are observed to change their habitation, and to remove in vast numbers from one country to another. In these migrations they are generally seen by thousands, travelling directly forward; while neither rocks, forests, nor even the broadest waters, can stop their progress. What I am going to relate appears so extraordinary, that were it not attested by numbers of the most credible historians, among whom are Klein and Linnaeus, it might be rejected with that scorn with which we treat imposture or credulity; however, nothing can be more true than that when these animals, in their progress, meet with broad rivers, or extensive lakes, which abound in Lapland, they take a very extraordinary method of crossing them. Upon approaching the banks, and perceiving the breadth of the water, they return, as if by common consent, into the neighbouring forest, each in quest of a piece of bark, which answers all the purposes of boats for wafting them over. When the whole company are fitted in this manner, they boldly commit their little fleet to the waves; every squirrel sitting on its own piece of bark, and fanning the air with its tail, to drive the vessel to its desired port. In this orderly manner they set forward, and often cross lakes several miles broad. But it too often happens that the poor mariners are not aware of the dangers of their navigation; for although at the edge of the water it is generally calm, in the midst it is always more turbulent. There the slightest additional gust of wind oversets the little sailor and his vessel together. The whole navy, that but a few minutes before rode proudly and securely along, is now overturned, and a shipwreck of two or three thousand sail ensues. This, which is so unfortunate for the little animal, is generally the most lucky accident in the world for the Laplander on the shore; who gathers up the dead bodies as they are thrown in by the waves, eats the flesh, and sells the skins for about a shilling the dozen.

“It may be doubted if this is very sound biology,” Lucas observes. What an understatement. But he does go on to credit that there is something sublime in this bit of ridiculousness: “Yet there is about it a charming sympathy with the little squirrels; far more genuine, I feel, than Coleridge or his Mariner really felt for albatrosses ….”