Endless River, by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Endless River'
Continuing my way through the works of Felix Riesenberg, the long-forgotten American merchant mariner-engineer-writer, I took up his most experimental work, Endless River (1931). I’ve yet to make up my mind whether Riesenberg was a great or merely a good writer, but he was, unquestionably, a remarkable one, and there is no better proof of that than this striking book.

On the epigraph page, Riesenberg quotes the critic Harry Hansen: “There is only one definition for a novel–it is the way the man who writes it looks at the world. And there are as many ways of writing a novel as there are ways of looking at the world.” As one reviewer, Robert Leavitt, wrote in The Saturday Review, “Accept Mr. Hansen, and Endless River is a novel. Reject him, and it is a formless pot pourri.

Well, even as a novel, it’s a formless pot pourri. Or rather, it has no more form than a river, which is why one of the very few critics to even notice the book compared it, not surprisingly, to Finnegans Wake. “Books–novels, treatises, tracts, and the like–are chopped into chapters. But you cannot cup up a river. You cannot stop it and let a little trickle out after filering impurities. The river keeps on, and so does this, until lost in the endless paths of time.”

Unlike Finnegans Wake, though, Riesenberg’s river is not one continuing stream of words but three-hundred-some pages of fragments. Some are little essays. Some are segments of short stories or character sketches that span a few pages. Many are, I assume, Riesenberg’s own musings. One after another they flow through the pages until the end is reached.

Unlike a real river, however, which at least has gravity as an identifiable driving force, Endless River appears to have no purpose behind it other than to satisfy Riesenberg’s fascination with the swirling currents of humanity he observes in the streets of Manhattan. In which case, a better parallel to Endless River than would be Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, which is less a novel than a collage of narratives, popular songs, advertisements, and set pieces.

In Dos Passos’ case, however, as with his trilogy U.S.A., the stories are threads that run throughout the book, while Riesenberg’s characters are more like landmarks his river touches and then leaves behind for good.

There are some wonderful sketches in the book, such as the wealthy dandy who finds himself stranded in upper Manhattan late one night and finds himself slowly losing his identity on his long walk home. Or Major John Hollister Truetello, who writes out the same four letters every night (“My dear sir, may I not adress you so, you the happy father of a newborn babe…”) and sends them off to four addressees picked out from various directories. Or Old Mr. Kindleberry, who carefully records names in his notebook.

Each day he chose a letter, and for twenty lines, after the greatest care and consideration, he wrote euphonious words, one under the other, spelling them out with rare and discriminating joy. Mr. Kindleberry never made a mistake in spelling; it was a little joke of his own, for the words he wrote down were of his own invention…. Here are some of his words, beginning with the letter D: Dianop; Dathter; Dilldyle; Daggerhampton; Dopda.

While there is a little something Borgesian about Truetello, Kindleberry, and a few of the three or four dozen characters in the book, they are all more symbols than convincing personalities.

Integrated book marker ribbon from 'Endless River'

“Which character in Endless River are you?” reads the marker ribbon in the first–and so far, only–edition. “None,” I suspect most readers would answer. Riesenberg’s characters are, in fact, just bits of flotsam and jetsam caught up in this outpouring of words. They are there to serve his purpose, which seems mostly to be to argue that there is no point in trying to give any form to the lives and interactions of men. At least for some time to come. “If we are right today (I mean 1931 or thereabout), then in 256,789 we should be stabilized.”

Until then, Riesenberg seems to argue, billions more bits of humanity will be carried along in the endless river. “There was never a writer less literary in temperament than Felix,” wrote his friend Christopher Morley in a Saturday Review piece after his death in 1939. “His sheer lack of conscious technique makes him irresistible. Put him under a sudden gust of emotion and watch his penmanship.”

“Penmanship” is hardly a word that a writer would want his work described as, but I have to wonder if Endless River would have gained a publisher in the first place without the influence of friends like Morley. However, whether it ultimately comes to be judged a novel, a pot pourri, or just a unique flood of prose, it is certainly a testament of a writer with a powerful need to tell how he looked at the world.

Endless River, by Felix Riesenberg
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931

Around the World with Reader Recommendations

I’ve received a number of neglected book recommendations over the last month, with writers and subjects ranging from Alaska to turn-of-the-[20th] Century Chicago to Greece during World War Two to Australia, along with a long-out-of-print business book with a small but enthusiastic following.

Son of the Smoky Sea, by Simeon Oliver

A reader just going by the nickname Plesah offers suggestions from far corners of the Pacific. The first is the 1943 autobiography of a young Alaskan, half Aleut, half Norwegian, who was abandoned after his mother’s death and sent to a Methodist mission in Unalaska. He did well enough to be accepted into a pre-med program at Northwestern, but dropped that in favor of a music scholarship. That he dropped, too, and returned to Alaska as an assistant on an anthropological expedition. Disappointed in his lack of connections to the native people (he had forgotten what little Aleut he had known), he returned to the States, but hooked up with a ghost writer, Alden Hatch, and released (as “Nutchuk,” his Aleut name), Son of the Smoky Sea. The book clearly sold well, as there are plenty of used copies still available. Plesah mentions a sequel, Return to the Smoky Sea, but I suspect this is a mistake–the same one made by the Anchorage Daily News reporter in his 1976 interview with Oliver, as there is no record anywhere of this title. From the interview, however, you can tell that Oliver, who calls himself “a jackass of all trades’ was quite the storyteller, whether or not he was always telling the truth.

The Web of Life, by Robert Herrick

Lew Wheaton writes to propose this novel about his home, Chicago, around the time of the 1893 World’s Fair. “If you’re a lover of big, messy, noisy city novels, as you’ve said you are, then check this one out.” If Herrick is remembered at all these days, it’s as a regionalist, but he probably deserves a closer look. Erik Larson thought enough of the novel to include a number of quotes from it in his best-seller, The Devil in the White City. At the time of its first publication, the New York Time complained that, “He might have told his story with more buoyancy of manner and with more variety of tone. His humor, when it is in evidence at all, seems dry.” But it also noted that, “Quite the best feature of Mr. Herrick’s novel is its elaborate and varied study of Chicago in and out of doors, its commercial strife, its fashionable social routine, its sordidness and vulgarity, its enterprises, its youthful vitality.” Which does second Lew’s assessment that it’s worth a look by any fan of city novels–and Chicago certainly has been the subject of some of the best.
Herrick’s book is available from dozens of on-demand publishers, but don’t bother with them and get it direct from the Internet Archive.

Tycho Brahe’s Path to God, by Max Brod

Bengt Broström, who has provided some great recommendations before, suggests the works of Max Brod, who is far better remembered as Franz Kafka’s literary executor than as a writer himself:

He wrote 25 novels, essays and short stories. He is not much translated into English. His best known novel Tycho Brahes Weg zu Gott, 1916 was translated as Tycho Brahes path to God, 1928 and has been reissued 2007.

His best book is “Das grosse Wagnis”, 1919 a subtle dystopian novel.

His first novel “Schloss Nornepygge”, 1908 is one of the great novels of Decadence. It is not translated into English but new editions in German have appeared between 2009 and 2012.

As Broström notes, Tycho Brahe’s Path to God was reissued in 2007, by Northwestern University Press. This edition included an introduction by his contemporary, the ever-less-neglected Stefan Zweig. At the time the historical novel was first published, no less than Albert Einstein was moved to write of it, “I’ve read the book with great interest. It is without a doubt interestingly written by a man who knows the cliffs of the human soul.”

Unfortunately for Brod’s reputation in the U. S., neither of the other two titles mentioned have ever been translated and published here. Several of his more-forgettable novels were, however: The Master, a historical novel about the life of Jesus; and Unambo, which Kirkus Reviews summed up as, “An involved and wordy fable which tangles with the problem of man’s dual nature, symbolized in this case by the struggle of an Israeli intellectual to achieve a peaceful neutrality of soul through a diabolical time-space machine.”

When the Tree Sings, by Stratis Haviarias

Kris Kincaid writes, “Stratis Haviaras was (is?) [Was: viz.–Ed.] a curator at Harvard library and a poet who wrote two stunning novels – in English – around WWII Greece from a child’s-eye view that saw very good reviews and quickly disappeared. The first, When the Tree Sings, is set during the German occupation. It’s impressionistic and poetic and has less of a narrative, with descriptions of the daily horrors of the time written in a kind of dreamy, detached prose:

An old man began to dig with teeth and nails for roots, moaning weakly from hunger.
Then two kids were blown to pieces by a land mine as they tried to disarm it and use the dynamite cakes to kill fish in the bay. I saw their little arms in smoking sleeves hung from a fig tree, trembling – so simple.
And I saw a woman in black overcome by crows, and a younger woman crawl to the roadside, dragging her entrails over the dust.

“It got a number of glowing reviews (‘This first novel…is one of the most power, uncompromising, exquisitely written and imaginatively conceived of any that I have read.’ – Time Out, etc) in 1979, but is certainly neglected now. Same fate for its follow-up in 1986, Haviaras’ second and last novel, The Heroic Age, follows a band of orphan kids who’ve spent much of the war living in the mountains, as they’re rounded up and put in work camps after the war. This one has more of a narrative and is, I think, even better than Haviaras’ first novel, but you really can’t go wrong with either of these, both of which got paperback printings from major presses (Picador and Penguin) and so should be fairly easy to dig up.”

Both novels are out of print but available on Amazon for as little as one cent.

A Fortunate Life. by Albert Facey

This should be qualified as a regionally-neglected book, as it’s considered a classic in Australia, selling nearly a million copies, has its own Wikipedia entry, and has never been out of print there since first published in 1981. Facey, who enlisted in 1914, was seriously wounded at Gallipoli. Despite suffering from the effects of his injuries and facing hardships through most of his working life, Facey had a remarkable resilience of spirit that led him, in his mid-eighties, to collect his notes and diaries and assemble them into this book, which became an instant best-seller in Australia upon its publication. Sadly, Facey died less than a year later, but the book continues to inspire readers. Although out of print in the U. S. since its first publication, it’s collected over thirty five-star reviews on Amazon.

Moving Mountains (Or The Art of Letting Others See Things Your Way), by Henry Boettinger

“An out-of-print classic. definitely one for your site,” writes Geoffrey Morton-Haworth. First published in 1969 and reprinted several times since then, this might be the earliest guide to making presentations (something we all now are subjected to at least several times each week, thanks to the success of Microsoft Powerpoint). Boettinger was a senior executive at AT&T in the days when it was still home to Bell Labs, “The Idea Factory, ” Moving Mountains may no longer be technologically up to date (it recommends viewfoils as the best medium), but it’s still psychologically relevant. Its word-of-mouth reputation as one of the best texts ever written on the subject has managed to drive the price for used copies as high as $300–although you can easily find some for $16-25.

As always, your recommendations are most welcome–aside from their negative effects on my wallet and storage space!

Suicides, from Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg

Always there is death. In those early St Mary’s days death was close, for Bellevue had the morgue, and out of morbidness some of us went there to see rows of white-sheeted stillness on the slabs–the lost and forgotten corpses of a city that holds so much of life and happiness and hope. The wharves by the East River attract those drifting near the edge. Always we had the dinghy, a black-painted, four-oared boat, swung out in its davits at the port fore rigging. The call to launch was answered with alacrity. It would splash into the slip and stroke away toward the floundering of the desperate. Many would-be suicides were snatched from the cold river by the boys on the schoolship. I took part in a few of these rescues, the saved sometimes cursing us until hot coffee and a slab of corned beef brought them to their senses. Jumping from piers seems to be one of the reactions of the city. As buildings grew higher, jumping from windows and splattering on the hard cement became a ghastly fact. Not long ago, in the storm center of the depression, I had a man drop close to me on Forty-fifth Street. He landed with a thud and lay still. There was no human boat capable of saving him once he had started down; screams, terrorizing cries clattered about and echoed between the high walls of adjoining office buildings, but these came from women, spectators in opposite cubicles. The falling man was silent. A policeman pulled a tarpaulin from a truck and threw it over the inert body. Two young women who had been closer than I were carried into a near-by drugstore; they had fainted.

The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, by Max White

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Man Who Carved Women from Wood'I found out about Max White’s 1949 novel, The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, in “The Pearls of Publishing,”, a Saturday Review feature I wrote about several months ago. In that piece, John Fischer, then an editor at Harper & Brothers, recommended it as a bit of a fringe favorite: “Admittedly not a book for every reading taste but those of us here who like it for its odd and spirited blend of fancy and humor are convinced that there are fifteen or twenty thousand readers in the country who would enjoy it.”

Set in an ante-bellum rooming house in New Orleans’ French Quarter, The Man Who Carved Women from Wood is itself a bit of a jambalaya. In the space of the first 20-some pages, Geneva Howard, a retired minor opera singer not averse to start Happy Hour at noon, manages to fill up all the rooms in her house with an odd assortment of characters just wandering in off the street.

The title character, Oleg Malin, is an anti-social sculptor who’s come ashore after a spell as a deckhand to work on a new piece. He’s accompanied by his brother, Elia, who spends his time repairing Oriental rugs and looking after Oleg’s moods. There’s a pair of young Cajun newlyweds, a physician working on a book titled, “What To Do After the Doctor Leaves,” a woman who owns a nearby gift shop and who might today be diagnosed with Asperger’s, a spectral man who slips in and out of the house at night (he turns out to be a gambler), and a handful of others. The most mysterious of the lot is Maria Weber, a middle-aged woman of vaguely Continental origin who arrives with a large travelling case that she claims is occupied by her mother, who has not been seen since 1910. The mother screams out whenever someone in the house tells a lie and, we soon learn, tends to wander around the house late at night, taking odd things from the other residents.

Having tossed his ingredients into the pot, White lets them simmer away, occasionally giving a stir, but mostly letting things mingle and mix as they will. Everyone puzzles over the old woman in the box. Most of the women find themselves attracted to the dark and temperamental sculptor. A hurricane comes along to shake things up, but does no permanent damage. Then, perhaps at a loss for how to finish off the dish, White confuses it for some showcase dessert and tries to flambé the whole thing with a couple of spectacular murders.

White once published a sort-of cookbook titled, How I Feed My Friends. In it, he wrote, “Cooking is not a dash of this and a dash of that nor is it using a wooden spoon. Something else it is not, is a jumble of ingredients and seasonings.” This might not have been true of White’s cooking, but it certainly was of his writing, at least in this case. The Man Who Carved Women from Wood is more melange than composition–which is, frankly, more in keeping with the book’s setting. There’s plenty of interesting talk, a fair amount of drinking, and some pretty good eating, mostly courtesy of Geneva’s housekeeper, Leontine, and all the comings and goings of the house. What matters is the atmosphere, not the ambition. After all, it is set in the “Big Easy.”

Max White–the pen-name of Charles William White–wrote about a half-dozen novels between the late 1930s and early 1950s, most of them dealing with artists: some real (In the Blazing Light, about Goya); some fictional (Tiger Tiger, about a modernist painter. He also hung out with the likes of Getrude Stein (to whom The Man Who Carved Women from Wood is dedicated) and Alice B. Toklas (who he once tried to assist with a real autobiography to match Stein’s). At the time The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, it must have seemed a pretty strange and exotic affair, but sixty-some years later, when cut-ups, mash-ups, fusion, and all sorts of other combinations of contrasting ingredients are a dime a dozen, we’re probably better prepared to appreciate it for what it is and not expect a higher purpose as some kind of redemptive reward.

The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, by Max White
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949

Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U. S. edition of "Living Again" by Felix RiesenbergI’ve stocked my nightstand with a selection of books by Felix Riesenberg, whose first novel, P. A. L., I wrote about several months ago. Riesenberg was a professional merchant seaman and civil engineer who took up writing somewhere in his thirties and went on to publish about a half dozen novels and an equal number of non-fiction books before his death in 1939. One might compare him to Joseph Conrad, who also switched from sea captain to writer, but Riesenberg is certainly not in Conrad’s class when it comes to fiction.

Still, I’m intrigued by what drove Riesenberg to make such a dramatic shift in occupations in middle age, and particularly by the fact that, as P. A. L. demonstrates, he took considerable risks in his choice of subjects and approach. Although the majority of his books deal with life and work at sea, none of them seems to follow a predictable path. Riesenberg have not have had the mastery to be fully successful in his artistic ambitions, but he certainly didn’t lack the courage to take risks.

As Riesenberg’s 1937 autobiography, Living Again: An Autobiography, shows, risk taking was ingrained in his character. While still a teenager, he signed into merchant marine service, sailing around Cape Horn in a six-master and working his way up through the ranks, attaining his chief mate license and, later, his chief engineer and master licenses.

Riesenberg served on a wide variety of ships, from schooners to freighters to first-class Atlantic liners. His travels took him from the Far East to the Mediterranean and all over the Atlantic. But even these experiences weren’t enough for him, and in 1905, at the age of 26, he read an article about an expedition being organized by an American journalist, Walter Wellman, to reach the North Pole by dirigible. “The scheme was crazy enough to seem workable,” Riesenberg writes. He paid a call on Wellman, who happened to be in Chicago at the same time as Riesenberg was taking leave at home, and a few days later, received a telegram telling him to report to Tromso, Norway to join the expedition as its navigator.

Walter Wellman's airship, "America"The expedition’s equipment loaded down four schooners, which sailed to Dane’s Island, near Spitsbergen. A base camp was built, including a massive hangar for the dirigible, but things fell behind schedule, the airship’s engines failed spectacularly when tested, and Riesenberg and two other men were left to spend the winter alone while the rest of the team returned to Norway. The next summer, the dirigible was finally completed and Wellman, Riesenberg and another man set off for the North Pole.

Within a few hours, though, they encountered powerful head winds and soon had to make an emergency landing on a glacier. A rescue party located them the next day. Riesenberg departed not long after they made it back to the base camp. “I returned, not a hero, not a bit the wiser–for it took years of contemplation before I was able to even bear the thought of setting down the circumstances of my disappointment.”

Back in New York, he enrolled in the civil engineering program at Columbia University after an uncle offered to help with tuition. He married soon after graduating, and the adventurer soon found himself scraping to stay afloat: “After marriage, things happened to me. I tried to save but could not manage it. Unexpected jobs, royalties and windfalls came to me often in the final minutes before the crack of disaster.” He worked on the construction of massive pipelines bringing water to the city. He worked for the Parks department until kicked out of the job with a change of administrations. He worked as a building inspector, which proved one of his more educational jobs:

Violations, reported by neighbors, policemen, and what not, consisted of fire escapes that were rusting apart, of fire doors unhinged and inoperative, or air shafts too small, of drains leaking, of the many things that can be wrong with any ramshackle structure. The job took me into places nothing else could have opened; no novelist could find a better entree to the steaming and often stinking heart of the bloated, untidy, but exciting city.

Then, in 1917, the sea called him again, and he was asked to take command of the U. S. S. Newport, the floating campus of the New York Nautical School. Riesenberg was both ship captain and college dean. He reveled in the glories of the ship, a sparkling white three-master, one of the last sailing ships built for the U. S. Navy. While the war was going on, the ship was confined to Long Island Sound, but after the Armistice, he was able to take it on a long cruise down to the Caribbean.
A portrait of Felix Riesenberg as Superintendent of the New York Nautical School
Riesenberg left the command in 1919, but returned four years later for another cruise. This time, he took the students on a voyage of thousands of miles, all the way from England to the Canary Islands and the Bahamas. Along the way, they encountered a massive storm that nearly capsized the ship. You can read an account of the cruise by one of the students, A. A. Bombe, online at http://www.sunymaritime.edu/stephenblucelibrary/pdfs/1923%20cruise%20uss%20newport.pdf.

In between and after, he kept moving from job to job–a year as chief engineer for the construction of the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital; somewhat longer editing the Bulletin of the American Bureau of Shipping; and, increasingly, stories and articles for the likes of The Saturday Evening Post. Riesenberg spares little space for his own writing. One novel he dismisses in a sentence as “a rotal flop, a complete and thorough failure.” His 1927 novel, East Side, West Side, though, was a hit and made into a film, one of the last big-budget silents, which earned him a time in Hollywood as a studio writer.

“Felix, why don’t you write a book about your life?” one of his editors asked him in 1935. So Riesenberg packed up his journals and diaries and headed to a small house on the beach near Pensacola. “After seven months on the edge of a warm and reminiscent sea,” however, “the truth came upon me with a feeling of dread–I was a stranger to myself.” Though he managed to set down the account that appears in this book, he confesses at the start that, “I look upon these things as strange occurrences, common, no doubt, to all of us.”

Despite the many colorful episodes and Riesenberg’s strong and direct prose style, however, that odd sense of detachment prevades Living Again and leaves it, in the end, a less than satisfying autobiography. The reader cannot help but get the sense that Riesenberg’s most intense experiences occurred during his early years at sea, and that most of what happened thereafter seemed anticlimactic.

Still, I will carry on with my navigation through Riesenberg’s novels. I just started Endless River, which Robert Leavitt described as, “a torrent that pours through a book—the torrent of Mr. Riesenberg’s thought and comment on life…. It swirls and eddies, formlessly; it gnaws at its restraining backs; it throws up a spray that gleams, now and then, with an unholy phosphorescence. And it tumbles along a burden of flotsam that is the most curiously assorted ever a river bore.” Clearly another example of Felix Riesenberg’s willingness to take risks.

Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg
Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1937

In Search of In Search of Myself, by Hans Natonek

Hans NatonekI came across a review of this book in one of a dozen issues of the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review I found at a garage sale. Having just finished Fritz Schoenberner’s The Inside Story of an Outsider, which recounts the story of a German writer exiled from Nazi Germany who eventually escapes from France and settles in the United States, I was interested in comparing Natonek’s account of similar experiences.

Unfortunately, an exhaustive search of all the sources I know of turned up not a single copy of this book for sale. There are about a dozen copies held in various university and city libraries, but none available through an online source.

So, not being able to read the book for myself, I will make do by reprinting several of the reviews published when In Search of Myself first came out in 1943.

Louis Adamic, in the Saturday Review:

Natonek is that rarest of creatures, a terrific individualist to whom other people’s individualities have as much right to exist as his own. To him, human standardization, the concept of the ‘average man,’ is dangerous. It is only through being what each is meant to be, doing what each can do, that the individual contributes fully to the community….

“My minimum task is to start again from scratch … transform myself, not superficially, but completely, inside and out.”

It is this basic lack of vanity, this grasp of life as function and relationship rather than formula and mold, this perception that communal value accrues through the development of the unique, this acceptance of responsibility toward the group as toward oneself–it is this rare sense of balance that gives the book its richness and deep honesty…

“Tell me how you treat a refugee, and I will diagnose your political and moral health.”

Sober and profound, the book is also witty and imaginative, full of marvelous episodes and sketches: the landlady versus the briefcase locked in the closet; the art dealer driven into gluttony by the idea of Europe’s starving millions; the wonderful old Repairer of Fine Clock and Watches. The sense of fantasy is strong in Natonek’s dreams, and in the episode of the fur peddlers who sat on him when he said he was looking for the Wandering Jew….

Of Hans Natonek’s In Search of Myself, we might say that it records the first impressions of Americans, as observed by an intelligent foreigner during the first years of a questing adjustment. But we have had that before–this is different. The difference lies in the approach. It is that of a sensitive man without means, distinguished at home but unknown here, critical of the “successism” he finds here, stubbornly determined to have no part in it. Sensitized would be a better word, for this well known European writer (Prague his birthplace) has long trained himself to perceive real values in personal and social life and spurn the spurious. Urged to “get busy, forget the past, embrace the new,” and change himself overnight into the mere simulacrum of an American, he refuses. This book contains the reasons, and much besides, in pungent and penetrating comment.

New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, 7 November 1943:

When Hitler burned the books he garnered himself a little heap of gray ashes, but the sparks from that futile fire swirled over Europe and across the seas, kindling the creative fury and eloquence of men and women whose words will long outlive whatever oblivion awaits his ranting. Hans Natonek is one voice in that growing chorus, and In Search of Myself–an impressionistic autobiography, deeply moving in what it says and definitely captivating in its style–he has revealed himself, his reactions and his hopes with candor, detachment and wit. Here is a story that will make every American see his country a little more clearly and teach him to understand a little more profoundly what it represents to those driven out of Europe. At the same time, Mr. Natonek says a few things about this country, and about New York life in particular, which it will do us no harm to hear. He is a man of tact, but he is amused–and his thrusts are to the point.

Mr. Natonek was born in Prague, educated in Vienna and Berlin. He left Paris ahead of the German invaders and reached the United States two years ago. A journalist and writer of fiction, he naturally felt that being an exile did not automatically blot out his vocation, and he describes with gentle irony the desperate attempts which well meaning bureaus and individuals put forth to train him for industry or some line of business. The fact that he preferred the rigors of poverty to the stimulation of the lathe made him a problem, and he rather enjoyed the bewilderment he created.

And so Hans Natonek wandered about this strange city and saw it with fresh and sensitive eyes. There are many pages in this book which sing, and they will bring veteran dwellers of Manhattan refreshment of mind.

If anyone reading this happens to locate a copy of In Search of Myself, please let me know, as I’m still interested in reading it.

In Search of Myself, by Hans Natonek
New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943

In Search of Myself

The Innocents at Cedro: A Memoir of Thorstein Veblen and Some Others, by R. L. Duffus

Cover from first U.S. edition of "The Innocents at Cedro"In 1906, R. L. Duffus and his older brother William started attending Stanford University. Believe it or not, there was a time when tuition at Stanford was so cheap that a young man could work his way through school with the most meagerly-paid jobs. R. L. and his brother needed to work because there was no money in their family. They had come to California with their father to help him recuperate from years of crippling exposure to granite dust in a Vermont quarry.

Not long before starting their second year, they found out that Thorstein Veblen, a professor at Stanford and one of the most influential economists and social critics of the early 20th century, needed a student to keep house for him. His wife had left him, and he’d moved into a run-down cottage at Cedro, a mile or so from the campus. The fact that his wife had left in protest over his philandering was just one aspect of Veblen, who tended to be blunt, rude, vocal in his opinions and not the least interested in social mores, that led the school to show him the door the next year. William Duffus told Veblen that he’d have to accept R. L. and their father as part of the deal, the three working for one salary. Veblen, who clearly tolerated a good deal of mess and disorder in his life, accepted. “He could have managed with about two-fifths of a student,” R. L. reflects.

R. L. Duffus at Stanford in 1908The Innocents at Cedro is R. L.’s memoir of the year they spent living and working at Veblen’s cottage. Despite the subtitle, though, the book is less about Veblen and more about how a couple of naive young men both learned a little of the ways of the world and managed to keep a sense of wonder about things.

What makes the book worth rediscovering, though, is not the story but Duffus’ way of telling it. Writing as World War Two was filling the papers with news of battles and casualties, Duffus appreciates the gentleness of the world and people he encountered nearly forty years earlier. But he also acknowledges that he remembers best the things that interested him at the time. Veblen was just some professor they worked for and who had some reputation for being a great thinker. And so, he admits, “most of what Veblen said to us is gone forever…. We were not Boswells.”

One thing R. L. did remember, however, from occasionally copying out Veblen’s lecture notes, was that his footnotes “sometimes ran to great lengths, and were very impressive.” “I have been fond of notes ever since. This is why there are so many of them in this book,” R. L. remarks in his own footnote to the first statement. The footnotes are, in many ways, the best part of the book. Duffus shares a little of Tristram Shandy in him. Throughout the book, he wanders off the narrative path to insert some observation into a wry and self-mocking footnote.

“Cedro Cottage also had an indefinite number of cats,” he recalls at one point, foot-noting this with the following:

My brother doubts the statement. He thinks the cats could easily have been counted and were therefore not indefinite in number. But it seems to me that they were numerous enough to be difficult to count, especially as some of them were always coming and going, and, the climate being mild, were not kept indoors at night. They had lives of their own, which intersected ours at only a few points. They were busy and preoccupied and, except for the yellow tom, didn’t give a damn about anything.

A couple of horses and a yard full of chickens also lived at the Cottage. This was also a time when most people got around by horse or bicycle, which kept the pace of life much slower than during the automobile age when R. L. wrote the book. Although, like many people at the time, R. L. and William had been raised around animals, in memory he recalls the animals as generally smarter and more practical than any of the people living there.

R. L. and William were both idealists. They were at an age and time when people–young men in particular–latched onto theories–sound, unproved and crackpot alike–and let them drive their lives. “William said he intended to devote his life to abolishing poverty,” R. L. writes, then notes at the bottom of the page, “He believes the idea was sound, and is sorry that the best he has been able to do to date is to keep himself and his family just above the hunger line.”

He also recalls a batch of his fellow students who adopted an early form of veganism:

I knew some young men who lived in Encina Hall, the men’s dormitory on the campus, subsisting for prolonged periods on nuts, dates, figs and other uncooked foods. These young men grew quite thin and would, I think, have disappeared entirely if they hadn’t occasionally been invited out to dinner. A few of them experimented with fasting for several days at a time. They grew soulful and some of them even broke into poetry. At Stanford in those days some people would try almost anything once.

“I wonder if this is the case today,” he muses.

In the course of the year at Cedro, R. L. and William’s father dies, passing quietly. Harry George, a consumptive self-taught radical and early member of the I. W. W., joins them at the cottage, and takes on the job of setting the boys straight about philosophy, capitalism and sex. An attractive young woman comes to the cottage, puts them in awe, and stays the night. When William later asks about Veblen about his niece, the Professor fixes him “with a cold and tranquil eye. ‘She is not my niece,’ he said.”

“And that was that,” R. L. concludes.

Although The Innocents at Cedro has been reissued as an economics classic, it is nothing more than a gentle and funny book that provides several hours of very pleasant and enjoyable reading. R. L. Duffus, who spent most of his life as a newspaper reporter before turning to writing novels in his fifties, made no great claims for what he was doing–which is probably why it turned out so well.

Other Reviews

  • “Duffus’ first and reluctant venture into autobiography held –for me — far greater quality than anything else he has written.”–Kirkus Reviews
  • “The book is not as deep as a very deep well and is not intended to be, but it is quite as refreshing as a spring, clear and bubbly.”–Phil Stong, Saturday Review
  • “What we were about to say of The Innocents at Cedro, by R. L. Duffus, is that it is not only delightful reading, by virtue of style and wit, but it will stand a lot of thinking over…. It is a genuine literary achievement to have made one rather irregular household, in a California small town, so fully representative of a period and a whole nation–like a view through a camera aperture.”–Isabel Paterson in her “Turns with a Bookworm” column in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review

  • “A truly charming slide of autobiography of a year, 1907-1908, at Cedro Cottage, near Stanford University. Mr Duffus spent the year living in the household of Thorstein Veblen, of whom he has a great deal to say. But the book has value beyond that: it digs deeply into the heart of an idealistic youth of nineteen and into an era when America itself was going though adolescent pains.”–The American Mercury

The Innocents at Cedro, by R. L. Duffus
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944

Burton Rascoe on Neglected Books, from The American Mercury, August 1940

Source: http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury-1940aug-00495

California conservative and entrepeneur Ron Unz has set up a website, unz.org, with PDF versions of articles from over 100 American periodicals from the 20th century, ranging from The Abolitionist, a mimeographed newsheet from the Rutgers Libertarian Alliance, to Yank, the U. S. Army’s magazine from World War Two. Of particular interest to book fans are complete records of magazines such as The American Mercury, The Literary Digest, and The Saturday Review, which are rich in reviews, articles and ads about books from the past. Although the site’s interface is very HTML 1.0-ish and pages can only be downloaded and printed individually, a stroll through almost any issue will produce at least one long-forgotten title worth investigating.

One article that caught my eye, naturally, was “Neglected Books,” written by Burton Rascoe, an influential editor and critic of the first half of the century, published in the August 1940 issue of H. L. Mencken’s magazine, The American Mercury. Rascoe’s intention was “to call attention to a few books published within the last eighteen months which are literary works of outstanding merit and deserving of a wide and appreciative audience, but which, because of the many imponderables of book publishing, not only failed to catch on with the wide reading public but reached such a small number of book buyers, in some instances, as to be downright calamities to both author and publisher.” In other words, these are books that went straight from press to neglect without passing “Go.”

Of the eight titles discussed, half are back in print now. The Rockville, Maryland-based Wildside Press, which has brought almost all of James Branch Cabell’s books, including Hamlet Had an Uncle, back into circulation. Thanks to the strong support of university presses for the works of regional writer of the past, the novels of James Still, including River Of Earth, are available from the University Press of Kentucky . As is E. C. Abbott’s cattle-drive memoir, We Pointed Them North, which the University of Oklahoma Press has kept in print since 1976. And the University of Ohio’s Swallow Press offers not only Frank Waters’ The Dust Within the Rock but twenty others, including his best-known novel, The Man Who Killed The Deer.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "Hamlet Had an Uncle"

Hamlet Had an Uncle, by James Branch Cabell

“Urbane, brilliant and beautiful treatment of the Hamlet legend, in which Cabell adheres more closely to the earliest historical account, the Danish history of Saxo-Grammaticus, than did Shakespeare. As with all of Cabell’s novels, it is an analogue of happenings in our own time–in this instance, it is an analogue of the rise of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.”

Sun and Storm, by Unto Seppänen

“A Finnish peer of Knut Hamsun’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, Growth of the Soil. One of the most powerful, realistic novels in modern literature.” Kirkus Reviews described it as a historical novel that recounts “the emergence of Finland from vassal statehood to independence, the growth of the peasantry to power” as experienced by one family. In The Saturday Review, Agnes Rothery–a prolific travel writer of the time–wrote, “This is a book of exceptional merit. It possesses every ingredient required to make a first-class novel: a romantic setting of a remote and little known country, a powerful theme of an ambition peasant dominating successive generations of the family he founded, and a plot which is concerned with the century-long struggle of Finland against her tyrant, Russia.” Seppänen’s work has been so utterly forgotten that he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia listing in any language but his own.

River Of Earth, by James Still

“This young novelist has such a mature and original style, such an acute sense of character and effective dialogue that he bids fair to become one of our most widely read and highly praised creators of imaginative literature.” Still, who lived most of his life in a cabin in the hills of eastern Kentucky in which this and his other books were set. A documentary on the book and Still’s life produced by Kentucky Educational Television can be viewed online at http://www.ket.org/cgi-bin/cheetah/watch_video.pl?nola=KJSRE_000000&template=_itv. You can also read an appreciative essay on the book, written by Jerry Salyer in 2009, on the Front Porch Republic website.

Cover of first U. S. edition of "The Last Hunt"

The Last Hunt, by Maurice Genevoix

“This is a delicately beautiful woodland story of the understanding and affection between a huntsman and a deer, which somehow makes the reader recall W. H. Hudson, Felix Salten and the legends of St. Francis of Assisi.” Rascoe also compares it to the works of a frequent American Mercury contributor, Alan Devoe. Devoe published a half-dozen or so books on animals, birding, and country life and is remembered now by the Alan Devoe Bird Club of Columbia County, New York.

We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, by E. C. Abbott and Helen Huntington Smith

“The recollections of ‘Teddy Blue’ Abbott, a Texas and Montana cowpuncher of the seventies and eighties, who rode here up the Long Trail four times, knew Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane, gamblers, cattle thieves, Indians, dead-shots, man-hunting marshals, and, above all, the plains and mountains, peoples and customs, songs and legends of the country. It is inconceivable that this book shouldn’t delight the millions who read cowboy fiction and love the Hollywood ‘horse-operas’….”

O Canaan!, by Waters E. Turpin

“Here is the intensely moving and significant story of the migration North of a group of Negro farm-hands in response to the industrial demand for labor in 1916 (a year in which rains and the boll weevil devastated the cotton crop of the South), and of their several maladjustments to the new environment, a new way of living, a new kind of social antagonism and, worse perhaps, a sudden (if not long-lived) acquaintance with wealth in the form of daily wages in excess of what they would earn in a month in the South.” O Canaan! is now so rare that Amazon has no listings and the only copy I could find available for sale online has a price tag of $295.

Dust Within the Rock, by Frank Waters

“The third volume of a notable trilogy of three generations in the mining regions of Cripple Creek and during the rise of Denver and Colorado Springs; but a novel complete in itself.” A more skeptical critic, writing for Kirkus Reviews, concluded that, “As a picture of a family gone to seed, keeping the surface veneer of aristocracy, and of March Cable, symbolizing his generation as a sort of rebirth of the frontier spirit, it does not quite come off.” The preceding novels in the trilogy are Wild Earth’s Nobility and Below Grass Roots. In 1971, Waters compiled the novels into a single volume, Pikes Peak: A Mining Saga.

Cover of first U. S. edition of "Jubal Troop"

Jubal Troop, by Paul Wellman

“A thrilling, well-documented and deeply felt novel of the trans-Mississippi immigration into Texas and Oklahoma when the prairies were first attracting settlers and the cattle industry of the plains was just developing.” Ironically, of all these books, Jubal Troop fared the best for its first thirty-some years, staying in print through four or five paperback editions, and being made into a film (Jubal) starring Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine and a remarkable supporting cast (Rod Steiger, Charles Bronson, Jack Elam, Felicia Farr). The director, Delmer Daves, recast the story into a Western version of “Othello”–which earned it a reputation as one of the first “adult” Westerns.

“In each case no doubt,” Rascoe concludes after a consideration of the rationale behind the failure of Cabell’s novel, “there are good and plausible explanations for undeserved neglect. Which is no consolation to author and publisher. Worse than that, the neglect is a real loss to the reading public.”

Amen, brother!

Gems from the Internet Archives, courtesy of the University of Florida

From time to time, I go panning in the ever-widening stream of electronic texts in the Internet Archive. It takes a certain amount of strategy, as there are probably a hundred or a thousand more statistical reports (The Fats and Oils Situation for November 1945, anyone?), court reports, NASA test reports, government reports (e.g., Annual Report Of The Archaeological Survey Of India 1924-1925), and texts in languages I’ll never learn to read (警世通言(十三) might be terrific–what could I be missing?) for every book possibly worth considering.

Sometimes, though, I manage to stumble onto a vein of high-quality material. Today’s find was a collection of several hundred books from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s scanned and uploaded to the archive courtesy of the George A. Smathers Libraries of the University of Florida, with the help of Lyrasis and the Sloan Foundation. I’ve had to accept that I will never manage to read everything I’ve discovered so far, let alone what remains to be found, so I can only offer the following as possibilities for others to try:

Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand (1954)

Now this one I actually own and have sampled from. It’s a collection of short stories and non-fiction articles Marquand published after becoming a professional writer in the 1920s. For me, the most interesting material can be found in the middle section, “The Wars: Men and Places,” which contains both stories and articles drawing on Marquand’s experiences of serving in the Army during World War One and of traveling as a reporter to the Pacific theater during World War Two. The Smathers Libraries have also uploaded Marquand’s Melville Goodwin, U. S. A. and H. M. Pulham, Esq.–the latter, in my opinion, his best novel.

More in Sorrow, by Wolcott Gibbs (1958)

Another collection, this one from a contemporary of Marquand’s. Gibbs was a member of the New Yorker staff for thirty years, contributing more words to the magazine than any other writer during that time. As Thomas Vinciguerra, who edited Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker put it in an article for the Weekly Standard, Gibbs “turned out trenchant fact pieces, cutting yet perceptive criticism, finely wrought short stories, and hilarious vignettes.” More in Sorrow opens with his most famous piece, “Time … Fortune … Life … Luce,” which appeared in 1936 and parodied the awkward prose style favored in Henry Luce’s magazines. Vinciguerra took his title from the line, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which appears in the piece.

Touch of Nutmeg, and More Unlikely Stories, by John Collier (1943)

Collier keeps being rediscovered every twenty years or so. His stories combine horror, black comedy, and pure eccentricity in a way that no one, aside from Roald Dahl, has managed to equal. Many of these stories can be found in Fancies and Goodnights, which was reissued as a New York Review Classic, with an introduction by the late Ray Bradbury, back in 2003. If you’re debating buying that volume, I encourage you to try this free sampler. I warn you, though: it’s like taking just one potato chip.

The Boat, by L. P. Hartley

Hartley is sometimes described as Henry James’ closest successor–a writer of fine-grained and subtle psychological observations. His Eustace and Hilda trilogy goes in and out of print–and is back now, again thanks to the New York Review Classics. But The Boat, which deals with the experiences of an English writer forced by the outbreak of World War Two to return to rural England after years of living in Venice, was his personal favorite. One critic has called it “the nearest thing to a great novel I can discern in the post-war years.”

The Big Laugh, by John O’Hara

This was O’Hara’s big Hollywood novel, and, as with any of his novels, a big step down from his stories. It’s too long, too loud, and too melodramatic–but you can also count of plenty of great dialogue (O’Hara is one of the great dialogue writers of all time). This was good enough to be one of the last books reissued by Ecco Press before they were taken over by Harper Collins in 1999, so it can’t be all bad.

Get away from me with those Christmas gifts, and other reactions, by Sylvia Wright

From a quick glance, this collection of satiric pieces from the mid-1950s looks a bit like Erma Bombeck channelling Dorothy Parker. Kirkus Reviews described it as, “salty and astringent observations on Life’s little lunacies.” For soccer moms with a taste for dry martinis, perhaps.

Eye in the Sky, by Louis Grudin

A readable collection of pieces combining prose and poetry, recounting the life of Manhattan in the course of a winter somewhere in the 1950s. Looks pretty interesting if, like me, you’re a fan of New York books. Grudin’s style is lively and spiced with street chatter, as in this, from “Another Beggar,” where a man recalls running into a street character he can’t stand:

On Broadway in the forties, all dressed up like Monsieur in a temps perdu. Was he cherchezing on that honkytonk street, that island of ginmills for the sailor boys? What was he doing there when he popped out of the darkness as Myrtle and I turned into the wind, hurrying from the show? Still following me! (as we edged away and walked on) and hurled that parting insult.

The Armchair Esquire, Esquire’s First Sports Reader, and Esquire’s Second Sports Reader

Three anthologies taken from the pages of Esquire, which in its day was a bit like Playboy without the photo spreads–the magazine for the midcentury metrosexual. The first is a best-of sampler from the 1930s through the 1950s; the second is a collection of non-fiction sports articles; and the third a collection of short stories on sporting themes. Lots of well-known names such as James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, Bellow, Waugh, Algren. The first includes Arthur Miller’s story, “The Misfits,” which was later made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable that is probably better remembered for its making than its merits.

A Name for Evil, The Velvet Horn, and A Novel, A Novella and Four Stories, by Andrew Lytle

Lytle was one of the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers that included Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. They fought against the prevailing prejudices that stereotyped the South as a place of backwardness and cultural stagnation. The Velvet Horn was nominated for the National Book Award in 1957 and is considered his best novel. It’s out of print now, even though several others he wrote are still available in J. S. Sanders’ Southern Classic Series.

The Sin of the Prophet, by Truman Nelson

According to the Kirkus Review, this novel is, “A handsomely panoplied, fictionalized reconstruction of one of the most sensational fugitive slave trials in which the Massachusetts Abolitionists were involved before the Civil War, and a full-blooded, shade-more-than-life-size portrait of the thunderous Boston clergyman, Theodore Parker.” Nelson was a life-long liberal advocate whose books often dealt with the issue of race in American history. A later novel, The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, was reissued a few years ago by Haymarket Press.

The Fly and the Fly-Bottle, by Ved Mehta (1962)

A collection of pieces–also from a long-time New Yorker contributor–about contemporary (as in 1962) British intellectuals. I must confess that I read this years ago, when I was on a Wittgenstein streak inspired by Ray Monk’s superb biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. (I must digress for a moment to quote a line from Monk’s book that I often think sums up my own predicament. Discussing an acquaintance named Barry Pink, Wittgenstein remarked, “Pink wants to sit on six stools at one, but he only has one arse”). The Fly and the Fly-Bottle takes its title from a statement in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “What is your aim in Philosophy?” “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” I found the book–as well as a succeeding collection, The New Theologian (1965), fascinating, but I suspect it may sit in a disrespected no-man’s land–neither a work of philosopher nor a purely entertaining collection of profiles. But if you’re the type who enjoys TED talks, I’d give it a try.

Hour, by Bernard de Voto

This short book, a light-hearted review of the place of alcohol in American history and in any civilized life, was recently reissued with an added subtitle as The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto with a preface by Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket).

Lilly’s Story, by Ethel Wilson

  • Educated in seething back alleys
  • Abandoned by worthless parents

  • Waitress by day and lost woman by night

You gotta love ever-reliable smarminess of the guys who used to come up with the cover blurbs for old paperbacks. These lines are on the back of the copy of Lilly’s Story that I picked off the dollar cart sitting outside Magus Books while in Seattle last month.

Yes, at the start of the book, Lilly Waller is a waitress. But the rest is baseless or mostly baseless.

Well, whatever it takes to get the keisters in the seats–or the books into the hands of the keister owners.

In reality, Lilly’s Story is sensitive character study written by Ethel Wilson, a Canadian writer who didn’t publish her first book until she was almost 60, and for whom an annual prize for best work of fiction written in British Columbia is named. The story pivots on a single decision, made by a young, scared and extremely naive woman, that leads her to live most of her life in suspicion and fear.

From the battered condition of the paperback and its lurid cover and blurb, I didn’t expect much, so it was a pleasant surprise to find the writing so simple yet subtle. Most of the story takes place around the turn of the 20th century, when Victorian manners constrained people to dealing with such things as a child born out of wedlock tangentially. Lilly herself–a rather stupid, if hard-working girl–only makes matters worse by her own ignorance of others’ perspectives and meanings. Throughout the book, she often takes extreme decisions in response to the slightest indications of trouble.

As a character study, Lilly’s Story is well served by the short novel form. A full length novel could only have been achieved through liberal use of padding or extraneous detours into the lives and minds of other characters–something that would have been unfathomable given Lilly’s state of bewilderment when it came to understanding much of what was going on around her. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t quite short enough, and whether to pad out the story or to satisfy the public with a happy ending, Wilson stapled onto her fine sketch an implausible outcome completely contrary to the instincts reflected in Lilly’s choice throughout the preceding 30+ years.

My copy is too battered to provide a good scan of the cover, so I’ve used one of a more proper and serious paperback edition for this post. You can find the garish version at Consumed and Judged, which reviewed the book late last year. Lilly’s Story was later paired with another short novel, “Tuesday and Wednesday,” and published as The Equations of Love.

Most of Wilson’s books were reissued about 20 years ago as part of the New Canadian Library series, but it appears none of them is still in print, according to Amazon. However, Persephone Books, which reissued her first novel, Hetty Dorval, back in 2005, still reports that it has copies for sale.

Lilly’s Story, by Ethel Wilson
New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952

Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay

Cover of 1968 reissue of "Personal Pleasures"
Forty-some years before Ian Dury recorded his shopping-list song, “Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3,”, listing fifty-some sources of everyday delights–from “some of Buddy Holly” to “saying ‘Okey-dokey'”–Rose Macaulay came up with her own list. Roughly equal in number, but a little longer (well, at 395 pages, quite a bit longer) in explication, Personal Pleasures is, like Dury’s tune, a wonderful reason to be cheerful on its own.

Just a glance at the table of contents will prove it: “Arm-Chair” is the third entry, followed two later by “Bakery in the Night,” and two more by “Bed,” which is further broken down into “1. Getting into it” and “2. Not getting out of it.”

Now this is a woman who had her priorities straight.

“The great and recurrent question about Abroad is, is it worth the trouble of getting there?” she observes at the start of the first piece in the book. “Do tickets, passports, money, traveller’s cheques, packing, reservations, boat trains, inns, crouch and snarl before you like those surly dragons that guard enchanted lands?” To which today’s traveler can add, “Security checks, airline seats, airline food, and featherweight plastic cups instead of proper glasses in the hotel bathroom.”

Dame (Emilie) Rose Macaulay, copy by Elliott & Fry,  - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, LondonOf course, Macaulay answers. All it take, she–a fine product of a Victorian childhood–advises, is “A little firmness, a nice mingling of industry, negligence and guile.”

Some of the pleasures are very much of a particular time and place. “Candlemas” and “Turtles in Hyde Park” may be a bit too dated to register with today’s readers. And will anyone ever again list “Flying” as a pleasure? Well, to be fair, Macaulay’s flying was as the passenger in a Klemm two-seater, helmeted and goggled against the elements in an open cockpit, which is something few of us will have a chance to experience but most would agree would have been a thrill. “Driving a Car” was also more of an adventure in the days before freeways and traffic lights.

Most of her choices, however, are timeless. If there comes a day when there is nothing to enjoy about “Eating and Drinking,” “Hot Bath,” “Listening In,” or”Taking Umbrage,” then I suspect it’ll be because books like Personal Pleasures are being hauled off the shelves and tossed onto bonfires again.

One could almost argue that Personal Pleasures is almost a textbook on how to enjoy life. Who knew that “Departure of Visitors” hid within itself a little goldmine of delight?

The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand. “I am afraid the room is rather littered….” The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.

Personal Pleasures has been in and out of print several times over the decades. It is currently out of print, but Bloomsbury Publishing will be releasing a Kindle edition this month. And it’s certainly one book worth having just the touch of a button away, as you’re more likely to dip into it from time to time than to read it straight from cover to cover–which would be a bit like eating nothing but cake for a week.

And as a good child of Victoria, Macaulay is quick to caution that all pleasures exist only when there is something against which they can be measured:

But how true it is that every pleasure has also its reverse side, in brief, its pain. Or, if not wholly true, how nearly so. Therefore, I have added to most of my pleasures the little flavour of bitterness, the flaw in their perfection, the canker in the damask, the worm at the root, the fear of loss, or of satiety, the fearful risks involved in their very existence, which tang their sweetness, and mind us of their mortality and of our own, and that nothing in this world is perfect.

Or, to paraphrase Mary Poppins: a spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down.

Macaulay wrote most of these essays as she was assembling The Minor Pleasures of Life, a compilation of poems, essays, and assorted bits of prose by other writers on many of the same pleasures and more. Quite a bit more, in fact, over 300 pages more. Most of the pieces are less than a page long, which makes Minor Pleasures a perfect bathroom book, if such things have any appeal for you. And no matter where you happen to keep your copy, it’s nice to know you can dip into it and find little gems like Henry More’s remarks on the pleasure of having “A Coach to One’s Self”:

I hired a whole Coache to my selfe which cost me, but it was the best bestowed money . . . that ever I layd out, for the ayre being cool and fresh, and the coach to be opened before as well as on the sydes, I quaff’ d off whole coachfulls of fresh ayr, without the pollution or the interruption of the talk of any person.

And, if you prefer the electronic version, you can find Minor Pleasures available for free downloading at the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/minorpleasuresof029963mbp.

Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay
London: The Macmillan Company, 1936

Joseph Weiner recommends Mary Lee Settle’s “O Beulah Land” Quintet

Reader Joseph Weiner writes to recommend Mary Lee Settle’s five-novel series, “O Beulah Land,” which covered the roots, history, and lives of some families in West Virginia. “She’s long been a very under-appreciated writer,” he comments–which is certainly true.

Mary Lee Settle, 2003Settle had a pretty remarkable life before she took up writing: born and raised in West Virginia coal-mining country, she worked as a model and actress, and even auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. She married an Englishman, bore a child, and, when World War Two broke out, joined the Royal Women’s Auxiliary Air Force–in part as a way out of the marriage. It was an experience she later recounted in All the Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391. She was 36 before her first novel, The Love Eaters, was published.

Settle went on to write over twenty books in the course of a fifty year career; the last, Spanish Recognitions: The Road from the Past, a combination travelogue and memoir based on a trip she took to Spain when she was 82.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "O Beulah Land"Her best-known work is the “O Beulah Land” quintet–although I think it would be more accurate to call them five interconnected novels. The work had a structure that emerged slowly and somewhat haphazardly. The first book to be published–but the second book in terms of the overall story’s chronology–O Beulah Land (1955) was set in a fictional version of Charleston, West Virginia (then, of course, just part of the Virginia colony) during the American Revolution. The next year, she published Know Nothing, which eventually became the third installment of the story. Know Nothing shifted to the west of Charleston and forward in time to the 1850s, when divisions over slavery laid the roots for the decision to separate from the South and join the Union as the new state of West Virginia.

Then, in 1964, she published the last book in the trilogy: Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday.

I told you the structure emerged slowly and haphazardly.

Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday was Settle’s shortest novel, and she was never happy with editorial cuts she had to accept to please Viking, her publisher. But it’s also clear that she was still coming to understand the story she wanted to tell, for nine years later, she published Prisons, which takes the story a great leap backward in time and space: from western Virginia in American Revolution to England in the time of Cromwell and the Civil War. Prisons is now considered the first book in the quintet.

Seven years later, she published The Scapegoat, which is based on the “Paint Creek Mine War,” a 1912 strike that was organized by Mother Jones. Finally, in 1982, she published The Killing Ground, which returns to Canona–her fictional Charleston–in the 1960s and 1970s. The Killing Ground is, effectively, an “author’s cut” version of Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday–and, like director’s cuts in film, much longer than the first release.

And, oh by the way, between Prisons and The Scapegoat, she also published Blood Tie, a novel set among the expat community in Turkey (where Settle lived for some years), which won the 1978 National Book Award for fiction.

Settle’s work does not really meet my own standards for a neglected book. It’s critical reputation is solid, if still marginalized. One academic study has been published–Brian C. Rosenberg’s Mary Lee Settle’s Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom (1991), and the series, along with most of her major works, is available from the University of South Carolina Press as the Mary Lee Settle Collection. The USC Press has also released a critical overview of her work, Understanding Mary Lee Settle, written by a novelist himself often mentioned as a neglected master: George Garrett.

I would not be fully honest, though, if I didn’t admit that I’ve never managed to get past about page 40 of any of Settle’s books, aside from All the Brave Promises. I’m not sure she was always well served by her editors. If, as Settle felt, Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday was cut back too far, there are also a few of her books that cried out for a thick blue pencil. Of Prisons, Kirkus Reviews observed that, “The book is filled with endless religious conversations revolving around freedom of conscience, all in the Puritan idiom of the middle 17th century–not exactly the most enlivening discourse in the world”–although it acknowledged that this might be a “necessarily tedious effort” –not exactly the most enthusiastic endorsement of a book, either. Reviewing The Killing Ground in the New York Times back in 1982, Aaron Latham argued that Settle should “sift out the slag and reduce her ‘Beulah Quintet’ to a single long novel.”

However, with a sum total of zero books to my name, I feel most ungracious to an author with such a large and diverse oeuvre to end with such comments. Mary Lee Settle was driving around rural Spain by herself, packing a laptop, a rich understanding of history and culture, and a burning curiosity when she was 82 years old. I hope I’ll have the same kind of moxie if I make it that far. So I will close with a few lines from her foreword to The Killing Ground: “All I knew and always have known, is that once I have asked the question ‘why?’ of an image, I cannot let it go until it blesses me. It is the way all my work has been done, and will be. Even at the end, like the annoying child within, I will keep on asking why.”

Michael Dirda on “Out of Print” books

Michael DirdaPatrick Kurp brought my attention to a posting in Michael Dirda’s column/blog on the website for The American Scholar, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa. In “Out of Print,” posted in early August, Dirda writes, “These days I gravitate increasingly to books almost no one else has heard of, let alone is interested in, books that are odd and quirky and usually out of print.” He also remarks that, “I’ve also come to feel that if I don’t write about a book—in a review or essay—then I haven’t actually read it”–a feeling I have come to share since starting this site. I encourage any fan of lost books to check out the post: mentions over 25 different titles, most of them obscure and hard to find, a few darned near impossible to find. Personally, I’m now on permanent lookout for the novels of Claude Farrère.

Dirda–like his former Washington Post colleague Jonathan Yardley–has long been an enthusiast for odd and little-known books. You can find more than a few overlooked gems in each of his collections of essays, particularly in Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, first published in 2000 and still in print. But, he notes, “Most literary publications don’t publish essays—no matter how enthusiastic—about fiction or nonfiction that is out of print or otherwise unavailable.” “What can you do?,” he asks?

Well, Mr. Dirda, you have a standing offer here. The pay is poor, the audience tiny, but the karma boost is to die for.

Alexander Saxton, historian and novelist, dies at age 93

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Grand Crossing'The New York Times yesterday published the obituary of Alexander Saxton, a radical historian and novelist. Although Saxton published a number of well-regarded works of history after earning his PhD at the age of 43, he first came to critical attention when he published his first novel, Grand Crossing, in 1943. Though only 24 at the time, Saxton had already lived a varied life. He attended Harvard and the University of Chicago, and then dropped out to take on work he felt more directly useful to the world. He got a job as the brakeman on a railroad crew and began writing a column for the Daily Worker.

Although Grand Crossing had its share of a young man’s pontifications, the book was bold, ambitious in scope, and full of energy conveyed, in part, by the title of its French translation: “Chicago-Triage.” As a fan of great big Chicago novels like The Death of the Detective, I picked it up recently and it’s been sitting in my “to read” stack. I certainly must read it now.

Alexander Saxton, 1948Saxton’s most-acclaimed novel, though, was The Great Midland, which he published in 1948. Midland is even more ambitious in its scope, covering thirty years in the lives of a man and woman deeply involved in the labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The University of Illinois Press reissued the book in 1997 as part of its “Radical Novel Reconsidered” series.

Saxton’s last novel, published in 1958, Bright Web in the Darkness, was somewhat shorter than the other two, and more mature in both perspective and structure. It dealt with the experiences and relationship of two women–one white, one black–who meet while training to become welders in a defense plant in World War Two. Bright Web in the Darkness was reissued in 1997 by the University of California Press as part of its excellent “California Fiction” series.

In reviewing the reissue of The Great Midland, one writer noted that, “the novel’s exposition is at times flattened out by the writer’s documentary calling.” Other critics observed that few of the characters in Grand Crossing were more than symbols or stereotypes. It may be no surprise, then, that Saxton found his natural voice more as a historian than a writer of fiction. In an email interview conducted just two years before his death, Saxton commented, “The novel claims only a brief span in human culture and may not continue to play a key role.” Still, one may fairly claim that Alexander Saxton’s three novels merit being written of and studied every bit as much as those of his better-known contemporaries such as Nelson Algren and John Dos Passos.

Events Leading Up to the Comedy, by Elliott Nugent

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'Events Leading Up to the Comedy'The first half of Elliott Nugent’s memoir, Events Leading Up to the Comedy, is pretty forgettable. Nugent, a classmate of James Thurber at Ohio State University, is probably best known for The Male Animal, the play he co-wrote with Thurber. The son of two professional actors, Nugent first hits the boards at the age of eight, and after his graduation from college, became an actor himself.

He soon expanded into writing, and quickly gained a hit on Broadway with Kempy, in which he co-starred with his father and sister. He married a fellow player, Norma Lee, and became a producer and director as well.

In 1929, MGM picked up an option to use him in their movies, and his first starring role was in “Wise Girls,” the film version of Kempy. Then, starting with “The Mouthpiece” in 1932, he became a film director as well. He went on to play in over twenty movies and direct over thirty–few of them much remembered today, however.
Elliott Nugent, 1947
Despite its rich potential for anecdotes, though, Nugent relates his story in an uninspired, “this happened, and then this happened” manner that would have led me to set the book aside after a few chapters had there not been a promise of something remarkable to come.

That something is an account of his battle with an illness he never actually labels, but which has all the signs of manic depression. Starting in the mid-1940s, Nugent’s pace of activities reached a frenzy. At one point, he watched in make-up the opening act of a play he was producing, then cut across the alley and took his first entrance in another play he was performing in. Aggravated by too much drinking and too little sleep, his few reserves of patience and perspective were exhausted and he began acting erratically.

He would go for days on end from work to parties to spur-of-the-moment trips, spending wildly, accosting strangers, and launching into angry tirades against long-standing friends. Then, days later, he found himself toying with the idea of suicide:

I scribbled a note to Norma, shoved it deep in a trouser pocket, got in my car, and drove to the Roosevelt Hotel. I remembered a certain fire escape on the tenth floor and in the back of the building, near the room my father used to occupy.

I checked my hat and coat downstairs, then rode up in the elevator, nodding to the operator as if I were one of the guests in the hotel. I pulled open the hall door to the fire-escape door, went outside, and closed it, then peered over the railing to the alley ten stories below. Instead of climbing the railing, I lighted a cigarette and sat on the railing, experimentally teetering a bit. In another moment, I might have toppled over backward, but the door opened and a stranger emerged. He gave me a curious look.

“It’s getting colder,” I said casually. “I don’t think I’ll stay out here very long.”

I offered the man a cigarette, bu he refused and went inside. I imagined that he could see me through the Venetian blinds of my father’s old room. Abruptly I rose and went downstairs, almost without thinking or making any decision.

Nugent’s behavior reached a point where his wife resorted to having him committed to a Connecticut mental hospital known as the Institute of the Living. There, he was subjected to most the known treatments of the day short of electric shock: drugs, wrapping in cold towels, spending nights in tepid baths, and insulin shock. The latter finally brought him to a level of self-control that convinced his wife and psychiatrist to release him.

Within months, however, he was back on a high. This time, he headed off on a cross-country tear that landed him in jails in Palm Springs and Hollywood and nearly got him drowned in riptides off Acapulco. His wife finally tracked him down after he returned to New York and checked into four different hotels under four different names–all in the course of one day. This time, he was sent to Bellevue Hospital and then a reputable facility upstate.

Nugent’s account of his bouts of manic depression reminded me very much of those of Washington Post publisher Phil Graham–as seen from the perspective of his wife, Katharine, in her memoir, Personal History. Except that Nugent survived where Graham took his life. Both men’s illness was ineptly treated, though they had access to the best care available, and endured by their bewildered family and friends.

Written in 1965, nearly twenty years after the start of Nugent’s illness, Events Leading Up to the Comedy comes to a rather abrupt end. Aside from the need to “try to forgive myself,” Nugent takes no great lesson from his experiences.

Perhaps, as a writer of light, comedic plays, Nugent lacked the darkness of imagination to really convey the terrors of his depressions. The passage above, for example, is utterly matter-of-fact–no different in tone, really, from that of the rest of the book. And so, in the end, Events Leading Up to the Comedy amounts to an interesting but not particularly moving account of mental illness.

Nugent, whose stage and film career ended by the late 1950s, wrote one other book after this memoir. Of Cheat and Charmer tells of the end of a Hollywood film director on a bout of drinking and fighting and womanizing that must draw heavily on Nugent’s own adventures while on manic highs. Nugent died in New York City in 1980.

Events Leading Up to the Comedy, by Elliott Nugent
New York City: Trident Press, 1965

There’s One in Every Town, by James Aswell

Cover of 1952 Signet paperback edition of 'There's One in Every Town'
Cover of 1952 Signet paperback edition of "There's One in Every Town"

“Completing engrossing on every page,” proclaims a plug by Erskine Caldwell on the cover of the Signet paperback edition of James Aswell’s short novel, There’s One in Every Town (1951). It appears beneath a James Avati cover featuring a wary brunette in a Carmen blouse (is there any other kind in a James Avati cover?). So we know we’re in Tobacco Road country, where beautiful white trash girls have a Viagra-like effect on all the men in town. Not surprisingly, as Aswell was an old college classmate of Caldwell.

In this particular instance, Jackie Vose (nee Cvasek) gets a reputation as a fast girl, but a few men believe her to be an angel at the core. One is her neighbor, who narrates the story, and the other the town’s doctor. The doctor eventually falls for her, to the town’s censure, and the two come to an end that reminded me of those Nancy Reagan fables that National Lampoon used to publish: where, no matter what sin the protagonists had committed, they always ended up run over by a runaway schoolbus.

Aswell, the son of a congressman, hailed from Baton Rouge, and published a number of novels about life down in the steamy South. Several of these also got picked up by Signet and graced with a dramatic Avati cover: The Young and the Hungry Hearted (Signet 116) and The Birds and the Bees (Signet 1121). The Midsummer Fires, however, only rated an Avon paperback release with a cartoonish cover–this despite the fact that a Natchitoches reviewer considered it to have beat out novels by Caldwell and James M. Cain as “the most nauseating book of 1948.”

Aswell died in 1955 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 48.

There’s One in Every Town, by James Aswell
Indianapolis: Bobbs -Merrill, 1952

P. A. L., by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U.S. edition of P. A. L. by Felix RiesenbergFelix Riesenberg (1879-1939) worked in the Merchant Marine, was part of two unsuccessful attempts to reach the North Pole by airship, served as a civil engineer for the state of New York, ran the New York Nautical School (now the State University of New York Maritime College), and was Chief Officer of the U. S. Shipping Board. He also wrote several books about the sea, including the manual, Standard Seamanship for the Merchant Service (1922).

And then, around the age of 44, he decided to write a novel.

P.A.L.–the resulting book–does start at sea, with the dramatic wreck of a beat-up Russian freighter carrying refugees in a storm off the coast of Washington State. The writing certainly demonstrates Riesenberg’s familiarity with the ways of ships and the sea.

By page 10, however, the sea is left behind, never to be revisited. Lieutenant Dimitri Marakoff, master of the ship at the time of its sinking, is washed ashore with other survivors, and, taken for an Englishman, listed as D. Markham. Given a new set of clothes, a few dollars, and a referral to a businessman named P. A. L. Tangerman, D. Markham is sent off to Seattle to make his way.

In Seattle, he learns that Tangerman is the entrepeneur responsible for introducing the Cudahy Vacuum Dome. Not knowing whether that’s “a mountain or a mine,” he goes to see Tangerman. A brash, cigar-puffing man clearly assured of his own ingenuity, Tangerman accepts Markham as an Englishman without a second thought, and takes an immediate liking to Markham. He offers him a job as some kind of private advisor and sends him out the door with referrals to a haberdasher and a boarding house.

Only then does Markham see the dome, being demonstrated in a downtown storefront: “an immense bulb of bright aluminum” with “the outlines of an exaggerated coal-scuttle helmet.” Copper pipes connect it to a vacuum motor: “The great invention was intended to cause hair to sprout on bald heads, by relieving the air pressure above the cranium.” In other words, an elaborate gimmick for curing baldness.

No one, however, doubts the genius of Tangerman or the certain success of the dome. And Tangerman has other enterprises: Vim Vigor V. V., a vitamin tonic; Glandula, a miracle elixir made from sheep glands; four different brands of cigars and cigarettes, all made from the same tobacco. Hailed as a titan of American industry, Tangerman works into the wee hours jotting down the secrets to success.

It’s all heady, exciting stuff for Markham and the many others in his orbit. Only no one ever sees much in the way of cash. And when the dome is accused of blowing up and injuring a customer, everyone from the haberdashers to the office furniture store start taking back their goods.

This proves a temporary set-back, though, and soon Tangerman and Markham are off to Chicago to make an even bigger splash. Tangerman founds a correspondence course school, a publishing house for cheap editions of the classics, and several magazines. One of them, Marcus and Aurelius, aims at being the most outrageous bundle of claims around–a precursor of the Weekly World News. It celebrates all of Tangerman’s gimmicks and more:

[F]ly traps, stills, liquor flavors, beer powders, trick sets, face lifting, jumping dice, depilatories, deodorizers, whirling sprays, installment diamonds, eye brighteners, nose straighteners, stammering cures, permanent curls, lip sticks, blush controllers, dimple makers, gallstone removers, self-bobbers, liquor agers, tape worm expellers, rubber underwear, hair restorers, finger print messages, sleuthing secrets, pyorrhoea, lucky rings, hypnotism, halitosis, pimple cures, lover’s secrets, pile removers, racing tips, dancing steps, etiquette, and short story courses.

“Print dirt, but don’t dose it with perfume,” is the editor’s maxim.

Tangerman buys land along Lake Michigan, builds an enormous mansion with its own power plant, buys a great yacht on which he throws wild parties with plenty of bootleg booze. He keeps surfing from one wave of speculation to another, all of based on little or no hard capital. And though he marries a sweet girl from Seattle for who Markham carries a torch, he keeps up a steady stream of mistresses, including the psychic, Countess Voluspa Balt-Zimmern.

Tangerman’s ventures also keep spiralling up from the ridiculous to the insane, culminating in a secret pact with a lunatic miner with a box full of gold in fine sand form. The miner claims to have found a huge deposit of the stuff off in some unnamed desert in the West, and Tangerman and all his fellow speculators become drunk on the possibilities of the world’s greatest gold find.

As one might expect, the bubble eventually pops, and with devastating–and in Tangerman’s case, fatal–results.

Felix Riesenberg, 1936 - Photo by Arnold Genthe courtesy of the Library of Congress
P.A.L. is reminiscent of two novels from twenty years earlier: Frank Norris’ The Octopus and The Pit, both of which attacked the blind destructiveness of speculation. But it’s also very much a novel of the 1920s and wild stock speculation, which ultimately led to the great market crash of 1929. Riesenberg’s work has less of Norris’ young man’s passion and more of the perspective and humor of a middle-aged man who’d already been through more than his share of adventures. Although Markham, his narrator, never seems to know what’s going to happen from moment to moment, the reader can’t help but catch the whiff of impending doom early on, and it’s no great surprise when it comes.

What I find most interesting about this book is simply the notion that a man with almost thirty years’ experience of working at sea, mastering the craft and sciences of navigation, sailing, propulsion, shipbuilding, and civil engineering, would pick up a pen and write this rollercoaster ride through the world of hype, gimmicks, and entrepeneurship. Riesenberg revels in the absurdity of Tangerman’s ventures and seems to have delighted in being able to pick the names of his characters: Punderwell Moore; Springer Platterly; Chauncey Wilber Tambey; Saxe Gubelstein; Jesspole McTwiller. (No one ever does find out what the initials P. A. L. stand for, though).

And then from this first novel, Riesenberg went on to write at least four others, all of them sweeping in scope, with dozens of characters up and down the social strata, and several (particularly Endless River) fairly experimental for their time.

While I don’t think P.A.L. should be considered a neglected masterpiece, it is a lively and self-confident novel than stands (in terms of literary merit) only a step or two back from Norris’ books (neither of which are really masterpieces, either, but better known for their historical importance). I’ve picked up three other Riesenberg novels, along with his 1937 autobiography, Living Again, and plan to spend some of the next months reviewing the fictional output of this remarkable man.

P. A. L.: A Novel of the American Scene, by Felix Riesenberg
New York City: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1925

Presidents Who Have Known Me, by George E. Allen

Cover of 'Presidents Who Have Known Me,' by George E. AllenWhen I spotted Presidents Who Have Known Me on the shelves of the Montana Valley Bookstore, I knew I had to get it. With a title like that, the book was either going to turn out to be a classic of egocentric bombast or an enjoyable exercise in self-mockery, something along the lines of Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall.

Instead, it turns out to be a little of each and not enough of either to recommend to anyone but a historian desperate for an anecdote about some figure or other from midcentury American politics. George E. Allen’s Wikipedia entry describes him as a “political operative,” and based on his book, it’s a good way to sum him up. A Mississippian who had a few unsuccessful years as a small-town lawyer, Allen managed to work his way through a variety of jobs, including lobbyist and hotel manager, until he became a staffer for Pat Harrison, the senior Democratic senator from Mississippi and a key Roosevelt ally in Congress. With Harrison’s support, along with that of FDR’s press secretary, Steve Early, he managed to get appointed as one of the commissioners running the District of Columbia–a post he held for most of the 1930s.

He also wangled his way into a variety of official and unofficial positions in the Democratic Party, which led him to work (if mostly intermittently and on the margins) with FDR and Truman. His were one of a number of hands through which the notorious series of hand-written notes from FDR that eventually led to Truman’s selection of the Vice Presidential candidate in 1944. Later, he became involved with Truman’s re-election campaign in 1948. One recollection of this experience manages to illustrate how Allen attempts to be self-deprecating and self-celebrating at the same time and manages to flub the whole thing:

Almost all the political experts, both professional and amateur, were wrong in their predictions about the outcome of the last Presidential election [1948–Ed.]. But not one of them was more wrong than I. Indeed, I was even wronger than George Gallup.

To make it worse, I was, at the time of the campaign, a sort of self-appointed unofficial advisor to President Harry S. Truman. I was in a position to tell him how is campaign should be run, and I did so. All through the campaign Mr. Truman ignored my advice, and all through the campaign I kep promising myself that when he lost to Thomas E. Dewey I would remember to be generous and not say, “I told you so.” When it was all over and he had won, I told him that I had been supremely confident of his defeat.

“So was everybody else,” he confided, “but you’re the first one who’s admitted it.”

In case we fail to get his point, Allen makes it again, and as obviously as humanly possible: “My point is that whereas almost everybody was wrong on this occasion I managed to rise above the pack and get credit for being outstandingly wrong.” Why do I get the feeling that George Allen had a tendency to repeat the punch line when a joke failed to get a big enough laugh?

Allen–whose chief assets appear to have been an endless supply of jokes and ready availability as an extra hand at poker and bridge–didn’t come from Missouri, but that aside, exemplified the band of card-playing buddies Truman kept close at hand for advice and support. Allen fit in well with the likes of Truman’s old World War One Army pal, Harry Vaughan, who was promoted to General and appointed as the President’s Military Aide on the strength of similar achievements.

Indeed, when Truman appointed Allen to a seat on the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Washington Star broke the news with the headline, “Appointment of Allen to RFC Board Called Worst Choice Made by Truman.” Allen’s face made the cover of Time magazine, with the caption, “George E. Allen: For the President: jokes, cheers.” Despite the outcry of influential columnists such as Drew Pearson and Walter Lippmann, all of whom noted that Allen was utterly unqualified for the job, a circle of Democratic Party supporters, led by Senator Alben Barkley (who went on to become Truman’s running mate in 1948), arranged to get the appointment confirmed. Allen acknowledges his lack of qualifications but insists that he had to go through it for Truman’s sake. In the end, he resigned the post after a year, having done almost nothing. This he seems to consider an illustration of his personal integrity and loyalty to the President. One wonders why he didn’t try harder to talk Truman out of making the appointment in the first place.

No, actually, by the time one reaches this point in the book, the whole affair seems to sum up Allen’s character. After all, he uses the Time magazine portrait for the cover of his own book.

Allen’s ambiguous role in Washington politics seems to have rapidly grown smaller after the RFC stint, and the book may have been an earnest attempt to keep his name in the spotlight a bit longer. Although he assures his readers that, looking ahead to the growing struggle between democracy and communism, “the men who emerge as our leaders will have the incalculable advantage of knowing me,” the evidence shows that his principal patron after 1950 was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, with whom he regularly lunched and went to the horse races. One may take some consolation that other American leaders failed to take advantage of Allen’s acquaintance.

Presidents Who Have Known Me, by George E. Allen
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950

A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

Cover of US paperback edition of 'A Sunset Touch'I found A Sunset Touch in the Internet Archive, which is interesting, as the book was published in 1960 by Scribner’s, so you’d think its copyright would have been renewed. A cursory check of the online U. S. copyright catalog failed to locate any registrations for Moira Pearce or this book in particular, however, so it seems legit. It’s one of dozens entered into the archive from the collections of Osmania University in Hyderabad, India. These include titles such as Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, Cass Timberlane and John Hersey’s 1960 novel, The Child Buyer that certainly are still under copyright.

In any case, legal or not, here is a perfect example of a forgotten book. A Sunset Touch was published by a major mainstream house, earned favorable, if not exceptional, reviews in Kirkus Reviews and a few other national publications, and was reissued as a mass market paperback. Now, the paperback publisher, Macfadden Books, has also since become forgotten, but at the time it was putting out best sellers such as Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Pearce published one other novel, Upstairs at the Bull Run, in 1971. Kirkus placed this book “in Josephine Lawrence country” (no doubt comparing it to Remember When We Had a Doorman?) and was equally positive in its assessment. But her second book earned no paperback release and appears to have marked the end of her publishing career. Since then, if anyone took any note of her work in print, I’ve been unable to find it.

I probably wouldn’t have given A Sunset Touch a second look had the book’s first paragraph not seemed too likeable and eccentric to pass up:

The church in Leicester wasn’t an old one, having been built in the 1920s after the original had burnt down. Designed by an architect who soon afterwards turned to farming, it was constructed inexpensively out of the local stone, which, happening to be marble, lent it a certain dignity. Neither inside nor outside had it much beauty or grace. On this breathless July day the presence in a coffin of Medusa Nash gave the church a certain interest macabre perhaps it didn’t otherwise have.

Medusa’s friends note the contrast between the body in the open casket and the woman they had known, the result of the handiwork of Mrs. Greef, the undertaker’s wife and self-taught beautician:

…[T]he thick, wildly curling hair that was responsible for her name and that Medusa during her lifetime had seldom, if ever, submitted to a hairdresser, preferring the more individual look she achieved herself with a pair of nail scissors, this hair was now pressed flat to her skull and set with an iron in
tight, formal waves. She had been vain of her long eyelashes and customarily coated them heavily with mascara, outlining the lids with black pencil, but since the idea of eye makeup had never impinged on Mrs, Greeff’s consciousness Medusa’s face now appeared for the first and last time in public without it.

In the course of Medusa’s service and funeral, we are introduced to most of the major characters in the book. They are a mix of wealthy and middle-class–but all middle-aged–residents of an area of rural Massachussetts popular with weekend visitors and escapees from Boston. Together, they indulge in a heavy amount of drinking, a moderate amount of commentary on the local yokels, and an occasional venture into adultery.

In the course of two hundred-some pages, not much really happens. There is a weak attempt at an affair, and several attempts by Medusa’s sister-in-law to dump her brother, the surviving spouse and a partially-disabled stroke victim, on one of the group. And there are several parties where the idiosyncracies of the various friends are displayed:

Cora, though she loved all her dogs passionately, did not believe in ruining their figures by providing them with more than one sketchy meal a day, that is, if someone remembered to set it out. Aristocratically lean in the haunches they would sit at your feet and watch you gloomily as you ate canapes. Occasionally,
summoning up a burst of energy, one would slap a grimy paw onto your knee and pant up at you in a desperate plea for a handout before lapsing back into its anemia-induced torpor.

In one way or another, most of them spend some time contemplating what lies ahead on their lives’ downhill slopes. Throughout the book, there is a grim, grey backdrop to its otherwise lightly comic tone:

Where another woman might call on the vet for assistance in putting down the excess animal population, she took matters into her own hands. “After all,” she’d tell you briskly in her flute-like accents, “animals have no souls, what is the use of getting sentimental about them?” Also, the vet, with his fancy gas chambers and humanitarian injections, ran into money. So every so often Cora got out a certain sack,
filled it with puppies or kittens and descended, cheerfully humming a hymn tune, to finish them off in the brook below the house.

In the end, no one is much changed or much the wiser, and the story just sort of fades out.

So is this a justly or unjustly neglected book? I guess it depends on whether one decides based on literary merit or reading pleasure. On the first criterion, A Sunset Touch is certainly no milestone in the development of the novel. Aside from a certain post-Peyton Place relaxation of morals, it could have been written twenty or thirty years earlier. There are no stylistic risks taken and the omniscient narrator’s perspective is essentially the same as that taken by Tolstoy a hundred years earlier. And the book is weak from a structural standpoint, as Pearce constructs a promising opening around Medusa’s funeral and then dissipates its potential in following the various characters down a series of paths that lead nowhere in particular.

On the basis of reading pleasure, however, A Sunset Touch represents about four hours’ worth of intelligent, amusing observations of people and all their minor flaws and foibles. On the comic spectrum, it sits to the right of Wodehouse and to the left of Jane Austen–not quite ridiculous, not quite elegant. And perhaps its moderation is the reason A Sunset Touch has been forgotten.

After all, the economics of book-buying and book-reading hinge on perceptions of relative value. It’s rarely a question of, “To read or not to read?” Instead, it’s a question of “Do I read this or do I read that?” And mildly amusing and mildly thought-provoking books are just too easy to pass over. Moira Pearce had no prior work on which to base a reputation, as as the paperback cover above demonstrates, even her publishers didn’t know how to pitch this book. Had she written it thirty years before, she might have at least gained the critical support that the Saturday Review and other journals put behind the works of Humphrey Pakington (who?)–another writer of mildly comic novels I plan to feature sometime soon.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, then you’ve probably had enough of a taste of A Sunset Touch to make your own relative judgment. For my part, I can say that I enjoyed finding out just what kind of a book it was, and I will be happy to pick up a copy of Upstairs at the Bull Run if I ever stumble across one. On the other hand, I won’t just go right to Amazon and order it, as I have a great stack of other books that appear to have equal or higher relative value. But I’m sure that I’m not the only one who won’t regret setting aside a few hours to discover this fine but forgotten book.

A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960