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0 - The Neglected Books Page

At the Green Goose, by D. B. Wyndham Lewis

greengooseAt the Green Goose, by D. B Wyndham Lewis (“not to be confused with the novelist Wyndham Lewis,” as nearly every biographical sketch notes), is an utterly throw-away book that you will either love or wonder why anyone would have published it.

It’s nothing more than a collections of absurd philosophico-academic monologues–or rather, monologues with occasional interruptions–by one Professor Silas Plodsnitch, “great poet, philosopher, and neo-Pantagruelist.” The professor walks into the Green Goose, orders a coffee, lights up his pipe, and begins to talk. His subject may be bees and bee-keepers, celebrity, matrimony, the works of Ethel Biggs Delaney (writer of stories for women’s magazines) or the Sitwells (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell), but he veers off into other topics, carries on erratically, and then exits, usually without reaching a point.

“For three pence you can buy the index to the Estimates for Civil Services for the year ending March 31, which I have been looking through with some interest,” starts one of his lectures:

I calculate, after reading under the index letter I that every third man in these islands is an inspector of something or other–agriculture, aliens, alkali works, ancient monuments, audits, bankruptcy, canal boats, explosives, fisheries, inebriates, milk, mines, prisons, town planning–heaven knows what beside! This does not include, I suppose, the hordes of sub-inspectors, assistant inspectors, and pupil-inspectors (at present taking a correspondence course), nor yet the Inspector of Inspectors and his staff.

This leads to an imagined dialogue between a harried Inspector of Bankruptcy and an Inspector of Ancient Monuments, whose schedule is considerably more relaxed, which ends in one biting the other on the leg. Then he cuts abruptly into a meditation on the various ways of pronouncing the line, “Bring in the body,” which he’s recently read in a contemporary poem, and the various meanings one might take from them. After detours into a couple of more topics, he breaks off abruptly and marches out of the pub.

These pieces came from Lewis’ humorous column, Beachcomber, which he started writing for the Daily Express starting in 1919. Equally worth finding, if not quite so anarchic in style, are two collections of Lewis’ “Blue Moon” pieces from the column he wrote after switching over to the Daily Mail: (At the Sign of the Blue Moon (1924) and At the Blue Moon Again (1925)). They are, arguably, the funniest and most surreal things to have been printed in a major newspaper until the Irish Times started publishing Flann O’Brien’s amazing Cruiskeen Lawn column.

If you’re a fan of shaggy-dog tales, Tristram Shandy, Professor Irwin Corey, or Monty Python, you’ll find At the Green Goose well worth a read. If, however, you prefer to get from Point A to Point B by the shortest path, keep moving. Nothing to see here.

At the Green Goose is available on the Internet Archive.

At the Sign of the Green Goose, by D. B. W. Lewis
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923

“To My Books,” by Henry Vaughan, from The Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations of Henry Vaughan (1856)


To My Books

Bright books! the perspectives to our weak sights,
The clear projections of discerning lights,
Burning and shining thoughts, man’s posthume day,
The track of fled souls, and their milkie way,
The dead alive and busie, the still voice
Of enlarged spirits, kind Heaven’s white decoys!
Who lives with you lives like those knowing flowers,
Which in commerce with light spend all their hours;
Which shut to clouds, and shadows nicely shun.
But with glad haste unveil to kiss the sun.
Beneath you all is dark, and a dead night.
Which whoso lives in wants both health and sight
By sucking you, the wise, like bees, do grow
Healing and rich, though this they do most slow.
Because most choicely; for as great a store
Have we of books as bees of herbs, or more:
And the great task to try, then know, the good,
To discern weeds, and judge of wholesome food,
Is a rare scant performance. For man dyes
Oft ere ’tis done, while the bee feeds and flyes.
But you were all choice flowers; all set and dressed
By old sage florists, who well knew the best;
And I amidst you all am turned a weed.
Not wanting knowledge, but for want of heed.
Then thank thyself, wild fool, that would’st not be
Content to know — what was too much for thee!

From The Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations of Henry Vaughan
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

A Cargo of Parrots, by R. Hernekin Baptist (pseudonym of Ethelreda Lewis)

Like many of the books I’ve written about on this site, I discovered A Cargo of Parrots serendipitously–that is, in the course of looking for something else. In this case, it was through reading about the career and works of Wallace Stegner, who, after some years of underappreciation, if not neglect, has come to be recognized as one of the major American novelists of the 20th Century.

When I learned that Stegner’s first novel, Remembering Laughter, was selected as the winner of a short novel contest run by Little, Brown in 1937 and was one of the five titles selected for publication out of the 1,340 works submitted, I immediately began wondering about the other four. Thanks to a Saturday Review item written by Howard Mumford Jones, “Hope for the Novelette”, it didn’t take long to identify them as:

Jones’ review agreed with Little, Brown’s assessment that Remembering Laughter was clearly the superior work of the five, but I was most intrigued by his comment that A Cargo of Parrots was “an almost perfect realization of the form” (that is, the novelette or short novel). That was enough to spur me to locate and buy a used copy.

But the cover illustration, of a Moorish, faintly pirate-ish (the man does have a parrot on his shoulder) with a sailing ship was enough to lead me to shelve it far away, to be read at some long distant time. Despite the fact that I’ve featured a fair number of nautical books over the years, I actually don’t care much for the subject and it’s only really good writing that can get me over that prejudice. So it sat there for a couple of years, until I picked it, almost at random, to read on a flight back to the U.S. this week.

Well, as I said, it takes really good writing to keep me reading a nautical book, and there is some exceptionally good writing in A Cargo of Parrots. And by that I mean not just that the prose is fine–balanced, fluid, subtle–but that the author’s perspective is quite remarkably open and sensitive. I started liking it within the first ten pages, and by the time I finished it a couple of hours later, I loved it.

It’s the story of a man named Ramazani, a native of one of the islands off the coast of what is now Tanzania. Kidnapped onto an Arab dhow as a child, he has passed through a series of masters until, somewhere in middle age, he is bound to an ailing German naturalist who survives by trapping exotic birds for zoos in northern Europe. When his bwana dies in a town on the Congo coast, Ramazani is left with the task to escort the parrots they have collected back to England and Germany.

This lands Ramazani and his birds on a hard-luck American steamer with a bitter, racist first mate, and from the moment the two men meet, it is clear that the story will have a violent end. Not that Ramazani is a violent man. If anything, as the author conveys within the first few pages of the book, he is quiet and perceptive, even if he interprets the actions and manners of Western men through a different lens. Indeed, it’s the civility of his manners that provokes the mate:

Had he been able to express his feelings he might have said to himself that no nigger should ever be given the advantage of such dignified clothing: the long and snowy-white coatlike garment coming to the feet; a spotless white cotton fex, delicately embroidered. The ancient garb of kanzu and kofia, which sets off so admirably the natural dignity of the East African Arab, roused in Mr. Jacob almost rage. Niggers should wear the cast-off garments of the white man, shouldn’t they?

When, a day or two later, the first confrontation takes place, it is not a clash of cultures but something primeval: they find themselves “staring at each other like two wild animals, hereditary enemies who have met by chance on a highway, man-made, between two sides of a forest.”

This last quote captures one of the remarkable aspects of A Cargo of Parrots, which is the sophistication of the author’s perceptions, in being able to accept and communicate the validity not only of what we would now call a Third World perspective, but also of an ecological sensibility. Ramazani holds deep respect for the German naturalist, in part because he reacts to African wildlife in a way that no other white men, to his knowledge, do:

It revolted him to see the enforced public intimacies of the mating season; the wonderful display–in Nature’s setting–of individual song and dance and gesture; of coquetry, of joy, rage, jealousy, revenge and even murder, taking place in the dark spaces and glades of the forest, in the solitary trees and the open grass of the African uplands, in the faces of ancient lichenous rocks and the newer, raw escarpment hanging over a two-thousand-mile valley which holds its bed, like pools left in the rocks after rain, lakes as big as England; or on the lily-patterned surface of forest lakes remote and small whose source springs hot from volcanic fires…. It wrung his heart to see some wretched substitute for the age-old routine of the nest–that miraculous inherited uniqueness and precision of form and material and site–the plaintive cries, the thwarted efforts of the parent birds to hide their eggs, to feed their young without the arduous and joyous duties of the hunt and without the food proper to the species; to see the swift decline and death, after a million of years, of instinct–like the blowing out of a sacred lamp, no less that the sudden stoppage of an elaborate system more exact than any man-made machine; to see the dullness of eye and feather that follows such outrage to body and spirit….

The word “ecosystem” hadn’t been coined when this was written, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that this passage might have been written by an environmental activist today.

So who was R. Hernekin Baptist, and how did he or she develop such an open and empathetic view of Africans and their environment? Well, first of all, this was the pseudonym chosen by Ethelreda Lewis, an English woman who came to South Africa at the age of nineteen and worked for a variety of magazines and newspapers before publishing in 1924 The Harp, the first of three novels with an African setting, under her own name. She also achieved international fame as the credited “as told to” author of three books of memoirs by the legendary hunter and ivory trader, Trader Horn. An abridgement of the three books is still in print today as Trader Horn: A Young Man’s Astounding Adventures in 19th Century Equatorial Africa. For various reasons, she decided, starting with her 1931 novel, Four Handsome Negresses: The record of a voyage, to begin publishing under the odd name of R. Hernekin Baptist, and there was a second book–Wild Deer (1934)–based on a murder at a Swiss mission in what is now Lesotho. (The story was retold a few years ago in Tim Couzens’ Murder at Morija: Faith, Mystery, and Tragedy on an African Mission. Her final book, Wild Deer, was published a year after A Cargo of Parrots. She died in 1946.

While I can’t fully support Jones’ assessment of A Cargo of Parrots as “almost perfect” (there is a disproportional amount of material whose only purpose is to provide Jacobs, the first mate, with a back story), it is a moving and powerful story. As the ship steams further north, and Ramazani and the parrots encounter the cold and storms of the North Atlantic, their sufferings becomes almost unbearable for the reader. This was not at all the story I expected from the book’s cover, and it has been to my considerable pleasure and appreciation to have looked past that.

A Cargo of Parrots, by R. Hernekin Baptist (pseudonym of Ethelreda Lewis)
Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1937

“Imperfection,” by Nathalia Crane, from Swear By Night and Other Poems (1936)



If no poor word

Stepped boldly from a sound,
For sake of sense

That while a critic frowned,
No blush could be,

The rose grow dull at times,
And poesy

Resent her perfect rhymes.
Let go the lure —

The striving to unmake;
Behold the truth

Whenever heart may ache —
There is a glory

In a great mistake.

From Swear by the Night and Other Poems, by Nathalia Crane
New York City: Random House, 1936

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

“The Connoisseur,” by Nobody, from Poems, consisting of Tales, Fables, Epigrams, etc., etc. (1770)


Tribuna of the Uffizi, (1772–1778), by Johan Zoffany

In that fam’d Room where Artist strive
True Taste and Genius to revive,
Where Modern Guidos put in Claim,
Contending for the Wreath of Fame;
Where Virtu’s Sons with great Decision,
A Judge allow’d, a Connoisseur,
With Buckram Gait, and Phiz demure,
Noting a Piece, on which the Crowd
Unusual Compliments bestow’d,
His Glass first peeps thro’ with an Air,
(True Connoisseurs short-sighted are)
The Painting carelessly survey’d.
And when inform’d ’twas English made,
Thus to an Elbow-Friend, with Look
Oracularly Cynic, spoke:
“Sure never was Performance seen,
More Gothic, tasteless, lifeless, mean:
Painting! ‘Tis Canvas spoil’d! Oh, Gad!
‘Tis daubing! Execrable! Sad!
No Colouring! Keeping! And such Clare-
! All Englise! All Barbare!
And how unnaturally shows
That ill-made Fly on the vile Rose!
A Fly! ’tis no more like.” When quick,
Pointing toward the Fly his Stick,
To prove his Criticism true,
Away the little Insect flew.

Fromm Poems, consisting of Tales, Fables, Epigrams, etc., etc., by “Nobody”
London: Printed for Mess. Robinson and Roberts, T. Davies, and T. Slack, 1770

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

The Big Drag, by Mel Heimer

“Life along the Big Drag is a pinwheel, a rollercoaster, a fast-motion movie; everything is stepped up twenty times in tempo, and the Broadwayite, whether for better or worse, has at thirty-five lived four times as many lives as the Kansan at seventy.” That sentence tells you everything you need to know about Mel Heimer’s 1947 ode to Broadway, The Big Drag. Yeah, it’s a bucket-full of eyewash and a crystalline gem of the Big Apple myth. “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere”: you know how the number goes before you’ve finished the first line.

melheimerHeimer’s New York City is “a town full of thieves, touts, fanatics, pigeon-lovers, pigeon-haters, dreamers, schemers, professional bums, dancers, refugees and knife-throwers.” His man wears slacks with a razor-sharp crease–even if the seat is shiny with wear–and loud neckties: “Riotous colors, weird designs, lush batik prints, paintings of horses or ducks or geese the Broadway boy goes for them all.” His Broadway is “a winding path full of shooting galleries,
movie houses, shirt shops, pineapple juice stands and cafeterias.” His list of celebrities includes the still-remembered (Milton Berle, the somewhat-remembered (Tallulah Bankhead), and the hardly-remembered (Rags Ragland, Richard Maney, and Renee Carroll, the hat-check girl from Sardi’s who was once enough of a name in her own right to publish a book about her experiences in the club (In Your Hat (1933)).

This book is an express ticket to “Guys and Dolls” land:

Nine out of every ten guys along Broadway are betting men; they were when they came to the main stem, and if they weren’t, they soon were converted. They will bet on everything and anything on the respective speed of two raindrops skidding down a restaurant window, on the poker hands involved in automobile license-plate numbers, on which horse will finish last in a given race, on whether the next batter will walk or strike out.

In other words, if you’re a sucker for the New York you’ll never see again, except on a movie screen, The Big Drag is like a big bag of potato chips: empty calories that are utterly irresistible. If Damon Runyon’s work now rates being packaged as a Penguin Classic, then Mel Heimer’s The Big Drag rates at least an honorable mention as its postwar counterpart.

You can find The Big Drag in electronic format for free on the
Internet Archive (link).

The Big Drag, by Mel Heimer
New York City: Whittlesey House, 1947

“The Beerdrinker’s Song,” by James Henry, M. D., from Poems (1856)

Under a Picture of Gambrinus.

GambrInus was a gallant king–
Reigned once in Flanders old,
He was the man invented beer
As I’Ve been often told.

Of malt and hops he brewed his beer
And made it strong and good,
And some of it he bottled up
And some he kept in wood.

The golden crown upon his head,
The beer jug in his hand,
Beerdrinkers, see before ye here
Your benefactor stand.

Beerlovers, paint him on your shields,
Upon your beerpots paint —
‘Twere well a pope did never worse
Than make Gambrinus Saint.

And now fill every man his pot
Till the foam overflows;
No higher praise asks the good old king
Than froth upon the nose.

Bacchus I’ll honor while I live
And while I live love wine,
But still I’ll hold th’ old Flanders king
And beerjug more divine.

While I have wine night’s darkest shades
To me are full moonlight
But keep my beerpot filled all day
And I’ll sleep sound all night.

So blessings on th’ old Flanders king,
And blessings on his beer,
And curse upon the tax on malt,
That makes good drink so dear.

Written while walking from Schopfheim to Gersbach in the Black Forest (Baden), Octob. 6, 1854

From\m Poems, Chiefly Philosophical, in Continuation of My Book and a Half Year’s Poems, by James Henry, M. D
Dresden: C. C. Meinhold and Sons, 1856

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

Miles Gibson, Harold T. P. Hayes and other Reader Recommendations

Several fans of neglected books have contacted me in the last few weeks with recommendations, all of them new to me and well worth passing along.


• Miles Gibson

Paul Connolly from the U. K. writes to recommend “avery neglected English author named Miles Gibson
who has written two fabulous novels which deserve to be celebrated:

The Sandman (1984)

“A black comedy about a genteel murderer called Mackerel Burton which manages to be warm and chilling at the same time. Written with flashes of wit and poetic touches, this is hilarious and unforgettable.”

The Sandman is technically in print, but the edition dates back to 1998 and reports just one copy left in stock. It is, however, available for Kindle.

Kingdom Swann

“Even better. Swannis an eccentric Victorian painter who in old age takes up photography with amazing results. A wonderful, wonderful book which I’ve read at least ten times and will read again.”

The same situation as The Sandman. Both books were reissued in the late 1990s by the Do Not Press, whose website reports they are no longer publishing.

Hold the phone!: It turns out that The Sandman, along with Kingdom Swann and Gibson’s 1985 novel, Dancing with Mermaids, are available as Faber Finds.

• Harold T. P. Hayes

Jack Schrift writes from Spain to recommend two books by Harold T. P. Hayes, who put Esquire in the forefront of magazine publishing and journalism in the 1960s (see the 2007 Vanity Fair piece, “The Esquire Decade”). After stepping down as editor, Hayes wrote two books that combined journalism with philosophical contemplation in an elegant and thoughtful way. Last Place on Earth (1977) recalls trips he made to Kenya and Tanzania in the company of naturalists, noting the impacts of encroaching civilization on the native wildlife. Three Levels of Time (1981) deals with three discrete stories “that Hayes manages to link in a deft but mind-opening manner”: the origin of the universe; the origin of life on Earth; and the ordeal of John Vihtelic, who was pinned inside a wrecked car for two weeks in a remote section of Mt. Rainer National Park before managing to free himself. (You can read the Readers Digest version of his story here and see him recount it years later on a local TV news segment on YouTube.) “Twenty years after first reading it, I picked it up again and was utterly blown away. Hayes helps the reader see the connection between the most initimate and the most cosmic dimensions.” Blogger David Friedman was similarly moved by the book, and posted a long piece on it on his Explorations site.

• Robert Wilson Lynd

Finally, Ivo Cosentino writes to say, “I would like to mention the forgotten and neglected Irish essayist and literary critic Robert Wilson Lynd (1879–1949), essayist. Born in Belfast and educated at QUB [Queen’s University Belfast–Ed.], he went to London and joined the Daily News in 1908. Rambles in Ireland (1912) was illustrated by Jack B. Yeats. Ireland a Nation (1919) is an essay in nationalist historiography. Dr. Johnson and Company“>Dr Johnson and his Company (1929) was a success.”

Ivo later wrote to recommend as well the poetry of L. Adda Nichols Bigelow and of the Rev. Hugh Francis Blunt.

“Cracked Record Blues,”by Kenneth Fearing, from Afternoon of a Pawnbroker (1943)


Cracked Record Blues

If you watch it long enough you can see the clock move.
If you try hard enough you can hold a little water in the
          palm of your hand,
If you listen once or twice you know it’s not the needle, or
          the tune, but a crack in the record when sometimes
          a phonograph falters and repeats, and repeats, and
          repeats, and repeats

And if you think about it long enough, long enough, long
          enough, long enough then everything is simple and
          you can understand the times,
You can see for yourself that the Hudson still flows, that the
          seasons change as ever, that love is always love,
Words still have a meaning, still clear and still the same;
You can count upon your fingers that two plus two still
          equals, still equals, still equals, still equals–
There is nothing in this world that should bother the mind.

Because the mind is a common sense affair filled with common
          sense answers to common sense facts,
It can add up, can add up, can add up, can add up earthquakes
          and subtract them from fires,
It can bisect an atom or analyze the planets–
All it has to do is to, do is to, do is to, do is to start at the
          beginning and continue to the end.

from Afternoon Of A Pawnbroker And Other Poems, by Kenneth Fearing
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

The Bitter Season, by Robert M. Coates

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Bitter Season'The Bitter Season, Robert M. Coates’ 1946 novel is, according to its dust jacket blurb, a story of “the civilian in wartime; the men a little too old, or a little too frail, to be warriors.” Like many such blurbs, it’s a poor attempt to make something of a book that it is not.

Tom, Coates’ protagonist and narrator, is “a little too old” to run the risk of being drafted, but certainly not too frail, given his many walks around Manhattan in the course of the book. And World War Two, particularly the impending invasion of France, looms large in his thoughts and life. But he is hardly an everyman and Coates never suggests that his is anything but an individual and unique perspective on his situation.

Tom is a writer, and as the book opens he has separated from his wife, Laura, a nightclub singer, after a dozen or so years of marriage. Over the course of the five months covered by the superficial narrative, he reflects upon their relationship, begins to build a life on his own, dates several women, and falls in love with one of them–Valerie, a Dutch refugee. As far as this slight and generally uninteresting story goes, the book might jokingly be summed up as “They also serve who only sit and mope.”

Personally, I think Coates could have dispensed with plot entirely, although it served at least as a skeleton upon which to hang his thoughts and observations, and probably also as an artifice by which to give his publisher a genre to categorize it with. Writing in Saturday Review, reviewer Donald Hough asked, with some frustration, whether The Bitter Season could even be labelled as fiction: “But what about something that in both form and content is nothing other than an outline of personal reactions to a given scene, of a point of view, and which by the device of naming a protagonist is called a novel?” Tom’s story is the weakest and most forgettable aspect of the book, and detracts from what is good in it.

The New Masses took a more lenient view, describing the book as “an experimental mixture of narrative, diary or journal, prose poem, and philosophic disquisition,” and pointing out that such things could be found in fiction as far back as Fielding and Sterne. Even so, it’s only the prose poems and philosophic disquisitions that offer the book’s lasting values.


As I noted, Tom spends a good deal of time wandering around the streets of Manhattan, which allows Coates to paint some memorable scenes of the city:

I walked up to Fiftieth or Fifty-first Street, and then zig-zagged back down through the quiet cross streets to Rockefeller Center. It was April, I think, and the night was warm, but there was still ice-skating at the rink there. The music was playing, and the glare from the floodlights, reflected from the cloudy surface of the ice, poured up like the glow of some mechanical aurora borealis upon the quiet darkness above. I stopped for a while to look down from the railing on Forty-ninth Street at the skaters circling to the music’s rhythm in the sunken rectangle below. They looked small, even at that little distance, and intent on their glides and their maneuvers–they seemed oddly disassociated from the life that went on above them; as I leaned on the rail there, watching, it was like looking down at the creatures in some air aquarium, darting this way and that in response to motives and impulses that were largely incomprehensible to me.

Tom’s wanderings also bring him into contact with men whose attitudes and opinions add a disquieting note to the relentlessly upbeat stream of bond-selling, war-boosting propaganda. A cab driver blames a fire in an office building on “the Jews” eager to collect the insurance. A man at a bar likens European refugees to vermin that have infested the city. Another says “the niggers” have been given too much freedom by Roosevelt and need to be brought back under control when the war is over. Coates notes a subtle parallel between the violence of the far-off battlefronts and the violence implicit in such views.

Coates’ is an existential perspective. Living on his own, cut off from friends who know him only as half of Tom-and-Laura, Tom is deeply lonely:

Loneliness, I’ve discovered–I discovered then–is a hard-to-define emotion. It’s the product of unfulfillment, a factor of frustration, and as such it is largely an emotion of negatives; it arises most often not from something that has, but from something that has not happened–a letter that has failed to arrive, a telephone that refuses to ring–and its worst feature is that its causes and its control are not governed by anything that you can do or can hope to do, but depend on the actions of some other. Thus it is that it has nothing to do with setting or with circumstance; it can descend on you anywhere, anytime, and as reasonlessly and as abruptly as a cloud can blot out the summer sun.

Coates describes what people were experiencing at this time as “a sort of global loneliness.” It was “the feeling that whatever was happening or was going to happen would occur despite anything you could do to aid or prevent it.” Despite the constant barrage of headlines, newsreels and radio reports, “the storm never touched us directly; all we felt was the heat and the omninousness and the tension.”


Although the great event looming offstage throughout the book is the D-Day invasion, when it finally arrives, there is no real sense of relief. The headlines of combat and casualties continue on. In a sense, The Bitter Season is less a book about life on the homefront during World War Two than an anticipation of life during the Cold War, when the threat against individual life became greater in scale even as it became more remote and beyond any individual’s control.

Ultimately, though, Coates’ choice to wrap his meditations around the frame of a plot undermines the book. Hough’s review for The Saturday Review wasn’t too far wrong in observing that Coates “… is a good workman at the typewriter end of his craft and he leads you on, paragraph by paragraph, through sheer competence in writing, and a dangling hope that something is going to happen, until finally he seems tired of chasing his tale and steps nimbly aside to let you read on into the dust-jacket flap.” Without the plot, The Bitter Season would probably have become a forgotten little book of “prose poem and philosophic disquisition.” With it, it just became a forgotten little novel.

The Bitter Season, by Robert M. Coates
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946

The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime, by C. G. L. Du Cann

youngpersonsguidetocrimeLast month, I posted an item on The Toady’s Handbook by William Murrell, a satirical D. I. Y. guide on how to succeed through concerted obsequiousness. Murrell’s book was part of a trilogy of sly little self-help books published by Grant Richards and Humphrey Toulmin back in 1929. Of remaining two, Charles Duff’s A Handbook on Hanging was rescued a few years ago as a New York Review Classic. The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime, by Charles Garfield Lott Du Cann, however, shares a common state of neglect with Murrell’s book.

The three books take a contrarian view of their subjects. Murrell argues, quite convincingly, that toadying is not only an effective way to gain a secure and influential place, but the only sane way to approach life as a member of society. Duff disparages those who would abolish hanging as cruel and offers a defense of its merits as both deterrent and art-form. And Du Cann holds that “the real truth is that crime is a highly respectable, semi-skilled, sheltered occupation,” one “reasonably accessible to the ambitious” and to be commended to the young.

A barrister and member of Gray’s Inn, Du Cann clearly took an impish delight in his tongue-in-cheek argument. Perhaps a little too much–for the book quickly veers down a side street and Du Cann spends most of the work skewering the ways and players of the British system of justice rather than noting the advantages of a life of crime. One gets the sense that the profession Du Cann referred to in his expansive subtitle is that of the law, not crime.
In fact, one of the primary advantages to becoming a criminal, according to the book, is that prison isn’t such a bad place to end up if you do get caught. That’s a little like recommending a restaurants by saying, “If you do get food poisoning, it won’t be too bad.” Du Cann does score a point, however, in noting that, for older men without fortune or family–at least in the England before the time of social welfare–prison offered a safer and healthier alternative to anything else life could offer.

Aside from this Swiftian advocacy of life in prison, however, the main pleasures of The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime are the epigrams Du Cann tosses in as asides to his mocking commentary. “When a respectable Englishman is convinced that there is nothing more to be done he always writes to the Times. It is the last gesture of despair and disillusionment,” he observes in the midst of a discussion of whether all or just almost all persons brought before court are guilty. (Du Cann sides with the “all guilty” camp).

He also offers, at the end, his own variant on Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:

  • ACCUSED (THE). Indispensable raw material of the industry. Often manufactured by the industry itself.
  • HEARING IN COURT. A talking match. Hence the name.
  • SEX-OFFENDER. A male.

Of the three books in Richards & Toulmin’s set, Du Cann’s has aged most poorly in terms of subject and is least suitable for export. Occasionally, though, a still-relevant observation leaps off the page:

Expert Witnesses are often highly-paid, and they are expected to be (and are) entirely unscrupulous. It is true that Expert Witnesses are more frequently employed in civil than criminal proceedings, but the world of crime has a great use for them in deciphering hand-writing, detecting poisoning, and the like. The expert witness is not (as his name seems to say) an expert in giving testimony (that is called a policeman) but a man who considers himself, and is put forward as being, an authority on the matter upon which he testifies. He speaks to opinions, not to facts, but of course he tries to make the Court accept his opinions as facts.

Although only a slight jest, The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime remains entertaining today on the merits of Du Cann’s amusing and self-deprecating commentary. Du Cann wrote at least a dozen other books, but most of them appear to have been taken up as escapes from the duties of his life as a working lawyer. He seems to have been quite adept at adapting his arguments to his clients and subjects–how else can you explain the same man writing Getting the Most Out of Life and Will You Rise From The Dead? An Enquiry Into the Evidence of Resurrection?

The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime, by C. G. L. Du Cann
London: Grant Richards and Humphrey Toulmin at the Cayme Press, 1929

“Tornado,” by Jack Hirschman, from A Correspondence of Americans (1960)



Amid shambles blown, blown pages of a Gideon,
A farmer with a pitchfork stepped
Before the microphone and said it was a huge
Black arm did it, come sweeping across
The tabletop plain, grizzly, on a binge.

His wife, kind of scared and something shy
Of things stuck right before your face
To talk into, was in the distant field
Pecking at the wreckage of a moviehouse
Fallen out of the sky, for pans.

And still agog, the kid in overalls
Was dancing on shingles, leaping
From tree to tree, his blond crop fluttering,
Yelling to all the buried farmboys
About the swinging tail of the dragon that snapped.

from A Correspondence of Americans, by Jack Hirschman
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

“Son of Vermont,” from The Collected Poetry of Francesca Falk Miller (1956)


Son of Vermont

Its granite rocks thy sire.
Its soil thy mother’s breast.
Its fiercest storms thy discipline.
Its smiling peace thy rest.

Where, in that solitude,
Among those mountain streams,
Didst thou attune thyself to God
And give thyself to dreams?

They call thee “silent” Is
Not that an attribute,
A spell, born of thy native hills
Before which, man is mute?

One does not prate of power
In idle chatter, where
God dwells. And thou
Met Him in silence there!

from The Collected Poetry of Francesca Falk Miller
Chicago: Privately printed, 1956

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

A rare, perhaps unique specimen: an ode to Calvin Coolidge.

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

“Hartford,” from Wedge of Words: Poems, by Frederic Will (1962)



Where nothing’s uninsured except the slow
Still commotion of spring. That seems the least
Of certainties. (Who called it from the ground,
In parks, or gardens long more orderly?)

Where in the finest print calamities
Are exorcised, where death, as any housewife
Knows, has lost its sting, and pays at last.
(Where policies are read before each meal.)

Where spring, an accident that’s never covered,
Creeps libidinous from house to house,
And trickles, when the last martini’s gone,
Into the actuary’s careful blood.

from Wedge of Words: Poems, by Frederic Will
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

James Agate, Diarist

Although James Agate (pronounced AY-gett) was, during his lifetime, one of the best-known literary figures in England, it’s not surprising he’s utterly forgotten today. His primary form–theatre and film reviews for daily newspapers–is about as short-lived as there is.

Not that his work ethic ever acknowledged that fact. As his biographer, James Harding wrote,

As a talker, as a raconteur, he was spontaneous and witty without effort. As a writer, he was slow, uncertain and laborious. It took him three days to write his Sunday Times article, and he rewrote it as many as six or seven times. the manuscript ended up as a maze of crossings-out and second thoughts. He would go to bed reasonably satisfied with what he had done. In the middle of the night, new phrases would present themselves, and he would get up and slave at his desk again until dawn.

He made it a habit, in fact, to draft his review before even going to a play, just to ensure that he had something ready in time to make his deadline. But though he worked at a time when theatre was the leading form of lively arts in Britain and reigned for years as its most influential critic, there would be little reason for mentioning his name here had he limited his output to criticism (and three minor works of fiction).

What earns Agate a place not just on this site but on the shelves of any lover of literate amusement are the nine volumes of his Ego–a unique work that combines autobiography, journal, causerie, commonplace book, and collections of letters written to him by others. They are, in Harding’s words, “the perfect bedside books. You pick one up to check a point, and, before you realize what is happening, you are bewitched into reading on, and on, and on.” This is an echo of Jacques Barzun’s introduction to The Later Ego, which collects Ego 8 and Ego 9: “One can only say that nine volumes of this ideal bedside reading are none too many.”

Agate was approached to write his autobiography in the early 1930s. From today’s vantage point, one wonders why. At the time, he’d been working as a critic for over twenty years, covering theatre, music, books and, lately, film. A theatre lover from an early age, Agate found his talent for acting lacking and turned to criticism as an alternative. It was a profession he joined late, having spent the first twenty years of his working life following in his father’s footsteps as a cloth merchant. Although he’d begun to acquire a nationwide reputation through his appearances on BBC radio, his autobiography would seem to have more in common with a quickie book published to capitalize on a minor celebrity’s fame than anything of lasting literary value.

Yet when the first Ego was published in 1935, most reviewers acclaimed it as an exceptional work. Rebecca West wrote, “One would like to organise some graceful national demonstration in its honour. … Really, there is not anything much better than our Mr. Agate, save Mr. Pickwick and such bright diamonds of literature.”

The comparison with Pickwick was accurate. Agate was a larger-than-life character: foppish, heavy-drinking and smoking, a lover of cricket and horse racing, extravagant in his spending (he would keep cabs waiting for hours while he dined and wined with friends), and vastly well read. He was also gay, though his public brash drew attention away from his private preferences. He liked to be one of the last to enter a theatre, which he did with a flourish, and wherever he went, he loved the company of lively personalities … as long as he was allowed to outshine them. He once described himself as a character “who looked like a farmer, dressed like a bookmaker, ate like a Parisian, and drank like a Hollander.”

He also spent money like there was no tomorrow. While he did quite well when he worked in the cloth business, once he came back from serving as a purchasing agent in the British Army, buying fodder in the south of France for use by cavalry horses in France and Greece, he gave up all pretense of keeping his books. He opened a small shop when he first moved to London and it quickly went bust. He bought and sold horses with expert eye for horseflesh, but usually came out at a loss after factoring in his stabling costs. “Debt worries are a legitimate hell,” he wrote in his very first entry. In his very last, he notes, “Received this morning a curt communication from the Revenue saying that unless I find £940 within a week everything in my flat except the bed I lie on will be taken away.”

Although Ego and all the subsequent volumes were subtitled, “The Autobiography of James Agate,” it’s really a set of diaries than a narrative life story. The first entry in Ego 1 is dated 2 June 1932; the last in Ego 9 exactly fifteen years later–just four days before his death, of a heart attack, just short of his 70th birthday. Across the over two thousand pages comprising the nine volumes, Agate wrote and quoted–without ever a note of apology–whatever he felt. “It will be a relief to set down just what I do actually think, and in the first words to hand, instead of pondering what I ought to think and worrying about the words in which to express the hammered-out thought.”

It was never intended to be a private diary. He kept keeping it after being approached about the autobiography, and, as Harding puts it, “Agate wrote for immediate publication.” After Ego 1, the subsequent volumes appeared roughly every 18 months, and from the responses from critics and readers he quotes, each was eagerly anticipated. “I enjoy keeping this diary, yet would not write a word except with the notion that some day somebody may read it.”

Agate was opinionated, bitchy, frank (but not candid), and witty. Or, as Alistair Cooke described him in one of his last “Letters from America,” “irritating, brilliant, perceptive, self-centred, argumentative, charming, spoiled, explosive, capacious.” Agate was fluent in French, German and Latin, prodigious in his knowledge of literature and the history of the theatre in both England and France, and ready to pounce on the slightest mistake in a quotation from Shakespeare, Jonson, Congreve, and most of the other major playwrights.

Yet he managed to be expert without becoming pompous. He was capable of finding fine and funny things in the highest and lowest. An example: “I hold this Pipe Night [a short story collection by John O’Hara] to be ten times better than James Joyce wrote towards the end of his life, and a hundred and fifty times better than Gertrude Stein wrote at any wrote wrote at wrote wrote wrote period any any at.”

He also, it seems, trusted and liked well enough by a very broad reading audience for thousands of them to have felt free to write him on almost any topic at all. Agate includes hundreds of such letters–everything from an RAF airman in a remote station in Malaysia asking for a donation of a few books to enliven the base library to two girls in Manchester asking for career advice.

It’s a literary potpourri, and if you don’t find something funny or enlightening, keep reading: you will in the next page or two. I can’t agree with James Harding’s claim that, “The full flavour of the Ego books cannot be appreciated without reading them through consecutively. So much depends, as in a musical composition, on the individual themes which are stated, taken up, varied, developed, and then succeeded by other motifs that recur at given points.”

It just isn’t possible. Agate was a prodigious worker, enormously proud of his output, which he toted up each year and compared with the likes of Balzac and Trollope. But the diary entries are just as likely to be ephemera (“7.0. Get up. 8.0. Start to motor to Manchester. 12.15. Arrive Manchester”) or clippings (excerpts of other peoples’ reviews or articles) or letters from his many correspondents, high and low (“Dear Mr Agate, Are you a self-made man because I wish you could advise me how to be one too”) or jokes:

From a Harley Street lecture on the subject of How to Sleep Well: “Be careful how you spend the evening. It’s what you do out of bed that affects you when you turn in.” One of those cases, surely, in which the converse is equally true!

It’s this unpredictability that makes the volumes of Ego so wonderful for serendipitous browsing. I dip into Ego 6, arriving in mid-1942:

May 31, Sunday
Opening my paper in the train to Bournemouth, I read that John Barrymore has died. Oddly enough, among the books I have brought down with me is a review copy of Mrs. Alma Power-Water’s biography published this week. “For God’s sake don’t whitewash me,” Barrymore said to her. “Play me as I am.” ….

July 1, Wednesday
Billy Bennett, the music-hall comedian, died yesterday….. Billy Bennett was forthright, bawdy, and wholesome. He knew what sailors and soldiers on leave look for is not a rock bun, a symphony concert, or a lecture on modern poetry. He knew that a Saturday night audience is a crowd of clerks and shop assistants, let out after being pent up for the week in warehouse or store. He was a wiser man than Burke, who ought to have known that vice which loses its grossness doubles its evil. Bennett’s grossness had that gusto about it which is like a high wind blowing over a noisome place.

July 30, Thursday
Meric Dobson, now a sub-lieutenant in the R. N. V. R., told me this. During his recent leave he visited a travelling circus near Bristol. Introducing “Miss Zelfredo, the world-famous snake-charmer,” the ringmaster said, “It is with great regret that I have to announce one of the great tragedies of the Ring. Doreen Zelfredo’s python, which had been with her for six years, died on Friday at Knowle. I am sure the audience will join with me in sympathy for Doreen, and in the wish that she may soon find a new pal. If ever a woman loved a snake Doreen did. Miss Zelfredo will not enter the ring and perform her act without her snake.”

A few days after this, Agate wrote,

This sixth and possibly final volume of Ego–I can feel an October nip in the air–will be my thirty-seventh book, unless, of course, I publish some more while it is writing. This means thirty-seven slabs of stolen time. Every moment spent on Ego had been filched from the hours I should have been giving to this editor or that…. But since, all deductions made, my books have never brought me in even a hundred pounds a year, I must continue reviewing plays, films, novels. And then there is the old income-tax nuisance. My arrears tie me to the stake. Bear-like, I must fight the course.

The lucky readers who discover Ego will thank James Agate for filching these moments, for these are pages that are still to be enjoyed long, long after his finest Sunday Times reviews will have been forgotten.

It would be a challenge to assemble all nine volumes of Ego, as several of the early books are quite rare. The later volumes, however, are easier to find, and fairly cheap. Easier still are the three volumes of A Shorter Ego (Vol. 1 (1946); Vol. 2 (1946); and Vol. 3 (1949)). There is also The Later Ego, (1951) edited by Barzun, and the rather slim The Selective Ego (1976), edited by Tim Beaumont. Any of these is a great place to start–and I challenge you to stop with just one. There’s a good reason why Barzun, in his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, called Agate “the Supreme Diarist.”

“Dog in a Car,” from A Star by Day, by David McCord (1950)


Dog in a Car

He grins a little as they drive him by.
Of what his nose needs there’s a fresh supply
Round every corner, up the rainy field:
He has no daily walk of equal yield.
His head hangs out, his tongue out farther still;
His bark is bolder from that window sill.
His nose is longer on the modern breeze—-
His father being Scotch, not Pekingese.

A lesser breed on leash or running loose
Would find his comradeship of little use;
A dog transported by the family Ford
Rides far beyond the days he loved or warred.
His ancestors on purely urban smells
Leaned hard enough, but they had nothing else.
They hadn’t won to his synthetic taste:
Investigation kept them out of haste.

You drive a dog from State to other State:
His senses meet with scents he can’t relate.
He hasn’t time. His little nostrils twitch.
Was that a rabbit, mole, or brindle bitch?
His eye grows bright. He reaches out in space.
The local brothers hardly see his face.
He’s whirling through a night of strange impact:
Of atavistic cats he once attacked.

from A Star by Day, by David McCord
Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Company, 1950
Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

Ira Wallach, parodist

Humor is a bit like wine: a lot of it doesn’t age well, and depending on your taste, it might not even young well. And unlike other forms of literature, for which there’s a chance that the right teacher or critic might help you appreciate what first turned you off or left no impression at all, it’s pretty hard to make something funny by persuasion.

Cover of 'Hopalong Freud Rides Again'Given that, I caveat all that follows by saying that while I found Ira Wallach’s four collections of parodies–How to be Deliriously Happy (1950); Hopalong-Freud and Other Modern Literary Characters (1951); Hopalong-Freud Rides Again: Another Literary Ambush (1952); and Gutenberg’s Folly: the Literary Debris of Mitchel Hackney–funny, they may strike you as stale as sixty year-old bread. Or, as they say on the Internet, your mileage may vary.

If you Google “Ira Wallach,” you’re more likely to find pages about the millionaire philanthropist than about the novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, playwright and, back in the early 1950s, industrious writer of parodies. Even the bios of Ira Wallach the writer focus on his work for Hollywood and the stage. Frankly, unless you’re S. J. Perelman, writing parodies is unlike to earn you a significant spot in literary history. Parodies rank pretty low on the totem pole, just slightly above “How To” books.

Actually, “How To” books have a better chance of surviving in the eyes of the reading public. Dale Carnegie still sells thousands of copies a year, while no one cares about How to be Deliriously Happy, Wallach’s send-up of the blithely optimistic Carnegian school of self-help books.

Wallach, who turned to satire after his first book, The Horn and the Roses (1947), had better luck with Hopalong-Freud and Other Modern Literary Characters, which not only went into five printings but spawned a sequel, Hopalong-Freud Rides Again.

Both Hopalong-Freud books collect parodies of a wide variety of then-current writers and styles. Fortunately for today’s reader, most of Wallach’s targets have since earned a lasting place in the literary canon, so one can easily appreciate his success or failure in exaggerating their quirks and flaws. Hopalong-Freud, for example, is a take-off of T. S. Eliot’s 1949 play, The Cocktail Party, which was his greatest popular success. Freud, Wallach’s twist on Eliot’s psychiatrist-comme-priest, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, offers up such weighty pronouncements as,

No, no, one never knows the Glutzes.
One may have the glimmer of the Glutzes
Or feel the shadow of the Glutzes as they pass,
But to know the Glutzes is to know oneself,
And to know oneself is more than
It is given to man to know.

Of course, shooting at Eliot as his most solemn is a bit like shooting at a balloon: it’s already laden with enough gas to be on the verge of bursting. The same goes for “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Soup,” which blasts Hemingway with a mortar–rather as Wallach’s protagonist does a duck (along with “one sparrow, one caneton, and a B-36″) in the story’s opening scene.

A couple of Wallach’s pieces no longer have a solid point of reference to stand up against. How many will recognize Lin Yutang’s somewhat dated bits of Chinese wisdom, let alone Wallach’s pastiche (which naturally involves large quantities of tea). On the other hand, while Bob Hope’s ghostwriters have long since put down their pens, the best-seller lists are still full of routines by stand-up comedians recycled as books. Wallach’s “Modern Joe Miller” is a wonderful example, taking the following story and running it through the wringer several times in a row:

Walter Hampden told this to Eddie Cantor when they were visiting Eleonora Duse at George Bernard Shaw’s house shortly after they had all been guests of the Prince of Wales at the Ascot Races. Seems the late Czar of Russia once met a familiar figure walking down the streets of Moscow. Seizing him by the shoulders, the Czar exclaimed, “Rasputin, how you’ve changed! You used to be tall. Now you’re short. You used to have a beard. Now you’re clean-shaven. You used to be stoop-shouldered. Now you stand erect.”

The Czar’s friend stopped him. “Your Majesty,” he said, “my name’s not Rasputin. It’s Kerensky.”

“Oho!” cried the Czar. “So you’ve changed your name, too!”

Cover of 'Gutenberg's Folly'The best of the four books, for me, is Gutenberg’s Folly, which provides a sampler of the works of the late Mitchel Hackney, a contemporary of Hemingway, who tried his hand at most of the major literary styles and genres of the 1930s to 1950s, along with a selection of critical commentaries. This device allows Wallach to play upon the worst aspects of Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, William Saroyan, William Faulkner, and others.

I particularly liked “The Pilgrimage of Bixie Davis,” Hackney’s attempt to trump Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Having recently tried to listen to an audiobook version of another Bellow novel, I was ready to appreciate Wallach’s spot-on version of Bellow’s style, which always seems hell-bent on tossing another ingredient into an already-overloaded prose stew:

Uncle Gordon who lived with us had a stand where he sold rubber goods, razor blades, sundries, and life insurance. His face was clear of wens but he had blebs, straggling hairs anchored at the top of his head, the whites of his eyes green, and above the eyes two eyebrows, one black, one red, condor-nose horning a Roland-call for breakfast. Which was oatmeal and tea. He was a Tenth Avenue Marco Polo and he Cathayed the years away, Gordon, until he parlayed a fortune into three more, Midas-fingered, gilding his daughter into the arms of Bolo Snider, the bookie.

Bolo gave me my first job taking the phone and keeping book behind the cigar store, buttering the cops and dunning the deadbeats while the ponies dug hooves into Belmont. A two-buck-across-the-board life. In general Bolo was a good man but constricted, a frog in the mouth of a snake, bug-eyed, face wenned and warted, full of blebs, long hairs dropping from his nose to his chin, one ear quartered, the other halved–O judgment of Solomon!–nose straight, Praxiteletic, from having been knocked to one side in a fight and knocked back in another. Well, “le présent est chargé du passé, et gros de l’avenir.” Or if you wish, dolce far niente. What the hell!

After publishing Gutenberg’s Folly, Wallach headed Hollyward, where he wrote a few novels and a lot more screenplays. His 1959 novel, Muscle Beach, a typical satire of Los Angeles life, was eventually filmed as “Don’t Make Waves” (1967). His 1960 novel, The Absence of a Cello, was recently remembered by one of the tweeters responding to a request by the Guardian’s Hannah Freeman for “the best and most obscure book you have read?”: “Wonderful slice of late 50s US middle-class angst.”

Wallach returned to the East Coast, where he lived, mostly writing for Broadway, until he died of pneumonia in 1995 at the age of 82.

If you’re interested in sampling Wallach’s work as a parodist, you can find electronic versions of Hopalong-Freud: and Other Modern Literary Characters on the Internet Archive: Link.

“Song,” from Poems, by Bessie Rayner Belloc (1852)



When my lady’s blue eyes glisten
With the love I hold so dear,
And for joy to look and listen,
All my pulses thrub and stir!
And I, timid, bow before her,
Scarcely daring kiss her hem,
Holy seems she–I adore her.
Wondering whence so bright a gem!

Gracious maiden! I think rather
That thou art that wandering star,
For whom all the weeping Pleiads
Ever vainly longing are.
Oh! I tremble lest they win her
To go back,–the sisters seven.
Scornful all of me, a sinner.
From their shining walk in Heaven.

from Poems, by Bessie Rayner Belloc
London: John Chapman, 1852

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

I reprint this poem for my own gracious lady’s birthday and for the found art delight of the OCR’d version of its second verse, as preserved for digital eternity:

Gracioiiii maiden ! 1 think rather
Tliat thou art tliat wandering star,
For whom all the weeping Pleiads
Ever Miinl}’ longing are.
Oh ! I tremble lest they \vm her
To go l>aek, — the Kistei*s seven.
Scornful all of nu.% a sinner.
From their shining walk in Heaven.

I dread that the Kistei*s might \vm my gracioiiii maiden. Shudder.

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

“Written on Seeing the Bodies of Two Beautiful Women, Cast Away Near Milford,” from Poems, Now First Collected, by Chandos Leigh (1839)

Written on Seeing the Bodies of Two Beautiful Women, Cast Away Near Milford

A dreary waste of snows around
O’er-spread the inhospitable ground;
The storm-blast scarce had ceased to roar,
There lay two corpses on the shore.
Thou, pamper’d lecher, come and see
These shapes, so oft embraced by thee!
What does it shame thee? look again
These were once women, ay, and vain;
Rock-bruised and mangled now, they seem
More horrid than a ghastly dream.
Now kiss their livid lips, and bless
Their fragrant stench, sweet rottenness.
The gay gold rings bemock their fingers,
Where not one trait of beauty lingers;
But, like the shrivell’d star-fish, lie
Their hands in sand, all witheringly.
We start to see this loathsome clay,
Uncoffin’d, rotting fast away;
Yet, we can bear the noisome pest,
Vice, gathering, blackening in the breast.

from Poems, Now First Collected, by Chandos Leigh, 1st Baron Leigh
London: Edward Moxon, 1839

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

Pretty grisly as poems go–a bit like a preliminary sketch for the coroner’s report.

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

“The Funerals,” from Poems, by Seumas O’Sullivan (1912)


The Funerals

As I go down Glasnevin way
The funerals pass me day by day,
Stately, sombre, stepping slow
The white-plumed funeral horses go,
With coaches crawling in their wake
A long and slow black glittering snake
(Inside of every crawling yoke
Silent cronies sit and smoke).
Ever more as I grow thinner
Day by day without a dinner,
Every day as I go down
I meet the funerals leaving town;
Soon my procession will be on view,
A hearse, and maybe, a coach or two.

from Poems, by Seumas O’Sullivan
Dublin: Maunsel & Company, Ltd., 1912

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

(Inside of every crawling yoke
Silent cronies sit and smoke).

T’ats a marvelous t’ing, t’at rhoime is!–Ed.

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

“Lines on a Swing,” from The Casket; or, Original and Selected Poetry, an anthology from 1826


Lines on a Swing

Whilst thus I cleave the fanning air,
In swift yet stationary car,
Its motion but too well portrays
The soul’s low flights and dull delays,
Which seems with buoyant zeal to rise,
At times ambitious of the skies;
But check’d by some terrestrial chain,
Too soon, alas! sinks down again.

from The Casket; or, Selected Poetry, an anthology edited by W. J.
Edinburgh: W. Oliphant, 1826

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

The Toady’s Handbook, by William Murrell

toadyI discovered this book in a very roundabout way. A few months ago I posted the title essay from Alec Waugh’s 1926 book, On Doing What One Likes. I didn’t recognize the name of the publisher–Cayme Press–but admired the book’s construction and wondered what else Cayme might have published.

This quickly led me to Charles Duff’s A Handbook on Hanging, originally published in 1929 but reissued as one of the early NYRB Classics, with an introduction by the late Christopher Hitchens. Hanging is very much in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,”–in this case, reflecting upon the many advantages of an aggressive policy of capital punishment. Duff advocates, for example, to reintroduce the practice of public hanging on the basis of the economic benefits (ticket sales, film rights, concession sales).

Hanging was one of three books published “Uniform with this volume,” as noted on the fly-leaf. The other two titles, one can easily deduce, are variations on Duff’s satirical tract: The ‘Young Person’s’ Complete Guide to Crime, by Charles Garfield Lott Du Cann, and The Toady’s Handbook, by William Murrell. The ‘Young Person’s’ Complete Guide to Crime took the format of an earnest guide to a worthy subject such as art (or, as Benjamin Britten did some years later, the orchestra) and turned it into tongue-in-cheek tour of the upside of crime–which has, throughout history, proved a profitable venture–at least for some.

The third book, The Toady’s Handbook is a celebration of the benefits of artful obsequiousness. “Toadyism,” Murrell writes, “may accurately be defined as that art which deals with life in terms of its own vanity.” The vanity he refers to is the vanity of others: “the Toady is he who most per-, con-, and insistently administers to our vanity”–and as such, he argues, “should be and is nearer to us and more fervently to be embraced than our own blood brothers.” Indeed, the English word “toady,” he notes, “comes from the Spanish mia todita, my servitor. And what more honourable function than that of service?” [My Spanish colleague tells me that mia todita actually means “my little whole” or “my humble share.”–Ed.]

Murrell’s great model of the toady is Talleyrand, who managed to hold influential positions under eleven different French regimes–Royalist, revolutionary, Republican, Imperial, Restoration and, again, Royalist. Talleyrand’s motto is a précis on the art of survival as a toady: “Be a lion in triumph, a fox in defeat, a snail in council, and a bird in the hour of action.” Talleyrand today has a reputation for intrigue, deviousness and manipulation, but Murrell argues that this assessment utterly misses because it’s rooted in the assumption that whatever regime was in place was, in its way, rightful and deserving of honest support.

Instead, the Toady is the one sane person in an otherwise mad world. “I have been faithful to individuals as long as they obeyed the dictates of common sense,” Talleyrand once said. Murrell holds that by ensuring that his lot endures through all the follies of life, love, art and politics, the Toady displays better sense than all the fools who throw themselves completely into their causes. “All our painfully developed notions of honour, loyalty, fraternity, et cetera, are nothing but hypocritical humbug,” he writes.

Of course, the irony of the Toady’s situation is that there is nothing to guarantee that survival is, in the end, any less of a folly than pursuit of some noble cause–as Murrell recognizes by ending his short tract with a verse that appears in Thomas Love Peacock’s comic dialogue novel, Crochet Castle:

After careful meditation,
And profound deliberation,
On the various pretty projects which have just been shown,
Not a scheme in agitation,
For the world’s amelioration,
Has a grain of common sense in it, except my own.

All three of these little books (each measures 4.5″ by 7″ and is under 150 pages long) deserve to be brought back to print, at least electronically, as they are wonderful examples of just how much we can learn about ourselves by taking a completely contrarian viewpoint for an hour or two.

The Toady’s Handbook, by William Murrell
London: Grant Richards & Humphrey Toulmin at the Cayme Press, 1929

“Love,” from Selected Poetry, by Phineas Fletcher (1582-1650)



Love is the sire, dam, nurse, and seed
Of all that earth, air, waters breed:
All these, earth, water, air, fire.
Though contraries, in love conspire.
Fond painters: Love is not a lad
With bow, and shafts, and feathers clad,
As he is fancied in the brain
Of some loose loving idle swain.
Much sooner is he felt than seen;
His substance subtle, slight, and thin.
Oft leaps he from the glancing eyes;
Oft in some smooth mount he lies;
Soonest he wins, the fastest flies;
Oft lurks he ‘twixt the ruddy lips,
Thence, while the heart his nectar sips,
Down to the soul the poison slips;
Oft in a voice creeps down the ear;
Oft hides his darts in golden hair;
Oft blushing cheeks do light his fires;

Oft in a smooth soft skin retires;
Often in smiles, often in tears,
His flaming heat in water bears;
When nothing else kindles desire,
Even Virtue’s self shall blow the fire.
Love with a thousand darts abounds.
Surest and deepest virtue wounds;
Oft himself becomes a dart,
And love with love doth love impart.
Thou painful pleasure, pleasing pain,
Thou gainful loss, thou losing gain,
Thou bitter sweet, easing disease,
How dost thou by displeasing please?
How dost thou thus bewitch the heart,
To live in hate, to joy in smart,
To think itself most bound when free,
And freest in its slavery?
Every creature is thy debtor;
None but loves, some worse, some better:
Only in love they happy prove

from Selected Poetry, by Phineas Fletcher
Cottingham near Hull: J. R. Tutin, 1904

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

From the Preface

It is difficult to understand why certain poets of undoubted merit–and Phineas Fletcher is a robust and nervous writer whom it is good to know — should long remain neglected while others are frequently reprinted, and therefore, it is to be resumed, continuously read. It may be hoped that a goodly proportion of the readers of John Halifax, Gentleman who have had their curiosity piqued by Mrs Craik’s praise of Phineas Fletcher, will be glad of an opportunity to read some portion of his work.

Phineas Fletcher–son of one who has been described as “civilian, ambassador and poet”–was born in 1582, at the pastoral village of Cranbrook in Kent ; he was educated at Eton and Cambridge, staying at the University, as student and Fellow, from 1600 until 1616. Then for five years he was chaplain at Risley in Derbyshire to Sir Henry Willoughby, and from 1621 until his death, towards the close of 1650, he was rector of Hilgay in Norfolk. Despite the troubled times in which his later years were cast, he appears to have passed a quiet life conducive to contemplation. That his poetical genius was recognised by his contemporaries is shown by some striking tributes.

I like this poem because it reads so well aloud, what with its rhymes, half-rhymes, alliterations, and switching word pairs. There is some good common sense in it, but it’s more fun than profound: a precursor to Ogden Nash, perhaps.

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

“Nine O’Clock Show,” from Poems, 1930-1960, by Josephine Miles (1960)

I’ve decided to introduce a new feature on the site, devoted to bringing back to light neglected poems from collections to be found on the Internet Archive. Each year I promise to spend more time reading poetry, and each year I disappoint myself. So this exercise will not only contribute to the site’s purpose but serve a selfish one at the same time.

movietheaterNine O’Clock Show

Going into the show one heard nothing but closing sounds,
Doors closing, shutters drawing down,
Except before the palace and ice cream parlor
One heard the closing of the town,
One heard the shades and shops and nightfall drawing down.

But after Harlow listen what has arisen,
The rustle of feet in leaves and leaves in black,
The suck of straws and slam of a screen door rising,
Rising the racket of frogs in the waking black,
In the town in the field in the heart and the whole way back.

from Poems, 1930-1960, by Josephine Miles
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1960

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

Altars of the Heart, by Richard Lebherz

Cover of Berkeley paperback edition of 'Altars of the Heart'One never knows just how good or bad a book is when it’s wrapped in a lurid 1950s paperback cover. This was a time when publishers and cover artists were a bit like Weekly World News editors–fighting to catch the eyes of buyers by constantly striving to reach new highs in glare and new lows in discretion. I’d sure that somewhere out there is a 1950s paperback edition of the Confessions of Saint Augustine featuring a Roman babe about to lose her toga to the hands of a lecherous young Augustine.

In the case of Richard Lebherz’s 1957 short novel, The Altars of the Heart, what you get is both better and worse than the cover promises. The writing is far more subdued and sensitive, and the story and characters bear only slight connection to the nymphet and bed games suggested by the cover. “A Story of Love and Deceit in Summertime Rome”–well, that much is true, but woman is a good fifteen years older and the love is brief, confused, and one-way.

But there are also elements much creepier than would even be appropriate within the loose guidelines of these covers. The Altars of the Heart is one of a long string of tales of innocent Americans lured off their wholesome standards by the ease and sophistication of decadent Romans. In this case, it’s a spinster schoolteacher who sprains her ankle and goes to the wrong doctor for treatment.

The wrong doctor meaning one who seems to have spent a little too much time in Berlin working for the S.S. during the war and who seems to be in the midst of some kind of obsessive S&M relationship with his mistress. I say “seems” because Lebherz merely suggest these details. The doctor decides to romance the teacher as the means to getting a quick loan of $500 to help the mistress out of a jam–or rather, as he puts it to teacher, to “pay off medical equipment.”

Well, not to be a spoiler, but let’s just say that if you ever find yourself in the doctor’s situation, make sure to put your souvenir S. S. dagger out of reach. The schoolteacher flies home in panic, and the moral of the story seems to be … well, keep the S. S. daggers out of reach, I guess. What started out as a restrained minor work takes a Grand Guignol turn and never manages to find its way home save by means of a Pan Am ticket. Odd and forgettable.

Altars of the Heart, by Richard Lebherz
New York City: Grove Press, 1957
New York City: Berkeley Books, 1959
also published as Affair in Rome, Ace Books, 1960

Agnes Repplier, Essayist

Agnes Repplier“If the unresponsive gods, so often invoked, so seldom complaisant, would grant me one sweet boon, I should ask of them that I might join that little band of authors, who, unknown to the wide careless world, remain from generation to generation the friends of a few fortunate readers.” This was Agnes Repplier’s introduction to Epistolae Ho-Elianae, a two-volume collection of the familiar letters of James Howell a 17th Century English bureaucrat and man of letters.

At the time, Repplier was one of the better-known American writers, and it was Howell she was referring to as unknown. Today, the statement could well be considered her literary epitaph. About four years ago, the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute released a collection of her essays titled, American Austen: The Forgotten Writing of Agnes Repplier, with an introductory essay by John Lukacs taken from his 1981 book, Philadelphia, Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950.

If ISI intended this quite misleading title to attract more attention than, say, “Selected Essays by Agnes Repplier,” it succeeded, garnering at least a few reviews in the major press. Michael Dirda covered it in the Washington Post. Titled “A Woman of Masterful Persuasion,” the review included Dirda’s admission that, as a lifelong scourer of bookstore shelves, he’d seen used copies of Repplier’s books hundreds of times, but that,”in appearance they all seemed mere period pieces, ladylike albums revealing a sensitive soul’s adventures among the masterpieces.” It was, however, “An understandable mistake. After all, there were so many similar litterateurs of that era–Augustine Birrell, Edmund Gosse, Alice Meynell, Robert Lynd, Logan Pearsall Smith.”

The main reason ISI’s title is misleading is not that Repplier was in no way a contemporary of Austen’s (she was born 38 years after Austen died, and lived to the ripe age of 95–twice as long as Austen). It’s that Repplier wasn’t even a novelist. After publishing a dozen or so short stories, she abandoned fiction almost entirely. Repplier was an essayist.

The literary canon seems to allot each century an average of one or two essayists for remembrance. Born in 1855 and still writing until 1937, Agnes Repplier didn’t make the cut for either of her centuries.

Not that she would have lost any sleep over it. She was pretty sanguine about her place in literature: “My niche is small,” she said, “but I made it myself.” She gave up fiction in favor of essays at the advice of her first editor, Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic World magazine. “‘I fancy,'” he said, ‘that you know more about books than you do about life, that you are more of a reader than an observer.'” He suggested she write a piece about her favorite author, John Ruskin. “And make it brief,” he added.

“That essay turned my feet into the path which I have trodden laboriously ever since,” she wrote. Her choice of genre was entirely pragmatic, however. Her father, a coal broker, lost his fortune in a failed iron foundry south of Philadelphia, and it fell to Agnes to be the main breadwinner, caring for her father, sister, and a feeble-minded brother who lived to the age of eighty. “The imperious necessities of life have driven me, in common with other workers, to seek the best market I could find for my wares.” “I have been a mere laborer in the trenches, with no nobler motive underlying my daily toil than the desire to be self-supporting in a clean and reputable fashion,” she wrote in a 1909 essay, “Catholicism and Authorship.”

The piece on Ruskin was published in 1884. Within a year of that, her work was appearing in almost every issue of the Catholic World. Her great ambition, though, was to be published in the Atlantic Monthly, the leading American literary and cultural magazine of the time. It took two years, but in 1886, her essay, “Children, Past and Present,” was accepted and appeared in the April issue.

The piece is a classic of the compare-and-contrast school. She cites numerous examples of child-rearing in the past, ranging from abuse to “Spare the rod and spoil the child” to simply leaving the child to fend for itself. Then she discusses contemporary views, influenced by a mix of romanticism (“the innocent babes”) and early professional educators. As is often the case in her essays prior to the First World War, Repplier sees merits and demerits on both sides. She acknowledges the charm of children brought up with “relaxed discipline,” but maintains that “The faculty of sitting still without fidgeting, of walking without rushing, and of speaking without screaming can be acquired only under tuition.”

While “Children, Past and Present” isn’t a good place to start if you’re interested in experiencing the pleasures of Repplier’s best work, it does display one of her greatest strengths: a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of literature, from the great classics to obscure books and writers. Among the names she mentions or quotes from in just the first half of the essay are Maria Edgeworth, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, Giacomo Leopardi, Jehan le Cuvelier, Madame de Rochefoucauld, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Edgar Quinet, Sir Francis Doyle, Adam Smith, and her favorite, John Ruskin.

“What Children Read,” which appeared in the January 1887 issue, is a better example of Repplier’s voice and viewpoint. In it, she mourns for the passing of a time when there were few books actually written for children, and what many young readers had to choose from were books intended for an adult audience: “Those were not days when over-indulgence and a multiplicity of books robbed reading of its healthy zest.” By the time Repplier was writing, no end of “Ripping Yarns” and tales of stalwart young heroes and heroines ala Horatio Alger were flooding the book market, substituting a safe world full of moral models for one in which an unsuspecting child might pick up “A Tale of a Tub,” “The Faerie Queen,” or The Three Musketeers.

Repplier convinced Houghton, Mifflin to publish a collection of seven of her early essays in her first book, Books and Men (1888). As Geore Stewart Stokes puts it in his 1949 biography, Agnes Repplier: Lady Of Letters (available on the Internet Archive), “she had become convinced that a book is a necessary form of advertisement for a periodical writer.” As it was, she had to subsidize the book, and the publisher “made it painfully clear that she was very probably throwing her money away.” Instead, it sold well enough to lead to three more printings, and Repplier went on to publish nineteen more collections of essays over the next fifty years.

At her best, Repplier is pragmatic, cuttingly insightful, and funny. Take her piece, “Lectures,” from her 1894 book, In the Dozy Hours: “Now, is it industry or a love of sport which makes us sit in long and solemn rows in an oppressively hot room, blinking at glaring lights, breathing a vitiated air, wriggling on straight and narrow chairs, and listening, as well as heat and fatigue and discomfort will permit, to a lecture which might just as well have been read peacefully by our own firesides?” (Remember, this was at the height of the Chatauqua movement). She remarks that, “The necessity of knowing a little about a great many things is the most grievous burden of our day”–an observation still true today. Or take her comment in “How the Quaker City Spent Its Money,” from Philadelphia, the Place and the People (1912), about a Quaker preacher: “He came to make a dull world duller.” This is an echo of the statement in one of her most famous pieces, “The Mission of Humor,” from Americans and Others (1904), that ” A man destitute of humour … is often to be respected, sometimes to be feared, and always–if possible–to be avoided.”

Something muddled her thinking and writing around the time of the start of the First World War. She developed a deep hatred of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Prussian militarism, and the German Empire. In his review of American Austen, Michael Dirda writes, “Repplier isn’t really squishy in the least; she regularly delivers sentences and similes of epigrammatic sharpness,” and he cites a passage from “The Cheerful Clan,” published in Points of Friction (1920):

Things are as they are, and no amount of self-deception makes them otherwise. The friend who is incapable of depression depresses us as surely as the friend who is incapable of boredom bores us. Somewhere in our hearts is a strong, though dimly understood, desire to face realities, and to measure consequences, to have done with the fatigue of pretending. It is not optimism to enjoy the view when one is treed by a bull; it is philosophy. The optimist would say that being treed was a valuable experience. The disciple of gladness would say it was a pleasurable sensation. The Christian Scientist would say there was no bull, though remaining–if he were wise–on the tree-top. The philosopher would make the best of a bad job, and seek what compensation he could find.

These are some wonderful lines. But one has to overlook these lines, which come a few pages earlier in the same essay:

Germany cannot–for some time to come –spring at our throat. If we fail to readjust our industries on a paying basis, we shall of course go under, and lose the leadership of the world. But we won’t be kicked under by the Prussian boot.

Her bitterness towards Germany may have just been part of an increasingly acerbic view of the world. The last essay in Points of Friction is titled “Cruelty and Humor,” and in it, she offers a contrarian view of the Reader’s Digest adage of “Laughter is the Best Medicine”:

We hear so much about the sanitary qualities of laughter, we have been taught so seriously the gospel of amusement, that any writer, preacher, or lecturer, whose smile is broad enough to be infectious, finds himself a prophet in the market-place. Laughter, we are told, freshens our exhausted spirits and disposes us to good-will–which is true. It is also true that laughter quiets our uneasy scruples and disposes us to simple savagery. Whatever we laugh at, we condone, and the echo of man’s malicious merriment rings pitilessly through the centuries. Humour which
has no scorn, wit which has no sting, jests which have no victim, these are not the pleasantries which have provoked mirth, or fed the comic sense of a conventionalized rather than a civilized world.

Repplier got to be a tough old gal in her later years. In the introduction to his biography, Stokes recalls their first meeting, when “We sat and talked that afternoon in October in the Victorian parlor of Miss Repplier’s Clinton Street apartment, her Grandmother Shorb’s tea set spread on a little table between us, its cups serving as a series of convenient ash trays.” She grew less and less patient with interruptions and unwanted visitors. There is a perhaps apochryphal story of a young admirer who came to call and then kept dithering about as she began to leave. “There was something I meant to say, but I’ve forgotten what it was,” she confessed. “Perhaps, my dear, it was ‘Good-bye,'” Repplier replied.

Repplier died in 1950, thirteen years after publishing her last book–a collection of essays titled Eight Decades (1937). All of her books up to Points of Friction are available in electronic form on the Internet Archive.

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, by Madge Jenison

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Sunwise Turn'
“Separated from Fifth Avenue by about a hundred feet of sidewalk, but by an immeasurable difference in atmopshere, is the shop that most booklovers have dreamed of, a place in which to meet old friends in books and to discover new ones, to browse alone by an open fire, or to discuss your literary hobbies–and incidentally, but never obtrusively, to purchase books you really want.”

So opens a profile of the Sunwise Turn bookshop published in the Independent magazine in 1916. At the time, the shop had been open for just a few months, and though it was to close about ten years later, it had a significant impact on both American bookselling and American culture.

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, published in 1923, is an account of the shop’s first few years written by Madge Jenison, who founded it along with Mary Mowbray-Clarke, wife of the sculptor John Frederick Mowbray-Clarke.

Jenison and Mowbray-Clarke were, like many novice entrepreneurs, long on enthusiasm and short on common sense. They took an evangelical approach to bookselling. For them, the shop was more than an outlet for merchandise–it was a way to inform and expand the awareness of their customers. “Our function was to pass on what had been nobly created, to see that it circulated, instead of lying lost in a dust heap to keep the wind away.”

And they were not interested in mass marketing. Indeed, their first notion of a target customer base was “fifty patrons who bought $500 worth of books a year.” With this in mind, they started to build their collection: “The first day we went out to order our stock we bought everything that we liked and everything that we especially wanted people to read.” This included a hundred copies of Hunting Indians in a Taxcab, a slim 1911 comic piece by Kate Sanborn about collecting cigar-store Indians. It was an utter flop.

Sunwise Turn is something of an early forerunner of contemporary gospels of entrepreneurship such as Paul Hawken’s Growing a Business. She describes how the care they put into every aspect of the shop: not just the books it carried, but its location, its decor (“We intended the room to look like a place in which you could read a book,” not a “denaturalized warehouse room”), its packaging, and what today one would call its corporate image (although that statement probably sent Jenison spinning in her grave). They also published about a dozen or so books, most of which can now be found on the Internet Archive, under their own imprint, including a study of the sculptor Rodin written by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Were Jenison around today, she might be considered a subscriber to the tenet, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” In a discussion on advertising, she writes,

The chief factor in making a thing known, outside of the forced methods of advertising, seems to be to make it honest in the best sense–something of your own, and alive, and not drawn from the general vat of experience. Only give the world something with character to talk about, and it will carry your name to sunset.

On the other hand, toward the end of the book–written, to be precise, before the shop went out of business–Jenison discusses various practical and economic aspects of bookselling, but notes: “Nobody knows much about bookselling. It is a trade in which there has been little constructive research.” She advocates for an analytical approach to the business that would take more of the risk off the bookseller’s back. However, as even the experience of Amazon has shown, no matter how much data about customers’ interests and behavior you gather and crunch, reading and book-buying is still rife with failures and serendipitous successes.

The shop’s name, by the way, came from an anecdote that Amy Murray later included in Father Allan’s Island, her 1920 book about the people and culture of Eriskay, a small island in the Hebrides. “They do everything daesal (sunwise) here, for they believe that to follow the course of the sun is propitious. The sunwise turn is the lucky one.”

Sunwise Turn is still something of a dangerous book. Reading it will almost certainly lead to fantasies about opening one’s own version of the Sunwise Turn bookshop: Do not attempt this trick on your own, however.

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, by Madge Jemison
New York City: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1923

Plus, by Joseph McElroy

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Plus'Joseph McElroy’s 1977 novel, Plus, is, without a doubt, my most neglected neglected book. I actually bought the Knopf paperback edition (one of the earliest examples of a simultaneous release in hardback and trade paperback) when I saw it on the shelves of the University Bookstore in Seattle back in early 1977. I had finished a wonderful English course during which our professor took the class through Ulysses, giving us just enough in the way of reading tools that I felt ready to take on the most daunting of texts. I was also just discovering experimental fiction, reveling in Queneau and Steve Katz and Harry Mathews, and I was sure that Plus was going to be of the same ilk.

And then I started to read it:

He found it all around. It opened and was close. He felt it was himself, but felt it was more.

It nipped open from outside in and from inside out. Imp Plus found it all around. He was Imp Plus, and this was not the start.

I struggled for several pages, then gave up. I felt like I was trying to scale El Capitan with my bare hands.

I set Ulysses aside, and there it has stayed for thirty-five years and a dozen moves.

When I started this site seven years ago, I always knew that I would have to return to the challenge. Facing a long flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis a few weeks ago, I saw the opportunity to hunker down and make amends for my neglect.

Joseph McElroy is, perhaps and simultaneously, America’s most neglected and highly regarded living novelist. Neglected based on the simple fact that, as Scott Bryan Wilson writes on the Constant Conversation, “there’s probably never been a time in his career when all of his books have been in print [at] once.” You will not find one of his books at Barnes & Noble. One in a hundred people who know the names of Philip Roth, Don DeLillo or Toni Morrison will recognize McElroy’s or be able to name any of his books.

At the same time, however, many of those who have read him consider McElroy one of the masters of contemporary American fiction. Each of his major novels–A Smuggler’s Bible (1966); Hind’s Kidnap (1969); Lookout Cartridge. (1974); and Women and Men (1987)–received glowing reviews from some of the most sophisticated reviewers in the business. Women and Men, in fact, has been called “the most important American novel since Gravity’s Rainbow.” His work has been the focus of an issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction and the Golden Handcuffs Review, along with numerous pieces in academic journals. Even Plus has its own Wikipedia entry (link). But as Garth Risk Hallberg wrote in the L.A. Times’ “Jacket Copy” blog, “McElroy’s work recalls William Gaddis’ description of a composer’s corpus in The Recognitions: ‘It is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.'”

Why the neglect? I think the reason is very simple: he writes difficult prose. As one Amazon reviewer of Women and Men wrote, “If you haven’t read McElroy, don’t jump into this unless you consider yourself the boldest and bravest of readers.” McElroy writes for grown-ups. By that I mean, he does not take the reader by the hand and guide him through the story like a crossing guard assisting a group of school kids. He expects the reader to discover the story–and more than that, the narrative perspective–by having the guts to take a deep breath and dive into the writing.

I like the way Mike Heppner describes it in his article, “The Courage of Joseph McElroy,” in the Golden Handcuffs Review (link):

It takes courage to write a sentence like the one quoted above [from Women and Men]; to risk ugliness, arrhythmia, tonal irregularities: those moments of dissonance and rubato that cause us to doubt our own ears. (Or, as Carl Ruggles defended Charles Ives to a quivering concertgoer who’d come expecting Brahms: “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”)

To be pedantic, the quote was by Ives, at a concert of his music and Ruggles (“When you hear strong masculine music like this, sit up and USE YOUR EARS LIKE A MAN!”). I’ve long thought this quote, despite its latent chauvinism, should apply to encounters with challenging art in any form.

And so I summoned my readerly courage and dove into Plus once I’d settled into my seat.

The actual story in Plus is explained right on the cover:

Plus is the meditation–the experience–of a disembodied human brain, once the brain of an individual with a wife and a child, but now orbiting the Earth in a capsule.

The brain’s function, as part of a solar energy project, is to observe growth inside the capsule and to transmit information along the Concentration Loop to the scientists on Earth, whom it knows only by sound: the Good Voice, and Acrid Voice.

The capsule is IMP: the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform. Imp Plus is the brain, the CPU of the IMP satellite–or at least, of one of its key payloads.

But the story is not really the point of Plus. Instead, what McElroy undertakes is something that makes all previous attempts at the stream of consciousness seem child’s play. The real drama in Plus is that of a consciousness constructing its own means of understanding.

In this case, the consciousness has the added challenge of working without any of its senses. Imp Plus is a brain in a jar, so to speak, and the jar is in orbit around the Earth. While it carries out its various monitoring tasks, it grapples to establish an awareness of its new world through an extremely limited set of inputs. It has no skin to feel with, no tongue to taste with, no ears to hear with. Although the inputs from Ground Control are referred to as voices, I see them more as command line messages: “IMP PLUS WE READ NO DROP IN POWER FROM ACCUMULATOR.”

In another article from the Golden Handcuffs Review, “Sensation in Joseph McElroy’s Plus” (link) Yves Abrioux argues that McElroy “regularly deploys synesthesia … to insist on both perception and cellular biology as sensation.” I think this is illustrated by the way in which Imp Plus associates the command line transmissions with voices:

Between which the dim echo now must come transmitting correct velocities. But were they correct? And Imp Plus did not know if the transmission was to Ground or him. He seemed to be transmitting within himself. DIM ECHO. ACRID VOICE. GOOD VOICE.

He must heed the cavings-in, he must heed the cavings-out, and the shapes around whether they heeded him or not.

There was more all around, and the more all around was joining itself to Imp Plus.

He approaches sight in much the same way:

Imp Plus knew he had no eyes. Yet Imp Plus saw. Or persisted in seeing.

With sprouts, maybe.

But there is another input which Imp Plus cannot associate with a sense, even if it comprises a collection of sensations: memory. As the cover blurb says, Imp Plus was a man with a wife and child before his brain was taken out and transferred into its capsule. Early on in the book, the brain is aware that not all of its consciousness is tied to its spacecraft inputs:

What came to Imp Plus amid the brightness was that some of him was left.

So some of the gradients were Imp Plus.

There are not many remnants of his past life. One he returns to frequently relates to a camping trip taken to a Mexican beach not long before the operation. The man seems to have had some terminal illness. He may have been associated with the space program, or at least to have agreed to allow his brain to be used in the capsule. There are fragments of conversations.

From these limited resources, along with the growth of biological matter–the narration refers to chlorella–in the capsule, Imp Plus assembles its understanding. The picture develops piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle, but without the top of the box to guide it. So the pieces don’t always seem to relate to a coherent whole. Only over time, over the course of the book, can one finally–along with Imp Plus–gain the sense of a complete self.

To do so requires considerable patience from the reader, but enormous forethought and restraint on McElroy’s part. It would have been so easy to skip over a difficult step in the construction of Imp Plus’ consciousness with a fast bit of simple explanatory prose, as software programmers call external routines or scripts as shortcuts. But the task he sets himself in Plus is profoundly daunting. As David Auerbach wrote recently in an excellent piece on his site,, “McElroy’s ambition is to take the language used by embodied creatures and try to show how it might be applied in a situation where one’s interface with the world has completely broken down and been wholly altered: senses removed and replaced by new kinds of neural inputs.”

To help isolate myself while reading Plus, I put in my earphone and listened–several times–to Philip Glass’ epic four-hour work, “Music in Twleve Parts”. I think there is a certain commonality between the two works, in that each uses elements that are, in themselves, simple, but then creates, through repetition and subtle variations and aggregations, a new type of complexity and beauty.

Of course, Philip Glass’ music is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor is Joseph McElroy’s fiction. But after finishing Plus and thinking about it over the last two weeks, I found myself contemplating an assault on his magnum opus, Women and Men. Weighing in at 1.5 times the length of War and Peace and rated by the book editors of The Millions as one of the world’s “top 10 most difficult books,” it’s truly an El Capitan assault of reading. But then I found a copy for $15–it’s out of print and goes for three times that–at Shakespeare and Company in Missoula, so I think the Fates have spoken.

Plus, by Joseph McElroy
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977

The Cook, by Harry Kressing

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Cook'I am certainly not the first to acclaim Harry Kressing’s 1965 novel, The Cook as a neglected masterpiece. It rates seven five-star reviews on Amazon, and at least a handful of enthusiastic posts on other blogs (Wilson’s Pick; Hella D; Browser’s Bookstore; five o’clock teaspoon; and The Kind of Face You Hate). Still, something is out of whack when a book pops up so often as a forgotten favorite and commands upwards of $29.95 for what was originally a 75-cent paperback.

The Cook is a perfect fiction. It takes place in a stateless world. The characters seem American but could just as well fit in a dozen other countries. Kressing wastes nothing on anything but the story, and when he has achieved the effect he has been aiming at, he ties it off with a quick snip.

The story takes place in the town of Cobb, into which rides Conrad, an exceedingly tall thin man dressed in black. He is mesmerized by the Prominence, an enormous castle-like estate sitting high above the town on an almost inaccessible plateau. The people in the town work for one of the two great families that run its industries. The Hills and the Vales have something of a family curse that hangs over them from generations back, although it’s faded to the point that they manage to socialize on occasion. After quickly demonstrating to the townspeople that he is a chef of formidable knowledge and skill, Conrad insinuates himself onto the staff at the Hill’s mansion.

From then on, the plot of The Cook unreels through a series of episodes by which Conrad increasingly exerts his will upon all he encounters. Within days, his wonderful cooking wins the Hills’ gratitude, but his goal is not to feed them but to control them–indeed, to control the whole town.

Soon, he has not only convinced the Hills to fire most of their staff, but he has managed to subvert the Hills themselves to work as their own servants, under his increasingly forceful direction. The whole process is undertaken with just enough subtlety to make it seem inevitable:

The three Hills continued to stare at him silently. In appearance, Conrad was not quite the same as when he had arrived in Cobb. Most striking, he was no longer gaunt and starved-looking. Not that he was fat, but it was his size that would catch the eye rather than any want of proportion: before, he had only seemed very tall and thin; now he looked huge, which made his presence more powerfully felt. His face, too, was fuller and, consequently, less eagle-like in aspect. Yet, this impression remained quite evident: his nose, which really gave his face its cast, was still sharp and hooked, even though it was broader and not so pointed. Still, it was unmistakably a beak. Indeed, if anything it was a slightly larger and more forceful beak, as befitted the greater bulk of his figure. The eyes, of course, were as black as ever. That some of the lines around the corners had been smoothed didn’t seem to change their expression: they were still disconcertingly piercing.

It is as if he is consuming the Hills not just psychologically but physically as well. By playing with their minds and their diets, Conrad eventually rearranges lives of the Hills and the Vales in such a way that he becomes the all-controlling force over them, and ends up as master of the Prominence.

The Cook is a masterful diabolic fable, worked in elegant prose within the space of barely a hundred-some pages. Considering that we are living in a golden age of foodies, it’s crazy that this tale of gourmet wizardry (literally and metaphorically) hasn’t been republished with an intro by someone like Anthony Bourdain (who would certainly appreciate the book’s black humor).

Harry Kressing seems to have been a pseudonym, and although there have been a number of attempts to put a face to the name, so far the Internet has not revealed his secret. He (assuming someone else didn’t steal his pseudonym) published a second novel–or rather, a collection of two novellas–under the title of Married Lives in 1974. Married Lives is nothing like The Cook–instead of a fabulistic tale, we get two set-pieces that seem more like technical exercises than serious fiction. It’s best left neglected.

The Cook, by Harry Kressing
New York: Random House, 1965

Purloining Tiny, by John Franklin Bardin

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Purloining Tiny'I first encountered the works of John Franklin Bardin back in 1976, when Penguin published The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus, a collection of Bardin’s first three novels introduced by the British crime writer, Julian Symons. Although bearing the trademark green spine of Penguin’s mystery and crime line, the Omnibus seemed to have less in common with your typical mystery than it did with, say, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

The Deadly Percheron (1946), in particular, has a fair number of parallels with The Third Policeman: the same hallucinogenic atmosphere, the simultaneous sense of hilarity and dread, and a certain unmistakable Irishness–real leprechauns in Bardin’s case. The Last of Philip Banter (1947) is something of a recurring nightmare, as the alcoholic Banter finds himself waking from blackouts and being greeted by his own confessions to murder. And Devil Take the Blue Tail Fly (1948) is almost completely surreal, with a heroine who may or may not be suffering from multiple personality disorder and may or may not be imagining that she bashed a man’s head in.

Bardin kept on writing and publishing, although under the pseudonyms Gregory Tree and Daniel Ashe several times, at a steady rate, piling up a total of nine novels by 1954. None of them sold all that well, and only the first three earned a quiet word-of-mouth reputation for their originality and power. Then Bardin, it appears, stopped writing for over twenty years, putting his energies into a series of jobs in the advertising and magazine business.

Purloining Tiny popped up out of nowhere in 1978. Perhaps the critical acclaim the John Franklin Bardin back in 1976, when Penguin published Omnibus received inspired Bardin, or Harper & Row, or both, to publish the book. Whatever the motive, the result was a flop, commercially and artistically.

There are fragments of the wonderful bizarre logic of Bardin’s first three novels in Purloining Tiny. The Tiny of the title is Sheila (or is it Patricia?) “Tiny” Barrett, who got her nickname when recovering from polio, but who has grown into a statuesque blonde. With her step-father, Joel, she appears frequently on television in magic acts with an overt S&M theme, often involving medieval instruments of torture. She is kidnapped by her real father, Harry Barratt, who has evolved over the decades since his wife ran off with their little girl from loser to hit-man to courier for an international crime syndicate. Harry holds her in a soundproof, hermetically sealed, all-white apartment he’s had constructed two floors below Tiny and Joel’s penthouse in Manhattan.

But none of it holds together. We get a tossed salad of violence and kinky sex, with incest and S&M sprinkled in like croutons. We get a villain–Harry–who considers himself an agent of Puritanical redemption all the while that he is beating up, knifing, shooting, and tossing people out windows. Bardin gives Tiny the ingenuity to figure her way out of the apartment within hours the first time and then expects us to believe she would then put up with weeks of confinement and psychological abuse with barely a fight. Oh, and when the detective shows up in the last two chapters to solve the case, he’s suffering from constipation.

Had George Romero made the story into one of his low-budget oddball horror films, something along the lines of Martin, there might have been something redeeming about the badness of Purloining Tiny. But it lacks the deliberation that keeps a good bad book from completely disintegrating. It’s just bad bad.

Let this one keep on collecting dust and order a copy of The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus instead.

Purloining Tiny, by John Franklin Bardin
New York: Harper & Row, 1978

A Game of Ping Pong, from The Second Miracle by Peter Greave

Athough to a casual observer we were engaged in a game—just two men, partially blind, partially crippled, knocking a small white ball about in a singularly unsportsmanlike manner—to us these matches were infinitely more significant. These contests were a kind of ritual. We were not so much engaged in a game of table tennis as bent upon the destruction of a rival. The game was only the channel through which we expressed the contest of wills that went on perpetually between us.

For from the first, in spite of the affection that existed between us, we were natural and instinctive enemies. We each tried to beat the other all day in everything we did. We were perpetually at war, perpetually at each 0ther’s throats. The essence of our odd relationship was discord. We were never happy out of each 0ther’s company, but we only stayed together because each hoped to down the other permanently.

And this permanent stream of competition had to find an outlet somehow. A couple of hundred years earlier and we would undoubtedly have set to with swords. If we had not been bound by hospital discipline we would have punched each other’s nose. But as it was, we played table tennis, using the game as an expression of the rivalry that held us together, so that our daily matches became epic battles, the results of which could depress me utterly or lift one to victorious pinnacles of joy.

We generally began by playing a couple of ragged sets as a kind of preparation. The score was always kept, but we would both realize that the real trial was to come. I would drive as hard and as fast as I could, and Brian would chop and spin the ball so that it leaped and spun like a dancing dervish.

Considering our ruined sight that made reading and writing so difficult as to be almost impossible, it was amazing how well we could follow the flight of the ball against its dark background. I think the secret lay in the brilliant overhead lighting that lent the ball a shining iridescence.

When the practice games were over, we took a deep breath and began the real contest. We were amazingly evenly matched, and die games generally followed a definite pattern.

We always played the best out of five sets. He would usually win the first and I the second. He would draw away with the third, and at the fourth I would pull level, so that the score would stand at two all, and the next set decide the game.

At this stage the tension would be terrific. Now that the pressure was on We would both pull out everything we had, and I, though I had lost a great deal of my speed and accuracy, was still capable of executing one shot that, when I was allowed to get it in, was both dramatic and effective. I could smash a ball with a forehand drive so that it was almost impossible for my opponent to return it, leaping into the air and following it through so that I spun round and round like a top. This gave me intense pleasure and, I believed, never failed to fill Brian with envy and dislike.

But, and I make the admission with extreme sadness, for every one of my tricks Brian had at least two. He could cut and feint and volley, and the ball under his direction seemed to possess a satanic life and energy of its own, so that I, with a sensation of black despair nagging at my vitals, would be forced to watch him piling up the points that seven times out of ten would bring him to victory by a narrow margin.

It was not that I was completely outclassed. I could always extend him thoroughly. But the fact remained that I was up against a superior player, one whose natural flair for the game was better than my own.

I found this extremely galling. It destroyed an integral conviction about myself. I felt that I should beat him, that I could do so if only I could put an ounce or two more effort and determination into the game; and so I would grit my teeth, roll the stuff of my will into a hard, compact ball and play with demonic concentration, launching an attack with every atom of energy I possessed. But even so, though I beat him at times—occasionally I would win three or four times in succession——more often than not he would feint and maneuver his way to ultimate victory. I am sure that I put more of myself into these absurd matches than I have ever brought to any other purpose in my whole life, and that if God had wanted to hurry up our cure He could hardly have found a better method than by putting the two of us together at this stage of our development.

We were so nearly matched, the rivalry between us so violent, that it was impossible for us to sink into a slough of inertia and self pity. We were obsessed by a resolve, an unflinching intent, and this acted as a continual spur and challenge and was of inestimable value to our health, even though the resolve was nothing more admirable than the determination to beat a brother, to humble him and tear him down.

Lord Bellinger: An Autobiography, by Harry Graham

Cover of first U. K. edition of 'Lord Bellinger'Imagine my delight, upon taking Lord Bellinger down from a shelf in one of the few remaining used book shops along Charing Cross Road and discovering that it was not some arthritic attempt at a ripping yarn or a petrified Edwardian romance novel, but a mocking pastiche on the life of the idle nobility. Visions of Augustus Carp, Esq. danced in my head as I took it up to the cashier. This could easily be one of my great finds.

Sadly, after devouring the book in the course of the next day or so, I had to conclude that Lord Bellinger is a good find, but not a great one. Unlike H. H. Bashford, who managed in Augustus Carp, Esq. to find a narrative voice that was both sincere in its allegiance to his subject’s smugness and withering in its comic mockery, Graham displays a restraint that often undermines his satirical intent.

Despite being just one generation away from his family’s roots in the brewery business, Richard de la Poer Tracy Bellinger, the third son of John, the first Baron Bellinger, is truly to the manor born. He prides himself that, like his father, he is “naturally disinclined to anything approaching effort.” When he succeeds his father to the House of Lords, he takes it as given that the peers of the upper chamber are the rightful rulers of England: “I feel sure that I am only voicing the unanimous opinion of my class when I say that it is essential for the maintenance of the Constitution that the affairs of Empire should be conducted by gentlemen who are prepared to consider the questions of the day with open minds, unbiased by any kind of commercial or business experience whatsoever.”

Although still a relatively young man, Lord Bellinger has chosen to write his autobiography as a protest against the effects of the Parliament Act of 1911, which removed many of the legislative powers of the House of Lords. He is proud to stand–or rather, sit–beside “able, brilliant, painstaking men, inspired by a strong sense of duty to themselves: the solid backbone upon which the House and the nation can always depend.” Among these luminaries are such men as:

Lord Slaugham, with whom divorce has become more of a habit than an event (his marriage with his fourth wife was quite one of the most interesting of last year’s society functions); Lord Thrapstone, who absentmindedly wrote a friend’s name on a cheque, was found guilty, and bound over to come up for judgment if called upon, it being rightly considered that the disgrace of being found out was a sufficient punishment for a man of his social standing; Lod Blissworth, who, on the strength of possessing an acre of land and two gum-trees in the West Indies, floated the Yumata River Company, whose collapse ruined so many domestic servants. Here, too, was Lord Lythe and Saythe (formerly Sir Benjamin Salmon), who so generously offered to subscribe £50,000 to the scheme for a National Opera House on condition that a thousand other people would do the same; old Lord Bletchley, who, though eighty-nine years of age and mentally deficient, is still able to touch his toes with his fingers without bending his knees; Lord Meopham, who shot his coachman in the back with a revolver because that domestic happened to take a wrong turn in Park Lane; Lord Swaffield, who as Sir Moses Hamilton earned a world-wide reputation by walking down the Duke of York’s steps on his hands for a wager; Lord Dunbridge, famous as the husband of Lady Dunbridge, whose enthusiasm for the cause of Woman’s Suffrage has caused her to cut her hair off, and to take her meals in a liquid form and exclusively through the nose; Lord Brancaster, who as Sir Thomas Tilling failed seven times to get into Parliament–though he stood impartially on both sides–but who, on the death of his uncle, at last earned the reward of patriotism and became a true representative of the people; and a host of others.

Richard Lord Bellinger’s preparation for a seat in the House follows a well-worn path: Eton, a stint in the Army, a bit of sports, a bit of travel, and marriage into greater wealth. His two elder brothers conveniently give way before him: one, a churchman, decapitated in the Boxer Rebellion; the other a con artist who disappears in the South Seas after scandalous detours at the gaming tables of Biarritz and Monte Carlo. He takes naturally to his peerage, and accepts the responsibilities that come with the position. He relates, for example, the heart-rending tale of Alfred, his family’s doorman, who is fired for being found asleep on the job (at 4 A. M.), and who ends up spending his last penny for his son’s Christmas present. Lord Bellinger is so moved by this glimpse into the lives of the lower classes that he is moved to undertake charitable work. “I found, however, that this would entail the sacrifices of more time than I could possible spare–and was consequently forced to relinquish the idea.” He is, however, proud to declare that each Christmas he presents a brace of rabbits to “Every labourer on the estate who has reached the age of ninety without receiving a ‘parish relief.'”

Lord Bellinger ends with a fond look back at his wedding, which has somewhat the effect of a hanging note. Having gently skewered his peer for the last two-hundred-some pages, Graham balks at a final thrust and, instead, leaves him to live happily ever after. Sixty years later, the Monty Python troupe dispatched with the grandchildren of Lord Bellinger’s counterparts in under five minutes in their memorable “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch. Not all forms of restraint are laudable.

The best part of Lord Bellinger isn’t the ending, in fact–it’s what comes after the ending. This is one of the few works of fictional autobiography to come with an index. It starts with this highly informative quartet:

Abergeldie. See Aberlochie
Aberladdie. See Abernethy
Aberlochie. See Abergeldie
Abernethy. See Aberladdie

And continues on to such gems as:

Banchory, Earl of, half-witted condition of, 221; unattractive nature of remaining half, 221


Cowan, Sir Simeon, 44; worth a million and a quarter, 45; not safe to kick his son, 45

and coming, finally, to words I will always prefer to remember as the true ending of Lord Bellinger:

Zinc, grandmother’s dental cavities stopped with, 172

Harry Graham, himself the son of a K. C. B. and former Guardsman, was a prolific writer of comic poems, stories and plays. He’s probably best remembered now for his very first book, Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes and More Ruthless Rhymes (Hilarious Stories), which can be considered the forerunner of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, Edward Gorey’s macabre ABC books, and A Series of Unfortunate Events:

Making toast at fireside,
Nurse fell in the grate and died;
And, what makes it ten times worse,
All the toast was burned with nurse.

Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes and More Ruthless Rhymes (Hilarious Stories) is available in all sorts of forms: as a Dover Thrift paperback, as an Audible audiobook, in ebook formats on Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, and on its own website,

Lord Bellinger: An Autobiography, by Harry Graham
London: Edward Arnold, 1911

Classic Covers from Claude Kendall Books

I recently picked up a first (and only) edition of Felix Riesenberg’s 1933 novel, Mother Sea, and was intrigued to see that it came from Claude Kendall, the same publisher that issued some of Tiffany Thayer’s most notorious over-the-top pot-boilers (including Thirteen Men and Thirteen Women).

Doing a bit of Googling, I quickly learned two things about Mr. Kendall: first, that he was murdered in a New York City hotel room in 1937, a murder that has never been solved (courtesy of The Passing Tramp); and second, that while the literary standards of his firm may not have been the highest, their book covers are among the most memorable of their period. Here is a little sample for your guilty pleasures:

Uncle Sham, by Kanhaya Lal Gauba (1929)

This scathing satire of American life, subtitled “Being the Strange Tale of a Civilisation Run Amok,” which viewed the country from the perspective of the most virulent and self-righteous visitor, was a reaction to Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book, Mother India. The New Yorker’s reviewer called it “the best comic volume of the year.”

Lo!, by Charles Fort (1931)


Depending on whose side you take, Charles Fort was either a “satirist hugely skeptical of human beings” or “a patron of cranks.” Either way, he was well-regarded by some people and still is today. He’s got his own society (the International Fortean Organization) and a magazine (Fortean Times) devoted to the phenomena he studied. Lo! comes with an introduction by Tiffany Thayer, illustrations by Alexander King (viz. my pan of his memoir, Mine Enemy Grows Older), and cover plugs by Theodore Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, and John Cowper Powys.

Smoking Altars, by Gladys St. John Loe (1936)

smoking altars

Murder mysteries were a specialty for Claude Kendall, preferably set in exotic locations. This one takes place on a plantation in Kenya. Lionel Houser’s Lake of Fire was set in Burma, The Surrender of Helen in the South Seas, and Death Rides the Air Line on the then-novel mode of transportation. Murder in Bermuda, written by Kendall’s financial backer, Willoughby Sharp (who added his name on the books starting in 1934), is self-explanatory.


Pasha the Persian, by Margaret Linden, with illustrations by Milt Gross (1936)


Illustrated by the legendary cartoonist, Milt Gross, this might have been meant by Ms. Linden to be a children’s story, but Gross’ wild drawings put this solidly in the American tradition of tall tales, and might have been Gross’ attempt to out-do his compatriot George Herriman’s KrazyKat.

Twisted Clay, by Frank Walford (1934)


Fetching a whopping $2,000 on Amazon, this novel of a demented teen-aged lesbian, in the words of James Doig, “has the distinction of being one of the more bizarre thrillers published in the 1930s, which is saying something given the excruciating excesses of R.R. Ryan, Harry Keeler, J.U. Nicolson amongst others.” It was banned for decades in Walford’s native Australia, although from the looks of it, Walford might have been plowing the same row as Kendall fave Tiffany Thayer. You can read more about the book on Wormwoodiana, the Tartarus Press blog. Kendall also published another early classic of lesbiana, G. Sheila Donisthorpe’s Loveliest of Friends.

Claude Kendall’s house was, in a way, the Grove Press of its time. Kendall did attempt to gain U. S. publication rights for Ulysses, although it might have been as much for its scandalous reputation as its literary merit. He did release the first U. S. edition of Octave Mirbeau’s S&M classic, Torture Garden.


On the other hand, while Beth Brown’s two novels, For Men Only and Man and Wife, had historical settings (New Orleans of the 1890s), I suspect their attraction had more to do with their subjects (a madame and a prostitute, respectively). And the fact that the Kendall catalogue is rich with such obvious works of fine writing as Dark Dame, Six Lost Women, and Secret Ways tips the scales, I’m afraid, on the side of trash. On the bright side, one can honestly say that there is a larger audience of connoisseurs of fine trash now than there ever was, so I welcome them to dive into the vintage dumpsters of Claude Kendall (and Wiloughby Sharp) and see what treasures they can find.

Video feature on Herbert Clyde Lewis, a neglected writer long overdue for rediscovery

Now available on YouTube–a video feature on the life and works of Herbert Clyde Lewis:

All four of his novels have been featured on this site:

I just learned that Gentleman Overboard has been published in a new Hebrew translation by Zikit Books in Israel. When will an American publisher discover this fine writer’s work?

A Round-up of Reader Recommendations: Arthur Rex, The Rack and Lindsay Gutteridge’s shrunken trilogy

Several readers contacted me within the last few weeks to recommend some neglected favorites.

rackMartine Sepion suggested A. E. Ellis’s The Rack. This 1958 novel about an Englishman’s stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the French Alps has been in and out of print numerous times, including at least once as a Penguin Modern Classic. A. E. Ellis was later revealed as the pseudonym of Derek Lindsay, but the novel remained his only publication. Graham Greene considered it not just a modern, but a timeless, classic: “There are certain books which we call great for want of a better term, that rise like monuments above the cemeteries of literature: Clarissa, Great Expectations, Ulysses. The Rack, to my mind, is one of this company” It continues to have its advocates: in 1983, the choreographer Kenneth Macmillan chose it as his desert island book for BBC’s “Desert Island Discs,” and in 2001, Dr. David Goldberg chose it as one of his top ten books in an article in the British Journal of Psychology. Goldberg wrote,

It was important to me because it was the first good description that I had read of the psychological consequences of physical disease, and the frantic activities of those who realise that conventional medicine has failed them and that they are dying. It seemed to me a greater book than The Magic Mountain; perhaps because it was expressed in an English idiom with which I could identify. The description of the death of the doctors in the sanatorium punctured my fantasies of medical invulnerability, and the image of the student whose body is found high in the mountain clutching a handful of gentians remained with me indelibly. In my first job as a house physician, I was pleased to work for a physician who allowed his severely ill patients to bring faith healers into the hospital.

This book also heightened my awareness of the problems of the dying, and of the complications of medical treatment. It was the first account that I read of hallucinations produced by therapy with morphine. After I qualified as a doctor I learned far more about psychological reactions to physical illness from my patients, and from the experience of being admitted to my own ward with a physical illness during my houseman year. I found, to my own amazement, that my identifications were with my fellow patients rather than with the medical staff, all of whom I knew very well. After four deaths in a single night, I could take it no more, and discharged myself so that I could recover some vestige of composure at home.

arthurrexAndrew Georgiou wrote from Australia to recommend Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel (1978). Although out of print in paper, it’s available in Kindle“>Kindle format, part of an extensive series of reissues from Berger’s large oeuvre from Open Road Media. A reworking of Malory’s saga with a dollop of broad comedy and a sprinkling of spicy language, Arthur Rex received a mix of reviews–some enthusiastic and some less so. The usually-skeptical Kirkus Reviews positively applauded: “In addition to providing a galloping Camelot of sheer fun, Arthur Rex turns out to be the first really astute reworking of the Arthurian story in decades, a gesture of great irreverence and homage to a realm in which all men ‘lived and died by legend (and without it the world hath become a mean place).'”

Finally, Greg Friel had three recommendations: Lindsay Gutteridge’s fantastic trilogy recounting the adventures of a raisin-sized spy in the wilderness of a normal-sized landscape: Cold War in a Country Garden (1971); Killer Pine (1973); and Fratricide is a Gas (1975). “It’s like “The Incredible Shrinking Man” meets James Bond!” Gutteridge’s hero, Matthew Dilke, is a British secret agent shrunk down to one-fourth of an inch high and sent to investigate the source of a poisonous gas threatening a much-overcrowded Earth. Killer Pine is more of a Cold War book than the first, as it pits Dilke and his sidekick/main squeeze, Hyacinthe, against a band of Russian micro-men concocting ecological trouble in the Canadian Rockies. One SF guide wrote of them, “They are all splendid adventure stories and powerfully engage the sense of wonder.” According to one Wikipedia poster, Bond movie producer Harry Salzman actually tried to make a spy thriller based on the novel sometime back in the 1970s.

Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, by John R. Stilgoe

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Outside Lies Magic'
“Get out now,” John R. Stilgoe urges us at the start of Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. “Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century.”

Stilgoe is not advocating an escape back to a simpler form of life or a time before electronics. Instead, Outside Lies Magic is a call for us to step outside … and pay attention. In particular, to pay attention to all the aspects of our environment that we quickly learn to take for granted, that thereby become invisible, particularly if we are accustomed to travel through this environment inside the cocoon of a car.

Stilgoe calls it “a straightforward guidebook to exploring.” By exploring, he means venturing into our ordinary landscapes at a slower pace–by foot or bicycle–and taking the time to notice: “to widen his or her angle of vision, to ste sideways and look at something seemingly familiar, to walk a few paces and see something utterly new.”

Stilgoe, a professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard, is not exactly a neglected figure. His classes are among the most popular and best-regarded at Harvard, and he was the subject of a story on CBS’s “60 Minutes” back in 2009. Outside Lies Magic is still available in Kindle format, but it’s been out of print in paper form for the last decade.
Landscape–whether natural or man-made–is not meant to be interpreted, Stilgoe points out. It’s meant, in most cases, simply to serve some purpose, whether obvious or obscure. And since most of our voyages through our landscape are also purposeful, we tend to neglect anything not directly related to our purposes.

Exploring, for Stilgoe, starts with abandoning purpose. “Ordinary exploration begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision….” This is not aimless wandering, however. Although the term doesn’t appear in the book, Outside Lies Magic is about mindfulness applied to the everyday world around us.

Stilgoe leads the reader through this world along a variety of paths, starting with “Lines”–literally, the electric, telephone and cable lines strung over our heads or lying buried beneath our streets and sidewalks. From these physical networks he then takes us into the virtual network of the U.S. mail system, tracing its evolution from post offices run out of general stores to the age of railroad post offices, during which service among major cities probably exceeded that of today, to the introduction of Rural Free Delivery (R.F.D.). He goes on to reveal the past, present and possible future of railroad routes, many of which still run through our neighborhoods, whether active, abandoned, or transformed into bike and walking paths.

Outside Lies Magic is not a formal guidebook, however. Although Stilgoe does stick to a set theme in each chapter, he deliberately avoids becoming too purposeful in this guide to purposeless discovery. This is not a book you’d take in hand to help you navigate and interpret what you might encounter.
More than anything, it’s a prose poem. By that, I don’t mean that Stilgoe’s is a particularly poetic prose style. Instead, it’s full of passages that use patterns and rhythms akin to the poetic. Take, for example, this little ode to what lies beneath a freeway overpass:

Beneath the elevated interstate highway lie the lots to which dented tow trucks tow illegally parked cars, lots filled with piles of sand, great stacks of concrete lane barriers, heaps upon heaps of shattered asphalt and concrete and rusted reinforcing rod surrounded by derelict construction machines. Beneath the elevated highway stand disused construction-site trailers, long-parked trailer-truck trailers, dozens of buses with every window long smashed. Beneath the elevated highway march the four-foot-high piles of dirt and litter emptied in perfect rows from three-wheeled street-sweeping machines, piles awaiting pickup by loaders and dump trucks that seem never to arrive. Everywhere beneath elevated highways blossom makeshift dumps, great clutches of abandoned cars and burned-out cars, the former often occupied as homes by the homeless, the latter serving as unofficial Dumpsters and toilets. Beneath the elevated highway the exploring bicyclist finds the homes never visited by the United States Census, the clusters of cardboard cartons, sheet-metal boxes, construction-timber lean-tos, and automobile hoods that comprise the turn-of-the-millennium American jungle.

This could easily be re-formatted into a five-line work of free verse.

Stilgoe can find poetry even in such mundane things as a Motel 6 at night:

Out on the bypass, out by the interstate highway, the motel owns the night, its many lights shining down over both its parking lots, its handful of old-fashioned outdoor post and wall lanterns sparkling by its main entrance, its dozens or hundreds of smaller, single-bulb lights flicked on, one beside each room door.

Outside Lies Magic is also a small work of practical philosophy. Stilgoe argues passionately for the need for unstructured time, unstructured thoughts, unstructured experiences as a means to keep ourselves fully engaged with our world. Speaking with Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes,” he observed of his Harvard students, “I think they’ve missed a kind of self-guided, non-organized activity, non-sports activity growing up. Wandering around, getting into things. And the assumption seems to be nowadays is if a child isn’t in an organized activity, the child is a criminal.”

“But as far as I can understand,” he continued, “most of my colleagues I work with seem to have found their careers by being slightly disorganized. Lucking into something, you know.” His observation reminds me of something that appears in Jacques Hadamard’s The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (republished as The Mathematician’s Mind): “A problem . . . reveals itself suddenly when it is no longer investigated, probably because it is no longer investigated and when one only expects, for a short time, to rest and relax….”

“A person is more than separated mind and body,” Stilgoe writes at the conclusion of Outside Lies Magic,

… and the body exists as much to carry the mind as the mind exists to direct the body. Outdoors, away from things experts have already explained, the slightly thoughtful person willing to look around carefully for a few minutes, to scrutinize things about which he or she knows nothing in particular, begins to be aware, to notice, to explore. And almost always, that person starts to understand, to see great cultural and social and economic and political patterns unnoticed by journalists and other experts.

Exploring, finally, is a way of reclaiming one’s senses and encountering the world in a different way. “Whoever owns the real estate and its constituents,” Stilgoe writes, “the explorer owns the landscape.”

So what’s keeping you? Get out now.

Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, by John R. Stilgoe
New York: Walker and Company, 1998

The Persians Are Coming, by Bruno Frank

The Persians Are Coming is a short novel set in Italy and on the French Riviera–something of an allegory about the death of liberalism and humanism and the rise of fascism. It starts with a German liberal politician taking leave of his favorite holiday spot in Italy–a place of classical beauty now being taken over by the blackshirts. Expecting to return to Germany and take a high office in a new government, he stops along the Riviera to meet a like-minded French politician, and the two have a dialogue about the possibility of redemption through the simple goodness of ordinary folk (c.f. 1984: “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles”).

In Marseilles on his way to Berlin, however, he finds his world unravelling with increasing speed. He sees newspapers announcing the collapse of his government and thinks he hears his name being whispered all around him. As the sun sets and the streets darken, his walk takes him from the modern streets into a nightmarish quarter full of Arabs, thieves, addicts and prostitutes. He leaves the light of the Marseilles founded by the ancient Greeks and descends into an Eastern world of sex, drugs and violence–violence that ultimately claims him. This final passage has more than a few reminders of Mann’s Death in Venice and the child sacrifice scene in The Magic Mountain.

Translated, coincidentally, by Mann’s regular English translator, the ham-fisted H. T. Lowe-Porter. But despite that, there is some elegance in the prose, and the story is profoundly sad, aside from the lurid ending. What’s interesting is that it was published in 1928, when Nazism was still just one of a number of competing ideologies, and yet Frank seems already to have conceded the defeat of liberal democracy.

The Persians are Coming, by Bruno Frank, translated from Politische Novelle by H. T. Lowe-Porter
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929

Recommendations from Matthew Neill Null: Andre Malraux, Mark Costello, and Henry C. Kittredge

Matthew Neill Null, novelist and O. Henry Prize winner, wrote recently to suggest neglected works by three writers: Andre Malraux, Mark Costello, and Henry C. Kittredge:


• André Malraux: Anti-Memoirs (1968)

“This book has a wounded grandeur to it. One of those thick, Mailer-esque tomes that covers it all: lonely flights over the desert, lost cities and Khmer temples, the Spanish Civil War, a career as a left-wing minister to right-wring De Gaulle, life in the French Resistance, torture by the Nazis, de-colonialization up close and personal, and telling brushes with Nehru and Mao. A mandarin, swashbuckling life that, alas, we can no longer live. How accurate is this book? Well, it’s hard to tell, but that’s part of the ride. Sadly out of print. Yes, the dedication to ‘Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy’ comes off as a bit precious, but one must overlook it. Bonus: The translation is by the estimable Terrence Kilmartin.”


• Mark Costello: The Murphy Stories (1973) and Middle Murphy (1993)

“Two story collections, published obscurely by the University of Illinois Press. Against a gritty Midwestern backdrop of industrial slag and soybean fields, we follow the adventures of Murphy as he navigates two-bit academic jobs, alcoholism and adultery. Think of Bruno Schulz, if Bruno Schulz were the son of a Republican ward-heeler in Decatur, Illinois. Another wonderful, forgotten writer. His prose is endlessly digressive and self-mythologizing, with these wild boomerang sentences. A cult favorite, a writer’s writer, but his work is hard to track down. Best to begin with the first volume. I believe Costello’s still out there, up in years, and hope he graces us with a third volume.”


• Henry C. Kittredge: Mooncussers of Cape Cod (1937)

“I found it in the rare books section of a Cape Cod library. A colorful account of people who made a living by scavenging shipwrecks. The wreckers were thought to be unsavory by most, but Kittredge’s admiration bleeds though. Reminds me of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Thrilling, forgotten history.”

Matthew also recommends two novels by Bruce Chatwin, who has gained a solid place for his travel books (although this is too narrow a term for them), but whose novels, particularly On the Black Hill (1982) and The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), are also worth discovering.

Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Hizzoner the Mayor'Zumphmeeeabmeeab!

Joel Sayre’s 1933 satire of machine politics, Hizzoner the Mayor, opens with the sound of a pesky mosquito attacking the big toe of John Norris (Jolly John) Holtsapple, four times Mayor of the Greater City of Malta, as he awakens from another wild night of drinking with the boys. “Barrelled again,” he thinks, and swears to get back on the wagon until his election is over.

In Hizzoner the Mayor, Sayre–who went on to work as a writer on such classic films of the 1930s as Gunga Din–revels in cariacatures and wise cracks every bit as much as his subject does in booze and babes. The City of Malta is obviously a stand-in for New York City and Jolly John a cartoonish take on James John (“Gentleman Jimmy”) Walker, who charmed the proles, indulged in all his favorite vices, and openly condoned bootlegging and other rackets.

Like Gentleman Jimmy, Jolly John considers himself quite the ladies’ man:

“Ladies,” the Mayor resumed, “I’m deligh’ed see you. I’m always deligh’ed to see a lady. Thass me alla time. I doan care if she’s white or black, Democrat or Repub’ican. It ain’t the race with me, friends, it’s the lady. I doan care if she’s Protes’ant or Cath’lic, I doan care if she’s a Jew or Gentile, I doan care if she’s Chinaman or Jap, I doan care if she’s rich or poor, I doan care if she’s drunk or sober. Just so long she’s 100 per cent American and a lady.”

Like Walker, Jolly John is more of an entertainer than a politician. He’s more than happy to shake hands, kiss babies, cut ribbons, and even wrestle with Waldo, the Wrassling Bear, while leaving the business of running the city to the operators of the Malta Democratic Club and gangsters like Jerry Gozo. With Holtsapple’s help, Gozo manages to rack up a total of 241 arrests and only two convictions:

… a suspended sentence (when he was twelve years of age) for possessing burglar’s tools and thirty days in the County Jail for getting behind in his alimony (imposed by a woman magistrate in Family Court). The other charges, all unsubstantiated, had run the gamut from disorderly conduct (61 times) and horse-poisoning (17 times) through carrying concealed weapons (54 times) and violation of the Eighteenth Amendment (83 times) to kidnapping (10 times) and murder (11 times). The remaining items were distributed pretty evenly over such offenses as felonious assault, grand larceny, arson, extortion and public nuisance (playing a radio after 11 p.m.).

Unfortunately for both of them, Gozo is discovered dead that morning, sitting in a men’s room stall with the imprint of a horseshoe on his forehead. And over the course of the following weeks, other notorious Malta figures and Holtsapple supporters suffer the same fate.

At the same time, a crusading reformer, Phillip Dorsey, is organizing a campaign to unseat Jolly John. Hizzoner the Mayor is the tale of the battle between virtue and corruption. The themes of the infiltration of unions, manipulation of black voters, contract fraud, and abuse of city construction projects will be familiar to anyone who has read Robert Caro’s classic, The Power Broker.

Sadly for Dorsey, however, Sayre’s heart is clearly on the side of the rogues. It’s hard to argue with his choice: the rogues are painted in brash, lurid colors and speak in pure Noo Yawk slang when the reformers dress and speak in proper Yankee grey. And the fun in Hizzoner the Mayor is all in the language:

What Al Smith christened “boloney pictures” the previous summer were posed for in profusion: the Mayor on one knee at the finals in the State-wide Marble Shooting Championship; Satchells in a Boy Scout hat being sworn as a Tenderfoot into Troop 16; the Mayor in the cab of the largest B. & O. engine at the Grand Union Depot with the far too small cap of the engineer on his great head; Satchells with his arm around the skinny shoulders of Micajah Hudgins, Malta’s oldest voter, who had first marched to the polls for William Henry Harrison. . . In every conceivable position the two were snapped: kissing babies, dandling gluey-mouthed children, laying wreathes, baking bread, tanning hides, throwing baseballs, kicking footballs, riding gang plows, shooting, swimming, waving at people. The Divine Cal himself had no more versatile a repertoire.

Both sides sent out their dirt-squirters, each carefully instructed never to squirt before more than one person at a time. The Mayor held a long conference over just what squirted on Satchells would do him the most harm. Mike Raffigan told him about Inge.

“Who is she?”

“She’s a massooze, John.”

“A what?”

“You know, she gives massadge to the society dames. Got a big jernt of her own on Federal

“Good Gawd,” said the Mayor, “do you want to elect the guy? Lay off that dame stuff or the people are li’ble to think it’s swell and vote for him!”

Hizzoner the Mayor was Sayre’s second novel. His first, Rackety Rax, was a similarly over-the-top satire, in this case of the intrusion of gambling interests in college sports–a topic that still comes up on a regular basis in the news. Rackety Rax gave Sayre his first screenwriting job, as he was hired by Fox to turn it into a 1932 film starring Victor McLagen. He published two more books in the 1940s: Persian Gulf Command (1945), a collection of his New Yorker articles on military operations in that region during the Second World War, and The House Without a Roof (1948), a novel about the experiences of an ordinary German family under Hitler. His daughter, Nora Sayre, was a writer and long-time film critic for The New York Times. He died in 1979.

Copies of Hizzoner the Mayor are rare and go for prices of $250 and up. Luckily, however, you can enjoy this delightful period piece for free thanks to the Internet Archive: Hizzoner the Mayor.

Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre
New York: John Day Company, 1933

On Doing What One Likes, from On Doing What One Likes, by Alec Waugh

nb173I found a much-banged-up copy of Alec Waugh’s 1926 collection of essays, On Doing What One Likes, a few years ago, stuck it in my shelves, and forgot about it.

Then, the other day, I took it down and started reading. Alec Waugh was, of course, the older brother of the now-better-known Evelyn. In 1926, thanks to his best-selling first novel, The Loom of Youth, and other successful books, it was Alec who was the star and Evelyn some nobody still having to sneak back to his rooms at Oxford when out too late. Now, although Bloomsbury Publishing is releasing a selection of his novels, histories and travel books, Alec will probably forever have to bear his nephew Auberon’s sentence that he “wrote many books, each worse than the last.”

I expected to encounter a rather brash young smarter-than-the-world voice in Waugh’s essays, but instead, I found a remarkable wisdom, particularly in the first one, “On Doing What One Likes.” It reminds me a bit of David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement address and other “how to live your life” pieces that get passed and linked to and tweeted all over the Internet. So, in hopes this might get the same kind of circulation, I am happy to provide here the full text.

“On Doing What One Likes,” by Alec Waugh (1926)

“It’s deplorable,” a friend said to me the other day, “your ignorance of painting.”

I nodded.

“And music, you know still less of that.”

Again I nodded.

“It’s disgraceful,” he continued. “No one who considers himself educated has the right to be so ignorant. On Friday afternoon I will take you to the National Gallery.”

And for a couple of hours on the following Friday we drifted down the long galleries, while he explained and dissected the particular beauties of each masterpiece. “The grouping there,” he would say, “The architectonics. You can see it, can’t you? And over there, look, the rhythm of that figure. You like it? Of course you like it, I knew you would, one’s only got to see the stuff; the trouble is that most people won’t take the fag to!”

Yes, unquestionably, I had enjoyed it, but I could not, at the same time, help feeling as I said “good-bye” to him, that I should have enjoyed myself more if, as originally intended, I had spent the afternoon reading the new novel by Arnold Bennett.

“I shall now,” I told myself, “be unable to finish it till Sunday, which means that Vere Hutchinson’s book will have to wait until next week and probably by then there will be some new book out that I shall desperately want to read at once. Vere Hutchinson will have to wait, and new things come along nowadays at such a pace that if one doesn’t read a book within a month of its appearance there is a strong likelihood that one will never read it at all.”

I was not at all sure that I had not wasted that two hours in the National Gallery.

It was held once upon a time that an educated person should know something of everything and everything of something. But the world was smaller then and life was slower, and there were no tubes and telephones and taxis: in this period of intense specialisation it would be an impossible task to attempt to know something about everything, and there are times when it is better to surrender than to compromise. There is so little time for the discovery of all that we want to know about the things that really interest us. We cannot afford to waste it on the things that are of only casual concern for us, or in which we are interested only because other people have told us that we ought to be.

I heard a man lamenting the other day the alarming dimensions of his ignorance, the incredibly large number of things that he had either forgotten or had never known. “We are all in the same boat,” he said, “it would be quite possible to set a general knowledge paper consisting entirely of questions to which a preparatory schoolboy of average intelligence might be expected to know the answer, on which any of us might fail to get fifteen per cent.”

But we are not on that account any the less good citizens. We are not any the less qualified to conduct the particular enterprise for which we may consider ourselves best fitted, because we do not know who followed Philip II to the throne, or what the capital of Chile is, or in what continent is Patagonia. It is simple always to find excuses for oneself. We can prove and disprove anything. But there is a case, and a strong case, for that particular form of indolence that allows us to move through life knowing only what immediately concerns us.

Sherlock Holmes certainly would have defended it. He knew intimately what he needed to know, and refused to dissipate his energy acquiring information that would be of no service to him. He could tell from the mud on a man’s boots in what part of London he had been walking. But he had never heard of the solar system. His defence would have been, that though it would have been interesting enough to understand the mechanism of the sun and planets, he had only a limited measure of time at his disposal, and he could not spare to astronomy the time which he required for the perfection of his studies of cigar ash.

Strength exists only as the opposite of weakness, and supreme knowledge of one subject presupposes as supreme an ignorance of others. Sherlock Holmes knew what he needed to know. And knew nothing else. He would have been in fact a less good detective had he understood the principle of the stars. For him that was unnecessary knowledge.

Knowledge is not wisdom. How little after all the ancients knew. And how much of what they thought they knew was wrong. Aristotle held that a body weighing a hundred pounds would fall to the earth a hundred times as fast as a body weighing one pound, and because in other things he was so wise, for twenty centuries it occurred to no one to contradict him. Plato believed that the earth was flat and that the sky was an inverted bowl. Pythagoras may have suspected that the earth was round, and revolved about the sun. And Aristarchus may have propounded a theory of the solar system. But Hipparchus was in a position to discredit both of them, and for two thousand years the earth was believed to be motionless, and the stars were held to be equidistant from the earth. Virgil and Seneca and Horace knew less about astronomy than a child of seven does today. Shakespeare not only did not know where Patagonia was. He did not know that it existed.

And yet it is to these men, who were on so many subjects incurious and misinformed, that we turn now from our surfeiting of knowledge for consolation and advice. They may have known little, but they were wise, and all the information that we have acquired through three centuries of discovery and speculation have not made us wiser than they were. Wisdom has not been increased with knowledge: it has, indeed, very little to do with knowledge. We acquire knowledge, but wisdom we bring with us, in great or little measure, to develop or let die within us.

It is interesting to know how flour is converted into bread; how sardines are rescued from the high seas to become hors d’oeuvres how the decomposition of forests produces paper. It is interesting, but I cannot see that it is of very much importance to the vast majority of us who will never have to hunt sardines, or bake bread, or control paper mills. There are some things we must be content to take on trust. Where there are so many books that we have never read, so many pictures that we have never seen, so much music we have never heard, and when so much of our life is spent in livelihood, I cannot see why we should spend one minute of our spare time discovering matters that are of no direct concern to us.

And we cannot be equally interested in everything.

The Hanoverian monarch who confessed that he did not like poetry and he did not like painting, was far wiser than the courtiers who laughed at him. There were certain things that he liked extremely, and he knew that every hour he devoted to books and pictures subtracted an hour from the sum of his life’s enjoyment. He knew that he had only a few such hours at his disposal.

We spend, I am very certain, the half of our time among people that we do not particularly like and on things that do not particularly amuse us, and consequently have no time for the people and things that do really matter to us. “It’s months since I’ve seen So-and—so,” we say; or, “It’s six weeks since I went to the theatre.” And we excuse ourselves and say that life goes so quickly that we have no time. But it is our own fault. We have had, in Dr. Temple’s phrase, all the time there is, and we have wasted it. Instead of going to theatres, which we really enjoy, we have been to dinner-parties that have bored us, and dances that have only mildly entertained us. We have allowed other people to dictate our tastes to us.

And we owe it not only to ourselves, but to society, to spend our spare time in whatever manner may be most agreeable to us. We are far pleasanter persons when we are happy than when we are bored. Happiness is a social lubricant, and George II, would have been a worse king had he decided that his distaste for literature was unkingly and spent long hours reading Shakespeare in the palace library. Had we three thousand years of life in front of us we might order our days on the assumption that we should know something of everything and everything of something. But we have only some seventy-odd years, and eight hours out of every twenty—four we must spend in sleep, and another eight in the earning of our living.

“The tragedy of life,” I heard someone maintain the other day, “is neither poverty nor age nor sickness, but the fact that if you live in Kensington you must, if you are to dine in Hampstead, leave Chelsea before six. I am not,” he continued, “being perversely paradoxical.” It is, that fact, a symbol of the hack-work, the dull, dreary, unimaginative hack-work of living that is imposed on us. We have so little time. We shall never do all that we should like to do; see all that we should like to see; know all that we should like to know. So little time, with so much to do in it. And yet what hours we spend a year dressing for this and shaving for that other party, getting from one extremity of London to the other.

And who is to deny the truth of his contention?

We imagine sometimes that by the doubling or trebling or quadrupling of our incomes the majority of our troubles would be removed. But in fact they would not. Of the innumerable small annoyances that fret and harass us, a few only would be discharged by any obvious increment of income.

Our friends would still be divided from each other and from ourselves by so many furlongs of tube and omnibus and car. There would be the same number of streets to cross. The same invariable varieties of dress. There would be ties to be arranged and faces shaved. And a millionaire cannot shave nor arrange his tie any more speedily than I can.

The hack-work of life; we cannot, whatever our income, escape our share of it. If only we could have it done for us, we sometimes think. If only we could be possessed of magic properties; if only with the waving of a hand we could find ourselves attired suitably for whatever engagement might lie immediately in front of us; if only the lifting of a finger could transport us from Bayswater to Chiswick; if only, that is to say, we had the vitality to sustain life at such a tension. For we might not have.

Edgar Allan Poe asserted that as it was impossible for a poet to sustain his inspiration over a long period, an epic could never be more than the setting for moments of occasional poetry. And it is certain that an audience can rarely support for more than an hour the intense excitement of big drama, big poetry, and big music. The curtain must be allowed to fall. There must be that ten minutes’ interval of chatter and cigarettes and cocktails. That was where the Victorian novelists were so wise. They loaded their pages with long wadges of description and dissertation. They were dull to an extent that the neo-Georgians have never dared to be.

We cannot deny, if we are honest with ourselves, that we have rarely read a classic without being for quite long intervals considerably bored by it. And yet it is the reading of those books that we recall with the most enjoyment; precisely, I sometimes think, because of those tedious interludes; /chose long accounts of trivial people and uninteresting conversations which provided so admirable a contrast for such sensations as the novelist had subsequently to offer. They were a breathing space. The Victorian novelists gave the reader an interval to recover in. They bored him so that he should be able to relish more keenly the excitement when it came. They quickened his appetite with hunger. “I have earned this,” he thought, as he reached delightedly, after thirty—seven pages of moralities, a brief interlude of dramatic action.

The Victorians had the courage to be dull, and through this dullness they achieved effects that are impossible for our contemporaries. The modern novel, whatever it may not be, is a live and moving thing; so live and moving that it does not satisfy. It is a series of fireworks that dazzle and bewilder and exhaust. In the nursery, where we were made to begin our tea with bread and butter, cream cakes were a delight to us. Now, when we can begin with cake, tea is a meal that as often as not we miss.

We have to be bored, it seems, before we can be amused.

And it may well be that as we find the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in spite or perhaps because of that facility of theirs to weary us, more satisfying than all save a very little contemporary work—it may well be that it is this very hack-work of life which we so deplore that makes life on the whole so entertaining. Three parts of the air we breathe, that air which is our life and sustenance, does little more than blur our consciousness, dull our appetite, deaden our vitality, and it may be that such an existence as the possession of a magic carpet and a magic casket would impose on us would be a process analogous to the extraction of the nitrogen from the air we breathe. For one rapturous year all things would be the slaves of our delight. But on the twelfth hour of the twelfth month we should be dead.

The hack-work of life, the hours we spend resentfully and unsensationally in buses and cars and taxis, in baths and in front of mirrors, may be, for all we know, the correctives, the price we pay for the animated periods they divide; they may be as necessary to us as nitrogen. Only we must see to it that our few free hours are undiluted oxygen.

We should treat our spare time as we treat our income. A man has a limited sum of money to spend on his amusements, and he has at the beginning of the year to decide which of his tastes he will be able to indulge. “I like cigars,” he may say, “and I like champagne. But I cannot afford both, and as I prefer cigars, I will content myself with Chablis.” In the same way should a man say, “I like books and I like pictures, but I have not the time for both and I prefer books. I like bridge and I like dancing, but I prefer dancing; I like Jones and I like Brown, but I prefer Brown.” And the wise man will concentrate on books, on dancing and on Brown. A philosophy of intelligent selfishness.

But we are beset by tempters. The man who plays bridge is surrounded by friends imploring him to dance; the dancing man is informed that there is nothing in the World like bridge. The musician is warned that his “soul’s welfare” is imperiled by his failure to attend the latest exhibition of pictures; and the painter’s preference for his own craft is received with austere disapprobation. On all sides our friends are importuning us for the sake of our ultimate salvation to do the things that we quite like instead of the things that we really like.

It behooves us to be very firm.

On Doing What One Likes, by Alec Waugh
Kensington: The Cayme Press, 1926

The Passing of Pengelley, from Blow the Man Down! A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, by James H. Williams

blowthemandown“The Passing of Pengelley”, by James H. Williams
from Blow the Man Down!A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, by James H. Williams and edited by Warren F. Kuehl

First published in Seafarer and Marine Pictorial, II (February 1922)

We lay three months in the port of New York discharging and loading cargo and repairing the hull and rigging of the Late Commander before we sailed again for Calcutta in May of 1887. Two months later, on the fifteenth of July—midwinter in the Southern Ocean—we rounded the boisterous Cape of Good Hope and began circling boldly away toward the forty-sixth parallel to begin running our easting down.

A week later, we were in the midst of our great easterly sweep toward the eighty- fifth meridian. The prevailing westerly winds peculiar to the zone had gradually increased in force and the sea had risen, so that now we were scudding through the tumult and smother of a mighty gale at a seventeen-knot gait. We were swinging three whole topgallant sails with preventer backstays set up and preventer braces on the cro’jack yards. Running with squared yards and everything bar taut, there was not much to do except relieve watches and stand by for emergencies.

For three consecutive days during this superb run, the old ship made a glorious record—over a thousand miles with five thousand tons of case oil as cargo in our hold. Here is an authentic sailing item for amateur sailors and deepwater yachtsmen to ponder over.

On the second day of that great run, we passed two British-Australian mail steamers. Both were high-diving until the crests of the seas threatened to flood their boiler rooms through the funnel tops. Their propellers churned wind oftener than water.

We were running with an old-fashioned log at that time—a canvas bag and a wooden plug trailed by a sticky line wound on a wobbly reel and held unsteadily aloft by a lurching seaman and timed by a sleepy apprentice with a worn-out sand glass. An honest taffrail log would have recorded us at least eighteen instead of the miserly fourteen-odd knots we were credited with. But sailors never were noted for doing anything remarkable except drinking rum and chewing tobacco.

On the third day of the big run, the wind had attained almost hurricane force, and the sea had risen to mountainous heights and fearsome aspect. Our grand old ship, however, carried on nobly and showed not the slightest symptoms of weakening or distress.

That night of Good Hope I shall never forget;
Ofttimes I look backward and think of it yet,-
We were plunging bows under, her courses all wet,
At the rate of fourteen, with to’gallan’ s’ils set.
So we’ll roll, roll, bullies,
Roll as we go,
For the kidapore ladies
Have got us in tow!

At four in the afternoon, before changing watches, the Old Man ordered the mate to take in the fore- and mizzen-topgallant sails since, as he declared, the ship was dragging instead of sailing. It had reached the limit of its sailing power, and the surplus canvas was now a hindrance rather than a help. As soon as ‘we had mustered watches, the order was given; clewlines, buntlines, and leechlines were manned fore and aft at the same time. In just twenty minutes, the two big kites were taken in and snugly stowed. The Late Commander carried a noble crew. As soon as we had the ship shortened down to a whole main-topgallant sail, the port watch was sent below and the watch on deck was left to clear up the tangle of loose gear washing about the deck and trailing overboard through the scuppers.

The ship continued her racing gait with no apparent slackening of speed after shortening sail, and she rode much easier and made better weather of howling winds and driving sea. When the starboard watch went below at four bells for the second dogwatch, the ship was high-diving and wallowing through the thundering seas at a terrific pace.

According to the common plan in British ships, the Late Commander’s forecastle was directly beneath the forecastle head, with two doors at one end, the hawsepipes at the other, and a massive patent windlass in the center. After our Act o’ Parliament supper of hardtack, “strike me blind,” and “water bewitched” had been disposed of, we lighted our pipes and gathered around the big windlass for our usual dogwatch smoke session and yarn-spinning contest.

We were a motley bunch of weather-beaten, hardened sailors, every mother’s son a typical man-Jack. Lords of the gale, we reveled in our manhood and our strength and knew no hardship except the misery and degradation of being too long ashore. The British element naturally predominated among us, not because the ship was British, but simply because the voyage had originated in England nearly four years before. All of the original crew had not yet been seduced into desertion by the crimps in the various ports. Still, the inevitable vacancies had had to be filled from time to time until now more than half of our foremast complement of twenty-two A.B.’s was non-British seamen. Only four of us, collectively known as the Yankee Squad, were native Americans.

Seated around the forecastle in various easy and careless attitudes, we were surely an uncouth and unearthly looking group that might have descended from some remote planet and been sent away into these desolate and uninhabitable solitudes where nothing but blowing whales and pinioned sea birds could find contentment or natural sustenance. All of us were fully clad in the height of the prevailing fashion—sea boots and pea jackets, with oilskins and sou’westers ready» on hand in case of an emergency call.

Ever since the mutiny at the Nore, a national superstition has prevailed in British ships, both naval and commercial, against striking seven bells in the second dogwatch and rigging the gangway out on the port side. When four bells terminates the first dogwatch at six P.M., the chimes begin with one bell again at six-thirty, two bells mark seven o’clock, and three bells are struck at seven-thirty. Then the usual intermediate one bell at a quarter to eight warns the watch below to turn out and get ready. The final stroke of eight bells ends the dogwatch and calls all hands on deck to muster at the mainmast.

It happened to be Saturday night, and just before three bells young Pengelley came splashing forward through the deck swash to visit the sailors. Pengelley was as welcome as a Christmas morning, for every man among us adored the big handsome young Cornishman. The entire watch arose as one man to greet him and offer him the place of honor in our midst as he pushed his way in. Of course, it was contrary to both rule and tradition for apprentices to associate in quarters with “common” sailors, but no one, not even old Cap’n Grummitt himself, ever thought of reprimanding Pengelley.

Like many other high-minded but hardheaded men, Pengelley’s father, being an officer in the Royal Navy, had insisted upon a sea career for his son even though the sensitive lad was unfitted by natural impulse and predilection for the hardships and drudgeries peculiar to the maritime service. Pengelley was a born scholar. He was studious, book-minded, and thoughtful rather than practical.

He was as much out of place among a windjammer’s crew as a marble statue in a farmer’s bamyard. Nevertheless, Pengelley was the light, the life, and the pride and ennobling influence of our whole ship’s company. We needed someone better, nobler, nearer the unknown unattainable than our miserable selves. That was why we all adored Pengelley. He never needed to do any sailorizing; we could do all that!

Politely but positively declining any of the vacated seats around the windlass, Pengelley stripped off his dripping oilskin coat and spread it over the horn of the windlass to drain. Then loosing his big woolen lammie at the throat, he stretched himself at full length in precarious comfort along the running board fronting the lower tier of bunks. The strait-laced restrictions of quarter-deck discipline evidently bored him, and he appreciated the homely good will and natural levity of us “common” sailors.

He seemed to be in unusually high spirits that night. His blue eyes twinkled with suppressed mirth and his chestnut hair glistened in the flickering light of the spluttering slush lamp. Although the constant lurching and diving of the ship rendered his recumbent position on the bunkboard somewhat insecure, Pengelley seemed to enjoy the situation. He began describing, with witty embellishments, some of the amusing mishaps to officers and crew which he had witnessed during the day.

The resonant clang of three warning strokes on the big watch bell directly over our heads interrupted his amusing recital and created an uneasy stir among the tired seamen. The short and comfortless dogwatch was nearing its close and we would soon be called on deck to wrestle with the warring elements again until midnight.

“Sing us a song, Pen, before the watch is called,” shouted Spike Riley. “Sumpin’ sad an’ sentimental; sumpin’ with a chorus so’s we kin all jine in an’ blow th’ wind. Ain’t no ladies present, ye know,” the old vagabond reminded us with an artful grin, “so we kin make all th’ noise we’ve min’ ter ‘ithout disturbin’ enybody’s nervous systim.”

“Let ’er go, Pen,” piped half a score of eager voices. “Order for a song! Go ahead, Pen. Sing ’er up.”

Always willing, Pengelley at once responded to our request. He broke into the opening verse of the sailors’ love song, “Anchor’s Weighed,” with all the entrancing vigor and glorious fervor of his marvelous voice. As verse after verse rolled out in perfect rhythm and soulful expression, the whole watch would take up the simple and appealing refrain with boisterous enthusiasm, our combined voices ringing and rising above the roar and thunder of the storm, the thousand deck noises, and the raging sea.

Our evening song ended in salvos of wild applause, and at the stroke of eight bells we donned our coats and hurried out on the deck. The night and the sea had assumed truly fearsome aspects. The heavy black wind bags that dominated the sky and shut out the light of heaven had settled over all apparent creation with appalling completeness. The night was as dark as a bottomless pit. Only the phosphorescent gleam of the breaking sea crests and the iridescent and fleeting glow of the splashing side wash afforded an occasional and flitting glimpse of the loom and tension of the bulging sails. The big westerly wind had settled down into a continual, monotonous, bellowing roar. The whitecaps were flecked angrily from the summits of the racing seas and lashed away in great windrows of gleaming spindrift that spread like driven snow flurries in the pathway of the rushing waves.

But everything on the ship held even though the storm seemed to have attained its maximum intensity. So, except for some untoward accident during the night, prospects seemed good that the ship would be able to carry on until morning.

When all hands had assembled at the main fife rail, Tom Splicer communicated the fact with the usual announcement, “Watch is aft, sir.” Then, after a brief interval of uneasy suspense, came the welcome, though slightly amended order and admonition: “Relieve the wheel and lookout. Two A.B.s at the wheel. That’ll do the watch. Stand by for a call.”

That the afterguard was feeling suspicious of the weather and preparing for trouble was quite evident, but it never pays to borrow trouble or spoil your peace of mind either by tragic anticipations or vain regrets. If we could read the inexorable decrees of fate beforehand, the human race would soon become extinct because every individual on earth would break his neck trying to dodge the inevitable.

As soon as the port watch had been relieved and gone below, the starboard watch scrambled for various safety perches above the level of the sea-swept deck. Most of the crowd climbed to the little flying bridge over the quarter-deck and wrapped themselves in the idle clew of the mizzen staysail, which had not been hoisted in over a week. The lookout was kept from the break of the poop, but as

I was the “farmer” that watch, having neither wheel nor lookout coming to me, I climbed to the top of the forward house and stowed myself snugly away beneath one of the big boats lashed keel upward to ringbolts in the beam skids. Lying down with my head pillowed on the oaken skid with only my sou’wester for softening, I soon fell sound asleep, entirely oblivious to all my wild and fear- some surroundings.

I was awakened from my slumber by hearing my name called in ordinary and friendly tone. Had it been a watch call, I should have scrambled out in a hurry and shouted, “Aye, aye, sir.” But as it was, I simply stretched out my hand, more provoked than alarmed, and felt a presence I could not see.

“Is that you, Pen?” I asked, sensing the identity of my unexpected visitor.

“Yes, it’s me, Jim,” answered the young apprentice. “Do you like manavlins? I gave the steward a shilling for the dog basket after supper last evening. The small stores are getting smaller now, and we don’t get much better food in the half deck than you men do in the forecastle.”

“I know it, you young rascal,” I answered as I sat up and eagerly accepted a generous section of sea pie proffered me in the dark.

After I had gobbled the cabin leavings, we sat together in shrouded silence beneath the pitch-black darkness of the upturned boat. Roundabout and overhead and down beneath us thundered the tumult of ship noises and the storm—-the rush and roar and hollow reverberations of driving seas; the monotonous, insistent wailing of the wind; the chaotic crash and tumult of an occasional comber breaching the rail, staggering the ship with its sudden impact and stupendous weight and battering the hatch coamings with the fury of a cataract. Overhead, the screaming tempest held high carnival in the vibrant shrouds. Idle chain gear rattled discordantly against the reechoing spars of hollow steel. The groaning yards and creaking blocks and grinding gins and singing boltropes told the terrific strain imposed upon our flawless gear.

Below the heavy deck, responding to every lurch, the throbbing hull labored incessantly beneath the avalanches of water constantly thundering aboard. The submerged clatter of disgorging sluice ports, the hollow chortling of choking scuppers, the occasional pounding of spare spars and loosened deck fittings kept apt and fitting accompaniment to the surrounding tumult. Above the storm, the wind reigned triumphant over all.

“What time is it, Pen?” I finally inquired.

“Six bells went before I came forward,” he replied. “Jones is keeping scuppers on the poop, and I’m standing by to call the watch. The second mate has been ordered to make one bell at half past and get all hands out. We’re going to take in the topgallant sail before the watch is relieved. It’s blowing harder now and we’re edging to the northward to get out of the zone and into smoother seas. “

“Well, Pen,” I said cheerfully, “I guess I’ll jump down into the forecastle and try a drag at the pipe before we start gehawking again. A feed like that deserves a smoke for consolation.”

“Wait a moment, Jim,” urged Pengelley in a pleading tone as he laid a restraining hand on my oilskins. “I want to ask a favor of you.”

“Sing out, Pen. It’s already granted,” I exclaimed, startled by the sudden tenseness and appealing solemnity of his voice. “What can I do for you?”

“Jim,” asked the young apprentice seriously, “do you remember the evening we first met in Calcutta?”

“Certainly,” I replied. “That was a year ago when all our squad went up to say goodbye to Black Harry and Piringee Katherine.”

“Yes, it was a year ago—just a year ago tonight. Do you remember that I told you it was the third anniversary of my apprenticeship?”

“Why, yes,” I answered. “I do. I suppose you are trying to remind me that tonight is your fourth anniversary in the half deck. Your indenture expires at midnight and tomorrow you will be eligible for promotion to the quarter deck. From Calcutta you will be sent to London to pass examination’ for your new rating. Congratulations, old man!”

I found Pengelley’s hand and gripped it warmly in the dark. For a moment neither of us spoke. Then he broke the tense silence beneath the sheltering boatwith a startling declaration.

“Jim, I am not going to reach Calcutta; I shall never see dear old England again.”

“Say, what ails you, Pen?” I exclaimed, horrified by his suddenly changed demeanor and mysterious talk. “You’ve been worrying about something and your wits are going astray. Tell me about it. You know I’m a safe counsellor and even if I can’t help you perhaps I can share the burden with you and help, you bear the strain.” I was so profoundly shocked by Pengelley’s behavior that I sat still in mystified silence waiting for him to proceed.

“Do you ever become frightened when you’re aloft, Jim?” asked the boy suddenly, gripping my oilskins nervously as he spoke.

“Scared, you mean? No, of course not,” I asserted contemptuously. “The safest place on a ship is aloft, especially on a night like this. You’re out of the deck smother, clear of the wrack, and above your officers for the time being. And the wind don’t blow any harder upstairs than it does down here. But why such foolish questions, Pen? You aren’t afraid of anything, are you?”

“There is only one thing I fear, Jim,” replied Pengelley, “and that is disgrace. I’ve always been timid about climbing; it’s a natural weakness that I cannot overcome no matter how hard I try. For a long time, I thought the feeling would wear away by enforced habit and constant practice, but in that hope I’ve been sadly disappointed. Ever since the night poor old Barney Dent was flung from the main topgallant yard, I’ve been oppressed by an unspeakable horror every time I go aloft, especially on that particular yard. Sometimes the terror makes me sick and causes me to vomit while I’m aloft; and then the reaction causes me to vomit again after I am safely on deck.

“Of course, everybody attributes it to seasickness, which is really chronic in some constitutions. In a sense it is seasickness, Jim. It is not actual fright. It is simply my stomach instead of my heart that gets in my mouth at such times, and it could not happen anywhere else except at sea; but it is a condition I can no more avoid or overcome than I can stop breathing and live.

“I know you will consider me silly and superstitious,” he went on, “but I know I shall never see the end of this passage, and before anything happens I want you to promise that you will do something for me after–after you reach Calcutta.” He faltered at the conclusion of the sentence, and I knew that his feelings were overwrought.

Although I placed no credence in his premonition, I realized that it was useless to try to reason him out of it. If he had been an ordinary, simple-minded old sailor oppressed by silly seasaws and ancient superstitions against capsizing hatch covers, striking the bell backward, or sailing on Friday, there might have been some hope. In that case, if he could not have been reasoned or ridiculed out of his groundless fears, he could have been kicked or cuffed out of them or otherwise left to steep in his own ignorance.

But Pengelley was different. He was a broad-minded, widely read, well-informed young man. I had never known him to harbor spooks or mental hallucinations, nor was he a victim of melancholia. In fact, he had always been regarded as the most cheerful of the four apprentices.

“If it is as serious as all that, Pen,” I said, for I was becoming alarmed for his safety by this time, “you had better lay up for a few days or until we run into fine weather again and your nervousness subsides. I am sure Captain Grummitt won’t insist on ordering you aloft if your life is endangered by it.”

“Jim,” he declared firmly, “I can’t do that. The other apprentices would despise me and my father would disown me. Please keep quiet about it,” he pleaded in genuine alarm. “Simply do as I wish you to.”

“But, Pen,” I insisted, “you are the bravest boy I ever saw to live through a horror like that for four years just to gratify your father’s whim. I am sure he would have withdrawn your indentures long ago and had you sent home if he had been aware, of the facts.”

But Pengelley was obdurate. All I could do under the circumstances was to humor him and appear to acquiesce in his plans, for he was really laboring under a dangerous mental aberration. His designs would have to be humored in order to be circumvented. I therefore pretended to act in accord with his wishes, but mentally resolved to frustrate his quixotic fancies of filial devotion even if it meant incurring his everlasting displeasure. I inwardly resolved to try not only to have Pengelley relieved, but, if possible, prohibited from going aloft during the remainder of the voyage.

“Well, Pen,” I resumed, “don’t be downhearted. We’ll run into fine weather in a day or two and the danger will be over. Meanwhile, whenever we have to go aloft, you stick close to me. That will encourage you and I will always be there to lend a hand.”

“Thank you, Jim,” exclaimed the boy with grateful fervency. “But before we separate I want you to promise that in the event of anything happening to me you will send this box to my sister Eunice, at Saint Ives. She knows of you already,” he added, thrusting a package into my hands as he spoke, “because I mentioned you to her in my last letter home from New York.

“In this package,” he went on, “there is a camphorwood box containing some letters and photographs, some private papers and trinkets, and the gold watch my father gave me when I left home. I know that if I am missing all my effects will have to be accounted for by the captain and owners of this ship. But in that case they would likewise have to be inspected, and the contents of this box are too sacred for that.”

“You can get Miss Primrose, the little missionary in Calcutta, to help you. She knows me well and I believe she knows you also. She can manage to have the package sent for you by special dispatch. Under the canvas wrapper around the box, you will find a letter addressed to my sister. I want you to send it to her together with another letter to be written by yourself.”

“Well, I’ll take your orders, Pen,” I replied, “and all the more willingly because I feel certain I shall never be required to carry them out.”

Pengelley wrung my hand warmly. “God bless you, Jim,” he exclaimed. “And now I want you to accept these trifles as a token of our friendship.” With that, he thrust into my hand a heavy gold; watch guard with a solid gold anchor pendant attached as a charm. I recognized the pieces and appreciated their intrinsic value and artistic merit, for I had seen Pengelley wearing them on special, occasions.

It was nearing seven bells now, and Pengelley and I crawled from beneath the sheltering enclosure of the inverted boat and descended to the slippery surface of the main deck. Pengelley went aft to take the time, and I dove into the forecastle to secrete my precious charge before the watch was called.

Returning to the deck, I proceeded at once to locate some of my; watchmates and arouse them to the fact that another furling match was about due. I could not think of taking in that big main-topgallant sail, however, without feeling concerned over Pengelley’s tragic premonition. There was great danger to anyone working aloft in the Late Commander because of the complete absence of any beckets, grab lines, or saving gear of any kind on her yardarms. The harrowing lessons of three tragic casualties on the previously run had made no perceptible mark on the hearts or minds of those responsible. No effort had been made to guard against future tragedies. She lacked even the most basic lifesaving attachments on the yardarms. This deficiency, because of the great girth of her principal spars and the immense spread and heavy weft of her enormous sails, made the Late Commander an extremely hazardous ship to manipulate aloft.

I tried hard to invent some lubberly trick, no matter how base, to prevent Pengelley from going aloft that night, but I was at my wit’s end and could not think coherently. There was no time to weave a plot or to execute it if found. The stroke of one bell found me still struggling with my inward terrors and with no hope of any design. In a few minutes, both watches were out and Tom Splicer was splashing around the deck roaring orders to everybody below and aloft.

There was no general muster, but within a few minutes all hands were hauling away on the main-topgallant running gear. Clewlines, leechlines, buntlines, and downhauls were all manned at once and the massive topgallant yard came creaking down handsomely to the topmast cap. The voluminous canvas came floundering, fluttering, and thundering with a tremendous straining and baffling uproar against the mighty tension of the gear.

Amid the momentary excitement and general din, I ceased for a time to worry about Pengelley; and when the tautened gear had been belayed and the braces steadied, I was among the first to lay aloft in response to the imperious order, “Tie ’er up.”

Upon reaching the masthead, I assumed one side of the bunt, with Big Mac for a side partner. With a forty-foot hoist on a sixty-foot spar, it was no child’s task to bunt that main-topgallant sail.

Moreover, it was always a desperate job, especially when running square, because the yard was rigged with old-fashioned quarter clewline blocks, there were no spilling lines, and the buntline lizards on the jack-stays were entirely too long. This left large quantities of slack canvas with which to contend. Consequently, there was always an immense wind bag to smother when the sail was brailed up.

When the watch had mustered along the yardarms and the gaskets were cleared, the huge bag bellied and bellowed above our heads as tense and rigid as an inflated balloon. The wet and hardened canvas was as unyielding as chilled boiler plate. Taking advantage of a momentary wind flaw in a lucky backsend of the ship, we all grabbed the slightly slackened canvas and, shouting encouragement to each other, made a united and desperate effort to smother the big wind bag and strangle it up snugly to the jackstay.

But in the next dive, the clews filled away again. In spite of the desperate exertions of ten strong men, the sail burst away with an exultant bang. And then, in the extremity of common danger, I heard a faint, wild, despairing cry and felt an ominous slackening of the footrope beneath my feet. Instantly a fearful dread froze my heart. Where was Pengelley? Had he purposely eluded me in the darkness and brought about the terrible fulfillment of his premonition? Trembling at the harrowing thought, I returned to the hazardous duty before us; and, after a few more daring attempts, we finally succeeded in overpowering the raging sailcloth and bunched it up securely on the swaying yard.

After passing the tail stop of the bunt gasket to Big Mac, I clutched the convenient warp of the topgallant backstay and slid, like a plummet to the topgallant rail. As I leaped to the deck, I met Jones, the junior apprentice, a muffled and impersonal shape in the darkness. I recognized him by his voice, and he probably knew me by my hasty and vigorous actions.

“That you, Williams?” he inquired.

“Yes, it’s me,” I responded. “Who fell?”

“Pengelleyl He wants you,” he replied in a horrified tone. “They carried him into the cabin and the cap’n says he’s dyin’. He’s been callin’ for you.” The young apprentice subsided with a smothered sob, and I made my way with bursting heart to the cabin. I pulled the heavy teakwood door open without any preliminary knock and strode unceremoniously into the forward cabin. It was likewise the officers’ mess room; and there, bolstered up on a berth mattress on the big mess table lay the broken frame and tortured body of the dying boy.

At the head of the table stood Captain Grummitt, a chastened look softening his wooden features. Beside him stood the steward, striving awkwardly to minister to the last earthly needs of the passing spirit. Ranged alongside the mess board were four able seamen standing in reverent silence. They were the rescue squad that had brought Pengelley into the cabin. Above, in the skylight, the telltale compass wobbled unsteadily with the yawing of the ship; the marine clock in the alcove ticked the fateful seconds away with relentless beats; and outside the storm wind howled a mighty greeting to the departing soul.

As I stood near the entrance, sou’wester in hand, Captain Grummitt beckoned me to the side of my shipmate. Stepping quietly to the head of the table, I bent reverently over the dying apprentice and listened attentively to his labored breathing to catch any parting words.

Pengelley lay perfectly still for a while. His hands were cold as ice, his eyes partly closed, and his handsome features, now distorted by mortal anguish, were as white as chiseled marble. Only the painful and irregular breathing and the slight twitching of the pallid lips after each feeble gasp indicated that the spark of life still glowed faintly.

“Do you know me, Pen?” I asked, pressing his cold hand firmly in mine.

The dark eyes opened slowly and a slight flash of glad recognition illumined the pale features. The bloodless lips moved inaudibly and I bent closer to catch the whispered words.

“You’ll remember, won’t you, Jim? The package and the letter?”

“Surely, Pen,” I murmured hoarsely. “I’ll do all I have promised.”

“Thank you, Jim,” he faltered once again. ‘I’m glad—you—came. Now—I am—content.”

Then the weary eyelids drooped again over the fading orbs, the death pallor deepened to an unearthly whiteness, and for fully a minute the labored breathing ceased. Then, just as Captain Grummitt was about to make an inspection to detect any lingering spark of life, Pengelley’s whole body became suddenly convulsed by a raging spasm of supreme agony. His eyes opened wide, staring and sightless. His classical features were fearfully distorted in an excruciating horror of unutterable anguish. His head rocked violently from side to side and raised spasmodically from the pillow in an uncontrollable ecstasy of intense soul-racking pain.

“Lord! Lord! Help me!” he shrieked in the terrifying accents of mortal extremity, and with that great agonizing appeal a surging hemorrhage burst the internal barriers of life. The pent-up flood poured forth from mouth and ears and nostrils in crimson streams, the raised head fell back limply to the waiting pillow, the contracted features relaxed in a smile of ineffable relief, a parting sigh of weary contentment escaped the colorless lips, a settled attitude of eternal repose stole over the stalwart form on the table, and all was still.

Blow the Man Down! A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, by James H. Williams

In his autobiography, Living Again, Felix Riesenberg mentions that, during his time as editor of Seafarer and Marine Pictorial magazine, “I printed what I believe to be one of the outstanding sea stories ever written, ‘The Passing of Pengelley,’ by a sailor named Williams, a protégé of Hamilton Holt, the editor of the Independent.”

blowthemandownGoogling “passing of pengelley” and “williams” produced just two hits: one to Living Again, the other to the Google Books page for Blow The Man Down: A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, subtitled “An autobiographical narrative based upon the writings of James H. Williams,” a 1959 book edited by Warren F. Kuehl.

In his preface to the book, Kuehl describes how he stumbled across a collection of Williams’ manuscripts while researching a biography on Holt:

In style and story, it held me spellbound. Here were daring adventures, heroic deeds, and colorful descriptive passages. And here was the lure of a romantic age now lost save in our imagination.

From reading the pieces, Kuehl soon learned more about the writer:

He called himself a common sailor, but he was a most uncommon man. With little formal education, he wrote in a style which would embarrass many polished scribes. Although a self-confessed murderer according to his own account, he possessed a high sense of moral virtue which like an unseen hand directed his actions. Although a practical man who survived innumerable storms and two major shipwrecks, he was a romantic soul who instinctively sought out the ships of masts and spars in an age in which the merchant marine was making its transition from sail to steam, from Wood to steel. Within him, too, burned a reforming fever so intense that he became an uncompromising enemy of crimps, jackals, avaricious shipowners, heartless masters, and all who preyed upon the common seaman. And he labored with some success to achieve through unions and legislation the humane treatment and legal rights which he felt his comrades of the sea deserved.

jameshwilliamsHe was, Kuehl continues,

James H. Williams, Negro seaman with reddish hair and light-brown skin. He was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1864, the son of James C. and Margaret Crotty Williams and, as he narrates in describing his family background and childhood experiences, went to sea at an early age. It was in 1897 that he first began to write about life in the old merchant marine. He was then thirty-three years old and had been a sailor for twenty-one years. Hamilton Holt, then the managing editor of the Independent, a prominent national magazine, opened the columns of his journal to Williams and subsequently prints over thirty articles and editorials from Williams’ pen.

As Williams writes in the first piece, “A Son of Ishmael,” his father was a black sailor, whose mother had been a slave, and his mother a white working-class woman from Fall River. Williams’ father rose to the status of pilot for a Long Island Sound line, and had ambitions of a college education for his son, but these ended with his death in an accident in 1870. At the age of twelve, Williams took to sea, bound to a shipmaster as a cabin boy.

By the time Williams went to sea, the great age of sailing ships was already coming to an end. Steamships were rapidly replacing sailing ships, and three-masters were being elbowed out of the most profitable routes. Although Williams was quite clearly a highly perceptive and intelligent man, for some reason he chose to stick with the older ships–a decision that relegated him to a series of rough, dangerous, and poorly-paid posts on ships plying secondary routes to such places as Bombay and Buenos Aires. Most of his jobs were on British ships, although he considered this “entirely the result of chance and not of choice.”

“I am proud of my hard-earned distinction as a maritime A. B. and of my lifetime of intimate and fraternal association with the ‘common’ sailors of the old merchant marine. No nobler or braver or more loyal, devoted and self-sacrificing martyrs than the merchant seaman ever lived.”

“The Passing of Pengelley” offers a dramatic illustration of the risks taken by these seamen. It describes the death of one of Williams’ shipmates, Alfred Pengelley, on the British ship, Late Commander, on a transit from Southhampton to Calcutta. As they huddle together on deck, sheltering from a terrific storm while standing watch, Pengelley confides in Williams that he has a crippling fear of climbing the masts and believes that he is destined to die from a fall. Pengelley’s premonition comes true that night. Williams then recounts his burial at sea and how the ship’s captains and owners then attempt to cover up the cause of the accident–the lack of proper safety attachments–and put the blame on Pengelley’s own negligence. It’s a vivid story that not only demonstrates the dangers of shipboard work but also Williams’ own advocacy of better working conditions and pay for sailors–a cause he championed both while at sea and later through his articles and columns.

The story illustrates why Kuehl is apt in comparing Williams’ writings to Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s classic, Two Years Before the Mast. Both men were eloquent in conveying the drama and degradation of life as a working sailor, and both played important roles in organizing movements to improve their lot.

Ironically, though, at the same time that Williams began to write, the very organizations he was trying to support were making it more and more difficult for a black man to work as a merchant sailor. By the time he came ashore for good in 1910, it would have been difficult for him to get a posting as anything other than a cook or steward.

Williams’ time at sea took a considerable toll on his health. Although supported by Holt and others, he still had to rely on odd jobs on the Manhattan waterfront to get by. He collected his manuscripts and wrote an introductory foreword to them in 1922, hoping to publish them as a book. It was this collection that Kuehl discovered among Hamilton Holt’s papers.

In 1926, he retired to Sailor’s Snug Harbor a home founded in 1801 to give refuge to “aged, decrepit and worn-out” seamen. He died a year later after an operation to treat his throat cancer and was buried in the Sailor’s Snug Harbor cemetery.

A paperback reproduction of Blow The Man Down is available from Literary Licensing, LLC. for $32.95, but used copies of the original 1959 hardback can be found for a fraction of that price on Amazon and elsewhere.

Blow The Man Down: A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, based upon the writings of James H. Williams, edited by Warren F. Kuehl
New York City: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1959

Red Horses, by Felix Riesenberg: A re-write of his first novel, P. A. L.

redhorsesFelix Riesenberg’s 1928 novel, Red Horses, is extremely rare in two ways. There are only two copies list for sale on the Internet–one at $100, the other (signed) at $300, and there are only about twenty copies listed in I was only able to read it via my son’s access to the University of California’s superb library system.

But it’s also the only case I know (admittedly, there may be others I don’t) of a novel that’s been rewritten and published by its author with a different title. In a brief note at the start of the book, Riesenberg wrote:

The basis of the present story is my novel P.A.L issued by Robert M. McBride & Company in 1925. I have rewritten my earlier novel and the job has given me considerable amusement. I offer the result without apology or prayer.

P.A.L, which I wrote about back in August 2012, is an acerbic account of the career of an over-the-top entrepeneur and huckster, P. A. L. Tangerman, who shills everything from baldness cures and health tonics to chocolate, cigars and self-improvement books and, finally, to a scheme to produce gold from desert sand. Riesenberg was 44 when he published the book. He came late to writing, having worked as a merchant marine officer, Arctic explorer, civil engineer, and building inspector.

Riesenberg’s view of American capitalism in P.A.L is bitterly satiric, full of an angry that Riesenberg later gave full vent to in his Depression novel, Passing Strangers. He relates the story of Tangerman’s rise and fall through the eyes of Marakoff, a Russian merchant seaman, shipwrecked off the coast of Washington State and tossed into the feverish boosterism of Tangerman’s Seattle. Rather like Gulliver in the land of the Brobdingnag, Riesenberg’s narrator finds a sort of monstrous energy at play:

Power! light! heat! These were everywhere in evidence. As I walked up from the wharf, the sensation of coming again into a highly charged community caused my finger tips to tingle…. Lean, earnest-faced men shouted revolution, others spoke rapidly of religion, and still others, great, full-mouthed orators, extolled the virtues of special medicines. A band of uniformed musicians chanted loud praises of the Lord. Over all was the constant blink of great electric signs.

Later, when the scene shifts to Chicago, the narrator’s sense of a diseased society becomes literal:

Such thoughts came to me of an evening, looking out on the avenue and marveling at the curious folk who walked by. What was going on about me so far exceeded even these fancies that I judged the world throughicurious eyes. At times I felt we were in a great hospital full of patients, all sick, some seriously, some slightly, but getting worse. I even pictured this great hospital managed by a peculiar staff of somber, public doctors. It seemed to me the great hospital of humanity was for a time in charge of the world’s undertakers, men prospering mightily through the general debility.

The intensity of Riesenberg’s reaction to the fervor of the 1920s is muted only slightly in his rewrite of the book three years later. Although I haven’t done a line-by-line comparison of texts between P.A.L and Red Horses, I think I can safely say that Riesenberg’s major change was to pare away whatever he considerable inessential.

P.A.L was structured in four parts, preceded by a prologue describing the voyage and shipwreck of Marakoff’s ship. In Red Horses, Riesenberg dispenses with the prologue completely. He also dispenses with a considerable amount of editorial commentary. The prologue to P.A.L begins,

Of course there is an explanation for everything. Even a state of mind may be explored, and some have attempted to explain the favor of a woman. Chance and time play upon us constantly. Love and murder may be answers to the same demand; Who can see everything and know all, in a universe growing more complex with time?

In Red Horses, Riesenberg wisely dropped this exordium and jumped straight into the story:

I was a sailor, ashore and out of work. I had no money, no friends, no business or profession upon which I might rely.

The cut of the prologue is the largest single change in the text, and there is no equivalent change in the story itself. Marakoff, whose name is taken down as Markham by his rescuers, is given an introduction to P. A. L. Tangerman, who is launching the Cudahy Dome, a contraption intended to cure baldness by applying a vacuum to the scalp, as his first great venture. Tangerman spins off dozens of other enterprises and eventually moves to Chicago with Markham in tow. He continues to surf from one deal to another, relying in most cases more on momentum and hype than real capital, until one of his many paramours shoots him dead. Markham returns to Washington State and settles down happily ever after with Madeleine, Tangerman’s first wife, whom Markham has loved from afar for years.

In fact, it would probably be more accurate to describe Red Horses as an edit of P.A.L than a rewrite. Riesenberg did make other structural alterations beside dropping the prologue, but these consist only of changes in how the text is broken up. What are called “Parts” in P.A.L become “Books” in Red Horses, and instead of “Chapters,” Riesenberg divides these into numbered sections, using nearly twice as many in Books Two and Three–the Chicago books.

Aside from these changes, which make little difference in the reading experience, what is most noticeable between P.A.L and Red Horses is what is missing. As the following excerpts demonstrate, the primary skill Riesenberg developed between the two versions is the use of his blue pencil.

P. A. L.Red Horses
Now began an adventure that defied analysis. I could neither pull it apart, nor could I find the materials out of which it might be logically built. It was an existence, a state of being, or a condition. But the effect upon me was one of bewilderment. My past life had always known its departments or classes. One was an officer, an aristocrat, or one was not. Throughout, this simple relationship had held. Always the patrician and the plebeian. We had a convenient set of bins into which one might throw the facts of life, and forget them.

But, of a sudden, I became engulfed in the democracy of America, without doubt the greatest and most amazing state men have yet achieved. In England I had known the old order modified, the aristocracy backing down, hanging on to their caste while slowly dropping their cash and unearned privileges; but here I found people in a continuous waltz, taking on importance and losing it with remarkable swiftness and facility. The greatest in the land were those most skilled in the art of extracting money from their fellows.

Of a sudden, I became engulfed in the democracy of America, without doubt the greatest and most amazing state men have yet achieved. In England I had seen the old order modified, the aristocracy backing down, hanging to their caste while slowly dropping their cash and unearned privileges; but here I found people in a continuous waltz, taking on importance and losing it with remarkable swiftness. The greatest were those most skilled in extracting money from their fellows.
In the light of retrospection, in cold letters, the adventure that follows comes to me like a nightmare, remembered in the dawn. In a land where the Keeley Motor was given to science, where Turtle Serum was welcomed by an enthusiastic multitude of doctors, where the Cardiff Giant once astonished paleontologists, where Ponzi bewildered financiers, and where Dr. Cook split the millions into contending camps, resting his claims upon the broad back of the King of Denmark, in such a land almost anything may happen, and almost anything may be absolutely true. It is a grand land, a mighty land, and in the very middle of it lies the teeming city of Chicago, the heart and lungs and life of it, free, thank Heaven, from pernicious, outside, foreign interference.In a land where the Keeley Motor was given to science, where Turtle Serum was welcomed by an enthusiastic multitude of doctors, where the Cardiff Giant once astonished paleontologists, where Ponzi bewildered financiers, and where Dr. Cook split the millions into contending camps, resting his claims upon the broad back of the King of Denmark, in such a land almost anything may happen, and almost anything may be absolutely true. And in the very middle of it lies the teeming city of Chicago.
My state of mind in the summer days that followed the death of Tangerman was that of some nascent atom, forcibly released from a powerful combination in which it had long played a dependent part. The city went on just the same, much to my surprise, for it seemed at times that everything should stop, as my own life had stopped amid the jumble of Pal’s affairs.

On the morning of his burial, arranged in its details by the fimeral directors, a great many people met at the church where services were held. Small wreaths were placed on his coffin by humble mourners who walked back and sat through the service. A eulogy was rendered by a solemn speaker who had never laid eyes on Pal in his life. He spoke in hollow monotone, stringing platitudes for a fee-—a paraphrast mumbling behind the awful shadow of death. I positively marveled at the audacity of the man. Better, by far, to have honored Pal by an interval of the human quiet he had never known.

On the morning of Pal’s burial, arranged in its details by the funeral directors, a great many people met at the church where services were held. Small wreaths were placed on his coffin by humble mourners who walked back and sat through the service. A eulogy was rendered by a solemn speaker who had never laid eyes on Pal in his life. He spoke in hollow monotone, stringing platitudes for a fee—-a paraphrast mumbling behind the awful shadow of death. Better, by far, to have honored Pal by an interval of the human quiet he had never known.

In the end, Riesenberg very likely got more amusement than critical or financial reward out of rewriting P.A.L as Red Horses. P.A.L garnered a handful of reviews; Red Horses even fewer. Neither was ever reprinted. Perhaps thanks to my earlier piece, there appear to be exactly as many copies of P.A.L for sale as Red Horses: two. Aside from a couple of surveys of fiction set in Chicago, neither has been remembered in print anywhere outside this site since Riesenberg’s death. I suspect Riesenberg’s work might have fared between if he’d lived in Nebraska or Georgia or Texas, where he might at least have earned some recognition as a regional novelist. Although I wouldn’t claim masterpiece status for either version of Tangerman’s tale, I do think it deserves an honorable mention in the history of American literature and I suspect some industrious graduate student could provide an interesting textual analysis of the two books. Until then, however, we’ll keep a candle burning here in Riesenberg’s memory.

Red Horses, by Felix Riesenberg
New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1928

The Prisoners, by Orhan Kemal

Business travel took me through the Istanbul Airport for the fifth time since the start of the year, and I had enough time to check the same bookshop where I found Nazim Hikmet’s wonderful Human Landscapes from My Country. In the small section of Turkish literature in English translation dominated, naturally enough, by Orhan Pahmuk, I found Orhan Kemal’s slim novel, The Prisoners (72. Ko?u? or Ward 72 in the original).

Kemal, a prolific and popular writer specializing in novels about the lower classes, was a contemporary of Hikmet and served time with him in the same jail–an experience he recounted in his 1947 book, In Jail with Nazim Hikmet“>In Jail with Nazim Hikmet. His most famous book, The Idle Years, now available from Peter Owen Ltd. with a preface by Pahmuk, is a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman. Like Hikmet, he died in exile–in Bulgaria, in his case–and his works have since become recognized and accepted as some of the best Turkish literature of the 20th century. A substantial site, including an English language section, is available at, and Everest Publications, a Turkish press, has brought many of his books, including a few English translations, back to print.

The Prisoners tells a classic tale of human hopes and tragedy. Ahmet, known a “Captain” by his fellow inmates from his time as a merchant seaman, receives a little money from his mother while serving a sentence for the murder of two men who’d killed his father. Against his instincts, he’s talked into gambling it in the running crap grame controlled by another prisoner, Solezli. He wins some, and treats the other inmates of Ward 72, a filthy hole to which the lowest tier of prison society is resigned, to a little food, some beans and meat.

The taste of warm, filling food soon leads Captain to return to the crap game. He wins again, and soon is off on a winning streak. Ward 72 is transformed with his takings. He becomes a force in the prison. He begins to have hopes of a life after his sentence is up decades in the future.

Nothing good lasts forever, of course, and it all comes to a grim end. You know this from the moment Captain comes back to Ward 72 with cash in hand, but Kemal succeeds in making the story fresh and gripping. Despite the bleak and ruthless prison setting, The Prisoners is as simple and powerful as a classic short novel such as The Red Badge of Courage.

One copy of The Prisoners is available on Amazon for the ridiculous price of $231, but you can order it for much less at or from the Turkish bookstore chain, D&R.

The Prisoners, by Orhan Kemal, translated by Cengiz Lugal
Istanbul: Everest Publications, 2012

New page added to Sources: Recommendations from Phillip Routh (not Roth)


Phillip Routh, whose blog, How Jack London Changed My Life, chronicles his prolific and eclectic reading, contacted me recently with a couple of recommendations–Gontran de Poncin’s memoir, Father Sets the Pace (“a withering biography of a supremely selfish man”), and Valery Larbaud’s short 1911 novel, Fermina Márquez. Knowing the breadth of his taste, I invited him to provide a longer list of recommendations to be included among the Sources on this site.

A few days later, he posted a list of ten titles with his comments, along with additional recommendations for most of the writers. “I had difficulty in selecting ten books, because so many were jostling for inclusion,” he wrote. I’ve just uploaded it to the site: you can read it now: Recommendations from Phillip Routh.

Thanks for your contributions, Phillip!

Michele Slung recommends The Years That Were Fat: Peking 1933-1940, by George N. Kates

Michele Slung, a veteran book editor, wrote recently to recommend George N. Kates’ 1952 memoir, The Years That Were Fat: Peking 1933-1940:

I finished a few days ago George Kates’ THE YEARS THAT WERE FAT, about his life in Peking in the ’30s. He had no journals, seemingly, yet sat down to write of his seven-year stay over a decade later, publishing the book in ’52. It was lent to me by an Asian-specialist curator friend, who said she’d always loved it and thought I would, too. I’m now pressing her to consider mounting a show centered on Kates and his more than ever “lost” world.

Slung’s friend, Dr. Caron Smith, is curator of the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas.
It’s a little surprising that The Years That Were Fat: Peking 1933-1940 is out of print and forgotten today, as it’s been published no less than four times so far: by Harpers in 1952, then by the M. I. T. Press in 1967 and again in 1976, and finally by Oxford University Press U. S. in 1989.

Kates cames to Peking in 1933 after a short but profitable stay in Hollywood, and settled in a quarter not frequented by Westerners, just north of the Forbidden City. He immersed himself in Chinese life, learning the language and customs and studying their culture (his first book, published in 1948, was Chinese Household Furniture, still considered an essential reference work). Driven out of the city by the encroaching Japanese Army, Kates soon left China. It would be ten years later before he would write of his experiences–without access to notes or a journal, as Slung notes.

The book was well-received when it was first published. Kates’ perspective and voice were particularly noted. “He is excellent when he describes the moods of the city, the street-vendors’ cries, the histories of the palaces and the temples, the practice of calligraphy, the strange habits of ricksha boys, and the hazards of learning Chinese,” wrote Robert Payne in the Saturday Review. Reviewing it for the academic Journal of Asian Studies, Arthur Hummel wrote with un-scholarly enthusiasm:

It is a book that no one who wishes to recapture the spirit of traditional Chinese civilization should miss reading; for, despite its unattractive title, it is a work of unusual depth and charm.

… Much of the charm of this book is attributable to the disciplined prose in which it is written. One must look far to find in it a hackneyed phrase, an ungainly sentence, or a dull paragraph.

Though out of print, the book continues to be mentioned from time to time. Novelist Adam Williams mentioned it in a 2009 talk on literary Peking and Ian Johnson referred to it in a 2008 Wall Street Journal book review.

And, it turns out, digital versions of the 1952 edition are available for free online, thanks to the Internet Archive:

The Second Miracle, by Peter Greave

secondmiracleThumbing through Peter Greave’s 1976 memoir, The Seventh Gate, in preparation for my short video piece on five neglected memoirs, I was reminded what a wonderful writer he was, and decided to locate a copy of his first book and give it a try. The Second Miracle, published in 1955, is Greave’s account of his time as a patient in a small clinic in England run by Anglican nuns–the Community of the Sacred Passion–for the treatment of leprosy, now usually referred to as Hansen’s disease. The clinic, St. Giles Home for British Lepers, located in East Hunningfield, near Chelmsford, Essex, was the last institution in England dedicated for the treatment of the disease.

Greave earned a place in the home while hiding away in a room in a decrepit boarding house in Calcutta, an experience he describes in The Seventh Gate. An unexpected windfall from his father allowed him to book a passage to England on a merchant freighter. For Greave, leaving India and gaining a hope of proper treatment was his first miracle. The second, he hoped, would be for him to walk out of the clinic cured, a healthy man.

The book opens with his long ride in the back of a cab from a Liverpool dockside to the home. His nerves worn raw from eight years of painful and lonely existence in India, he finds himself contemplating suicide even as the cab nears his destination:

I was in a state not far removed from insanity; it would not have been correct to describe me as a youngish [he was 38 when he arrived at the hospital in 1947] man who was sick. I was sick, but I was more than that; I was a perambulating mass of fear. Because of my fate I felt that I had lost the status of human being, that I stood outside the bounds of human pity; and the fear of something unimaginably horrible happening to me, once my condition was known, had become part of my mental make-up. And yet in a way this fear was my own choice; I had deliberately accepted it as the price of freedom. For eight years I had clung to the outskirts of life; crouching in my corner I had feasted my eyes on its radiance and gaiety; and though it had meant hiding like a criminal I had managed to retain my identity.

I dreaded beyond words the possibility of being shut away, of becoming a number in a hospital ward, of forfeiting even the nominal rights of a human being. To be shut up was a death sentence, and yet it was worse than that; it was a sentence of life without any of the ingredients that make life bearable.

It takes Greave some weeks to adapt to his new circumstances and begin to feel safe. The physical comforts–a room of his own, a comfortable chair to sit in, a soft bed to sleep in, windows from which to look out to the surrounding fields, three warm, nourishing meals a day–break down his resistance first. Then the genuine concern of the sisters and physicians for his care, and the companionship of his fellow patients helped him lose his sense of isolation. And after suffering years of painful and pointless injections into his scars, his disease began to respond to treatments with the new drug, dapsone.

The most difficult part of his recovery, though, is spiritual. In the time that he hid away from the world in his room in Calcutta, Greave had come to see his disease as a mark of “the guilt of a thousand generations of twisted minds, and of bodies thirsting for decay.” At the home, among other sufferers, he felt a release–“one of the the main ingredients in that shining peace I had prized so much.” With the successful treatment of his leprosy, “… all this was to be taken from me. I was to be flung back into the world of ordinary men, my body healed but bearing the taint of my guilt-haunted mind.” “I stood like a diver on a high springboard,” he writes, “looking down into the dark, greedy waters into which I soon must plunge, and knew that I was terrified.”

In the end, it is the Sisters who guide him to the cure for his soul as well as his disease. In a moving closing scene, in which he watches three of the novices he’s come to know take their voes and prepare themselves to leave on their missions to Africa, he finds a way to let go of his fears and entrust his fate to God.

The dust jacket copy sets up The Second Miracle as a story of Christian redemption, but there are few direct religious references or scenes in the book. What there are, instead, are many passages of beautifully written, closely observed, and sympathetic prose. This is some of the best writing I’ve come across, and I will be excerpting a least a couple of passages in succeeding posts. Here is a short one, recalling the last days of one of the elderly patients:

But although the gap left by that massive, bent figure with the wheezing chuckle and shoulders draped in a faded green shawl was a real one, it was surprising how quickly he seemed to slip out of the general mind. For a day or two there were comments on his absence and inquiries as to his progress, and then he appeared to be lost sight of in the space of gossip and small personal spites and ambitions. It struck me as extraordinary that a man could so rapidly drop out of the circle and be forgotten by the rest, vanish and be as though he had never existed; but it struck me that perhaps this apparent callousness was due not so much to heartlessness as to an unconscious instinct for self-preservation. It was necessary for us to forget, to put out of our minds and utterly discard, anything that could remind us of the tenuous uncertainty of our hold on life. We all knew, though probably we scarcely admitted the thought even to ourselves, that we were little more than a hair’s breadth away from a similar defeat, and consequently we focused all our powers upon the struggle for survival, without a backward glance for those who were unable to keep their foothold upon the uneasy tightrope of existence.

While staying at the home, Greave began to write and publish for the first time, and for this we all owe the sisters a debt of gratitude. After leaving the home, he married and was able to make a living as a writer. He published articles in various magazines, wrote The Second Miracle and several novels–all out of print–and a further memoir, The Seventh Gate, in 1976. He died in 1977 at the age of 68.

The Second Miracle, by Peter Greave
New York: Henry Holt, 1955

Aunt Bébé and the Count, from Aston Kings, by Humphrey Pakington

Aunt Bébé had married as her third husband a Belgian count some twenty-five years her junior, and the faithful count stood gallantly behind her chair, striking what he believed to be an English attitude, and dressed in a Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers of tussore silk, and on his head a check cap with ear-flaps tied under the chin as though to restrain the bushy brown whiskers that luxuriated from his cheeks. The count’s principal duty was to pick up anything Aunt Bébé happened to notice that she had dropped–a full-time job, as the bishop remarked–and the wonder was that with this amount of gymnastic exercise he continued to grow stouter year by year. He had never obtained a mastery over the English language, and, while he was naturally expected to speak English to the rest of the family, he and Aunt Bébé employed a sort of pidgin French as a means of communication between themselves. The signal that the count’s services were required would be a shake of Aunt Bébé’s ringlets and a trembling finger pointing down at the grass, whereupon the count would give a gentle neighing sound, followed by “Ma Bébé” in most feeling accents, would step forward, bend to the ground with surprising alacrity, and, grasping the fan, gaze with a look of loving inquiry into the eyes of Aunt Bébé. It might have been the fan that Aunt Bébé wanted, but if the count happened to guess right the first time she would switch over to something else. “Na, na,” and the trembling finger shifted its position, “ze mouchoir,” and the count would be rewarded by a pat on the hand and a “Mon chéri.” An unwary stranger might sometimes stoop to save the count, but Aunt Bébé would quickly explain that her chéri was of a jealous disposition where she was concerned, and would allow none but himself to serve her.

from Aston Kings, by Humphrey Pakington

Kingdom on Earth, by Anne Brooks

In his story, “Just One More Time,” John Cheever portrayed the Beers, a couple hanging tenuously onto respectability, a pair of “pathetic grasshoppers of some gorgeous economic summer” who nevertheless possessed some enduring charm, the power “to remind one of good things–good places, games, food, and company.” Anne Brooks’ 1941 novel, Kingdom On Earth, we come to know the Randolfs, a family equally charming but whose parasitic nature is revealed when their fortunes collapse.

The book–Brooks’ first novel–takes place in seven snapshots between mid-1938 and Labor Day 1940. In the midst of a relaxing summer break at their Connecticut country home, the Randolfs’ banker arrives to break the news to the mother, Elaine, that what little capital her late husband had left the family has evaporated in the stock market. She has to sell off their heavily mortgaged country home and Manhattan apartment and move into a cheaper apartment with her two daughters and son-in-law, soon to be joined by her son Joel and his new wife, Harriet.

We watch the story unfold through Harriet’s eyes. The only daughter of an introverted and widowed professor, she is dazzled by the Randolf’s effortless grace. She confides to her brother-in-law, “We think they live life more completely, they feel things physically, because they act by instinct. We think they’re complete naturals. That charms us; they have more fun, we think, than the thoughtful people.” Harriet feels sorry about their plight only because “it wasn’t fair that people like the Randolfs should have to worry and think about money.”

At first, they take it in as a momentary inconvenience. Living on the remnants of their fortune is a comic bit of “roughing it,” the cramped apartment “a sort of camping place.” As time wears on and the money continues to evaporate, however, their charm wears as thin as the elbows in Joel’s old jackets. He gets a job with an advertising firm but his good looks and ingratiating manner fail to compensate for his utter incompetence. He loses the job and starts drinking earlier and earlier in the day. One daughter, Kit, gets a job in a fine department store and soon learns to get ahead through pure ruthlessness masked by a thin veneer of style. Pris, the youngest, is incapable of doing anything but attracting clueless men with her beauty.

And Elaine, utterly useless, does little but pine for her comfortable past. “The trouble with Elaine was that she was really stupid,” Harriet comes to realize. Her only assets were “a lovely, sensitive face, and excellent taste in dressing herself and arranging her home.”

Of all the family, it is Harriet who proves the most resourceful. She not only does all the cooking and housekeeping for the lot, but she teaches herself typing and gets a job when Joel gives up any pretence of looking for work. And the Randolfs appreciate it–in the way that a wealthy family might appreciate the work of a particularly good maid or butler. “You’re good at this sort of thing, aren’t you, Harriet?,” remarks Pris.

“This sort of thing” is a phrase that recurs throughout the book. It always refers to accommodation to the practical necessities of life–something the Randolfs seem to regard as either onerous or unthinkable. As Joel and Elaine grow more helpless and dependent, Harriet discovers her own strength and independence.

In the end, however, the Randolfs, like the Beers in Cheever’s story, manage to survive through a series of decisions that defy Harriet’s conventional reason:

The resilience of this family was almost immoral, she thought. In the books, weakness and irresponsibility fall when the props are taken away just as the Randolfs had fallen. But in the books weakness never picks itself up again, and here were the Randolfs bright as day and just as charming as ever. All because Pris has kidnaped a rich man into marrying her, Kit has booted out a poor husband and relentlessly cut a few throats, and Elaine is sponging off her son-in-law.

Although Kingdom On Earth was written when Brooks was just twenty-five, it displays a remarkably mature and well-rounded perspective. While showing the Randolfs with all their flaws, she is sympathetic rather than caustic, understanding rather than mocking.

Anne Brooks published a second novel, Hang My Heart, a year after Kingdom On Earth. The story of an ambitious woman starting her career in the magazine business, it received even better reviews, and Brooks was described as one of the more promising young American novelists. From that point on, however, she seems to have disappeared, at least from the world of publishing. I would be interested in finding out the rest of her story.

Although several direct-to-print publishers offer copies of Kingdom On Earth, you can download it for free from the Internet Archive at

New discoveries in this foreign country of illness, from You Still Have Your Head, by Franz Schoenberner

Cover of first US edition of 'You Still Have Your Head'

I am not yet able to write in the literal sense of the word. Writing always meant to me writing in longhand with a pencil which gave the wonderful chance to erase and to change every third word, or even, if you felt like it, to begin again the same sentence on a fresh page without much difficulty. It was almost a year after the accident that I started–not to write, but to dictate–this new story not of my life, but of something which was near death: a rather long voyage pretty near to the border of the unknown country from which nobody returns. It was indeed a very strange and instructive voyage; otherwise, I wouldn’t date to recount it, because nothing is more boring than telling about your illness. I shall try to speak as little as possible of illness–and as much as possible of health: the special sort of health which can exist even when your whole body, with the sole exception of your head, is lifeless and scarcely belongs to you.

But as long as your head, your mind, is still working and is not too much preoccupied with the strange state of your body you can make new discoveries in this foreign country of illness, discoveries which may be worth sharing with others–not only those who have gone or are going through a similar ordeal, but almost anybody who in one way or another suddenly faces the necessity of overcoming some suffering, some handicap, for which he was not prepared. … as everybody knows who has a longer and deeper experience of life, even the most tragic situation often includes a strange element of humor–tragic humor, perhaps, or sardonic humor, and even sometimes simple human humor. As long as you are able to see these elements you are not entirely lost in tragedy–not lost in your suffering. You are already a little bit above and beyond the factual situation when you are able to view it with the detachment of an objective observer. There is a certain sense of the grotesque, and sometimes cruel irony which seems to be an inescapable part and parcel of the process of living.

You Still Have Your Head: Excursions From Immobility is an account of Schoenberner’s experiences and–mostly–his thoughts during his recovery from being attacked and left paralyzed from the neck down. Schoenberner had gone to complain about loud music from a neighboring apartment. One of the young men in the apartment flew into a rage and savagely struck out at Schoenberner, breaking his neck. A German intellectual who had fled Nazi Germany two steps ahead of the Gestapo–a situation he recounted in The Inside Story of an Outsider–Schoenberner responded to his situation the only way he knew how: by considering it in light of history, literature, philosophy and, occasionally, human behavior. Possessed of a remarkable resilience of spirit and sense of humor, if he ever experienced a moment of self-pity, you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find one man’s attempt to put a horrific twist of fate into perspective, an example of understanding reached through the disciplined exercise of a lifetime’s worth of learning.

You Still Have Your Head: Excursions From Immobility, by Franz Schoenberner
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957

Humphrey Pakington

“Opening a new Humphrey Pakington novel is like noticing that the apples are ripening or a train is on time,” a New York Times reviewer once wrote. “There is a sense of living in an orderly, reliable world, not exciting or dangerous but pleasant and secure.” And lightly amusing.
Starting with Four in Family (1931) and ending with John Brandon (1965) over thirty years later, Humphrey Pakington managed to plow an exceedingly narrow row and harvest over a dozen novels from it.

Most of his books are set in the mid-to-lower strata of English nobility, where there are family estates, clergymen with livings, second or third sons in the Royal Navy, eccentric aunts or grandmothers how ask awkward questions, and charming young people holding tennis racquets and bumbling about with love and marriage. It all takes place somewhere between about 1888 and 1938, during which there are births and deaths, occasional bothers, and no great tragedies. If there are revolutions or strikes going on, they are too far away and too alien to be admitted, let alone acknowledged.

Instead, it’s a world where certainties are cherished and cultivated. “They prided themselves on moving with the times, while doing all in their power to make time stand still for themselves,” Pakington writes of the group of English ladies in Aunt Auda’s Choir (U.S. title, Our Aunt Auda). Of Canon Wargrave, the father in Aston Kings, Pakington observes that “he conformed to the general principle that the accumulation of wealth in an honest and straight-forward manner was one of the first duties of a Christian and a gentleman.” Wrote Roger Pippett, “It is a world few of us know from experience, but we are familiar with it every time the curtain in a theatre goes up on a chintzy English drawing room.” It’s a world from which Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster must look rather wild and daring.

Ironically, this sane and stable world seemed to have a great appeal to American readers and reviewers during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Every one of Pakington’s novels published between 1931 and 1951 were enthusiastically welcomed in Saturday Review and the New York Times. “This is a major book. Major in every way,” wrote Jane Spence Southron, reviewing Family Album for the Times.

Pakington’s lack of message was, in fact, considered something of a virtue: “So few authors turn their hands to good-humored humor, non-ax-grinding, non-crow-picking entertainment, that there is especial cause for thanksgiving when one who has a way with him takes pen in hand for a reader’s holiday,” wrote Saturday Review’s anonymous reviewer of Four in Family. Virgilia Peterson applauded his always-tolerant attitude towards his characters: “He contents himself with mirroring their habits, their pastimes, their platitudes, and their idiosyncracies.”

Writing of George Dangerfield, who had recently published a post-mortem of Pakington’s world in The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935), celebrated, in fact, his artlessness:

He is a haphazard writer. His novels proceed, more or less, until he is tired of writing them, at which point somebody is married off to somebody else, and that’s that….

His irrelevance, after all, is what binds us to Mr. Pakington, if we like him at all, and I for one like him very much. Why do I read him? Not to discover what is to happen next to Johnnie Bartlett, the hero of Family Album. Johnnie is an agreeable child, an agreeable youth, and an agreeable middle-aged man. He marries the girl he loves and when she dies he marries, after a suitable interval, the girl who has always loved him. No, the reason why one reads Mr. Pakington is because one always hopes to find on turning the next page some minor character who will delay the story for a while with amiable nonsense, and then not infrequently just disappear. Sir Gerald Frogg, the medico “who was only called in when it was quite certain the patient could not live,” is such a character.

Another is Auda Biddulph, who is no-one’s actual aunt, and who found music “a useful means of controlling, cajoling and bullying her acquaintances,” or Aunt Serena in Aston Kings, who was “always ready to welcome the worst,” or Aunt Lucy in Young William Washbourne, who invades Malta more successfully than did the Knights of St. John. There is usually at least one eccentric aunt in every book.

Cover of first UK edition of 'John Brandon'
By the mid-1950s, however, Pakington’s formula was losing its appeal. Of one of his later novels, one reviewer wrote dismissively, “It makes few demands on a reader and offers the small rewards of a sincere and well-mannered narrative about some uncomplicated people.” A younger generation of reviewers and readers found his artlessness more tiresome than charming. While the Times welcomed The Vynes Of Vyne Court like a new crop of apples, Al Hines, writing in Saturday Review, diagnosed it as dead on arrival: “it is a combination which has been thoroughly drained of all the humor and interest with which Mr. Wodehouse and Mrs. Thirkell manage to impart quality to their long series of books in the same genre.” If not dead, it was certainly going stale. One of the few positive things said of John Brandon was that it was “pleasantly notable for the authentic glow of gaslight that pervades its early chapters.

No one could accuse Humphrey Pakington of not writing what he knew. Born the third son of the fourth Baron Hampton in 1888, he went to public school, entered the Royal Navy in 1903, and served with honor during the First World War. Several of Pakington’s protagonists, including young William Washbourne and John Brandon, also serve in the Royal Navy. After the war, he trained as an architect (one of his first books, for children, was How the World Builds). Novel-writing seems to have been principally a creative outlet, as he was already quite comfortably off through the combination of inheritances and architectural work. In 1962, he succeeded his oldest brother to become the 5th Baron Hampton. He had few reasons to complain about his lot in life. Not surprisingly, then, that one reviewer wrote of his autobiography, Bid Time Return (1958), “Happy lives seldom account for masterpieces, but when they are well spent, gracious, and successful, they can be good reading.”

None of Humphrey Pakington’s novels have been in print in almost fifty years. Only his 1945 guidebook, English Villages And Hamlets–which is, itself, an something of an artifact of a lost world–is currently available. While I wouldn’t try to propose any of his books as neglected masterpieces, there can be found in a few of them, such as Aston Kings and Family Album a sense of the comic that is both dry and loving.

The Great Green, by Calvin Kentfield

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Great Green'
“No one knows for certain how the world began, whether it was made or whether it made itself from energy or love, if it was a piece of the sun or the Word of God, if it rose from kaos or E = mc2,” begins the foreword to Calvin Kentfield’s 1974 memoir of his life as a merchant mariner, The Great Green. It goes on for four pages full of references of the Popul Vuh, geology, astrology, creation myths, and finally ends with, “I, child if progress, surfaced to the light and air in the hospital and, twenty years later, set out for the sea, for The Deep, for The Great Green, for the Possessor of All Secrets and the Father of All Gods and of the World.”

I think this is what I had in mind when, a few years ago, in a post about John Cheever’s Neglected Friends and Neighbors, I mentioned that I had given up on The Great Green “after 50-some pages of self-indulgent, meandering prose.”

Well, for some reason, I picked up The Great Green again a few weeks ago, and gave it another try. The book’s subtitle is, “A Loose Memoir of Merchant Marine Life in the Middle of the Twentieth Century with Examples of True Experience Being Turned into Fiction,” which in itself illustrates the self-indulgent and meandering problem. An average kid with no particular ambition and a tendency to follow along in others’ slipstream, Kentfield dropped out of the University of Iowa in the late 1940s bummed around the country until he wound up in New Orleans and decided to ship out as a merchant seaman.

This was not as straight-forward as he had expected. He spent a few weeks crashed with a friend while he waited, first to get his union letter, and then to get his Coast Guard rating as an ordinary seaman, and then to rise high enough in the pecking order of the Seaman’s Hall to get offered a spot on the S.S. John Ringling, a Liberty ship hauling bauxite out of Guiana.

Kentfield went to sea at a time when the life of merchant sailors was beginning to change. Although he had his share of dockside bars, drunken fights and weary prostitutes, this renegade lifestyle was transforming into a routine nearly as bourgeois as a banker’s. The hierarchy of ranks was as rigid as the military, and as an ordinary seaman, Kentfield was at the bottom of the heap.

Life on board a merchant ship, he soon learned, involved hundreds of practical details, such as a dozen or more different ropes for different purposes:

A heaving line is a small tough rope about the size of a clothesline though made of hemp, not plastic or cotton, and perhaps seventy-five feet long with a monkey fist on one end. And a monkey fist is an iron weight, usually a steel bearing, slightly smaller than a tennis ball covered with a Turk’s head, and a Turk’s head is a weaving of small rope that put sailors a long time ago in mind of a turban.

Kentfield seemed to enjoy playing the role of tour guide to the world of the merchant seaman, and The Great Green is full of explanations, from the uses of bell signals for telling time and announcing upcoming obstacles to the rules affecting seamen’s pay. As matter-of-fact as most of these passages are, I thought them by far the best part of the book.

kentfieldbooks“True Experience Being Turned into Fiction” is, perhaps, the focus of the book. Kentfield wrote several novels and published dozens of short stories that drew heavily upon his time as a seaman. He often reveals the real-life inspirations for characters in his fiction and occasionally quotes from his work to illustrate the links between them and his experiences. In this way, The Great Green shares a little in common with Katharine Brush’s This is On Me, although Kentfield lacks Brush’s light-hearted charm.

Kentfield returned to complete his degree and took breaks to start his writing career, starting with The Alchemist’s Voyage, a novel, in 1955, and The Angel and the Sailor: A Novella and Nine Stories in 1957. He continued to ship out from time to time, however–in part for the boost it seems to have given his fiction.

He finally quit in 1959, after coming to a decision as he worked on the deck of an oil tanker in Puget Sound on a rainy Christmas Day:

Standing there with the rain pouring from the end of my nose and my ears through my collar and my drawers, flowing over my boots, I, tending the valves and listening to the pumps, I came slowly to the realization that not only was I bored but that I was no longer pursuing the Possessor of All Secrets, the Father of All Gods and of the World, I was standing in the cold rain serving Standard Oil, a false god if ever there was one; so when I got back to Frisco, I quit.

Nevertheless, the sea never seems to have worked its way out of Kentfield’s system. His next novel was titled All Men are Mariners (1962), and his next short story collection, The Great Wondering Goony Bird (1963) was full of stories about sailors. And aside from contributing a novella to a collection titled, Three: 1971 and writing a coffee table book on the Pacific Coast, Kentfield only published one other book before his death in 1975: The Great Green. The last fifty pages of the book reprint three of his early short stories of sea-going life: “A Place for Lovers in the Summertime,” “Mortality,” and “Dancer’s Cricket.” According to various accounts, he struggled with alcoholism and his sexuality, and his death, from a fall from a tall seaside cliff, might have been suicide or vengeance from an angry wife.

The Great Green is very much the work of a writer struggling to master his prose and his perspective. There are some gawdawful attempts at the poetic, a fair number of anecdotes Kentfield probably rolled out to disgust or tease his friends after a few too many, and several character sketches that end up telling us more about the writer than the subject. I am glad that I stuck with it to the end, if only for the glimpses it offered into a life that seems never to have found its true reckoning.

The Great Green, by Calvin Kentfield
New York City: Dial Press, 1974

Little Apple, by Leo Perutz

Cover of 'Little Apple' by Leo PerutzThe works of Leo Perutz have been praised by such diverse writers as Ian Fleming, Jorge Luis Borges, and Graham Greene, compared to the works of everyone from Franz Kafka to Victor Hugo to Agatha Christie, and utterly unlucky in gaining the lasting attention of English readers. Over the course of a forty-year career, Perutz wrote over a dozen novels, some of which were translated and published in English within a year or two of their first appearance in German, others that were published by Arcade (and Harvill in the U. K.) in a fine effort back in the early 1990s. Arcade is taking up the torch again later this year, promising to re-release three of Perutz’s novels later this year.

Perutz was a contemporary of Kafka and Stefan Zweig, one of that remarkable generation of secular Jews that grew up under the Austro-Hungarian empire and whose world was utterly wiped out by Hitler. Born in Prague like Kafka, Perutz, in fact, worked for the same insurance company as Kafka, Generali, although in Trieste. Recruited into the army during World War One, he served on the Russian Front and was wounded.

Perutz’s experiences during and immediately after the war are reflected in the pages of Little Apple (original title “Wohin rollst du, Äpfelchen…?”), which was originally published in 1928. The title comes from a Russian song popular just after the war, when Red and White forces were rolling back and forth across the land and territory changed hands as much as a dozen times in the course of a year.

Little Apple takes place during this period. Vittorin and a group of fellow Austrian soldiers are travelling back to Vienna after being released from a Russian prison camp. During the long, slow train ride home, they talk about life in the camp, and about its brutal commandant, Staff Captain Selyukov. They all agree that they must return to Russia, hunt down Selyukov, and make him pay for the pain and torture he inflicted upon the inmates.

Only Vittorin, however, holds onto this obsession after he returns to his family in Vienna. The other men refuse him when he tries to organize a revenge expedition, and he heads off on his own. Vittorin plunges headlong into the chaos of the Russian Civil War, and finds himself at various times a soldier, a prisoner, a refugee, an entertainer, a manual laborer, and a thief. In the fluctating circumstances of the Civil War, he can never be too sure of which side he’s on–geographically or politically.

Throughout it all, however, he never loses focus on his goal: to find and punish Selyukov. The comparisons between Perutz and Victor Hugo are not due solely to the fact that Perutz translated a number of Hugo’s novels into German. In his monomaniacal obsession to bring Selyukov to justice, Vittorin shares the same ability to tune out his surrounding circumstances, no matter how threatening to his survival, as Hugo’s Inspector Javert:

He no longer saw selyukov as an arrogant Russian officer who had insulted him. Selyukov was the evil personification of a degenerate age. He was the medium through which Vittorin hated everything sordid that met his eye–all the crooks, currency speculators and human predators that had shared out the world between them…. They haggled, they cheated, they supplied both Whites and Reds with saddlery, horseshoe nails, revolver holsters, cleaning rag, axle grease, cans of tainted bully beef. They belonged to the highest bidder, and champagne flowed wherever they did business.

They were numerous, invulnerable, and ubiquitous–in Paris, in Bucharest, in Vladivostock. Vittorin could avenge the humanity they were betraying, the world they had polluted, by exterminating just one of them, and his name was Selyukov.

wherewillyoufallLittle Apple was first published in English in 1930 as Where Will You Fall?, translated by Hedwig Singer, who also translated Perutz’s second novel published in English, The Master of the Day of Judgment. His first book published in English, From Nine to Nine, has recently been translated again, this time by Thomas Ahrens and Edward Larkin, and is available in print as Between Nine and Nine from Ariadne Press

There is a timeless quality to Perutz’s books. Some are set in the past–the Thirty Years’ War, the Renaissance–and some in his present, but all share one thing in common: the power and fascination of a pure narrative. There is always something pulling the reader along but not quite within reach–rather like the image of Selyukov in Vittorin’s mind. His prose–at least as translated–is clean, spare and full of momentum, and his books brief–usually under 200 pages. Perutz’s power as a storyteller can be seen by the number of his novels that remain in print in German, French, Italian and Spanish. I can only hope that more English readers will discover that power when Arcade releases Little Apple, Master of the Day of Judgment, and By Night Under the Stone Bridge in a few months.

Little Apple, by Leo Perutz, translated by John Brownjohn
New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992

Charley Smith’s Girl, by Helen Bevington

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Charley Smith's Girl'I stumbled onto the works of Helen Bevington about two months ago and was immediately captivated by the charm and intelligence of her writing. It was a honor and pleasure to feature three of her books over the last few weeks. I wasn’t prepared, however, for the power of Charley Smith’s Girl. Subtitled “A Memoir,” it’s much more than that–it’s a profoundly moving attempt by a child to understand her parents and a book full of such deep sadness that it brought tears to my eyes near the end–something I don’t think has happened to me since Charlotte’s Web.

Helen Smith was born in 1906 in her grandfather’s parsonage. Her parents were living there because a few months earlier, her father Charley had been forced out of his own Methodist parsonage after his affair with a married woman in his congregation became public. Helen’s mother, Lizzie, had lied to defend her husband, but she refused to do it a second time when he was caught in another adulterous relationship, in another congregation, when Helen was about two years old. Lizzie insisted on getting a divorce–a rare and shocking act at the time–and Charley was sent packing.

Although the lot of a single mother was a tough one in 1908, Lizzie Smith managed to provide a home for herself and Helen by teaching music and piano. There was no day-care in those days, aside from the kindness of a few neighbors, and Helen learned to keep herself amused as she trailed along with Lizzie to lessons or, after a few years, to stay quietly in their house by herself.

Despite the scandal of the divorce, Lizzie Smith earned the respect of her community in Worcester, New York, through her unbending reserve and propriety. She maintained a rigid air of personal dignity and refused to convey vulnerability to anyone–including her daughter:

My mother chose to deal with the matter in her own brisk disciplinary way. She often boasted afterwards how well she succeeded, how she calmed my terrors and made me unafraid–as she herself has been fearless all her life–by taking me in hand before it was too late. Her method was spartan. To teach me courage she sent me night after night into the dark: on an errand to the black cellar for jelly, to the unlighted parlor for a book, across the deep-shadowed road to the Prestons’ with a message. Sometimes she slipped out of the house without a word, leaving me alone with the one kerosene lamp lit, and I would lean against the door and wair sobbing, shaken with fear, till she returned. The only flaw in her method was that it never worked. I kept on being afraid, and I am afraid still.

This grim regime was multiplied in its severity when, after a few years, Lizzie decided to move to Hornell, New York, and live with two dowager relatives, Aunt Net and Aunt Lydia. Like Lizzie, they were strong-minded women “of the same blood and temperament as my mother,” but “stronger-willed and even more durable than she.” Together, Net, Lydia and Lizzie provided for Helen’s material needs–food, clothing, shelter, and the security of a home. “Yet, as I know now what was lacking in that composed and stoical household,” Bevington writes, “I know the single omission was too great. The old ladies withheld the one needful thing–love.”

Although a position as a choir mistress in a Methodist church had drawn Lizzie to Hornell, her stubborness soon brought her into conflict with her choir members and the church leadership, and she was fired after less than a year. She enrolled in a few courses in the local business school and soon found work as a clerk for the Erie Railroad. She stayed there for thirty-five years until she was retired at the age of seventy-six. “The work was dull, from monotonous to deadly.” Yet she stuck with it. “It was,” Helen writes, “the unhappy solution to her life.”

Lizzie Smith died of cancer while Helen was writing this book. Helen “stopped short in the middle of a page” and returned to Hornell to care for her mother, who passed little more than a month later. Lizzie never gave in to the disease but fought for life until the very end. The nurses at the hospital told Helen that she resembled her mother, but she disagrees. “I am not a fighter like her, not unafraid, not able or willing to live without love. She kept her solitude–a lifetime of solitary days and lonely nights. She was somehow completely alone.” “And now,” she realizes, “I am the only person alive who remembers her story and mine….”


As is the case in many marriages, successful and unsuccessful, Lizzie Smith’s husband, Charley, was her polar opposite. A boisterous man with a fine baritone voice he delighted in exercising at full volume, he was the life of many a party–which inevitably ran counter to his responsibilities as a minister. After the divorce, he left the church for good and switched to a more compatible line of work as a traveling salesman.

Unfortunately, he was still too much of a ladies’ man and was soon spending more time flirting with a pretty secretary in his company’s Chicago office than out on the road selling. A couple of years after the divorce, the secretary, Addie, turned up on Lizzie’s doorstep to say that she and Charley were getting married.

Charley lost his job but he and Addie were able to move into an apartment over her father’s Czech grocery store. One summer, Helen spent a few weeks there with them. Addie continued to work as a secretary and helped out in the store every evening, while Charley … well, Charley continued to enjoy life. One Saturday night the three of them venture out to a lively party of Czech immigrants, but only Helen and Addie return home. “I learned that summer,” she writes, “when I was eight, how you can tell when someone beside you in bed is weeping in the dark. Addie breathed unevenly, holding her breath and letting it out a little at a time, in quick uneven gasps that made almost no sound.”

Charley’s turbulent spirit and Helen’s independence brought the two into inevitable conflict. He disapproves of her choice to attend the University of Chicago, her choice to study English, her choice of friends and living arrangements, and they finally part ways with angry words.

Twenty-two years later, Helen receives a call from Boyce, her half-brother, the son Charley had with Addie. Despite his wandering ways, over the years Charley grew more and more dependent upon Addie, and when she died, he suffered an unbearable despair. “Finally,” Boyce tells her, “he just stayed in the house–he lived with Marian and me, you know–sat all day in the apartment staring into space, twisting his ring around his finger and clenching it into his fist. One morning he didn’t get out of bed. He turned his face to the wall, never spoke, never got up again–”

“I see, much too late,” Helen writes, “that I lacked the one quality most needed for this simple tale–compassion. Any child can feel resentment, and any child can find a reason to rebel. It was compassion I took so desparately long to learn….”

The compassion Helen Bevington reveals in every line of Charley Smith’s Girl lifts this book from the level of a simple, open-eyed memoir to a masterpiece, a transformative meditation on the lessons a child can learn from her parent: “My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair,” she writes in the final lines of the book. “Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.” As readers of A Book and A Love Affair, House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, and her journals will discover, throughout her adult life, Helen Bevington pursued that third way.

Charley Smith’s Girl: A Memoir, by Helen Bevington
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1965

Charley’s death, from Charley Smith’s Girl, by Helen Bevington

I think Charley died of despair, as by now I have known others to do. The others chose suicide. But I am eternally grateful to Charley for not making that choice, hard as it is to say so when the only alternative was suffering–that I did not share–and in the end turning his face to the wall. My reason is simple and self-centered: the other way is too terrible an inheritance to be left with, too fearful a legacy for me and my children. It says too flatly and plainly that life is not to be borne. Charley didn’t quite say that. He bore it for as long as he had to, and no help ever came. Terrible as his measure of life actually was, he didn’t quite leave me with that silent, mocking answer.

I choose to say he died, as all people do, as Montaigne said he himself would die, of having been alive. Beyond that, he died because he was Charley. He loved life once and clung to it with a wild passion. He tried in his own violent way to live it. This was the way he lost, he finally lost. There is something even a little consoling to me in that idea …

My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair. Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.

The House was Quiet and the World was Calm, by Helen Bevington

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The House was Quiet and the World was Calm'House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, published in 1971, was Helen’s third volume of memoirs, covering the period from 1942 to 1956. It picks up where the preceding book, A Book and a Love Affair, ended: with the arrival of the Bevingtons at Duke University, where Helen’s husband Merle was joining the English faculty.

Helen, too, was soon recruited into teaching, and she was to remain with the department for over thirty years. Part of House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm–and one of the more interesting parts it is–relates her experiences in teaching poetry to several generations of undergraduates. She quickly realized that “The great and abiding danger, without doubt, lay in talking too much.” More than a few teachers never learn that lesson.

Among her first students were former servicemen enjoying the benefits of the G. I. Bill, and she had mixed success in getting these veterans to appreciate Wordsworth and Cummings. Of one in particular, she admits she fell short: “I wanted to make sense, teach without hypocrisy or rectitude. But what did I in this cloistered world insulated from war know of Iwo Jima?”

She also witnessed how quickly poetry underwent a transformation from which it has yet to fully recover:

In past centuries, from Chaucer to Thomas Hardy, the poet seldom would be caught teaching. I suppose it didn’t occur to him as his vocation, or that he had words to spare or anything pedantic to say. Now his audience consisted of a row of college students plus a few loyal professors. Like most poets on the lecture platform (Auden, Lowell, Wilbur, Eberhart, Jarrell, Roethke, Shapiro, Dickey), he was pretty sure to be a professor himself, or a librarian like Philip Larkin, a frightening state of affairs. Poetry was being written by teachers and taught by poets. It had become, of all things, academic.

She herself struggled and had, perhaps, greater success in managing to be a poet herself. She published three collections–Doctor Johnson’s Waterfall and Other Poems (1946); Nineteen Million Elephants (1950); and A Change of Sky, and other poems (1956)–during this period, and saw dozens of her verses published in The New Yorker. She decided to follow a middle path between “the Mrs. Roosevelt complex–the urge to rush out and mill around twenty-four hours by the clock fulfilling oneself in the marketplace” and that of one of her favorite writers, Montaigne, retired to his tower. “My solution,” she writes, “was to live three lives: the domestic, the professional, and in an (insubstantial) tower the private.

Now after a quarter of a century, fully aware of the vanity and overweening of tripling oneself in a multiple choice of existence, I can highly recommend it to anybody who wants it. The only rule is to remember it won’t work, not with scandalous serenity. Each separate life constantly demands its rights in the matter. Each self cries out, “Pity me.”

This passage demonstrates one of the things I love about Helen Bevington’s perspective: her wonderful balance of romantic idealism and working-mother practicality. She would never have accepted the pablum advice to “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.” As she tells in Charley Smith’s Girl, her account of growing up the child of divorce in a time when such things were not spoken of, she had early on come to see how hard such simple things as a roof over the head and food on the table can be to come by and never took them for granted–at least not after she had children of her own. You can have it all, she might say–but not with “scandalous serenity.”

House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm is an account of her middle age. During this time, her sons went off to college, married, and starting teaching careers of their own. She and her husband (still known just as B.) had the chance to travel and enjoy each other’s company. She taught and wrote and enjoyed friendships. And she went through a soul-shaking crisis after a malignant lump is removed from under her shoulder and her doctor advises further surgery. Fearing a bleak end of pain and invalidism, she considers taking her own life.

Books, however, ultimately come to her rescue: “For bolstering the hours I read books as sustainers: Montaigne, who said we are all novices at this business of death. ‘My art and my profession is to live.’ They were curative words, written unfortunately by a dead man.” And, sharing the inspiration for the book’s title, she read “Wallace Stevens, who had died six months before”:

The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm.

The house and the world were the same thing. And they were not quiet after all, and they were not really calm. It was only that they had to be.

I’m grateful for Helen Bevington’s decision, as she stuck around for another forty-some years, during which she gave us this and her other memoirs and journals, all of which display her remarkable insight, wit and wisdom.

The House was Quiet and the World was Calm, by Helen Bevington
New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971

When Found, Make a Verse of, by Helen Bevington

Cover of 'When Found, Make a Verse Of'I mentioned in my last piece that a review by Langston Hughes led me to her 1961 book, When Found, Make a Verse of. The review, which is reprinted in Essays on Art, Race, Politics, and World Affairs (Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Vol 9), makes it sound pert near irresistable:

One rarely comes across a book that has both guts and charm, but this one has: When Found, Make a Verse of. The people who discovered it then loved it, and those who never saw it missed a lot. Its dust jacket, vermillion red with a black spine, simple white lettering at the very top, and in the upper corner a small medallion, is seductive to the eye, enticing to further exploration. Once open, each piece in the book is short enough to lead quickly to the next piece without strain, and the contents are varied and jolly enough, or dramatic enough, to keep you reading on–and then one–turning pages and still reading when you ought to put out the light and go to sleep.

The critic Gilbert Highet described When Found, Make a Verse of as “the commonplace book of a poet,” but that’s a little misleading. Most commonplace books are collections of excerpts and passages from various sources, and while there are plenty of excerpts here, they’re generally brief and serve mainly to inspire an observation or poem–and sometimes both. I think Hughes provided a better synopsis: “It is rather a collection of the liveliest and oddest and most exciting chosen items from memory and memoirs that you can possible imagine, and about them Helen Bevington sometimes makes verses.”

Bevington tells how she came to this practice in A Book and a Love Affair:

A verse is a verse. Mine were only a kind of notation. The habit of notetaking, an old and private one with me, went back to college days at the University of Chicago when, like Hudibras, I learned to take note, “Transcribe, collect, translate and quote.” I began copying down powerful and enlightened words whenever I found them, calling the first notebook “Chiefly about Life.” It was the beginning of my education.

“When found, make a note of,” said Captain Cuttle in Dombey and Son. “Overhaul the wollume, and there find it. . . . When found, turn the leaf down.”

… Writing a verse meant taking a note and shaping it a little for safekeeping. If the verse turned out ill, the quotation it sprang from was too good to leave around gathering dust. I felt obliged to rescue personally from oblivion such immortal words, to act as it were their advocate–for example, Aunt Mary Emerson’s imperious command: “Be still, I want to hear the men talk.” Or Thoreau saying, “Do what you love. Pursue your life.” Or, Fontenelle: “Quelque fois j’ai dit ha ha.” Or Cummings:

Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down

on it

When Found, Make a Verse of collects perhaps 200 or so of these notes and perhaps sixty or so of the verses they inspired.

Bevington’s verse is, with few exceptions, light verse. She quotes another master, Morris Bishop, who defined three principles for light verse: “strictness of form, incongruity, and logic.” That suggests a product whose lightness belies the effort involved in its creation, and a number of times in her memoirs Bevington refers to rewriting a piece a hundred times or more.

A clue to this perspective can be found in a wonderful story about the artist Clare Leighton:

One afternoon while she was living in Durham we talked of her woodcuts, and she brought out her recent work, spreading it widely over the floor of her living room. It was but a single woodcut, in many versions, of an old Carolina woman in a rocking chair. Clare arranged these prints in progression, dozens of them, all so nearly alike that no one but her could have guessed the proper order. Yet between the first and the last was a beautiful and telling difference. With each revision, she had changed perhaps a single line in the wooden block, seeking always the right tone and texture. Thus the impressions of light and shade became more delicate, the old woman gained slowly in character. That, I realized, was the way to create: to seek clarity over and over and over again.

You can see an example of Bevington’s own search for clarity in the following two passages. The first appears in A Book and a Love Affair, just after the above excerpt on note-taking:

… Yeats said, “People do not invent. They remember.” And as everyone knows, memory deceives. Yet without the power of invention or the imagination of a poet, I would not fabricate or invent: I would remember. I would be a note-taker and remember the notes. Moreover I would remember only what I wanted to, without sadness in it, and not be a preserver of grief. Who would want a memory without a compartment for forgetting?

The second appears under the title, “Ideas for Light Verse” in When Found, Make a Verse of:

I say that I believe Yeats was right about it when he said, “People do not invent. They remember.” Ideas, light as goose feathers, are everywhere, requiring only good eyesight and good hearing to detect them. The only difficulty is that one is, most of the time, forgetful or asleep. What I wish for most, I think, is a talent for experience and a long memory. I grieve for the light and shining events that all my life I must have overlooked and forgotten.

If Bevington had worked a hundred more variations upon this theme, I would happily read them.

I can’t close this piece without quoting at least one of Bevington’s verses, a lovely bit of form, incongruity and logic:

As If

What John Skelton said
Maybe John Skelton knew,
And the devil is dead.–Is dead?

Maybe Max Beerbohm knew
What happiness? when he said
That it’s a four-post bed

In a field of poppies and
Mandragora. Some do
Give the answers, as if they knew

Much virtue in as if.

Such a delicious and wise punch line.

Just as Langston Hughes pulled me into this book, I’ll let him offer those who still need it one last tug of the shirtsleeve: “It is a going-back-to-book to open almost anywhere for sheer pleasure and read something over again–vivid vignettes and sparkling comments in clean clear type with air between the lines on very good paper–a pleasure to both mind and eye, yes. Really a lovable book.”

When Found, Make a Verse of, by Helen Bevington
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961

A Book and A Love Affair, by Helen Bevington

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'A Book and A Love Affair'
I’ve been working on this site for almost seven years and following neglected books for nearly thirty years before that, and still I manage to miss marvelous things that seem to be sitting right in plain sight. Take the works of Helen Bevington. Searching for information on someone else, I came across a review of her 1961 book, When Found, Make a Verse of, by Langston Hughes. I’ll quote at greater length from the piece when I feature When Found in a few weeks, but the opening line sold me instantly: “One rarely comes across a book that has both guts and charm, but this one has.”

Who was Helen Bevington, I wondered? The Internet produced immediate answers, of course: that she was an “American poet, prose author, and educator” (Wikipedia); that “Her memoir Charley Smith’s Girl was banned by the library in Worcester, N.Y., where she grew up” (NY Times obit); and that “She was one of the great teachers. Her course in 20th century poetry was … a tremendously influential course in my own development,” according to the novelist Reynolds Price (Duke Today).

I also learned that she wrote a series of autobiographical books, starting with Charley Smith’s Girl, in addition to several collections of her own verse. A Book & A Love Affair, published in 1968, is the second in chronological order but the first one to arrive in the mail, so it’s the first–but not the last–to be mentioned here.

And in some ways, it may deserve first mention, anyway. “I sat down in the seat beside him one morning in Professor Hunter Wright’s class in Romanticism. And that was how my life began,” opens A Book & A Love Affair. He is Merle Bevington, a fellow graduate student in English at Columbia University, referred to throughout the book as “B.” Although B. had shown no interest in Helen until that moment, she had been eyeing him since the start of the semester, waiting for her opportunity.

She clearly knew what she was looking for. They move seamlessly from class to the streets to the 125th Street ferry, on which they spend the night, going back and forth to Fort Lee, New Jersey and talking endlessly. Within days, they marry–despite the fact that Helen first turns him down because she had made up her mind permanently against marriage (with some reason, as we learn in Charley Smith’s Girl).

A Book & A Love Affair covers the first sixteen years of their marriage, until they moved to Duke University in North Carolina, where B. and later, Helen, became members of the faculty. (B. taught until his death in 1964; Helen until her retirement in 1976). It isn’t a particularly memorable autobiography in terms of events–they traveled around the world in third class in 1929; they had two sons; they managed to get through the Depression with a variety of teaching and secretarial jobs; they lived in a series of apartments in Manhattan and the Bronx.

What makes the book–and, I suspect, all of its successors–enjoyable is the pleasure of Bevington’s company. She and B. are tremendous readers, rarely without a book in hand or a quote for the occasion, but they’re not snobs. Helen can fetch up a line from Donne or Keats, but she’ll also reprint a note passed between her boys as they sit around the dinner table:

Dear David
I do not think that bilding houses is worth it. Becase when you bild mother always comes and busts it down.
If you think its wroth it answer.
Sincerely yours Philip.

She earns her graduate degree from Columbia and does research on the subject of sentimental novels of 18th century England, but she’s also a working mom whose experiences–though seventy-some years old now–will ring true for today’s parents:

Under the heading of light entertainment I led my children forth to be diverted by fear, managing very early to harrow up their souls. David would ask, hopeful as we set out on one of these excursions, “Will it be funny?,” but we seldom had such luck. In March, 1938, we attended in their innocence and mind the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and for a while David laughed himself sick at the antics of the Walt Disney clowns. Pip echoed him. Then along came the witch. As always happens, along came the witch.

She threw David into a panic. Tense and frowning, he began to squirm, covering his eyes, peering out in the dark to see if she was still there. Next he crawled hastily from his seat and crouched on the floor, making no sound but shuddering all over like a whipped animal. I felt like a dog. Philip turned to his father, fortunately on hand to protect us, and grabbing his arm quavered, “You said it was a movie, didn’t you, Dad?”

After that we rested on our oars until The Wizard of Oz came along and scared the pants off them.

And although Helen and B. remain somewhat protected from the hazards of the time–they always had a paycheck when one was needed and a roof over their heads–she eloquently conveys the sense they had that terror was never too far from their door:

He wrote every night till the eleven o’clock news, then we listened to the radio and Edward R. Murrow saying, ‘This is London’–or, as holding my breath I waited to hear, ‘This is London no more.’ Each night we learned the new words: Luftwaffe, Messerschmitt, Stuka, dive bomber, balloon barrage, flak, incendiaries, Spitfires, antiaircraft guns. And the old words: burning, burning, burning.

Although the Bevingtons leave the noise and crowds of New York City for the relative calm of Durham in August 1942, the book ends on a hesitant note. Writing in the late 1960s, Helen was still living in a world where nuclear warfare lurked in the wings as a threat, and you can tell that she struggled to maintain a sense of hope that sanity would prevail: “The idea of a book against the dark is no doubt absurd …. Still, a word’s eye view is not to my mind such a bad idea. To me there is in fact only the one view, whether of life or death. It is simple and eternally the same–a book and a love affair, that is all one needs.”

The next in the sequence of Helen Bevington’s autobiographical books, published in 1971, has what I think may be my favorite title of all time: House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm. I look forward to sharing it.

A Book and A Love Affair, by Helen Bevington
New York City: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Invisible Ink: Christopher Fowler on Forgotten Writers

Cover of 'Invisible Ink' by Christopher FowlerBritish writer Christopher Fowler has been publishing a regular column on neglected writers in the Sunday Independent since 2008. Excerpts from these can be found on the Invisible Ink page on this site.

The first 100 of these pieces have now been collected and published by the Strange Attractor Press in the book, Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared.

The press release for the book pitches it more as a book about disappearances than about the authors’ works: “Adopting false identities, switching genders, losing fortunes, descending into alcoholism, discovering new careers, the stories of the missing authors are often more surprising than any of the fictions they wrote.” In reality, many of the writers passed from notice in the most usual fashion: popular tastes turned a different way and they were left behind. Not that it should matter to any fan of neglected books–what matters is the pleasure of discovering a writer as deserving as any you’d find in Barnes and Nobles or Waterstones, whether they were eaten by a tiger, switched sexes, or just grew old and died.

You can purchase Invisible Ink online from,, and direct from the publisher.

Human Landscapes from My Country, by Nazim Hikmet

Cover of 'Human Landscapes from My Country'
One of the drawbacks to running this website is that I rarely read books that are still in print. Browsing in new book stores is always frustrating. I find things I’d love to read, but then struggle to justify the time that would take away from reading books I should cover on this site.

Last week, however, I couldn’t resist buying a new book. We were at the Istanbul airport waiting for our flight back to Brussels and my wife and I were killing time browsing in the D&R store in the international terminal. There was a small section of English translations of Turkish literature, and in it, a copy of Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country, published by Persea Books in 2009. I thumbed through it and saw that it was a long poem (Hikmet’s subtitle is “An Epic Novel in Verse”), which would usually constitute strike two for me. I have to confess that I do not read as much poetry as I should.

But I soon found myself five pages into the book, almost inhaling the text like air. Although writing (mostly) in blank verse, Hikmet’s style is transparent and effortless to read. Unlike the only other verse novel I’ve read (Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which I did enjoy and do admire greatly), Human Landscapes from My Country could be published as prose with little effect on the meaning–though certainly not the form–of the text. I decided to buy it, and read over 150 pages in the course of our flight back. I went on to devour its over-450 pages in the course of a few days.

The poem opens on the steps of the Haydarpa?a train station, one of the landmarks of the shoreline of the Asian side of Istanbul, in the spring of 1941. Hikmet takes us into the thoughts of Master Galip, an unemployed man in his fifties: “When will I die?/Will I have a bed to die in?” Then Hikmet’s focus shifts to a homeless boy, then to a middle-aged woman originally from the Caucasus, then to Corporal Ahmet, a veteran of the wars (Balkan, Great and Greek). In these first few pages, we are introduced to a cross-section of Turkish society, including Halil, a political prisoner who serves as something of a fictional persona for Hikmet. Some of them are about to depart on the 3:45 PM train for Ankara and points east. Others will travel in style on the Anatolia Express. Through the rest of Book One of the novel, we will follow the 3:45–the cheap, slow train–and its passengers. Then, in Book Two, we ride with the businessmen, fonctionaires and bourgeoisie on the Express, a modern and comfortable sleeper.

Book Three is set in an Anatolian prison and a hospital where Halil is taken to treat his growing blindness. Again, we meet a variety of characters representing different aspects of Turkish society. Hikmet’s vision is broad and all-embracing, as he deal with peasants still firmly rooted in feudal and tribal ways, intellectuals at various points along the political spectrum, government spies, crooks, and women (who are almost universally viewed as property, work animals, or sex objects). He shows an intimate understanding of the effect of imprisonment on both the prisoners and their loved ones:

A woman whose husband’s in prison always looks
                                                    in the mirror, always.
More than other women,
                               she fears getting old.
She wants the man she loves to like her still when he gets out,
no matter
                  if it’s thirty years later.

The centerpiece of Book Four is a series of dealings in grain sales in which the old ways come into conflict with the rigid, control-oriented mindset of the government and lead to a riot. And in Book Five, Hikmet places Turkey into the context of the world war going on all around it. This section contains the weakest part of the novel, a passage depicting the heroic defense of Moscow in December 1941 by a small band of Russian soldiers. It’s the sort of hackneyed drivel that belonged in some piece of Soviet propaganda and is completely out of place in this book. But maybe it helped Hikmet earn a roof over his head later on.

It’s a brief lapse, in any case, and the novel closes with a moving sequence in which Hikmet takes us to a small town along the Mediterranean coast and introduces us to a few characters killing time in a seaside cafe. They then watch as two boatloads of Greek men, women and children, trying to escape from German occupation, slowly come into the harbor. The Turks take up a collection to buy them food, but soon the police come along and force the boats to cast off, ignoring the Greek’s uncertain fate. Turkey managed to stay out of the fighting in World War Two, but, as Hikmet shows, it came at the cost of constant moral compromises. In that way, Human Landscapes from My Country reminds me of the first book I read in 2012, Maxence van der Meersch’s Invasion.

Hikmet’s technique of rapid cuts works well in creating a collage of “human landscapes.” Here, for example, is part of the cross-section he builds from one moment during the night of September 3rd, 1941:

10:36 p.m.
The dignitary
         rose from the table
The others stood up, too.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to bed–
                    please don’t get up.”
Tahsin (the doctor-Representative)
“Intelligence goes to sleep this early?”

10:36 p.m.
Monsieur Duval talked with Jazibe Hanum:
“I like your peasants–
              they’re patient and don’t make demands.
Your merchants aren’t bad, either,

and your government men are harmless.
Above all, you need to develop your agriculture.
And you need to get rid of statism . . .”

10:36 p.m.
Emin Ulvi Achikalin, the Izmir merchant, sat with his head full of figures
for about a hundred thousand in currants, raisins, and figs.

Kasim Ahmedoff belched
and the lips of the girl sweet as a mandarin orange

10:36 p.m.
On the Anatolia Express
two women sat talking in a second-class section
They were fifty,
and both showed
                       their fifty years.

10:36 p.m.
Nimet Hanum sat in the same section.
A young woman,
she works at a ministry.
She isn’t beautiful,
but she has something else–
a certain warmth.

Hikmet, who is considered by many to be the greatest Turkish poet of the 20th century, wrote Human Landscapes while serving a sentence of twenty-eight years in a prison near Bursa. He had been convicted by the ?nönü government for being a member of the Turkish Communist Party, which has been banned since the early 1920s. Hikmet’s sentence was cut short in 1950 after he staged a hunger strike that gained national attention and led to organized protests. He was forced into exile soon after and spent most of the rest of his life in the Soviet Union. The book was banned in Turkey for many years.

Human Landscapes was translated into English by Randy Blasing, a poet himself, and his Turkish wife, Mutlu Konuk. A shorter version was published–also by Persea Books–in 1983. I can’t speak for the faithfulness of the translation, although a Turkish colleague of mine confirmed that she went through the book like lightning when she first read it. And I certainly feel no need to justify the time I took away from my stack of out-of-print books to read Human Landscapes from My Country. It’s a terrific book that will, I hope, forever remain in print as a classic piece of 20th century literature.

Human Landscapes from My Country, by Nazim Hikmet, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, with a foreword by Edward Hirsch
New York City: Persea Books, 2009

Passing Strangers, by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Passing Strangers' by Felix RiesenbergIn his autobiography, Living Again, Felix Riesenberg mentions his 1932 novel, Passing Strangers, just once, calling it “a failure.” Riesenberg’s criticism is hardly any harsher than that of time itself, since the book has vanished along with most of his oeuvre and has apparently never even earned a mentioned in academic articles on literature of the Great Depression.

Yet Passing Strangers is a powerful specimen of the effect of the Depression on the creative mind. In the book, Riesenberg takes a cross-section of society and subjects it to the disruptive and erratic effects of a great economic collapse. As he put it in his preamble, “A group of people, caught in the mesh of cams and gears, are tossed about by the machinery of life.”

Riesenberg starts his story with “The Average Man,” Robert Millinger, a lowly elevator operator in the new and splendid Babel Building, the pride and envy of all Manhattan. Millinger is a perfectly working cog:

After a time people who entered and left the elevator, familiar or strange, no longer meant things to Mr. Millinger. They were merely presences. He responded to them without thought, or reason, but correctly. Clever as his car was, it was crude compared with that stranger flexible, self-oiling, economical machine, Robert Millinger, elevator operator No. 243, Imperial Holding Corporation. Residence 749 Taylo Street, Brooklyn. Married.

Millinger himself is a cipher, but he believes that makes him an invaluable source of insights into the common man, and fantasizes about being taken into the confidence of an important executive, such as Isidore Trauenbeck. Trauenbeck runs the Babel Building and dozens of other properties. “His day,” Riesenberg writes, “was marked by the grease spots of those completely squelched.” Even greater than Trauenbeck is his own boss, the mysterious tycoon, A. Thouron Clamson, an amalgam of Donald Trump, Howard Hughes, and John D. Rockefeller. Clamson puts Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe” to shame:

A. Thouron Clamson hadn’t a single title. He signed his name with a flourish, beginning with Clamson, weaving the A. Thouron into the device with a degree of skill grown from long practice. He owned in many things, almost endless things, holding control of such vast interlocking and intermeshing activities that great charts were prepared to keep the picture reasonably in hand. He always prepared to shift his money from one raft to another at a moment’s notice. He owned sixty percent of Mid-Continental Gas. Then he bought out the rival pipe line of Sioux Service, and suddenly dumped his M. C. G., pounding it down while booming Sioux. On the swing, he drew back all but five percent of the first company. These two were then combined and on the seventh day he rested from his labor. But the labor, of course, was done by others. He merely decided.

Riesenberg reaches down from Clamson to Millinger through a string of almost random connections, drawn in such a way that only a few of his characters share acquaintances. They are, as the title suggests, passing strangers, but they share one thing in common: all are affected in some profound way, by the stock market crash and the resulting depression. Millinger loses his job, is abandoned by his wife and daughter, and nearly dies of hunger and exposure on the streets of New York. Millinger’s wealthy cousin, Zekor, is forced to move from Park Avenue to a slum in Brooklyn and dies on a park bench, worn out by the relentless loss of property and self. Willy Jennings, the department store owner who takes Millinger’s wife, Launa, as his lover, finds his web of speculations and leveraged deals collapsing around him and jumps from his office window [Riesenberg recounts one of these supposedly apocryphal suicides in Living Again.] Millinger’s daughter, Diana, in turn, becomes Clamson’s mistress, until she sickens of his esthetic and moral excesses. Clamson experiences the it all as mild turbulence, not even bothering to buckle his seatbelt.

Riesenberg wraps everything up in a climactic disaster scene somewhat foreshadowing events at the World Trade Center, as radicals set off truck bombs and explosives in the subway system to protest the human destruction caused by capitalism. Clamson is assasinated as he sits in traffic in his limousine. Millinger’s daughter escapes from the chaos with a man who used to drive Zekor Millinger’s Packard. And, ironically, Millinger is rescued by a young woman who brings him to Clamson’s wife, a noted supporter of social causes.

While certainly less experimental than his previous novel, Endless River, Passing Strangers lacks nothing in comparison when it comes to ambition. Riesenberg didn’t have quite the technical mastery to bring off all he aspired to, but the book is never less than enthralling. I read it in just three days, sitting in cafes as my wife and daughter shopped around London during Thanksgiving. It demonstrates yet again that we need to find a place in our memories for the like of Felix Riesenberg, who may not always have succeeded in his literary attempts but deserves to be recognized as a bold American artistic adventurer.

Passing Strangers, by Felix Riesenberg
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932

The Court of Charles IV, by Benito Pérez Galdós

The Court of Charles IV was the second of the forty-six historical novels, referred to as Episodios Nacionales, written by the great Spanish novelist, Benito Pérez Galdós, whose masterpiece, Fortunata and Jacinta, was the first title featured on this site in 2012. It’s a considerably lighter work–less than a fifth the length of Fortunata and Jacinta and told in first person by young Gabriel Araceli, a poor but amibitious lad whose backstage adventures in both the theaters and court of Madrid around the year 1807 make up the book.

Gabriel, son of a poor Cadiz fisherman, was first introduced in Trafalgar, Galdós first Episodios Nacionales novel, which depicted Nelson’s great victory from the eyes of a bystander on the losing side. Gabriel has made his way to Madrid and is now in the service of Pepita Gonzalez, one of the most successful actresses of her time. Among his duties, which he itemizes at the book’s start, are to hiss performances of “The Maiden’s Yes,” a play by Leandro Fernández de Moratín, whose work she despises.

Which leads to the first of several delightful set-pieces that are the book’s real highlights. In the company of a failed poet, Gabriel attends the play to make his obligatory interjections. Galdós weaves together Gabriel’s mocking account of the performance, his observations of the antics of the theatre’s audience, which is as busy talking and fighting among themselves as watching the play, and the poet’s non-stop commentary on the flaws of the writing and references to superior elements of his own work.

Indeed, the whole of The Court of Charles IV is something of a weaving demonstration by Galdós, with the threads of love, sex and politics as the raw materials. Gabriel’s mistress Pepita is in love with and insanely jealous of her director and leading man, Isidoro Maiquez–a real-life character from the time. Isidoro, in turn, is madly in love with Lesbia, the beautiful niece of a minor member of the Spanish nobility. And Lesbia, in her turn, is being watched and manipulated by Amarantha, another duchess with whom Gabriel becomes enthralled.

Gabriel’s experiences form the backing material against which Galdós winds and twists his fictional and historical characters. Some back the King, Charles (Carlos) IV; others support a coup by his son, Ferdinand, who favors the British. All despise the prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, known as “The Prince of Peace.” As the various intrigues of court and stage are being played out, the figure of Napoleon looms in the distance, utterly misinterpreted and misunderstood by all. Within a few months after the novel’s ending, he will invade Spain and drive them all into exile.

Typical of the clueness nobles is Lesbia’s uncle, a marquis and one-time diplomat, who has perfected obscurity as a tool for appearing to be all-knowing: “He always took care to maintain a studied reserve and utter himself in half-sentences, never expressing himself clearly on any subject, so that his hearers in their doubt and darkness should question him and insist on his being more explicit.” “What will Russia do?,” he often wonders aloud, to the perplexity of his listeners.

Gabriel is a Huck Finn-like character who maintains a healthy dose of skepticism about all he sees around him. Gabriel observes of the nobility at one point, “For my part, these typical specimens of human vanity have always been a delight to me as being beyond dispute those who amuse and teach us most.” One hears the voice of Galdós in these words. Though Lady Amarantha manages to lure him into acting as a spy, he wisens up before things get out of hand and lights out from the palace of El Escorial rather as Huck lit out from Widow Douglas’ house.

Galdós wraps up his story with a last bravura set-piece, in which the different love triangles come crashing together during a private performance of Othello–or rather, of Teodoro de la Calle’s translation of Othello, which was itself based on a French translation by Jean-François Ducis. And Gabriel manages to turn the tables on Lady Amarantha with a bit of dirty linen from her own past, allowing him to exit stage right with dignity intact and another boost up the ladder of success.

Overall, a fast and enjoyable tale–nothing too deep and certainly not a book that Galdós meant to be anything more than a historical entertainment, something like a precursor of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.

The Court of Charles IV was translated into English by Clara Bell (who also translated Ossip Schubin’s fine comedy, Our Own Set, another neglected gem) and published by W. S. Gottsberger in 1888. You can find electronic copies of this translation, full of usual OCR errors, on the Internet Archive at