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0 - The Neglected Books Page

Enter, Sleeping, also published as The Sleepwalkers, by David Karp (1960)

entersleepingI picked up a copy of Enter, Sleeping in the £2 box outside a bookstore in London a few weeks back and enjoyed reading most of it on the Eurostar ride back. Karp, whose dystopic novel, One, was reissued a few years ago by Westholme Publishing (but appears to be out of print again), was usually serious, almost moralistic, in his approach, but this is an out-an-out farce. If you’re a fan of 1960s movies, I’d describe it as a blend of “The Producers,” “Lord Love a Duck,” and “The President’s Analyst”: Broadway, young love (er, sex), and Looney Tunes conspiracies. All in all, great fun.

Young Julius Schapiro, a play reader for an erstwhile Broadway producer (more Max Bialystok than David Merrick), meets the lovely, tender Daphne one evening and ends up walking her back to her home. At the door, she nearly lassos him into bed, but Julius is stopped on lift-off by her father, the uber-earnest Ernest Leydecker. Ernest quickly proves a granite stone-faced mind-fucker first class:

“What do you do?” her father asked as he sat opposite him. His manner, his posture were the same. Flat, calm, unassailable, impenetrable.

“I work for a stage producer,” he said.

“But what do you do?” he was asked again.

“I read plays.”

“To what end?”

“To inform the producer which plays are good.”

“Does he take your advice?”

“He reads what I recommend he read.”

“And does he produce what you recommend he produce?”

“Not very often.”

“Then why do you do it at all?”

“Because I need a job. I have to eat, to live.”

“You don’t have to live,” her father said with a voice that was almost kindly. “If you find life burdensome, I know a doctor who will provide you with a poison which is almost painless.”

Later, Ernest gives Julius his reassuring assessment: “I don’t understand what my daughter sees in you. I consider you a total imbecile.”

On his own home front, Julius has the comfort of living with a mother one character describes as, “… a triple-plyed monster of the old school of Jewish monsters. She’s not a monster. She’s a growth.” When he tries to make some connections to get his career as a budding songwriter going, he runs into the hyperbolic, hyperactive agents, Lou Cohen and Al Douglas:

“I got to find this guy Julius Schapiro, I yelled,” Al said, his face contorted with pain. “Lou, Lou, I yelled, we’ve got to find this guy! We’ve got to find him! I called the magazine! I called the Writers Guild! I called the papers! I called the Dramatists Guild! I called the Coast! I called all the networks! I called every agent in New York! I must’ve made a hundred calls. Right, Lou?”

“He spent nearly two days on the telephone,” Lou said, shaking his head in awe.

Poor, sane Julius, who wants only to woo Daphne and make a buck, is like a cork caught in a torrent of obsessions and conspiracies. Nowadays, we would call him clueless, but in the book’s terminology, he’s a sleepwalker.

In pursuit of Daphne, he winds up helping Ernest’s Truth-Seekers, whose primary occupation is writing letters of complaint over the slightest of wrongs. In support of a member who felt ripped off at the price of a lousy movie, they write to “the management of the theater … the producers of the motion picture, the Mayor of the City of New York, the Governor of the State of New York, Governor of the State of California, where the picture was manufactured, the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, the place of manufacture, and, of course, the usual copy to the President of the United States and to the Secretary General of the United Nations for his information.”

In the real world, no one could take such letters seriously, but in Karp’s loony bin, it’s only natural that the Truth-Seekers soon attract the interest of the F. B. I. … or is it the Secret Service … or is it some dark, unacknowledged arm of the government?

Enter, Sleeping might have collapsed under the weight of such cartoonish exaggerations, but Karp’s touch with his broad brush is light and deft. Running under 180 pages, the book is too brief, the momentum too fast, to let anything bog down. Karp wraps up his story with a last-minute happy ending in the tradition of a good Shakespearian comedy, complete with matched pairs of lovers. All in all, a fast, fun farcical frolic with a nice blend of Sixties innocence and Cold War paranoia. Absolute worth the £2.

(Enter, Sleeping as also published as Sleepwalkers in the U. K.)


Enter, Sleeping, by David Karp
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960

Extreme Reading: Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf (2014)

shelfcoverI kick myself for letting the publication of Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf, subtitled, “From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading,” go unremarked, for it’s likely the most prominent celebration of neglected books to come out in many years.

“This book records the history of an experiment,” Rose writes at the opening of her book. “Believing that literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical–that is, writers chosen for us by others—-I wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature.”

In fact, as she goes on to explain, not just the canon is chosen for us, but much of what is generally read. Even if the decision to pick up a particular book is yours, your access to the book is shaped by others in many ways: by booksellers in their choice of they stock and what they display; by reviewers in what they praise or condemn or simply deprecate; by editors in what they select to have reviewed; by librarians by what they choose to purchase, to retain, and to discard; by schools and professors by what they choose to put on their reading lists; and by other readers, whose choices produce best-seller lists and guide booksellers and librarians through feedback mechanisms that reinforce the success of the popular and, as Rose details with examples throughout the book, ensure the neglect of the unlucky.

Rose’s experiment was to read off-piste–that is, to read a selection of books with only an arbitrary criterion, and no received advice, as a guide. In her case, she eliminated a variety of options and settled on one particular shelf in the fiction section of the New York Society Library containing books by authors whose last names ran from LEQ to LES, “running from William Le Queux to John Lescroart, by way of Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James LeRossignol, Margaret Leroy, and Alain-René Le Sage.” As she sums up in her closing chapter, the experiment covered, “Twenty-three books. Eleven authors. Short stories and novels. Realistic and mythic. Literary fiction and detective fiction. American and European. Old and contemporary. Highly wrought and flabby fiction. Inspired fiction and uninspired.”
shelf
Rose found the experiment a bit of a trial at points. Sticking to the well-trod paths does provide a sort of guarantee: if others found a book worthwhile, chances are better that you will, too. There’s risk in going off-piste: sometimes, the experience isn’t worth the time. “I did not want to report on novels I found merely interesting,” she writes. “Yes, my disappointment could be made amusing up to a point, but what was in it for either of us, me or you? I wanted to address the life-enhancing possibilities of literature.” (I’ve tried to follow much the same approach with this site.) Rose goes beyond the call of duty in devoting time and thought even to her disappointments, giving, for example, the works William Le Queux more attention than they deserve even as historical artifacts.

But had there not been a few high points along her way through the shelf, it would have been easy to give up and head back to the plowed runs. For Rose, a high point is a book that passes a certain simple test: “The fiction I esteem is fiction I would reread. The test of time is beyond us as human beings with a limited life span, but the test of times is possible.” In her case, she found three books that passed–“texts to keep me company through life”: God’s Ear, by Rhoda Lerman, The Adventures of Gil Blas by Alain-René Lesage, and Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.

Along the way, however, she also discovers a few titles more than just interesting, if not life-enhancing. These include:

Baron Bagge and Count Luna, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

These two short novels by Lernet-Holenia, an Austrian writer whose early novel, The Glory is Departed, AKA The Standard, I reviewed here about a month ago, are little gems–one a supernatural love story (Bagge), the other a black-as-death comedy of paranoia gone wild (Luna).

The Habitant-Merchant, by James Edward Le Rossignol

A collection of short stories, published in 1939, centered on a habitant-merchant–a Québécois farmer–turned shopkeeper and his family. Rossignol was something of a polymath, having studied philosophy and psychology, taught economics, and researched and written extensively on politics, education, economics, in addition to writing fiction.

Just Like Beauty, by Lisa Lerner

This, Lerner’s one and only novel, a funny, savage, and yet somehow tender tale of a sexual dystopia, fell into neglect on the strength of one bad review in The New York Times, which ensured few other papers or magazines reviewed it, and left its fate to the enthusiasms the few readers who discovered and cherished it.

While extreme reading, might, in the words of The New Yorker’s feature on the book, require “special personal traits,” including “a dash of perversity,” Rose found it had rewards more than worth the effort. In fact, it’s an act of individual empowerment:

More people should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, on their own. That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it’s just a bookshelf. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others.

All of which makes me wonder if I shouldn’t rename this site ExtremeReading.com (well … maybe not).

Unlike Rose, I spend most of my time reading off the beaten path, and so I am sparing in my choices of current books. The Shelf, however, was a thorough delight, not only introducing me to the works of a few writers even I haven’t come across, but also full of thought-provoking observations. (Her comments about the continued challenges faced by woman writers is making me think that I should set aside 2015 as the year of the Neglected Books by Women.)

So if you’re hesitant to break out into uncharted reading territory, I recommend The Shelf for an initial shot of courage.


The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose
New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

“The Unhappy Few,” by Thomas McAfee, from Poems and Stories

loner

The Unhappy Few

–after reading Weldon Kees

Most of us spend most of our lives
Climbing in and out of wombs,
Bitching about bad coffee and too wet
Martinis. Most of us lust for, more than love,
Our wives, waitresses, and celluloid sirens.

But a few seem to move to the total horror
Of ennui, to wake tired at morning,
To be glad to face another alley, rather
Than to go on for another hour with the sheets,
Fighting the nightmares that gang up.

Those few are real and positive. They know
What misery and terror really are.
They’re usually the very last ones to bitch.
They go off somewhere to drink in a bar
Or cry or quietly to kill themselves.

from Poems and Stories, by Thomas McAfee
Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1960

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

Imperial City, by Elmer Rice (1937)

imperialcityFull of cardboard characters, stereotypes, cariacatures, clichés, and hackneyed situations Elmer Rice’s 1937 novel, Imperial City is the most enjoyable read I’ve encountered in months. It’s got something for nearly everyone: a murder in a crowded night-club; a race riot; a raid on a high-class whore house; adultery (both hetero- and homosexual); a solo flight across the Atlantic that ends tragically; a protest by undergraduates at Columbia; an unsuccessful hold-up and high-speed getaway; a black-out that cripples Manhattan just as a sickly child is undergoing an emergency surgery. Something’s happening on nearly every page, and with close to 700 pages, that’s a lot of action.

I’ve had a copy of Imperial City for a few years but always shied away from reading it. I’m a sucker for city novels, particularly ones set in New York, but the few reviews of the book I’d been able to find were pretty lukewarm in their praise. The fact that its one reissue was as an abridged Avon paperback with a cheesy cover didn’t say much for its long-term literary merit, either.

But when I finally picked it up, I was 50 pages in before looking up again, and found myself reaching for it in every spare moment after that.

Not for Rice’s style, mind you. Probably the closest comparisons I could find to Imperial City would be The Bonfire of the Vanities or one of James Michener’s geographic doorstops like Hawaii or Centennial, and compared to Rice, Wolfe and Michener are poets. Here, for example, is how he handles a stressful period in his leading man’s romance:

These activities, together with his constant attendance at the trial, had left him almost no time for Judy. For more than a week he had hardly seen her, except for two or three brief visits to the hospital to which her father had again been removed. They talked listlessly and almost impersonally. Judy was preoccupied with her father’s illness, and Gay with his brother’s critical situation and his efforts to avert the strike. Emotionally neither was capable of sharing the other’s anxiety, and for no good reason, each was hurt by the other’s apparent lack of sympathy; so that an indefinable coolness sprang up between them and their parting had none of its accustomed warmth.

This is reporting, not writing.

And yet, it’s easy to look past such clunkiness and just keep stuffing oneself with pages like handfuls of potato chips or popcorn. Imperial City is the fictional equivalent of empty, addictive calories.

Although centered on the Colemans–one of the wealthiest families in Manhattan–the novel is a veritable solar system of characters, ranging from a couple dozen planets whose names gradually grow familiar to minor moons and satellites to asteroids that go screaming past in a few pages, never to appear again. I suspect Rice’s cast list would put Tolstoy’s biggest to shame, and given how superficial many of his characterizations are, even harder to keep straight. Names disappear for hundreds of pages only to pop up again with no re-introduction (“Arnold Rayford … is he the lawyer or the power company executive? Oh, no that’s Charles Albertin … or is it Livingston Ward?”). More than a few times, I just gave up and hoped to figure things out as I went along.

What redeems the book, however, is its tremendous momentum and enough telling details to make the stage sets convincing. An early highlight is a visit to Coney Island on a hot summer day:

Everyone’s jaws were moving; those who were not munching ice-cream cones and hot dogs or licking lolly-pops were industriously chewing gum. The air was thick with the smells of brine, pickles, sauerkraut, spiced sausage-meat, sizzling lard, and human exhalations. People shoved and trod on each other’s toes to reach the booths where stentorian vendors extolled the merits of pop-corn and pink spun sugar and Eskimo pies. Spectators stood five-deep behind the players of skee-ball, Japanese ping-pong, and coney races. There were long queues waiting to buy tickets for the Old Mill, the Love Ride, the jolting little electric auto-racers, the barrel in which the motor-cyclist risked death, the crèche where the pre-maturely born babies were displayed in incubators. In the swimming-pools of the large bathing establishments, the divers shouted and splashed.

coneyisland
The prose may be trite or awkward (particularly that last sentence), but despite Rice’s clumsiness with the brush, a lively and colorful picture emerges. As a portrait of Manhattan in the 1930s–one of the city’s most vibrant decades–Imperial City isn’t the most deftly painted, but it may be one of the richest and most fascinating. Great art it ain’t, but it is great entertainment. Summer is a long way off, but if you’re looking for a neglected beach book next year, remember this.

Best known as a playwright (“The Adding Machine” and “Street Scene”, among many others), Elmer Rice only published three novels. His first, A Voyage to Purilia (1930), was a satire of Hollywood set on a distant planet (Penguin reissued it in the 1950s as a science-fiction novel). His last, The Show Must Go On (1949), was epic-sized, like Imperial City, about the ups and downs of a young playwright’s career. His last book was an autobiography, Minority Report, published a few years before his death.


Imperial City, by Elmer Rice
New York City: Coward and McCann, 1937

“Cadillac Square: 1933,” by John Malcolm Brinnin, from Selected Poems

cadillac square

Cadillac Square: 1933

Whoever know a city, know this square:
The loud and quaking air
That breaks on brick or scales the sun-choked glass,
The travelers who pass
One minute of one day and nevermore,
The neo-Grecian door
Poised like the needle’s eye, open and shut
For the mythical feet
Of some squat nobleman of fields and mines,
Industrial scenes,
Or eggshell yachts afloat in summer water,
The pink expensive daughter
With a flair for shady friends and maybe Bach,
The colonnaded house and the Chinese cook.

In early spring this heartlike acre shines:
Canyoned streets, carlines
Flow with violence of union, men
Learn faith in fathers then;
The butcher from the suburb and the clerk
Hear the organizers speak
The echoing language of the pioneer,
And in that press they cheer
With such a swirling and reproachless voice
The city swims in noise;
Those sooty faces and grime-sculptured hands
Live where the river bends,
They own the rotted gardens made to green
Where but the fossils of machines have lain.

All interweaves among the changing years:
Progress is in arrears
Until some chanticleering message raids
The disparate multitudes,
Or the bark of some command, made sharp with hate,
Sends Property’s gunmen out.
Poised in that infinity of death
Or life, or barely both,
The human balance sways; away, away,
The bleak night and the day,
The bankers couched in limousines, the poor
Jackknifed against a door,
The bankers conscious of defeat, the poor
Jackknifed, oblivious, against a door.

from The Selected Poems of John Malcolm Brinnin
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link)

“Elegy Before the Time,” by William Dickey, from The Interpreter’s House

kansascitymotel

Elegy Before the Time

From Kansas City, the
last bleeding station-stop
of mother’s cancer, goes
west and then south, writes
“Having become myself
my fiction’s hero, will
pause at tonight’s hotel,
called (letterhead translates)
Inn of the Last Resort,
(amused) tomorrow will
taken sudden steps to go
into Mexico, write
nothing to anyone.”

Like a cheap dog thereafter
in grey timorousness
will his hallucinations
attend his heel
to lick at the least call?
Heroic, in the bar
back of the best streets,
he, in a diamond vest,
gold pieces in his ears,
muscles like a hoopsnake,
cheerfully will impart
his daddy’s wisdom with
new lies in a new night.

Or if that keepsake fails,
the coin in his hand turns
to a useless penny, he
cursed for a male witch,
eyes superstitiously full,
flesh softer than human,
“having become himself
his fiction’s hero” may
dance to a smart blaze,
staccato feet bound
fast to the fire’s end,
his clumsy hands told
gestures of departure.

Why worry, lovey? He,
mother in her fat tomb,
auntie on her pension,
Kansas City an act done
in an indecent story,
now suffers his own air,
breathes himself wholly.
And if he takes off
all clothes, smarts
in another country’s love, if
he takes off his heart, bleeds
untranslated blood, still
it is his fiction.

But I agree, I
cannot leave it there, and
wait the improbable card
postmarked Champs Elysees:
“Everything dandy, death
easily managed. Find
fine company; Ambrose Bierce,
all others who disappeared
stopping by for a drink.
Having become themselves
their fictions, are
spoken with new tongues.
Write to me. Love me. Yours.”

from The Interpreter’s House, by William Dickey
Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1963

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

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, by Charles Neider (1956)

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones'I first mentioned The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, back in 2010, in a post about “Classics Lost and Found,” a feature in the Independent. In that post, I wrote that it was only book mentioned in the article that could be considered truly neglected.

It’s really quite remarkable, in fact, that such a good book could be so easily forgotten. In a short review on Amazon, record producer Russ Titelman wrote, “As far as I’m concerned, it is one of the great unsung American masterpieces on a par with A Death in the Family and So Long, See You Tomorrow. It is spare, poetic and honest.” In the Independent piece, Clive Sinclair called it “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.” And in his introduction to the 1972 Harrow Books paperback reissue, Wirt Williams wrote that it “may be the greatest ‘western’ ever written”:

Why? Well, certainly, it offers so many of those elements indispensable to the form as popular fiction: a supergunfighter as hero, a powerful story, a colorful background, great authenticity of detail. But Hendry Jones has more than these and is much greater than their sum. It is, quite simply, a first-rate work of literature.

Neider started out with the intent of writing a fictional account of the life of Billy the Kid, and his title pays tribute to Sheriff Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. But despite a long visit to New Mexico, during which he tracked down and interviewed a few of the surviving witnesses from Billy’s time, Neider was stuck until he decided to shift the setting to the central California coast and Baja Mexico, and cut any strong ties to the historical Billy.

Williams argues that what distinguishes the novel is “its mythic quality.” Neider certainly made a deliberate choice to make the story somewhat timeless. His hero has no name other than “the Kid.” His narrator, “Doc” Baker, a former member of the Kid’s gang, does say that his account is set “in that summer of 1883,” but he refuses to offer any biographical information:

Some people had told me I ought to tell about the Kid’s early life, who was his mother who his father, where he went to school, how he killed his first man, how he got to be so good with the gun, the great fighters he met and knew, the women he had, the men he killed, the way he cleaned out the faro bank in the Angels that time. But I see no point in going into all that.

But I have to differ with Williams. I think it’s the book’s specificity that makes it great. Every page shines with prose that’s clean, precise and poetic:

It was good to sit in that town after the hills and Punta, to sit in a plaza and listen. Cries on the bay; bark of a dog; rattle of carts’ clopping of hooves; voices laughing and shouting. It made us wonder how it would be to live in a place like that, with all the houses and faces and business and all the smells–grapes being pressed, eucalyptus trees, pine smoke, roses, meat curing, cheese drying, and the perfume you caught as you passed a lady on the street.

The book is told entirely in “Doc” Baker’s voice, and much of the reason the book works so well is due to Neider’s success in finding just the right tone, a combination of dry, matter-of-fact, life-hardened realism, a casual familiarity with violence, and a subtle touch of the poetic–enough to be effectively atmospheric, not so much as to become intrusive.

In fact, re-reading the novel recently, I suddenly realized why this prose seemed so familiar. Compare these two passages:

Jackson fired. He simply passed his left hand over the top of the revolver he was holding in a gesture brief as a flintspark and tripped the hammer. The big pistol jumped and a double handful of Owen’s brains went out the back of his skill and plopped in the floor behind him. He sank without a sound and lay crumpled up with his face in the floor and one eye open and the blood welling up out of the destruction at the back of his head. Jackson sat down. Brown rose and retrieved his pistol and let the hammer back down and put it in his belt. Most terrible nigger I ever seen, he said. Find some plates, Charlie.

and

It was at this point that Shotgun Smith fired a barrel into Modesto’s head. The boy dropped and Curly Bill dismounted and kicked his face with the high heel of his boot. Cal dismounted too, got a large rock and laid it under Modesto’s head for a pillow. Then Curly Bill, spotting Modesto’s piebald in the corral, roped her, led her close to the boy and shot her in the head. When she lay dead, steaming, the urine running out of her and the blood staining the ground, he got Modesto’s hat, which had fallen near the body, and put it under the mare’s head.

“You go and tell the Kid about this,” said Curly Bill to Modesto’s boss. “Tell him this is what he’s going to get too.”


The first is from Blood Meridian, the second from Hendry Jones. I don’t think I’m entirely off the mark in noting an awful lot of similarity between Cormac McCarthy’s Western voice and Charles Neider’s. Which is another reason why it’s hard to understand why The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones has fallen into neglect.

oneyedjacks

Finally, there is the reason why the book is most often mentioned these days–namely, that it was the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s one and only credit as a director, the 1961 film, One-Eyed Jacks. As you can read in more detail in the Wikipedia article, the screenplay took a tortuous path from source to screen and, other than being shot on the California coast and retaining some of the characters’ names, the film bares little resemblance to Neider’s book. If you wish to see it, though, there are several copies of the film available on YouTube.

hendryjonesreissues

There have been several reissues since the book was first published by Harper in 1956. It was released as Crest paperback (1960) aimed squarely at traditional readers of Westerns. In 1972, it was issued in the U. S. as a Harrow Books paperback and in the U.K. by Pan Books. Finally, University of Nevada Press issued it in 1993 as part of its “Western Literature Classic.”

Given that Cormac McCarthy’s books are the closest thing to the gold standard when it comes to best-selling serious fiction these days, I can only hope that some bright editor catches a clue and ushers a new release of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones into print. Maybe even with an introduction by McCarthy … although that may be coming too close to home.


The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, by Charles Neider
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956

“The Drought,” by Edwin Ford Piper, from Barbed Wire and other poems

drought

The Drought

The light of noon comes reddened from a sky
A-blur with dust; the irritable wind
Burns on your cheek, and leans against your garments
Like a hot iron. Cloud after cloud, the dust
Sweeps the road, rattles on the dirty canvas
Of the schooner so dispiritedly drawn
By drooping horses. On the whitening grass,
With bright and helpless eyes, a meadow-lark
Sits open-beaked, and desperately mute.
The thin, brown wheat that was too short to cut
Stands in the field; the feeble corn, breast high,
Shows yellowed leaf and tassel. With slack line
The bearded, gaunt, stoop-shouldered driver sits
As if in sleep some mounting wave of sorrow
Had overpassed him, and he still dreamed on.
Within the schooner children’s voices wail;
A mother’s tones bring quiet. The sun glares,
The wind drones and makes dirty all the sky.
The horses scarcely fight the vicious flies.

This is departure, but there are who stay.

from Barbed Wire and Other Poems, by Edwin Ford Piper
Chicago: The Midland Press

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

A Sample of Lost Sixties Fiction

In its 1981 tribute to R. V. Cassill, whose pulp fiction I’ve covered over the last year, December magazine included an extensive bibliography of Cassill’s works. I was intrigued by the list of titles reviewed by Cassill, primarily for the New York Times and Book World, between 1961 and 1974, as it provides a wide survey of the fiction of that time. There are now-well-established titles such as William Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck, Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, and Donald Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari, along with others from Kingsley Amis, Gore Vidal, Iris Murdoch, and Thomas Berger.

But there are also a fair number of books that have since been swepted under the rug and forgotten, and I wanted to take a few minutes to mention some of these, in hopes that one or more will catch the interest of a by-passer and be rediscovered.
sixtiesfiction

A Married Man, by Benjamin DeMott

DeMott was best known during his lifetime as a cultural critic and prolific book-reviewer, but this, his second novel, was well-received when it came out. Writing in Saturday Review, James McConkey saw it as proof of the value of fiction in a time when its purpose was widely being questioned: “In A Married Man, DeMott takes as a fictional premise all the arguments that have been raised to prove that the novel as a genre has lost its relevance. Accepting that there may be no such thing as a clear human identity, he agrees with the view that human relationships are likely to be without point. The author raises no argument against the banality of middle-class activities, and emphasizes the degree to which words themselves can become but a series of cliches established by a person as protection against communication with self or another. He creates a character who is haunted by all the contemporary threats to human meaning, puts him into the most stereo-typed situation possible–and proceeds to demonstrate that his dilemma is the stuff of fiction.”

Racers to the Sun and Us He Devours, by James B. Hall

Somewhat like Cassill, James B. Hall’s influence was perhaps greater as a teacher than a writer himself. Ken Kesey once said that a comment by Hall about single line in a Hemingway short story, “unlocked for me the door to the resounding hall of real literature.” Us He Devours, a collection of short stories, was kept in print for decades by the New Directions press. Racers was Hall’s first novel, about a day in the life of a motorcycle mechanic and racer. The late D. G. Myers mentioned it earlier this year in his A Commonplace Blog, in words that speak to my heart: “Will … Racers to the Sun repay your time, or only waste it? Are you willing to accept the risk of recommending either of them to a friend? If you take seriously the adventure of reading you must involve yourself, sooner or later, in the romance of certain old books.” Amen.

Negatives, by Peter Everett

Written in the space of three weeks, Negatives received enthusiastic reviews in the U. K. and won Everett the 1965 Somerset Maugham Award. Depending upon your viewpoint, the book, which told about a couple whose peculiar fetish is to re-enact Dr. Crippen’s murder of his wife, was either black comedy or just plain gruesome. U. S. reviewers tended to the latter. Writing in Saturday Review (and obviously enjoying himself), Nicholas Samstag described Everett’s technique: “Mix in plenty of sex and squalor, and stir sluggishly. Then simmer in a prose thickly manured with unwashed old clothing from a sort of London Thrift Shop. Drench with whiskey, sprinkle heavily with vomit, and serve.” The novel was made into a film, directed by Peter Medak, which you can watch online on YouTube.

The Three Suitors, by Richard Jones

Originally published in the U. K. under the title, The Age of Wonder, The Three Suitors was the first of four novels published by Jones over the space of about ten years. As Jane Barnes wrote in a 1982 Virginia Quarterly Review article, “There is not enough sense in the rise and fall of commercial reputations to dwell on Jones” lack of reception. Suffice it to say, he has had a lot of bad luck, culminating in the publication of his most recent book, Living in the 25th Hour, during the 1978 newspaper strike in New York City. If there is no real way to account for the success of some authors and the frustration of others, there is still a special poignancy in the absence of a properly intelligent response to Jones” work.”

John Wain wrote of The Three Suitors in The New York Review of Books,

Mr. Jones writes out of a sense of the richness and variety of human beings and their history, and since this involves him in seeing every character and every incident in their full perspective, it would be difficult to say in one phrase what his book is “about.” In one sense, it is about Wales; in another, it is about old age; in another, about the nature of family life; in another, about the impact of the modern world with its formless emptiness on the last remains of a more ordered existence. But to say that it was “about” any one of these things, or all of them, would be to put too cramping a limit on one’s pleasure in the book’s vitality.

Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, calling it, “a novel with presence, and a perfect collaboration between sympathy and intelligence.” Ironically, it may have been just such restraint that caused Jones’ work to be underappreciated when published and largely forgotten ever since. Jones himself, according to his Guardian obituary, was devastated by the death of his 12 year-old daughter in a road accident, and “came to see fiction writing as an irrelevance.”

Time Out, by David Ely

This is a collection of short stories, mostly on macabre themes, by a writer best known for his 1963 novel, Seconds, which was filmed by John Frankenheimer in 1966 and featured Rock Hudson’s best performance. Ely’s fiction deserves a serious re-look, as it’s very much about taking various aspects of conventional life in the 1960s and twisting it to a revealing extreme.

Farragan’s Retreat, by Tom McHale

When his first novel, Principato came out in 1971, followed within months by Farragan’s Retreat, Tom McHale became the hottest new name in American fiction. “Tom McHale has so much going for him it’s scary,” began a review in Life magazine; “McHale writes as if born to the craft.” Farragan’s Retreat was nominated for a National Book Award and for years thereafter, you saw the Bantam paperback editions of Principato and Farragan’s Retreat in every bookstore. Farragan’s Retreat, in particular, was a timely work, telling the story of a conservative Catholic so enraged with his son’s draft dodging that he undertakes to have him assassinated. McHale went on to write four more novels, earning a Guggenheim fellowship for Alinsky’s Diamond (1974), but, that first blast of critical acclaim faded and with it, so, apparently, did the notion that his work was something of lasting value. When McHale took his own life in 1982, the event received scarce notice. A few sites here and there pay tribute to his work, and one can safely argue that time has come for a serious reconsideration.

When the War is Over, by Stephen Becker

This, the sixth of Becker’s eleven novels, relates a small episode, just days after the surrender at Appomattox, in which a group of Northern soldiers execute a young Kentuckian who might or might not have been an actual member of a Confederate raiding party. Subtle, measured and nuanced in its perspectives, it “demonstrates beautifully,” in the words of the Saturday Review, “demonstrates just what the business of fiction is all about.” David Madden later told a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel, “I agree with George Garrett (novelist and critic) and many others that When the War is Over deserves its underground reputation as a distinctive, original Civil War novel.” All the same, it’s been out of print since 1970, and hardly anyone mentions Becker’s name as one of the better American writers of the sixties.

If you’re interested in other recommendations of lost Sixties fiction, I recommend taking time to read D. G. Myers’ post on “Fiction of the ‘sixties,”, which will quickly give you at least a dozen other titles to locate.

“For Instance,” by Robert McAlmon, from The Best Poems Of 1926

vegetables

For Instance

Vegetables
and jewelry, rightly displayed,
have an equal amount of fascination.

Carrots, for instance,
piled–
ferntops, bodies, and hair roots
so bound together in bunches
bunches laid in rows
of oblong heaps with magnitude,
are sufficient to arrest any seeing eye.

Cabbages with a purplish tinge,
when of grandeur, with widespread petals,
as they rest in heaps
catching the dawn’s first filtering of sunlight,
compare satisfyingly with roses enmassed,
with orchids, sunflowers, tulips,
or variegated flowers
extravagantly scattered.

While as to onions,
little can excel their decorative effect
when green tubes, white bulbs, and grey hair roots
rest in well arranged, paralleled piles
about which buxom women congregate,
laughing and chattering in wholesome vulgarity.

Crispness,
a cool indifference to the gash of knives,
to the crush of kind,
or to any destiny whatsoever,
has granted the vegetables an arrogance of identity
one would be foolhardy to strive after
with heated impressionable imagination.

Vegetables,
given their color,
scent and freshness,
too easily attain a cool supremacy of being
for our fumbling competition.

from The Best Poems Of 1926, edited by L. A. G. Strong
New York City: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1926

Robert McAlmon was a pivotal figure in the American avant-garde of the 1920s, both in Greenwich Village and Paris. His press, Contact Editions, published Hemingway’s first book of fiction, Three Stories & Ten Poems, as well as Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All, and Robert Coates’ The Eater of Darkness. After his death, Kay Boyle assembled his memoirs, along with some of her own, into one of the best accounts of the period, Being Geniuses Together (1970).

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

Sweet Adversity, by Donald Newlove (1978)

Cover of first US edition of 'Sweet Adversity'
Sweet Adversity is easily one of the most ambitious American novels of the last fifty years.

And if you weren’t reading new American fiction back in the late 1970s, you’ve probably never heard of it.

The only edition of Sweet Adversity ever released came out as an Avon paperback in 1978. Avon editor Robert Wyatt and author Donald Newlove agreed that Newlove would edit his two separate novels, Leo & Theodore (1972) and The Drunks (1974), into a single volume for this paperback release, recognizing, as Newlove wrote in his “Author’s Note,” that “The story loses scope and focus when halved into two books.” Newlove went so far as to say that he considered the original texts “now forever CANCELLED.” And Wyatt deserves special credit for convincing Avon to go to the additional expense of having new type set for Sweet Adversity rather than simply photographing the hardback texts.

But, as, effectively, a paperback original in a time when that was publishing’s equivalent of a “direct-to-disc” movie, it meant that no major paper or magazine reviewed Sweet Adversity.

And so what is already a heart-breaking book itself became something of a tragedy as it quietly vanished from the bookshelves with scarcely a notice.

And one might just leave it at that. It’s not the only good book to get forgotten, as this site continues to demonstrate.

But this book, for me, is something of a special case. For in writing Leo & Theodore and The Drunks, and then revising them into Sweet Adversity, Newlove achieved not only a remarkable artistic feat, but also an act of great personal strength, part of his recovery from decades of alcohol abuse.

In his memoir, Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers writes that Sweet Adversity “sprang from my life’s earliest memory–my father dipping a kitchen match into a shot of whiskey and raising it out still burning.” Or, as captured at the very beginning of the book:

In a Riply bar he shows them a magic trick. He dips a lighted kitchen match into whiskey and lifts the blue flame out of the shot-glass unquenched. Marvel at the blue-dancing spirit on the glass!

Alcohol makes its appearance on the first page of Sweet Adversity and, from that point on, it is the dominant presence in the story. Dominant, that is, with the exception of Newlove’s protagonists, Leo and Theodore.

Leo and Theodore are Siamese twins, joined at the waist by a short band of flesh, blood, and nerve tissues.

Now, for many would-be readers, a 600-plus page novel about Siamese twins–particularly one coming out at a time when Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut were among the hottest names in new fiction–must have seemed like some kind of over-the-top fabulist work, full of exaggerated characters and absurd situations.

Instead, this is one of the most realistic books you’ll ever read. Almost too realistic, at points. “Nowhere has the green or red bile of hangover, piss, bleeding assholes, and d.t.’s been so carefully catalogued,” according to the Kirkus Review’s assessment of The Drunks.

Although Leo and Theodore are Siamese twins, almost no one in the book treats them as freaks–not Newlove and most certainly not their mother, Stella. Newlove notes, in a hundred different passages, subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which their connectedness affects how they live and perceive the world, but it is never his focus.

The narrative arc of Sweet Adversity very much follows that of the two original novels. In the first half, Leo and Theodore grow up in and around Cleveland during World War Two, discover girls and sex, learn to play instruments and fall in love with jazz, and witness the lovely and horrifying effects of drinking on people around them. And in the second half, they come hurtling down through all the ravages of alcoholism–the black-outs, vomit, unexplained bruises, lost jobs, seedy rooms, and shakes–until they hit bottom and begin to lift themselves back up with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The first part of the book is a giddy celebration of the fine and destructive aspects of mid-West, mid-century American life. The boys work as soda jerks, take midnight swims, learn to smoke, make out with girls in the back of cars, sneak into movie theaters, fantasize about fighting Nazis, and watch their mother get punched by their alcoholic step-father. The raw energy of the time bursts through in Newlove’s prose, as in this portrait of a busy night at the soda parlor:

Racing with the moon! the juekbox boomscratches. Fulmer’s splits with smoke after King James cracks tiny Lakewood on the Friday night gridiron. Car herds roar Third. Fevered twins set up orders, spirits pitchforked. White-eyed Helene and Joyce wait table in a blue burn of uniforms. Wayne yawns in the back kitchen, roasting peanuts, steps out into the squeeze for tables, cries in the jukeblare, “Swill, you swine!” and goes back to his roasting oil.

Newlove’s style draws heavily upon James Joyce’s word-fusing (“the snotgreen … scrotumtightening sea”), and there are times throughout the book when the frenzy of the prose becomes close to unbearable. When I call this one of the most ambitious American novels, I don’t mean to suggest that the author’s technique always kept pace with his ambition. The worst comes somewhere in the second helf, when Teddy loses a tooth in the second half, and Newlove subjects us to page after page of lisped dialogue (“There’s thill a double order of chop thuey in that roach.”). It might be realistic but it isn’t interesting reading.

For all the over-sexed, over-adrenalined dumb teenager things Newlove has Leo and Theodore do in the first half of the book, there is never anything else than endearing and touching about the boys. Which is why reading the second half is such a heart-breaking experience. As he describes in Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers, Newlove knew intimately the humiliations and illusions of a hard-core, long-term alcoholic, and the twins are not spared many of these. The New Yorker’s reviewer was not alone in considering this novel “probably the most clear-eyed and moving—and certainly one of the most honest—books ever written about alcoholics.”

Even with the editing Newlove did for Sweet Adversity, the book suffers from the intensity of the prose. Those Drinking Days, Newlove writes that, “The published volume was light-filled to bursting, enormously lively,” but adds, “and, for most readers unreadable without great attention to every syllable.” And perhaps this is one of the reasons why Sweet Adversity has been forgotten.

If so, it’s a lousy reason. An occasional word-glutted passage might deserve having a few points shaved off Newlove’s score, but given the unbelievable energy, passion and power of Sweet Adversity, there’s no good reason for this book to have been dismissed as a failure, and certainly not to have been so unfairly neglected. Donald Newlove and his twins are among the great fiery phoenixes in American literature.


Sweet Adversity: Embodying the author’s final revisions for Leo & Theodore and The Drunks, by Donald Newlove
New York: Avon Books, 1978

The Glory is Departed (The Standard), by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1936)

I became interested in The Glory is Departed after finding it on the Modern Novel site (which you must go lose yourself in, if you haven’t yet). I read Count Luna, a later novel by Lernet-Holenia, last year and found it a brilliant black comedy, as grim and funny as Kafka’s best. And when I discovered that there are literally no copies of the English translation of Die Standarte available for sale on the Internet, interest turned to obsession. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a copy through the University of California Library system and enjoyed reading it on my trip back from the U. S. last week.

diestandarte

The glory that departs in this book is that of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Drawing upon Lernet-Holenia’s own experiences as a dragoon (a member of a light cavalry regiment) in the Austro-Hungarian Army, the story tells both of the collapse of the empire as a whole and one young man’s reactions to the end of the world he has always known. Most of the book is related in flashback, as Herbert Menis, a well-off married man in Vienna, tries to explain to a fellow veteran his outlook on the war and its aftermath.

Wounded on the Eastern front, Menis spends much of the war in rehabilitation, comfortable and safe from harm. But in October 1918, he is sent to Belgrade, Serbia, to serve at a headquarters there. On his first night, however, he becomes enraptured with a beautiful young woman accompanying the Archduchess, and his attempt to make her acquaintance ends up getting his orders changed to duty with a dragoon regiment near the front.

Although the signs of collapse grow more obvious with each day, Menis is too smitten to notice them, and we spend nearly half the book racing back and forth between his camp and Belgrade as he tries nightly to catch an hour with his beloved. Soon, however, the English and French forces begin pushing the Austrians back to Belgrade, and the awkward coalition of Poles, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Hungarians and other ethnic groups that formed the Austro-Hungarian Army quickly falls apart.

However much we had foreseen, we had never supposed that something so strange and incomprehensible to us, something so terrifyingly different, always kept down till now, had laid hidden beneath the exterior of these men. Now it was breaking out, as when a herd shakes off some mighty power that has till then restrained it; and though the men actually did nothing except give vent to their feelings by inarticulate yells, one felt that with these yells they and the Regiment were discarding everything that had made themselves and the Regiment what they were–that is to say, a mighty, significant, powerful engine, an organism charged with a historic mission, an instrument of world policy. It was as though the helmets and the uniforms, the badges of rank and the Imperial eagles on the cockades, dropped off the men, and the horses and the saddles disappeared into thin air, leaving nothing but a couple of hundred naked Polish, Roumanian and Ruthenian peasants, who were sick of helping to bear the burden of responsibility for the destiny of the world under the sceptre of the German race.

When his regiment refuses to cross a bridge into Belgrade, Menis watches in horror as his own men are shot down as mutineers, and takes up the regimental standard–the small pennant and battle ribbons carried into battles for over a hundred years. The standard becomes for him evidence of the strength and values of the Empire, even as he sees it falling apart around him. His love, Resa, struggles to understand his obsession with the standard:

“It’s of no importance. Why, people have quite forgotten what a standard is: I, for instance, have never seen one. I won’t allow you to risk your life for that. I tell you I love you: don’t you understand? I love you! You can’t go off and get yourself killed, because I should die too if something happened to you. You can’t give me up for a little piece of silk that has ceased to have any significance of purpose and no longer means anything to anybody.”

“It means everything to me,” I said quietly.

Menis smuggles the standard with him as he, Resa, and a few survivors manage to escape the English and work their way back to Vienna. There, he attempts to return the standard to the last Emperor, Karl I, but finds the Emperor and a small party rushing to leave the Schönbrunn Palace for a new life in exile. He sees some men tossing other battle flags into a fire, to prevent them from falling into the victors’ hands, and, finally, throws in his standard, too. He leaves with Resa, resigned to his own new life.

Among German readers, The Glory is Departed (published in England as The Standard) is considered on a par with the other great classic of the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. In his memoirs, Anthony Powell wrote that Lernet-Holenia was a writer on a level equal to that of his now-better-known countryman and contemporary, Robert Musil. He described The Glory is Departed as “a genre of novel of which I can recall no precise equivalent in British writing: romantic; realistic; satirical; moving.”

lostendardo

Although The Standard is in print in German, Spanish, Italian and French, and perhaps other languages as well, it’s been out of print in English for almost 80 years. Lernet-Holenia’s 1941 novel, Mars in Aries, was released by the Ariadne Press in 2003 as part of their Austrian literature series (which includes works by Stefan Zweig, Leo Perutz, Odon von Horvath, Hemito von Doderer, Arthur Schnitzler and other fine writers), and Pushkin Press released his thriller of mistaken identities, I Was Jack Mortimer, in 2013. However, two other volumes released by the Eridanos Library in 1989, The Resurrection of Maltravers and Baron Bagge/Count Luna (two novellas) are out of print, although used copies are still available.

I have to agree with the writer of the Modern Novel website, though, who called The Glory is Departed a good read but not a great book. While the narrative gallops along through 300 pages, the protagonist often seems more clueless than passionate. He has a gorgeous young woman madly in love with him and ready to risk life and limb for his sake, and yet his primary concern is for a scrap of fabric, even though he had spent most of his war as a complacent slacker far back from the front. However, if you manage to locate a copy yourself, like me you will probably find yourself closing the book before you’ve had the chance to think about that.


The Glory is Departed, translated by Alan Harris from the original Die Standarte by Alexander Lernet-Holenia
New York and London: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1936

“A Lilt,” from Cobblestones: A Book of Poems, by David Sentner

subwayriders

A Lilt

I grasped the greasy subway strap
And read the lurid advertisements
I chewed my gum voraciously
Inhaled strange fumes pugnaciously.
I heard the grating of the wheels
And felt that the chords
Of my city soul
Were in perfect tune.

from Cobblestones: A Book of Poems, by David Sentner
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921

David Sentner’s Cobblestones was published by Alfred A. Knopf as the result of a poetry competition held among undergraduates of (then) Columbia College. Sentner’s book received a fair amount of press when it was published, due the fact that he was a wounded veteran of World War One. Sentner lost his sight in one eye while serving with the 27th Division in France, and founded the Columbia Comeback Club, which represented nearly 800 veterans attending the school after the war.

This didn’t impress the New York Times’ reviewer, though. “Prize poets are generally bad, for some reason,” he quipped, and found this held true for Sentner as well. “Just what these poems prove besides the facts that the writer does not know trees and that he is a gum-chewing poet (rather a modern figure) it is hard to see.”

Cobblestones was Sentner’s first and last book of poems. He died in 1975, apparently having left poetry behind nearly a half century before.

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

Wright Morris

As a rule, I limit this site to out-of-print books and long-unpublished authors, but I want to break that rule today to take a little time to celebrate the work of one of my favorite writers, Wright Morris. To some extent, Morris does qualify for mention on the Neglected Books Page, for while most of his books are still in print, thanks to the outstanding support of the University of Nebraska Press for a favorite native son, his name rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great 20th century American writers. While Morris was still living, in fact, a reviewer in the Washington Post once wrote, “No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris.”

Wright Morris, around 1985

I first learned of Morris through a PBS documentary from the mid-1970s, one of a series of half-hour films on selected American writers. The show concentrated on Morris’ roots in the great plains and dry lands of central Nebraska, a place where, as Morris put it, “The man drives and the woman sleeps.” My grandfather, who was born about a hundred miles west of Morris’ home town of Central City, was still living at that time, and I had a strong interest in understanding the culture he grew up in. He had a remarkable patience and persistence that seemed a little mystifying to a kid who’d spent his days watching TV and going downtown to the movies.

Although Morris left the state when he was fourteen, lived in Chicago with his father, attended colleges in southern California, spent a year traveling around Europe, resided in Pennsylvania and California, and often visited Europe and Mexico, Nebraska remained strongly associated with him, and reappeared in his novels and stories throughout his career. Two of his earliest books, The Inhabitants (1946) and The Home Place (1948), were pioneering works of photo-fiction, combining Morris’ stark black-and-white photographs of deserted, wind-scarred buildings and abandoned interiors in rural Nebraska with stories of the odd people, mostly of few words, who survived there.

Where others might see emptiness, Morris found the source for intense imaginings. “In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in a man that begins to flow.” So opens The Works of Love (1952), which I consider one of the very best American novels of its century. For me, to steal an opening line from Ford, this is the saddest story I’ve ever heard. Morris tells the story of Will Brady, a man of the plains, who achieves a great success as an early corporate poultry farmer yet always seems a Grand Canyon away from the people he loves. One of his wives wraps herself up in their sheets to keep away from Will, and when, later, he is broke and working as a department store Santa Claus in Chicago, he writes long letters to a stepson who will never see them.

morriscovers1

Morris’ first novel, My Uncle Dudley (1942), was a comic account of a trip from Nebraska to California that Morris made at the age of sixteen with his uncle Dwight in 1926. My favorite Morris novel–a pair of novels, to be correct–takes that journey in reverse. In Fire Sermon (1971), a wizened, straight-backed old man, Floyd Warner, aged eighty-three, takes his orphaned eleven year-old grand nephew and returns to his family home in Nebraska to settle the affairs of his sister, Viola. Floyd fixes up the 1927 Maxwell he’s had up on block for decades, and, driving well below the speed limit, slowly works his way East. Along the way, they pick up a hitch-hiking hippie couple, and when they arrive at Viola’s place, they find the same empty rooms and collections of silverware and kerosene lamps that Morris photographed thirty years earlier.

Fire Sermon was followed in 1972 by A Life, in which Floyd Warner continues his journey, leaving behind the young boy and picking up a somewhat mythical character, Blackbird, who leads him to his death. The two novels trace a symbolic path from the hard and innocent days of the 1920s to the energy and anarchy of Vietnam-era America–yet the one thing one could never say is that Morris ever strays from the concrete and tangible into symbolism.

Looking through the list of Morris’ novels, I am struck both by the size and variety of his oeuvre. In addition to his Nebraska novels, there are his expat novels, such as The Huge Season (1954), The Field of Vision (1956), and Cause for Wonder (1963). All feature rich, precise descriptive prose, electic mixes of characters and situations, and Morris’ ironic sense of comedy. Then there are two of the best novels written and set in the 1960s: In Orbit (1967), about the one day racing, raping and thieving spree of one Jubal Gainer, a character of pure energy and violence, and One Day (1965), which looks at a small California town on the day of JFK’s assassination.

morriscovers2

In his last novel, Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980), Morris returned again to a Nebraska setting. In his review of the book, Larry McMurtry wrote, “No landscape moves him so deeply as the somber, muted plains country; for nowhere else is his depth of reference so nearly absolute.” Although the book received better publicity than most of Morris’ other books, it remained, like the rest, better spoken of than read. While the sum of his work represents a considerable richness and variety of writing, Morris never aimed to write for a large audience. Asked to describe his ideal reader, Morris said it would be one who possessed, “A well-established and chronic inclination to read slowly, and reread the line you just slipped by.”

As long as the University of Nebraska Press stays in business, there’s a good chance that Wright Morris’ novels will stay in print. But there’s little chance that his name and reputation will ever eclipse that of, say, John Steinbeck or Norman Mailer, given his predilection for spare, unpretentious prose and lean, less-traveled subjects and places. And so I consider him more than worth the time and space required for this modest tribute. If you’ve never read anything by Morris, I’d suggest Fire Sermon–just under 150 pages, dry, tough and funny. I’d recommend The Works of Love as well, but you’d better be prepared to have your heart broken and bled. Few writers have been as adept at speaking softly and wielding a big emotional stick as Wright Morris.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Proposal for Scribner’s Library

In April 1922, age 25, already with one best-seller (This Side of Paradise) to his name, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his publisher, Charles Scribner II, with a proposal for a series drawn from the firm’s backlist:

I am consumed by an idea and I can’t resist asking you about it. It’s probably a chestnut, but it might not have occurred to you before in just this form.

No doubt you know of the success that Boni and Liveright have made of their “Modern Library.” Within the last month, Doubleday Page & Company have withdrawn the titles that were theirs from Boni’s Modern Library and gone in on their own hook with a “Lambskin Library.” For this they have chosen so far about 18 titles from their past publications–some of them books of merit (Frank Norris and Conrad, for instance) and some of them trashy, but all books that at one time or another have been sensational either as popular successes or as possible contributions to American literature….

Now my idea is this: the Scribner Company have many more distinguished years of publishing behind them than Doubleday Page. They could produce a list twice as long of distinguished and memorable fiction and use no more than one book by each author–and it need not be the book by that author most in demand.

Take for instance Predestined and The House of Mirth. I do not know, but I imagine that those books are kept upstairs in most bookstores, and only obtained when some one is told of the work of Edith Wharton and Stephen French Whitman. They are almost as forgotten as the books of Frank Norris and Stephen Crane were five years ago, before Boni’s library began its career.

To be specific, I can imagine that a Scribner library containing the following titles and selling for something under a dollar would be an enormous success.

  • The House of Mirth (or Ethan Frome), by Edith Wharton
  • Predestined, by Stephen French Whitman
  • This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, by John Fox, Jr.
  • In Ole Kentucky, by Thomas Nelson Page
  • Sentimental Tommy, by J. M. Barrie
  • Some Civil War book by George Barr Cable
  • Some novel by Henry Van Dyke
  • Some novel by Jackson Gregory
  • Saint’s Progress, by John Glasworthy
  • The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith
  • Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Turn of the Scree, by Henry James
  • The Stolen Story (or The Frederic Carrolls), by Jesse Lynch Williams
  • The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederick
  • Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis
  • Some book by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
  • Simple Souls, by John Hastings Turner

Doubtless a glance at your old catalogues would suggest two dozen others. I have not even mentioned less popular writers such as Burt and Katherine Gerould. Nor have I gone into the possibilities of such non-fiction as a volume of Roosevelt, a volume or Huneker, or a volume of Shane Leslie….

One more thing and this interminably long letter is done. It may seem to you that in many cases I have chosen novels whose sale still nets a steady revenue at $1.75–and that it would be unprofitable to use such property in this way. But I have used such titles not only to indicate my idea–Gallegher (which I believe is not in your subscription set of Davis) could be substituted for Soldiers of Fortune, The Wrong Box for Treasure Island, and so on in the case of Fox, Page and Barrie. The main idea is that the known titles in the series should “carry” the little known or forgotten. That is: from the little known writer you use his best novel, such as Predestined–and from the well-known writer you use his more obscure, such as Gallegher.

I apologize for imposing so upon your time, Mr. Scribner. I am merely morning that so many good or lively books are dead so soon, or only imperfectly kept alive in the cheap and severe impermanency of the A. L. Burt editions.

I am, sir,
Most sincerely,
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s list illustrates the vagaries of critical and popular opinions. Of the 18 titles and authors, one-third are solidly established classics, recognized in the American canon, taught and discussed, and filmed at least once. Another third are forgotten titles from authors certainly less well-known or -regarded now (Galsworthy, Harold Frederic, Richard Harding Davis) but still of at least historical interest.

And then we have the well-forgotten or (now) poorly-regarded. From a critical angle, Predestined probably best stands the test of time (I’m in the middle of reading it now, in fact). It was reissued as part of Southern Illinois University Press’ fine Lost American Fiction back in the 1970s, though it fell back out of print until companies started mining Project Gutenberg and other digital archives for over-priced direct-to-print editions. The soft-focus Christianity and sentimentalism of John L. Fox and Henry Van Dyke lost its prime readership within a decade or so of Fitzgerald’s list and may forever forward seem archaic. The name of Jackson Gregory came back to me from my distant past, when I spent many a Saturday in downtown Seattle, scouring the high stacks of Shorey’s Bookstore, which had a whole room devoted to novels from the turn of the (20th) century. Gregory might once have vied with Zane Grey as American’s leading writer of Westerns, but Grey’s work has managed to hold on into its second century. Jesse Lynch Williams’ name will stay in the books as the first winner of a Pulitzer Prize for drama (“Why Marry?” (1918)), but The Married Life of the Frederick Carrolls doesn’t even rate an entry in Goodreads or LibraryThing. And last and least-known, we have John Hastings Turner. His Simple Souls sounds like a dull version of the cliche story of nobleman rescues poor beauty, but I’m intrigued by the opening lines of his 1920 novel, A Place in the World:

There is a kind of man who appears to be fashioned in circles. His body is a collection of curves topped by a round and shining head. His soul is as round and polished as his body, with no mad and jagged comers to scarify society’s epidermis. Even his life is a circle, for, as a rule, he will die, as his temperate habits deserve, at a ripe old age, on the very threshhold of infancy once more.

Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, by Leo Stein (1947)

appreciation“Art is no place for snobs,” Leo Stein wrote in his foreword to Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, a marvelous little guide to opening one’s eyes and ears. Written about a year before his death in 1947 from stomach cancer–the same disease that killed his sister, Gertrude, in 1946–Appreciation is a book for anyone who’s ever felt themselves incapable of understanding or appreciating great literature or art.

On the surface, Leo Stein had every right to hold his opinions about art above those of the crowd. Although overshadowed by his sister through much of his life–and after–he was the trailblazer in their discovery of the Post-Impressionists painters and the work of French writers such as Rimbaud and Paul Valery. He was one of the first Americans to buy paintings by Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, and the house they shared at 27 rue de Fleurus became a center of the artistic community in Paris. Both Matisse and Picasso made portraits of Leo, who was respected for his sensitivity and perception as much or more for his influence on other collectors.

Few brothers and sisters could have been more different in temperament than Leo and Gertrude. In her foreword to Journey into the Self, a collection of Leo’s letters and diaries edited by Edmund Fuller and published in 1950, their friend Mabel Weeks wrote:

Gertrude successfully integrated her character around her limitations. Leo could not accept his limitations. Gertrude, whatever her neuroses, made herself a life with few frustrations; Leo had thousands of frustrations, and only the by most rigorous self-discipline got rid of some of them. Gertrude’s personality was magnetic; she had a laugh from the middle of her, and a sort of warmth and zest and enjoyment which gave her a tremendous appeal, particularly to young people. Leo was very withdrawn, and didn’t win people. She insisted that everyone meet her on her own terms. Leo, in a way, couldn’t meet anyone except on his own terms. But he wasn’t a bully. Gertrude bullied everyone.

Through much of his life, Leo struggled against what Weeks calls “his tendency to burrow within,” and while this severely limited his output compared his prolific sister’s (his only other book was a collection of essays titled, The A-B-C of Aesthetics (1927)), it also means that what one finds in Appreciation is the result of long consideration.

leosteinmatisseLeo Stein described Appreciation, with characteristic modesty, as “a little debauch in the realm of ideas,” but this does the book a great injustice. There is nothing of the abstract or esoteric here. Instead, this is a most democratic view of great art.

“It is, I believe, a good thing to recognize the continuity of the usual and the unusual, and if we are to be reverent it is better to be widely and not narrowly reverent.” The muscles in Stein’s arm, for example, “are not essentially different from those of Joe Louis.” The only difference is that “His have more punch in them.”

Bridging the gulf between us and the work of genius, in Stein’s view, starts with the understanding that in each of us there lies some measure of creative power. “Every personal letter one writes, every personal statement one makes, may be creative writing if one’s interest is to make it such.” And while something like this blog entry doesn’t remotely approach the same level as, say, Hamlet, the two works exist on a continuum of human creations. To Stein, “continuity illuminates”: “The value of the great things is made more valuable when they are known as exceptional, not in their kind but in their degree.”

Stein’s own appreciation of the art of painting, for example, only really came into full bloom when he asked himself, “How does a painter see when he paints?” To answer that, he set himself a little experiment:

I put on the table a plate of the kind common in Italy, an earthenware plate with a simple pattern in color, and this I looked at every day for minutes or for hours. I had in mind to see it as a picture, and waited for it to become one. In time it did. The change came suddenly when the plate as an inventorial object, one made up of parts that could be separately listed, a certain shape, certain colors applied to it, and so on, went over into a composition to which all these elements were merely contributory. The painted composition on the plate ceased to be on it but became a part of a larger composition which was the plate as a whole. I had made a beginning to seeing pictorially.

This experiment well illustrates a key principle in Stein’s approach to appreciation: namely, that serious appreciation takes time and effort. “Pleasure in clear hard thinking is not so common as it ought to be,” he remarks at one point, and one of the pleasures of Appreciation is Stein’s candor in describing his own trials in coming to an understanding of certain poets and painters. In the case of Picasso, he confesses that his efforts ultimately failed. (Their differences over the value of Picasso’s work was one of the reasons Leo and Gertrude went their separate ways in 1914 and never again spoke to each other.)

Stein was entirely a pragmatist. The whole message of Appreciation is one of bringing art into the context of one’s life. He may not have read E. M Forster’s Howards End, but I’m sure he would have agreed with Margaret Schlegel’s adage, “Only connect the prose and the passion.” “Wisdom that is worth having must be brought down to earth,” he writes at the close of the book, even if, “on solid earth a snail’s pace is the measure of its progress.” And in this respect, Appreciation embodies the remarkable progress made by a snail named Leo Stein.

Appreciation was reissued in 1956 as one of a small series of paperbacks published as part of the Modern Library, and then again in 1996 by the University of Nebraska Press.


Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, by Leo Stein,br>
New York: Crown Publishers, 1947

“Letters Found Near a Suicide,” by Frank Horne, from The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949

pond

Letters Found Near a Suicide

To all of you

My little stone
Sinks quickly
Into the bosom of this deep, dark pool
Of oblivion . . .
I have troubled its breast but little
Yet those far shores
That knew me not
Will feel the fleeting, furtive kiss
Of my tiny concentric ripples . . .


This is the first of eleven short poems that comprise the “Letters Found Near a Suicide,” which was first published in The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP. Horne submitted the collection to a contest run by the magazine and came in second, behind Countee Cullen and ahead of Langston Hughes (who co-edited the anthology I took this from).

Horne’s accomplishments were remarkable and diverse. He trained and practiced professionally as an ophthalmologist, wrote poetry, and was active in the NAACP and other black political organizations. He served in numerous positions in government and in government advisory functions, particularly related to public housing. Strongly aligned with the Democratic Party, he was the target of Civil Service Loyalty Board investigations, accused of being Communist-friendly, and eventually left the U. S. Housing Authority to take a position on the New York City Civil Rights Commission. He published his only book, Haverstraw, a collection of poems, in 1963. There appear to be no copies of it for sale now. He died in 1975. You can find an extensive article devoted to Horne’s career, along with the full set of “Letters” at the Hidden Cause blog (link).

from The Poetry Of The Negro, 1746 1949: An Anthology, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1951

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

Jay Jennings recommends the works of Gilbert Rogin

Author and journalist Jay Jennings wrote the other day to pass along his recommendation of the works of Gilbert Rogin, whose stories and novels were among the most wildly acclaimed in the 1960s and 1970s:

For years, a few friends and I worked to get the two great novels of Gilbert Rogin, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? and PREPARATIONS FOR THE ASCENT, back into print, and we finally succeeded in 2010 when they were reissued by Verse Chorus Press in one volume (Verse and Chorus link; Amazon link)

As I explain in the introduction, the novels are constructed mainly of stories that appeared in the New Yorker, which published 33 of them between 1963 and 1980, a number that puts him up there with Updike, Munro and Trevor. He won an award for literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1972, along with Thomas McGuane and Paula Fox, and the novels counted Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and Larry McMurtry among their fans. Most of all, Rogin is hilarious, in the same vein as but predating the smart, hyperobservant New York world of Seinfeld and Larry David.

My introduction originally appeared as an essay in the Lowbrow Reader here.

I really hate it when an author’s obituary provokes a resurgence of interest, and she or he is not able to enjoy it. I’m happy to report that Rogin is still alive, and I hope that more people will rediscover this fantastically original and funny writer, before we’re reading about his passing in the New York Times.

rogin
Rogin, who spent most of his working days in the Time-Life building, as a staff writer, editor, and managing editor of most of the corporation’s biggest rags (People, Life, Fortune, Money , Vibe , and (his longest stint) Sports Illustrated, began publishing stories in the early 1960s. His first book, a collection of these early stories, The Fencing Master and Other Stories, was published by Random House in 1965.

His first novel, What Happens Next? (1971), was reviewed not once but twice in the New York Times. Anatole Broyard latched onto a word used in the book to describe Rogin’s outlook:

‘Velleities’ is a Gilbert Rogin word: I believe he is the only writer I’ve ever read who has used it. The dictionary defines velleity as “volition in its weakest form; a mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it.” The poetry and the meaning of life, Mr. Rogin seems to suggest, lie not in its grand or heroic moments, but in its velleities. He may be right.

L. E. Sissman’s enthusiasm for the book shines throughout his review:

I think Gilbert Rogin has written a great novel, the first new one I’ve run across in quite some time.

… Moving in dozens of short movie takes from confrontation to soliloquoy to fantasy to dream, it shapes the whole history and predicament of its protagonist out of a solid, six-year block of time.

… Every scrap, every line, every joke is in the service of this artfully lifelike portrait of ourselves. Julian’s isolation, his anxieties, his guilt, his comical losses, his failure to establish belief in himself, are at once existential, contemporary ailments and part of the human estate.

Nine years later, Rogin published his second novel and last book, Preparations for the Ascent (1980). Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, praising its “dour wit, persistent intelligence, rhetorical panache.”

Soon after this, however, Rogin suffered a writer’s block that’s lasted now for over thirty years. New Yorker editor Roger Angell rejected one of his stories, writing that he felt Rogin was “repeating himself.” In a feature piece in the New York Observer magazine, he told his former SI colleague, Franz Lidz:

That motherfucker literally demoralized me. Repeating myself? I repeated myself in all my stories. My entire life is repetition.

I was shattered… Maybe I knew I was all used up. Maybe I knew I’d exhausted the fiction vein. The idea had always been in the back of my mind. For whatever reason, after Roger voiced that opinion, I literally couldn’t write fiction again. Not a single word.

At last report, Rogin is still alive and active. His fans would certainly hold more than a velleity that he will pick up a pen once again.

My Sister’s Keeper, by R. V. Cassill (1960)

Cover of 'My Sister's Keeper' by R. V. Cassill
Winding down my tour through novelist R. V. Cassill’s decade-long excursion into pulp fiction, I come now to the hot mess of psychological confusion that is My Sister’s Keeper (1960).

The title offers us the unsubtle suggestion that the book’s subject is incest, but as has been the case in the rest of his pulp novels, Cassill prefers to take sex on a tangent rather than head-on. Yes, young Joe Haver is more than slightly obsessed with his sister, Corlis, but he’s less interested in having her than in keeping anyone else from doing it. Which is why the most intense scene in the book is closer to sadism than sex. This, of course, didn’t prevent Avon Books from excerpting just enough of this scene on the front endpaper to lead would-be buyers to think the opposite.

In poor Joe–nineteen going on infantile–Cassill crams a baker’s dozen disorders. His mother’s dead, his father’s a useless lecher living off a grand inheritance, his father’s alcoholic mistress spends most nights sacked up with dad just down the hall from Joe, he spent a requisite number of miserable years in expensive boarding schools, and, as the story opens, has taken up stalking and breaking-and-entering as a hobby. Still a virgin, he’s reached the point of dysfunction where his approach to chatting up a girl is to put her in terror of rape or murder or both.

The one bright spot in his life is his 15-year-old sister, Corlis, just returned from a year’s study in Europe. For Joe, Corlis is the last bastion of innocence in his world, and he’s ready to do anything to anyone–including Corlis–to keep it that way. For her part, Corlis appears to have run much the same gauntlet as Joe with nary a mark–aside from a few from Joe’s belt.

Life would be challenging enough for Joe, but Cassill decides to spice things up by tossing in Dr. A. T. Steele, a “lay analyst” and Mephistopheles stand-in. In a history that Cassill leaves suitably muddy, Steele has been a Hollywood actor, playboy aviator, private eye, and all-around man of mystery. Or, as Goodreads reviewer, Karla, puts it much better than I could have, “a parasitic mind-fucker who leeches off the largesse and warped privileged psyches of his rich marks.” I’ve noted before that Cassill seems to have used his pulp fiction to experiment with different techniques and subjects, and I strongly suspect that Dr. Steele was the prototype of the title character of Doctor Cobb’s Game (1970), his “serious” novel based on the Profumo affair.

The result is easily the most interesting, if not the most artistically, of all Cassill’s pulp novels. While his aspiration might have been to weave a complex psychological drama, his final product is more rat’s nest than tapestry. If Cassill had been a chef, this is one dish he certainly would have been accused of overthinking. At the same time, there are plenty of choice bits in this potpourri, and it’s a shame that there appear to be, according to AddAll.com, no more than two or three copies available for sale at the moment.


My Sister’s Keeper, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Books, 1960

“Song of the Drunken Business Man,” from Mid-American Chants, by Sherwood Anderson

manatbar

“Song of the Drunken Business Man”

Don’t try, little one, to keep hold of me.
Go home! There’s a place for you by the fire.
Age is waiting to welcome you, love—
Go home and sit by the fire.

Into the naked street I ran,
Roaring and bellowing like a cow;
Shaking the walls of the houses down,
Proclaiming my dream of black desire.

Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole,
Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole.

If there’s a thing in this world that’s good it’s guts.
I’m a blackbird hovering over the land:
Go on home! Let me alone.

Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole,
Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole.

Do you know, little dove, I admire your lips—
They’re so red.
What are you doing out in the street?
Take my arm! Look at me!
Ah, you be gone. I’m sixty-five years old tonight,
Now what’s the use of beginning again.

Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole,
Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole.

Well, I’m tired. I ache. What’s the use?
I can’t meet the note. I have a son.
Let’s go home. It’s twelve o’clock.
I’m going to get that boy into West Point yet.

Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole,
Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole.

from Mid-American Chants, by Sherwood Anderson, New York: John Lane Co., 1918

This is a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link).