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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.”
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 (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


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.

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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.

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


For Instance

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

Carrots, for instance,
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.

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.

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.


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.”


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


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.


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.


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


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, 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, 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


“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).

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks

oldindispensablesI’ve been saving this one up for a rainy day. So, as I watch the grey drizzle blanketing our neighborhood, I have to share one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years: The Old Indispensables–not a romance, but a wonderful comedy of bureaucracy raised to the nth power.

Set in the Circumvention Branch of the Circumlocution Office, The Old Indispensables is a farce in which no one–not the reader and certainly not any of the characters–quite knows what’s going on. Working in dogged earnest in commandeered hotel rooms sometime toward the end of the first year of the World War One, the staff of the Circumvention Branch–a mix of veterans of the civil service wars, well-meaning but clueless young men down from university, and bright-eyed young women continually being sent off with great stacks of papers–labors away on a constant flow of requests of uncertain intent.

All they ever seem to do with these requests is to allow them to age in their in-baskets for a few days, after which they scribble down a brief note and send the package off to another part of the vast machine of the wartime government. And there is such a variety of offices to choose from: Derogation of Crown Appanages Office; the Controller of Tombstones; the Director of Delays and Evasions; the Divagation Commission; the Board of Interference.

The primary focus of the Branch’s civil servants is on advancement of their own careers–as long as it involves the minimal amount of effort. Mr Evans, for example, somewhat self-conscious of having taken his degree from the little-known University of Llangollen, constantly mulls over his chances:

His bath that morning had been disagreeably chilly; and, as he had stepped into it, he had reflected that he was nearly thirty-four and that he would be due for compulsory retirement at the age of sixty. This gave him only twenty-six years in which to reach the summit of his desires and he fancied that he had lost ground rather during the last three weeks. All through the day dark thoughts filled his mind and oppressed him with sinister suggestions. Perhaps he would never be Permanent Under-Secretary, never a K.C.B., perhaps not even a C.B.; and when his good angel whispered to him that the C.M.G. and the I.S.O. still existed, the mocking demons of melancholy arose and extinguished even this gleam of hope.

Meanwhile, the senior bureaucrats battles with rival departments to gain ever-larger numbers of staff–and then to evade the dreaded Towle Committee, which is busily rooting out examples of over-staffing in the government.

A junior member of the Branch, sent off with the vague instruction to “get some facts,” learns that another distant branch of the bureaucracy, the Manx Office, has managed to ensure its existence by disappearing almost entirely:

Here were no machine-guns in sight, no detachments of troops. There were not even any plain-clothes men loitering purposefully about, for, when the grocer had completed his mission by mbarking the empties, and had driven rapidly away, the street was quite empty. Cyril proceeded down it, looking for a brass plate; and at length on the railings outside a small and respectable house, in no other way distinguished from the rest, he saw a brass plate plainly inscribed with the words, “Manx Office.” He paused a moment, finding the appearance of the closed door a trifle unfamiliar in a Government department. At last he went up the steps and pushed at the door. It was locked; and another brass plate requested the visitor not to ring unless he required an answer.

Cyril therefore rang and waited. After several minutes, feeling his desire for an answer still undiminished, he rang again. A prodigious interval went by; and then he heard an uncertain shuffle of feet approaching the door from the inside. There followed the sound of bolts being pushed back and chains undone, mixed with the heavy groans of a lethargic person stirred to uncongenial activity. At last the door fell open and Cyril beheld an elderly man in shirt-sleeves, with no collar, who stood rubbing his eyes and blinking, presumably at the unaccustomed light.

“Is Mr. Choop in?” Cyril asked politely.

“Mr. Choop?” the porter repeated. “Mr. Choop? Is ‘e in? I’ll go and see. Just you wait there.” Cyril advanced into the semi-darkness of the hall and waited, while the porter lumbered into the complete darkness of the stairs and was lost to sight, though not to hearing. After several minutes he returned and said in a dull voice:

“Yes, Mr. Choop, ‘e’s in.” After this he seemed to expect that Cyril would go away.

He does finally get escorted up to the dark alcove from which Mr. Choop presides, and is warmly welcomed. After offering a cigarette and going into great detail about the many fine points of his new lighter, Mr. Choop then rises, saying, “Well, I’m sorry you must go,” and sends the young man off without disclosing a single fact about the Manx Office or its purpose.

In the end, the Circumvention Branch manages to earn a favorable report from the Towle Committee and various staff members earn various sorts of honors. The Armistice is signed–although whether with or without the contributions of the Branch remains a mystery.

For anyone who’s a fan of Yes, Minister, I heartily recommend taking a look at The Old Indispensables

Edward Shanks served on the Western Front until wounded in 1915 and went on to write over a dozen books of poetry and fiction, including the dystopian SF novel, The People of the Ruins. He received the very first Hawthornden Prize in 1919 for his book, The Queen of China and Other Poems.

The Old Indispensables is available online at the Internet Archive (link).

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks
London: Martin Secker, 1919

Little Dog Lost, by Tiffany Thayer (1938)

littledoglostI wrote about one of Tiffany Thayer’s early novels, Thirteen Women, some years ago. For those who haven’t read that post, I’ll explain that Thayer was an eccentric and unique combination of pulp novelist, self-educated philosopher and follower of Charles Fort, and writer whose ambitions perhaps outstretched his abilities.

I bought a copy of Little Dog Lost after seeing the briefest of synopses, which described it as the story of Hollywood producer turned homicidal drifter. That made it seem a bit like Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels meets Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer — and too odd to pass up.

I should caution that I am no expert on Thayer and defer to those who are in setting down the authoritative facts of his life and work, but I feel safe in speculating that Thayer may have been trying to work through some of his inner conflicts in the process of writing Little Dog Lost. Thayer enjoyed the financial rewards of writing to the lowest common denominator, but he also wanted to pursue philosophy, to continue Fort’s work on anomalous phenomena, and to write a massive serious historical novel based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Like Wittgenstein’s friend, Barry Pink (“Pink wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse”), Thayer seemed to be struggling to decide which role he preferred.

It’s not stretching comparisons too far to say that Little Dog Lost is something of a modern-day Candide. Thayer launches his protagonist, a highly successful movie producer (think Irving Thalberg or Darryl Zanuck), off on a journey to discover “the common people,” only to find that life among the simple folk is even more complicated than the wheelings and dealings of Hollywood.

Oh, and to spice things up, Thayer sets up his hero, Stanley Franklin, as (a) an orphan who witnessed his father kill his mother and then slit his own throat; (b) the informal foster child of a warm-hearted Brooklyn Italian family; (c) the ward of an enormously wealthy bachelor who plucked Stanley from la familia to raise and educate him as a gentleman; and (d) the brother of a psychopathic criminal. Oh, and (e) married to an infinitely patient and understanding woman who suffers gladly her husband’s every erratic whim.

I will not attempt to outline the plot beyond this. If you’re really interested, there is a detailed account available on Goodreads. Let’s just say that Stanley bounces from criminal gang to college campus to religious community to Communist rally to, well, a bunch of other stuff; joins a kidnapping conspiracy; learns that his real mother and father were not who he thought they were; dabbles in several varieties of 1930s radical politics; and ends up in an insane asylum. Unlike Voltaire, Thayer failed to understand that a good satirist does need to be a bit more organized than the crazy world he’s portraying.

If the whole thing sounds like a gawdawful mess, it is. I sort of admire Thayer’s chaotic energy, which can bring the stalest cliches, unfathomable motivations, absurd coincidences, and a certain manic brilliance together on the same page. I can’t for a moment claim to make sense of it, but I’ll give this to Thayer: he was certainly brimming with ideas.

File under “Eccentric Fiction.”

Little Dog Lost, by Tiffany Thayer
New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1938

Little Dog Lost

The Spirit of the Bayonet, from The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford

Marine Corps recruits

Parris Island, South Caroline, the United States Marine Corp Recruit Depot, and eight-week college for the phony-tough and the crazy-brave, constructed in a swamp on an island, symmetrical but sinister like a suburban death camp.

Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim spits. “Listen up, herd. You maggots had better start looking like United States Marine Corps recruits. Do not think for one second that you are Marines. You just dropped by to pick up a set of dress blues. Am I right, ladies? Sorry ’bout that.”

A wiry little Texan in horn-rimmed glasses the guys are already calling “Cowboy” says, “Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?” Cowboy takes off his pearl-gray Stetson and fans his sweaty face.

I laugh. Years of high school drama classes have made me a mimic. I sound exactly like John Wayne as I say: “I think I’m going to hate this movie.”

Cowboy laughs. He beats his Stetson on his thigh.

Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim laughs, too. The senior drill instructor is an obscene little ogre in immaculate khaki. He aims him index finger between my eyes and says, “You. Yeah–you. Private Joker. I like you. You can come over to my house and fuck my sister.” He grins. Then his fact goes hard. “You little scumbag. I got your name. I got your ass. You will not laugh. You will not cry. You will learn by the numbers. I will teach you.”

Leonard Pratt grins.

Sergeant Gerheim puts his fists on his hips. “If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon, you will be a minister of death, praying for war. And proud. Until that day you are pukes, you are scumbags, you are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human. You people are nothing but a lot of little pieces of amphibian shit.”

Leonard chuckles.

“Private Pyle thinks I am a real funny guy. He thinks that Parris Island is more fun than a sucking chest wound.”

The hillbilly’s face is frozen into a permanent expression of oat-fed innocence.

“You maggots are not going to have any fun here. You are not going to enjoy standing in straight lines and you are not going to enjoy massaging your own wand and you are not going to enjoy saying ‘sir’ to individuals you do not like. Well, ladies, that’s tough titty. I will speak and you will function. Ten percent of you will not survive. Ten percent of you maggots are going to go AWOL or will try to take your own lives or will break your backs on the Confidence Course or will just go plain fucking crazy. There it is. My orders are to weed out all nonhackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. You will be grunts. Grunts get no slack. My recruits learn to survive without slack. Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. Am I correct, herd?”

Some of us mumble, “Yes. Yeah. Yes, sir.”

“I can’t hear you, ladies.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I still can’t hear you, ladies. SOUND OFF LIKE YOU GOT A PAIR.”


“You piss me off. Hit the deck.”

We crumple down onto the hot parade deck.

“You got no motivation. Do you hear me, maggots? Listen up. I will give you motivation. You have not esprit de corps. I will give you esprit de corps. You have no traditions. I will give you traditions. And I will show you how to live up to them.”

If this scene seems familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie, Full Metal Jacket. In the film, former Marine drill instructor R. Lee Ermey takes Sergeant Gerheim’s dialogue and embellishes it with his own improvised insults and obscenities, creating an electrifying and unforgettable scene. (You can find it excerpted here on YouTube).

Written by Gustav Hasford, upon whose experiences the novel is heavily based, The Short-Timers (1979) received enthusiastic reviews when it was first published. Newsweek called it, “The best work of fiction about the Vietnam War.” Harlan Ellison praised it as “One of the most amazing stretches of writing I’ve ever encountered.”
Covers of various editions of 'The Short-Timers'
Based on this critical acclaim, the hardback sold several thousand copies and Bantam issued a paperback edition in 1980. It was the kind of book that was passed along and had a much wider readership than its sales figures suggested. A few years later, Hasford was contacted about selling the film rights, an inquiry that eventually traced back to director Stanley Kubrick. When Kubrick began to work on the screenplay, he hired Hasford, along with reporter Michael Herr, whose 1977 book, Dispatches, is widely considered the best non-fiction book about the Vietnam War. The three men were later nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay adapted from an original work, and The Short-Timers was reissued with an explicit tie-in with the movie.

Although Hasford went on to write a sequel to the book, The Phantom Blooper (1990), as well as a pastiche of the Raymond Chandler-style hardboiled crime novel, A Gypsy Good Time (1992), he had more than his share of personal demons to struggle with. You can read Grover Lewis’ moving account of Hasford’s decline, “The Killing of Gus Hasford,” originally published in the L. A. Weekly in 1993 following Hasford’s death from untreated diabetes, on Alex Belth’s “Bronx Banter” website (link).

The Short-Timers has been out of print since the early 1990s. Hasford’s cousin, Jason Aaron, maintains a website ( devoted to his life and work.

The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford
New York: Harper & Row, 1979

The Lent Jewels, by David Hughes (2002)

Cover of first U.K. edition of The Lent Jewels“Almighty God, who hast created man in thine own image, it so happened in April that our Saab had to be serviced at a garage a few miles west of Carlisle.” This combination of the sacred and the mundane with which David Hughes opens The Lent Jewels immediately establishes the split personality of this book, certainly the most engaging I’ve read this year.

Killing time in Carlisle while waiting for his car to be fixed, Hughes wanders into the Deanery–the residence of the Anglican dean of Carlisle. There he finds a showcase that tells, with bits of paper and a few old photographs, of the death of five daughters of the Dean of Carlisle, Archibald Tait, and his wife, Catharine, over scarlet fever, in the space of one month in 1856:

The five-year-old Chatty, short for Charlotte, was the first to pass over; she died on 6 March.

Her almost two-year-old sister Susan was next to be called home; she died five days later.

Frances breathed her last on 20 March; she died at not quite three years old.

The next, just ten, named after her mother Catharine but called Catty, gave up the ghost on 25 March: the eldest to die.

Her sister May passed on a fortnight later aged nearly nine; she died on 8 April.

Intrigued to understand how two people of faith dealt with such a devastating tragedy, Hughes locates a thick, two-volume biography of Tait, who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury from 1868 to 1882. One short chapter treats of the deaths, mentioning a record written by Catharine some months later as “known and reverenced in every land.” It also quotes Tait’s own diary, an entry written a month after Mary’s death: “Thou hast re-claimed the lent jewels. Yet, O Lord, shall I not thank Thee now? I will thank Thee not only for the children Thou hast left to me [a son and an infant daughter], but for those Thou hast re-claimed…. I thank Thee for the bright hopes of a happy reunion, when we shall meet to part no more.”

The Lent Jewels is the story of Hughes’ attempt, as a non-believing man, a rationalist of the late 20th century, to see life through the eyes of a man and woman whose faith was so profound, so fundamental to their being, that even the loss of five daughters at a stroke could not shake their trust in the wisdom of God.


“What gap was I trying to bridge?” Hughes asks himself:

The time gap was not long, the culture gap subtle, the gap of faith between then and now huge–what else? I wanted to communicate with someone who was in theory better than myself in all human respects: to get in touch with a god, indeed God, who was prepared with good grace to descend an airmile or two, to link the empyrean with the quotidian. It was the gap between what lay within me and what lay beyond.

Perhaps I found The Lent Jewels so engaging because I’ve often looked across the same gap myself. I know people today who seem to hold in their hearts a faith like that of the Taits, who can speak comfortably of the eternity of the soul, of being reunited with their loved ones, and have wondered, like Hughes, just what inspires such belief.

As the book progresses, Hughes traces the lives of the Taits, starting with their residences in London–London House and Lambeth Palace. London House, he remarks, sits not far from the haunts of one of their contemporaries, “Walter,” the anonymous author of the mammoth erotic memoir, My Secret Life, and from this point forward, Hughes repeatedly draws parallels and contrasts between the spiritual life of the Taits and the sensual life of Walter. Despite Hughes’ efforts to obtain some significance from this contrast, it seemed to me unconvincing and distracting.

His pursuit of the Taits evokes in Hughes other thoughts and memories. His visits to the various churches and cathedrals where Tait served reminds him of his time as a member of a boy’s choir while an evacuee from the London Blitz. During this time, Hughes fell under the sway of the assistant organmaster, an elusive character who enticed him into secret corners of the church and masturbated against the boy’s thighs and buttocks.

These experiences, on top of the overwhelmingly secular nature of his everyday life, might have been enough justification for a loss of belief in other men, but Hughes never makes an explicit connection between them. Instead, he wonders repeatedly whether dreams offered the only glimpses we could expect of a spiritual world. “Dreams had an air of permanence, an authority,” he writes at one point, and at another, he says that dreams have a special value because they are “beyond sharing.”

He also seeks to understand the Taits by reaching for a current point of comparison–Geneviève Jurgensen’s book, The Disappearance: A Primer of Loss, which describes the death of her two daughters in a random traffic accident on the autoroute in France in 1980 and Jurgensen’s struggle to cope in its aftermath. “I realised that time numbed but did not heal,” he writes, “time being an anaesthetic applied to the incurable”–a statement I’ve heard echoed in other words by friends who’ve lost children.

While Hughes is following the steps of the Taits, his own life is being taken up with endless details. He and his wife are in the process of selling their farmhouse in Wales, which involves meetings with estate agents, trips back and forth from London, and the long hours and minutiae of moving day. Stretching up to try to peak into the next world, he is constantly being pulled back down to deal with the business of this one.

Hughes’ investigation leads him to locate Hallsteads, the house along the shores of Ullswater, in the Lake District, where Catharine Tait wrote her account of the death of her daughters as a means to recovery in the first few following months. He admits that, by this point, his interest in Catharine had developed into something of an infatuation: “I saw her as a tenderly human guide to the manners–purity, prayer, propriety, sheer goodness–now lost in me, a language I could only stutter.”

In the end, Hughes cannot bridge the gap: “The thinnest of membranes, if an opaque one, divided me from the reality of belief, but at least I knew it was real.” And if his search did not end in any great revelation or break-through, he takes some consolation in the fact that “Not a step fo the way had been attended by angst or hollowed by tedium or taken for granted.” A careful, precise writer, Hughes never rushes to a conclusion or overstates his case, and that precision and delicacy make The Lent Jewels a book one reads carefully, making sure to stay close in step with its writer. Although at no point does Hughes pretend to posses the spirituality of the Taits, in the end, he managed to produce a profound meditation on life in a time when the connection between spirituality and eternity is not taken as a matter of faith.

The Lent Jewels, by David Hughes
London: Hutchinson, 2002

“Sociability of the Subconscious,” from The Pursuit of Happiness by Benjamin R. C. Low


Sociability of the Subconscious

Thought gives it rarely. It must happen so.
The perfect hour blooms up unheralded.
Perpend. “Let’s take our books with us, and go
Out to the cabin for a quiet read !” she said.
In lazy mood
I took my tome and followed after.
(The back way for adventure.) Soon
Across the warm, gold afternoon,
She led me, with light feet and laughter,
Into a wood.
A sabbath journey only, through the pines.
One cleft of sunlight caught it; good bark brown,
With easy roof and unassuming lines;
Door open; a play cabin. We sat down.

There was, I think, some virtue in the clothes we wore:
She, a stout skirt and simple sailor blouse,
No hat, and sneakers; I,
Old flannels, outlawed many years before,
A tennis shirt and shoes. (Comfort allows
The mood care’s quirks deny.)
We squandered little time on speech:
Each took a corner of the window; guided
Plump pillows to best use, and then subsided
Into a swoon of silence, each.

Books held the foreground. Books were of that hour
Pre-eminent, we thought.
(In winter’s footprints April hides her flower.)
We read; while fortune wrought,
Not romance, but a rarer thing, diviner.
I read John Milton; she, an Olive Schreiner.
Books held the foreground. Half-sensed, all the while,
Were soft intrusions, seas,
Far-heard when winds touch trees;
Sweet, distant laughter dwindled to a smile;
The Peter Piper of a motor-boat,
Throbbing beneath bright voices, then
A pool of silence, stirred a
By seagulls in falsetto, a harsh note.
But mostly — peace. One almost felt the sun
A-westering, while one small bee
Droned all the world indulgence, in his run
Round one small room: so still were we.
And all the while, I was aware of her;
Reading anew
L’ Allegro, Penseroso, Lycidas,
The Cyriack, and the Blindness
. Ghostlier
As, eyes drawn down, I watched the old friends pass,
That still room grew.

I was aware of her in a new way.
Milton absorbed me. I remember well
The joy of winging that proud upper air,
And, once, how scrannel keyed the seagulls. (They
Still own it.) Whence it came I cannot tell,
But we waked, somehow, and–I was aware.

An inroad ended it:
A megaphone
Called: “We are starting!” Books closed, out we ran,
The world of common-sense resumed. No plan.
Neither intended it.
The hour unknown.
But something wrought with us. I was aware. . . .
We waked in some eternity, it seems,
Brains are but barriers of, with their poor dreams.
Who runs may read; only–such hours are rare.

from The Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Poems, New York: John Lane Co., 1919

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

From The Biographical Dictionary Of Contemporary Poets. The Who’s Who Of American Poets (1938), we learn that Benjamin Low was born in Massachussetts, earned his bachelor’s at Yale and a law degree from Harvard and practiced insurance law in New York City.

One wonders if he ever compared poetical notes with Wallace Stevens–though Low was no match the Hartford’s man. Of another of Low’s books of poetry, Saturday Review wrote, “there is ever and again the glitter of the true precious metal in this thin vein of ore.” This lovely vignette of an hour captured alone/together reading is certainly one.

Left Bank of Desire, by R. V. Cassill (1955)

leftbankofdesireDown to the last few of R. V. Cassill’s pulp novels, I started Left Bank of Desire curious if I could detect any significant differences in style or approach between this novel, which Cassill co-authored with Eric Protter, and the rest, which he wrote solo.

I did, quite quickly and easily. Most of Cassill’s pulps are at least interesting as literary experiments, texts in which he tried out narrative techniques or played around with subjects (e.g., wife-swapping in The Wound of Love, even if they’re not always successful as stories. To be honest, having started and failed to finish several of Cassill’s mainstream novels, I’d even say they’re better reads than the books he wanted us to take seriously.

In contrast, Left Bank of Desire is just crap. I don’t know if the fault lies with Cassill or with Protter or with a collaboration that simply proved less than the sum of its parts. Frankly, it’s not a matter worth investigating. But this is a book with an implausible premise, a meandering narrative, characters either flat or caricatured, incredible motivations, and undistinguished style.

The only distinctive element–which, sadly, I cannot now shake from memory–is the strange substance to which a number of the book’s characters are addicted: ether. This is a story set in France around 1947 or 1948. At least a half-dozen or more times, someone is tipping a bottle of ether into a handkerchief, taking a great whiff, and either flying off on a high or passing out. Several times the protagonist runs off to buy a bottle at the pharmacy so he can satisfy the cravings of his would-be girlfriend or other denizen.


It sounded like someone badly hurt. It sounded like the machinery of the Loch Ness monster starting up.

What I’d smelleed before–mixed in with the turpentine smell–was stronger now. I saw the two girls sitting on a bed with their legs stretched out and their backs against a rough wall. Each of them was holding something to her nose. They looked like there were afraid they would sneeze.


… The guy took the cotton pad she had been holding to her nose and slopped ether onto itt from a bottle. He passed it back to her. Again the girls started kicking the bed. The drumming sound they made was faster than any sound could be without turning into steady roar.

I was familiar with the fact that ether addiction became a widespread problem soon after its introduction as a medical anaesthetic around 1820–particularly among physicians–but I assumed it had died out a century ago. Its appearance in the book seemed the crowning bit of evidence of its absurd awfulness. A quick check with Wikipedia (article), however, revealed that it continued, with serious social costs, in Poland and–more relevantly–in France. The sniffing, kicking, and screaming described in the book seems to have been something Cassill and/or Protter saw while living in Paris in the early 1950s.

So there’s the one thing we learn from Left Bank of Desire: French bohemians were still sniffing ether when Camus and Sartre were becoming household names.

And now that we know that, no one else ever has to read the book.

Left Bank of Desire, by R. V. Cassill and Eric Protter
New York: Ace Books, 1955

“The Rats in Council,” from Old Saws, Newly Set, by George Linley


The Rats in Council

A certain colony of rats,
Was ravaged by a chief of cats,
The foe his rounds so slily went,
No rat his skill could circumvent;
So that, as none from home dare stray,

Their rations dwindled day by day;
And visions of that demon gaunt
Grim Famine, ‘gan their hearts to daunt.
One noon (’twas after a good dinner,
Which made the rat race somewhat thinner,)
Grimalkin, with complacent air,
Went forth to court a neighb’ring fair.

The coast is clear, with hearts elate,
The chiefs in council hold debate.
A knowing Rat, grown grey with age,
By all his brethren deem’d a sage,
Describes a remedy most pat,
Which is — forthwith to bell the Cat;
So that, the tinkling larum may show,
The whereabouts of the prowling foe.

Th’ assembled multitude agree
No means could shorter, surer be;
And, as the orator speaks well,
Propose to him to hang the bell.
To this, however, he demurr’d;
I bell the Cat, the thing’s absurd!
Methinks, if I the plan devise,
Others the scheme should realize.”

From rat to rat the word goes round,
But not a volunteer is found,
With military pluck or zeal
To battle for the common weal.
Too oft we find that talkers fluent,
When call’d to action, play the truant.

From Old Saws, Newly Set: Fables in Verse, by George Linley the Younger
Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one of a series of neglected poems found on the Internet Archive.

Complete Cheerful Cherub, by Rebecca McCann (1932)

cheerfulcherubThe first time I saw a copy of a Cheerful Cherub book was in an enormous antique mall that seemed to have swallowed my wife, leaving me to seek some meager distraction in the tiny handful of books that could be found there. As hours dragged on and I found myself beginning to think, “Hmm … Taylor Caldwell. Maybe I should try one of hers,” I finally picked up what I had taken to be the world’s oldest and fattest “Love Is” book.

My mistake was understandable. There is a certain similarity between the cartoon style of Kim Casali (creator of “Love Is …”) and Rebecca McCann (creator of the Cheerful Cherub). Both feature nude but genital-free homonculi with infantile bodies but engaging in adult activities. Both refine cuteness to near-lethal intensity. Casali always shows a male and a female character (we can tell only by the hair and eyelashes). McCann always showed an infant neither male nor female and an adoring little puppy.

If you were me, you’d probably have stopped reading already.

But stay with me, people.

Because as I took more time to read through that Cheerful Cherub book, I began to realize that Rebecca McCann’s little cartoons operated on a level of sophistication and yes, even wisdom, far beyond that of the “Love Is …” pieces.


Take “Masks” (above). “And yet sometimes I see/A prisoner behind their eyes.” That’s not “Love Is …” or “Family Circle”–that’s the existential attitude in four lines of iambic pentameter. Or “Innocence,” which could easily be read as a damning commentary on the detachment with which we view events going on in the world around us. “Oh, the dreadful business in Gaza. Well, nothing to do with me.”

Rebecca McCann began publishing Cheerful Cherub cartoons in the Chicago Evening Post around 1917, when she was just twenty, after editor Julian Mason took an interest in the little drawings and verses that dropped out of McCann’s portfolio as she tried to show him more serious work. The feature was soon picked up for syndication, and at its peak appeared in over 100 papers around the United States.

McCann also continued to work as an illustrator for magazine stories and wrote a childrens’ book, About Annabel (1922), about the fantastic adventures of a little girl–a slightly milder version of Windsor McCay’s “Little Nemo.” The first collection of Cheerful Cherub cartoons was published by Covici-McGee in 1923, and a second in 1927.


Meanwhile, McCann’s personal life was a series of disasters. She moved to New York City in late 1917, where she met, fell in love with and married Harold “Jimmie” Watson, an Army pilot, five days before he shipped out to France. Although he made it through the war, he died in an accident not long after. On the rebound, she married another officer, this time in the Naval Medical Corps, but the marriage soon ran into problems and the couple divorced. Around 1924, she met the novelist Harvey Fergusson (whose 1923 novel, Capitol Hill, was featured here back in 2006).
Fergusson was married at the time, but the two felt enough of a connection that Fergusson eventually divorced his wife and married McCann. Fergusson was working on perhaps his best-known book, Wolf Song (1927), and the couple spent happy weeks in the mountains outside Salt Lake City.

In December of 1927, Fergusson drove down to Albuquerque, where they planned to spend Christmas with his parents, while McCann took a quick shopping trip out to San Francisco. Never having a robust constitution, the trip and the winter weather brought on a cold. A few days after arriving in Albuquerque, it developed into pneumonia and McCann died soon after. She was just 32. Fergusson had her body cremated and scattered her ashes along the shore of Lake Michigan near Chicago.

Covici-Friede collected 1,001 Cheerful Cherub cartoons, along with a short memoir by McCann’s friend, Mary Graham Bonner, in Complete Cheerful Cherub, which was published in 1932. The book was a perennial favorite and was reprinted sixteen times between 1932 and 1945. They also posthumously published a collection of McCann’s poems, Bitter Sweet: Poems, in 1929.

“I’m not trying to reform the world or to make every one smile,” she once told Bonner. “I’m trying to make my little verses human; sometimes they’re sarcastic, sometimes they’re ‘flip.’ They’re cynical, too, and I like to make them about all subjects–including the frailties of the readers….” And of the author, too, as one quickly sees.


Complete Cheerful Cherub, by Rebecca McCann
New York: Covici-Friede Publishers, 1932

Largo by the Sea (A Prologue), from Varmints, by Peggy Bennett (1947)

You have read, no doubt, the damp masticated and printed wood pulp called the morning paper, wielding its unwieldly pages (the tabloid excepted from the clumsy kinds) impatiently, eager for the greasy crumbs of news the newspaper empires have selected for you, have written for you from the moral slant of a particular newspaperman or an editor, each intensely human and subject to his share of human stupidity and roughhewn grammar. You know the world, you do.

The comic strips, twentieth-century fairy tales, manage to absorb part of your consciousness, to keep your susceptible minds off that filthy vague excrement smelling on the front page, and the sports pages are exceedingly enlightening. You compose a record crowd in innumerable halls and stadiums. A good crooner is worth a dozen or ten dozen ordinary hard-working citizens, and a cute little smug chubby round-jowled chow is infinitely funnier than a baby, and not half so much trouble in the bargain. You spend most of your spare time seeking entertainment. You listen to music so that you may hear voices in the pure and abstracted form, exactly like no human voices, and yet so like your very own that you are entranced, hypnotized (you can easily hypnotize yourself). Is music a refuge ? Is art an escape ? You may argue that it is, on the contrary, a new and better way of living. Ah, those beauties, those pearls of emotional wisdom. In their moments you may espy eternity, and then you must go on with business as usual, pursuing careers and fat paychecks, bathing away perspiration and other odors, ejecting wastes from your bodies, mincing and devouring those strange concoctions you recognize as your food, worrying, changing with the weather, lusting a little for power, falling prey to riots of bacteria, dying ignominiously natural human deaths, decaying insensibly.

You have readily patronized the motion picture industry and watched the puppets being drawn through the fantastic folds of drama, in which simple home life is shown as an extravaganza, complex human emotions and relationships are shown as simple shallows, and dreamworld sex is the perpetual motive, the neverdying underlying theme. All sentiment suddenly becomes a heavy inhuman fog, or perhaps a chocolate bar melting in the sun. The ethereal seems indelibly neurotic, and vulgarity synonymous with health. Suffering is made a form of nobility, pain pleasurable, and greatness a simpleton’s struggle to be himself in the midst of evil. Evil is anything (either brilliant and human or stupid and inanimate) that trips up the inspired fool. The obscure music lubricates the creaking mechanisms of the drama and steals upon the listener unawares, massages him as he sits passively in the cushioned seat. The strange eerie flat gray world now comes brilliant in unearthly splashy and splotchy technicolor, but still flat, mosaic. Now you think of yourselves as weirdly beautiful faces and torsos, curving curvaceous legs, tantalizing smoothness and roundness of breasts and thighs and hips or of hard male flatness and narrow hips and iron muscle, and you are moving in close-ups, slow-motion, or in long-range action shots, lightning fast. Voluptuous throes of emotion ; how exquisite it is to writhe in make-believe passion.

Perhaps you’d rather spend your evenings listening to the warm cordial atmospheres generated by your radio. Genial men flatter your good taste, introduce you to personages chummy, winningly idiotic, noble and high spirited, and so on. Unlike prosaic diurnal living, whose genuine people move with masks on their faces and can be judged only by the sums of their lives, radio personalities come in types as variable as stovepipes. How fondly we remember our adolescence all day long. Periodic soulshaking and mirthquaking rhythms of studio laughter. Impressive sounds, some of them, seeming to assure you that somewhere in the world life must be tremendously diverting, exceptionally exciting, and all good clean fun in the meantime.

God, how great are these United States. Yes, you’re a pretty great people, you are. And even, now and then, truth reaches you with the penetrating power of a very quiet voice.

I came across Varmints while nosing around the Internet Archive, which has been my electronic substitute for the great libraries where I’ve always loved to spend hours scouring the stacks for the odd and intriguing. The energy, the venom and the God-like authority in the above passage grabbed me immediately and I soon downloaded a copy and kept on reading. This excerpt is part of the ten page prologue to Varmints, Peggy Bennett’s first and (apparently) only novel. Bennett was just 22 when the book was published, but she could have given Rebecca West a run for her money when it came to confidence in her perspectives. This prologue goes on to give us a survey of a half-dozen broken lives, from a woman suffering agonizing pain in North Carolina to a black cook who accidentally chops off his thumb while working in a Los Angeles diner one night.

PeggyBennettThe novel itself goes on to tell the story of three children–Ethel, Hilliard and Mutt–taken over by their grandparents after their mother’s death. They live together in a town in northern Florida, where the grandfather is a master carpenter now mostly retired. The three children take in their world in very different ways. Ethel is hyper-sensitive, sometimes overwhelmed by what she sees around her. Hilliard is a genius who grows ever more distrustful of the world outside and spends most of his time alone in his room, reading. And Mutt is highly sociable, easy-going and popular with everyone. The grandparents are neither demons nor angels but people struggling themselves with choices and the lack of simple answers.

Unfortunately, just what message Peggy Bennett wanted to get out by writing this novel is unclear. Although there’s nothing quite so iconoclastic as the prologue, the book seems filled with a great deal of anger, anger desperately seeking its targets. She dips a few times into overwrought Faulknerian language, but not so much as turn the book into a parody. There are some very funny, if caustic, lines and at least one heart-tugging tragedy. The energy of the initial pages, however, ultimately fizzles out toward the end.

Peggy Bennett went on to write a number of short stories that were published in little magazines as well as in several short story collections from the 1950s. It’s not clear that she published anything after that. She died in April 2011 at the age of 86.

The Varmints, by Peggy Bennett
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947

Night School, by R. V. Cassill (1961)

Cover of Dell original paperback edition of 'Night School'On the downhill slope of my scenic tour of the pulp fiction of novelist and short-story writer, R. V. Cassill, a tour begun back in March with his tale of wife-swapping in small town Iowa, The Wound of Love. Published in 1961, Night School was his next to last paperback original, with only Nurses’ Quarters (1962) to follow.

As with all his pulp novels, Night School draws upon Cassill’s own experiences. Cassill was one of the first to plant himself firmly in academia and teach writing while continuing to write and publish, and among his early gigs in the mid-1950s was a stint teaching an evening class at the New School of Social Research.

I’ve speculated before that Cassill used his pulp novels to experiment with various techniques and topics while weaving in enough sex and violence to satisfy his editors’ demands. If this was in fact the case, then the experiment in Night School was just the sort of thing one might expect as a night school writing class assignment: tell a story through the viewpoints of multiple characters.

It’s one of the oldest situations in the books, dating back to The Decameron and beyond. And in the case of Night School, it gave Cassill to explore the different sexual attitudes and experiences of the students in his class–as well as of its instructor.

Houston Parker, Cassill’s night school teacher, is a divorced writer with one critically successful novel and many years of writer’s block behind him. For him, the class is a turning point–the bottom from which he will rebound or the trap door to even greater failure. The class is equally a turning point for a number of its students, but their dilemmas have more to do about love than literature. One student is a shark, trolling his way through half the women in the class. Another is an ingenue trying to decide whether to become an adventuress or settle for married monogamy and the stifle fantasies of her mother. And two of them, middle-aged, with complicated lives behind them, find a happiness worth risking all the security they have.

All this confirms Parker’s suspicion “that some of these ladies and gentlemen were looking for more than instruction in writing fiction.” And the fact that it’s a night school class means that most of the students have been working and living on their own for some time. So when some of the students get together for a drink after class, it’s usually in one of their apartments, and the conversation tends to be a fix of war stories and regrets for past mistakes. Most of these people–including Parker himself–know they won’t be the great successes they once aspired to be, but haven’t given up on trying to achieve or create something.

The sex–what there is of it–in Night School is more often about what doesn’t happen. One quiet, otherwise pleasant, man is celibate because, as he reveals to everyone’s discomfort during one of the after-class session, he views most of humankind with just rabid hatred that he could never be attracted to another person. After the shark doesn’t sleep with one of the women, she turns into a vengeful demon who threatens to castrate him.

And so, despite what the editors at Dell paperbacks might have been hoping, Night School turns out to be more about life choices and consequences than sex–which is why it’s also one of the more interesting and satisfying of Cassill’s pulps. Admittedly, his protagonist is just as uninteresting as 95% of writers in fiction. (There seem to be only two models: the out-of-control wild man (ala Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan or Cassill’s Clem Anderson); and the angst-written clod. Cassill’s Houston Parker is one of the clods.) But Cassill did manage to create some convincingly grown-up characters among Parker’s students, and for that alone the book rates better than the average Cassill pulp.

Night School, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Dell Publishing Inc., 1961


“Mason Street, 11 P. M.,” from A City of Caprice, by Neill Wilson




Mason Street, Eleven P. M.

Spangles flashing, slippers twinkling.
Round and round she goes.
To the mad piano’s tinkling.
On her tippy-toes.
Waiter! Has the girl no inkling
Of the word repose?

Flagellate ’em! Fast, Professor,
Beat the ivories hard!
Never pace a minute lesser.
While the night is starred.
Waiter! Who’s the giddy dresser
Glancing hitherward?

Cheek allures and lips abet it.
Mistress with the eyes.
Speak then: do we pirouette it
Where the sachet flies?
Ah, the prospect dazzles? Let it!
Evening star, arise!

Psyche’s nearest rival, spritely
Condiment of art.
Hug, oh hug me not so tightly.
Let me breathe, dear heart.
Less inured am I to nightly
Passion a la carte.

Listen, Circe’s little sister.
Once embraced, endeared:
You have scorched my soul; I blister.
Even as I feared.
Waiter! Chasers two! I kissed her.
And it tasted weird.

Pound the box. Professor! Shocking
Though the modern Eve,
And a lady’s lost her stocking,
I decline to leave.
What, the hour so soon for locking?
Halts all make-believe?

Gently, waiter. Friend, confessor,
Where’s the sidewalk, please?
Hail, the honest milkman! Yessir,
Morning air agrees.
Man! but couldn’t that professor
Castigate those keys?

The mix of traditionally poetic language and then-contemporary slang in this poem–and in most of those in this collection–is awkward and unstable. On its own, the whole book could easily remain forgotten. I just featured it as an excuse to post a few of the dozen or so photographs that appear ahead of the poems. Look closely at the last: you can see the reflections of the two women in the store window they are passing. I always like old photos that remind us that a photograph only captures an instant. Most of the picture is filled with things that are fixed–for years at least. But here we also catch the women a moment before they turn the corner and disappear.

from A City of Caprice, by Neill Compton Wilson
San Francisco: Overland Press, 1920

Available on the Internet Archive (Link).

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

The Pork Butcher, by David Hughes (1984)

Cover of first U. K. edition of 'The Pork Butcher'The Pork Butcher is a book one can easily admire, but it’s hard to imagine anyone liking it. In this slender novel–barely 120 pages–Hughes pulls off a feat similar to that of Nabokov in Lolita–that is, allowing us to see the world through the eyes of a man who’s guilty of horrible things while neither repulsing us nor gaining our unguarded sympathy.

In Hughes case, the crime is both a war crime and a crime of love. Ernst Kestner, now a butcher in Lubeck, recently widowed and even more recently diagnosed with lung cancer, decides to head to France to confront memories he has tried to suppress for years. As a soldier in the Wermacht serving in France in 1944, he took part in the massacre of the entire population of a town, an incident based on the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane. Among the town’s residents was a woman with whom Kestner was in love and was conducting an affair. The orders to attack the town comes, in fact, on the very day he was planning to desert and attempt to run away with her to neutral territory.

Hughes never identifies Ernst’s precise motivation for following these orders–fear, loyalty, hatred or simply the habit of obedience, and Ernst himself seems to lack the introspection to find out for himself. In fact, he appears, as one character puts it, to have “less and less ability to absorb what happened on that one day.” Even so, Ernst is certainly more nuanced in his moral reasoning than Major Kane, the protagonist of Hughes’ other portrait of evil, The Major. While he may never come to grips with his reason for doing what he did, he never pretends it was anything but wrong.

The Pork Butcher was easily Hughes’ most successful novel, both critically and commercially. It won the Welsh Arts Council fiction prize in 1984 and the W. H. Smith literary award in the following year. Hughes sold the film rights for the book, and the movie version, Souvenir, starring Christopher Plummer, was released in 1989. Hughes’ own verdict on the movie? “Terrible, just terrible.”

British critics were lavish in their praise–and still are. In The Guardian’s obituary, Giles Gordon called it one of “the novels that define our time and are metaphors for it.” U. S. reviewers were less enthusiastic. Kirkus Reviews wrote that it suffered from “talkiness throughout and an awkward bunching-up of developments in the busy yet ineffectual final pages.” Personally, I would put the book somewhere between the two extremes. I found its strongest points not related to the moral issues but Hughes’ ability to capture the sensual–sights, sounds, smells, feels–in a few choice, precisely drawn strokes. His description of a picnic of sausages, cheese and bread beside a little brook in France will get you checking on airfares. Overall, though, I rate The Major as a stronger and more convincing work.

One thing David Hughes could never be faulted for, however, is long-windedness. I’ve got copies of two other novels–Memories of Dying (1976) and The Little Book (1996) waiting to be read, and they, along with The Major and The Pork Butcher represent fewer than 500 pages total. At that length, I’d be silly not to give more of Hughes’ work a try.

The Pork Butcher, by David Hughes
London: Constable and Company, 1984

Lady with a Pretzel, from Celibate at Twilight, by John Mosher (1940)

The waiter slammed the shallow basket of pretzels down on the table, and turned away. It never occurred to him, evidently, to pass the pretzels to each person at the table. That was the sort of place it was. Rough! The lady sighed with satisfaction. This was Life. Life in the raw. She was seeing Life.

At the same moment she saw herself in the dingy mirror opposite, and her satisfaction was in no way diminished. While seeing Life she retained all her own perfect style. She was pleased now that she had not borrowed her maid’s hat, as she had thought of doing while planning her costume for this excursion into the underworld. In novels great ladies always borrowed their maids’ things when circumstances compelled them to venture in dubious regions. But Cécile’s hats were grotesques, and there was no sense in making a comic of yourself just because you were going to dine with gunmen. It was only fair to them to try to look your best. Poor things, they had so few chances to view the authentically chic! She had no doubt that these various persons about them, though not outwardly as sensational as she had hoped, were gunmen and gangsters of the deepest dye, for she had been assured that this place was the real thing, and not faked in the least. It ought to be. They had had a hard enough time finding it.

She would have to stretch across the table for the pretzels. The others of her own party were absorbed in their beer, and their own noisy foolish familiar jokes. They weren’t paying any attention to her. The men felt obliged to forget their manners as soon as they got in a dive like this. The waiter, of course, had put the pretzels at an awkward distance from her. She was sure that he had done it just to annoy her. She had noticed the minute she saw him that he had taken an instantaneous dislike to her. He resented her. She was sorry that he did. He probably thought that she was just a sheltered, nurtured parasite, exquisite and fragile. He could have no comprehension of the peculiar problems that made her life hell. She felt very helpless and unhappy and weak. He wasn’t even looking at her!

A criminal type, obviously. He was too strong to be a Waiter by rights. A criminal temporarily disguised as a waiter to evade the police. Then a waiter had to be strong in a place like this. He must also be a “bouncer,” she believed. A bouncer? Such an odd word. To be bounced. Wasn’t there a song: “I Want to be Bounced by You”? If she got Oswald to take him into their house as a butler, he would look distinguished behind her chair, or behind Oswald’s chair facing her. . . . “Really, Adele, what an unusual-looking butler you have! Quite handsome!” . . . “I shouldn’t say he was handsome, my dear. We found him in one of those awful drinking places Oswald is always dragging me to. Marvellous beer! He’s an ex-convict. . . .”

She couldn’t understand how that couple in the corner who had just ordered two more beers from the ex-convict ever got to such a place as this. They looked so respectable. Iust a respectable married couple from the suburbs. Drab middle-class people. It was disconcerting to see people like that here. You only expected to find underworld types, and perhaps a few smart adventurers like themselves. But this couple was so obviously married, plain good honest shopkeeping people. The maid’s night out. Or their wedding anniversary. They gave a drab dull note to the whole room. Why was it that you could never get away from the respectable? They popped up everywhere, with their ethics and their morals and their good sensible shoes, and their appalling appetite for nutritious food.

Not that the food here was likely be nutritious. She eyed the remote pretzels skeptically. Hard, crustaceous edibles they were. Heaven knows how long they had been exposed to the dusty draughts of this place. Countless calloused hands had doubtless pawed them over, the hands of killers. Brutal hands! She shivered. She couldn’t imagine the submerged, distorted depths of society where such ugly contortions of pastry would be looked upon as really palatable and a delicacy.

But it was proof of the independence of the true aristocrat that she did not scorn an interest in the underworld. One must be amused at all costs. Had not great ladies long ago sneaked out of the Tuileries to have supper with the apaches? What she was doing now was all in the great tradition.

It required courage, too, to be here. Any moment there might be trouble. A fight! Some row. Someone at a near-by table might jump up and pull a gun. For all she knew they might keep a machine gun in the pantry. The respectable married couple in Hie corner would jump up and scream and carry on, but she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t flicker an eyelash. She had courage, the courage of the great lady. That waiter was looking at her now, scornfully, icily. He thought she was fragile, did he, and afraid? She would show him. She straightened in her chair, leaned across the table, and took a pretzel.

Cover of first US edition of 'Celibate at Twilight'Celibate at Twilight is a collection of fifty short stories (most under five pages long), many of them published in The New Yorker between 1925 and 1940. (I will probably get in Dutch with the magazine for daring to post this without their permission, but this book has been out of print for 70+ years). Mosher went to work for the magazine about a year after it debuted, and worked more as a manuscript-reader and editorial staff member than a writer until he started writing the “Current Cinema” column in 1937.

About fifteen of the stories deal with Mr. Opal, a middle-aged, mild-mannered bachelor most popular among members of the better society as a last-minute man to round out a dinner party. Mr. Opal is an upper-crust equivalent of cartoonist H. T. Webster’s timid soul, Caspar Milquetoast. But I prefer the character sketches like “Lady with a Pretzel,” which is such a perfect distillation of the stereotype society woman indulging in a bit of slumming so she can see “Life in the Raw.”

Mosher served as an orderly in a U. S. Army hospital in France in World War One, and after kicking around the Continent for a while after the war, returned to the States and eventually landed a job with the magazine. He was friends with Willa Cather, Janet Flanner, Wolcott Gibbs, and James Thurber and was one of the first members of the Manhattan gay community to make Fire Island his summer base. He died of a heart ailment at the age of 50 in 1942.

In one of the few obituaries ever published in the magazine, Wolcott Gibbs wrote of Mosher,

His editorial judgment has been responsible for much of the tone of The New Yorker and the appearance in it of a great many new writers. The fiction he produced from time to time, and collected in a book called Celibate at Twilight, was a very accurate mirror of its author’s personality–witty, perceptive, and informed by a deep and tolerant knowledge of the world. He was one of the most delightful companions we have ever known, and we record his death with a heavy sense of loss.

Celibate at Twilight, by John Mosher
New York: Random House, 1940

“For a Wordfarer,” from Green Armor on Green Ground, by Rolfe Humphries


For a Wordfarer

Speak them slowly, space them so:
Say them soft, or sing them low,
Words whose way we may not know any more.
Still, before the days go,

Sing them low, or say them soft.
Such a little while is left
To counterpoint the soundless drift of Time,
Let rhyming fall and lift.

Space them so, with lift and fall
Decent in their interval,
Late, archaic, who could say?–but always
Graceful, musical.

from Green Armor on Green Ground, which is subtitled, “Poems in the Twenty-four Official Welsh Meters and Some, in Free Meters, on Welsh Themes,” by Rolfe Humphries
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956

Available on the Internet Archive (link)

Humphries writes that this poem is written in a meter known as “Englyn Unodl Crwca”:

This is also a four line stanza, reversing the pattern of Englyn unodl union, in that the syllable count of the lines runs seven, seven, ten, six, respectively. The same principles apply in the echoing of the syllables that follow the main rhyme in the long line.

He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford (1950)


I stumbled onto this book while rooting around the Internet Archive, as I like to do from time to time, in search of interesting titles somewhere in the region between what’s in print and what’s been out there long enough to enter the public domain. He Feeds the Birds is one of those texts you can find in the Archive–but only for borrowing in Adobe Digital Edition format, which means for reading on a computer, which I can’t stand. (I don’t mind using a Kindle or Nook, but still prefer real books.)

So I went off to find a used copy, and quickly discovered this novel’s odd publication history. It was first published by the Dial Press, in hardback, in 1950. Then, two years later, Avon Books brought it out in paperback but decided for some reason (OK, the reason was to grab attention and sales) to change the title to The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. Seven years after that, Berkeley Medallion Books brought it out as a cheap paperback for a second time, only with yet another title: Easy Living. All three publishers learned that a dud by any other name is still a dud.

Well, like Billy Mumphrey, I’m a cock-eyed optimist–at least when it comes to looking for diamonds in the rough and dusty shelves, and I was determined to find out what got three different publishers to give this novel a shot, and ordered the cheapest copy I could find, which turned out to be a near-mint copy of The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. I’m easily awed when I find in excellent condition something that should be even more beat-up than me, and so I carefully opened its cover and began reading with some respect, not to say reverence.

It wasn’t the most promising beginning, I have to admit. The book opens with a fight between Rex Lannin and his wife, Betty, both in their cups, then introduces us to several other men and women of their acquaintance. The main thing that seems to bring them together is booze, time on their hands, and enough money to buy one to kill the other. Ford does make a point to specify that the story is set in the summer of 1939, but events in Europe affect their lives about as much as a termite infestion in a house on the other side of town. “A hell of a summer,” Rex grumbles a few weeks after Betty moves out on him:

Hot days, drunken nights and a crummy furnished room and Hitler in the headlines and in the back-buzz of barrooms and Hitler on the radio in the furnished room without Betty where getting drunk was the easiest thing to do and Hitler and Smigly-Ridz and Danzig and no Betty and Smigly-Ridz, Smigly-Ridz, Smigly Ridz. . . .

Gradually, though, Ford seems to gain confidence in himself and his story. Instead of just swirling around in some boozy imitation of a dance, his characters start to take directions. Some start heading on, some head out, and at least one, an heir to a small fortune starts spiraling down into self-destruction after the last of his money runs out:

Here was another day. Another day of living in the streets aglare with the hot sun and its cruel revealing light. Another day of walking without destination. Up one block, down another. Turn west for three blocks. Down four blocks. Across to the park. Now ten blocks north. Or ten blocks south. Across and up and down and across. No place to go. Public libraries. Toilets. Park benches. Streets. And always the ache of hunger chiseling inside him, driving him on and through the empty, timeless hours.

Rex, on the other hand, spends his time bar-hopping, moping around his little apartment, and pretending to write a play with one of his friends. A little monthly allowance from his mother is enough to keep his going and enough to keep him from wanting to make any great changes. He suggests that he could blame his stagnation “on the fact that I’m one of the half-generation that was a half-step behind the Lost Generation. Call it the Unclaimed Generation.”

The whole cast of characters appear to be unclaimed–unclaimed, that is, but any force or motivation strong enough or persuasive enough to ally with. Communism, fascism and capitalism are all equally unconvincing, at least compared to another round. Even love seems a dead-end street for most of them. But Rex is at least honest enough to admit that his problem is simple laziness: “Right now, I’m the laziest guy, pound for pound, in the world,” he jokes.

The book ends in early 1940, with war going on in Europe, newspapers speculating about Roosevelt running for a third term, and most of the characters having been forced to take some decision or action. One man attempts suicide. A woman who spends most of the book bouncing between lovers decides her salvation lies in staying with the husband she already has and having a baby. Rex, having been signed off on the divorce papers and sent them back to Reno, leaves New York to try writing away from his old haunts and drinking buddies. And one Joe Gould-like carries on as a bum and self-proclaimed poet.

Whether the reader or the characters really learns anything in the course of the story seems beside the point. Whatever reason Ford had for writing the book, it clearly wasn’t to deliver a moral lesson. He Feeds the Birds takes its title from a religious tract: “Live close to God, your faith renew, he feeds the birds and he’ll feed you” (which, in turn, comes from Matthew 6:26). Ford’s God takes care of some, seems to abandon others, has no effect at all on others.

My guess is that Ford wrote the book for no other reason that to try his hand at it. About a third of the way into it, he started to stretch out and give into his lyrical impulses, and my own assessment is that he was pretty successful at it. As an evocation of a particular time and place–America while it was standing outside the war in Europe–it’s far less successful than John P. Marquand’s So Little Time. But there are some great descriptions like the one above or another about waking up drunk and self-disgusted or a third about passing spots known in better days (“I wish I was as successful as I thought I was at twenty”). And he manages a multi-player cast in a multi-threaded story without getting either tangled up or lost. I think he rates a solid B and some extra marks for some of the passage. Not a diamond in the rough, but hardly a paste gem, either.

Terence Ford was in his early forties and working as a public relations man when he wrote the book. Before that, he had quite a varied resume:

I worked on a couple of newspapers, was an actor, an oiler on coastwise ships, a barker on Broadway for baseball batting cage, the manager of a Park Avenue antique shop, the maitre d’hotel of a 3rd Avenue bakery lunchroom, a barrel jockey in a shellac factory, the ultimate assistant editor of a trade journal, a barely perceptible contributor of satirical pieces to The Bookman and Vanity Fair. . . .

He Feeds the Birds was his first and only novel. He stuck with the PR business until he died of a heart attack in late 1958 at the age of 52.

He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford
New York: The Dial Press, 1950

also published as The Drunk, the Damned and the Bevilled
New York: Avon Books, 1952

also published as Easy Living
New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1959

Venice, California, 1950s, from The Slide Area by Gavin Lambert


She lives in Venice, near the furniture store. A mouldering unfinished little town along the coast beyond Santa Monica, it began fifty years ago as an imitation of the Italian city. Moonstruck, an industrialist from the Middle West decided to create a romantic resort on the dreary tidal flats. He built some florid villas, a copy of St. Mark’s Square, a network of bridges, canals, lagoons, colonnades. The aged Sarah Bernhardt was imported to play La Dame aux Camelias on what is now a tadry, neglected amusement pier. Hardly anyone went to see her. Hardly anyone hired a gondola for a trip along the mosquito-ridden flats. Then oil was struck, machinery converged upon the lagoons. A few bridges still remain, spanning dried up canals, with pumps and derricks stretching away beyond them. Drugstores, banks, service stations have settled in the empty spaces between colonnades, and the villa are apartment house with rooms always vacant.

As we pass St. Mark’s Square, I notice a group of young motor cyclists dressed in black, with tight belts and slanted caps, leaning against the colonnades. Pigeons cluster nearby, then disperse as the cyclists set off with a roar, speeding along the empty boulevard, past a neon sign announcing BEER, past the Bridge of Sighs and the derricks in silhouette..

The noise rouses Zeena. She blinks, looks out of the window and recognizes landmarks: a closed-up hotel with broken windows, a plot of waste land with an abandoned moonlit sign, BOATS FOR SALE. She murmurs: “Why, I’m almost home.”

Gavin Lambert’s 1959 short-story collection, The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, is one of the best works of fiction to come out of Los Angeles. He followed it a dozen years later with The Goodbye People. Both are out of print now, which is inexcusable, given the quality of writing in both books.

The Slide Area, by Gavin Lambert
New York: Viking, 1959

Informed Sources: Day East Received, by Willard S. Bain (1967)


Reading Willard Bain’s 1967 meta-fiction, Informed Sources: Day East Received, was for me such a time-trip that I can’t imagine getting half as much pleasure if I’d read it forty years ago.

First, we have to take care of the matter of technology. The entire text of Informed Sources: Day East Received is in upper-case Courier. This is because, as we’re told around the book’s half-way point,


Back in the day–the day being pretty much any time between the late 1930s and the mid-1980s–the Associated Press, Reuters, etc. were known as wire services. That’s because they distributed their headline news and news reports to newspapers and radio and TV stations over teletype networks. In fact, the text also helpfully tells us that "DAY EAST RECEIVED" ACTUALLY APPEARS ON THE COVER OF THE ASSOCIATED PRESS "A"A WIRE REPORT WHICH IS BOUND UP IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BUREAU AT THE END OF EACH MORNING.

In each one of these clients’ offices sat something that looked like an industrial-strength typewriter. These were usually Teletype Corporation Model 15s (you can see one in action in this YouTube clip).

I saw one of these in action back in the early 1970s, when my dad detoured to visit a microwave relay site while we were driving down the Al-Can Highway. The site also housed a local radio station, and my brother and I read the news on the wire service machine while Dad talked to the microwave guys. Ten years later, I ran into teletypes again (Model 28s, this time) on my first job, running an Air Force communications center. In both cases, the machines ran on 7-bit code, which meant that EVERYTHING WAS IN UPPER CASE, the SHIFT key requiring that not-yet-state-of-the-art 8th bit.

OK, enough of my geek nostalgia.

Informed Sources: Day East Received is also a trip back to a very specific time, place, vocabulary, and world-view: San Francisco in 1967, the Summer of Love, when Hashbury was the unofficial capitol of Flower Power and an explosion of cultural, musical and political energy.

You need to know that to dig where Willard Bain was coming from, man:



The book even provides at one point a quick guide to some frequently-encountered Hippie (or was it Hippy?) terms:







Informed Sources is both the book’s title and the name of the AP-like new service over which the transmissions captured in the book are sent. In this case, the story–so-to-speak–centers on a cultural rather than political assassination. Robin the Cock, a supposedly legendary figure in the “Peripheral Underground” is reported to have been killed, and in the flurry of rumors, contradictions, and reactions to his death, several fringe movements rise up and threaten the Establishment.

One bombs the Golden Gate Bridge. Several infiltrate the wire services:


Among these are Solomon and Sarah Hershey, who seem to be Merry Pranksters of the wires. They post a story describing themselves as A PAIR OF FAR-OUT VOLCANIC ISLANDS that DECLARED THEIR INDEPENDENCE IN 1963 AND NOW RECOGNIZE NO COLONIAL AUTHORITY WHATEVER. Later, they are joined–or contested–by another group known as the Green dream.

As these revolutionaries introduce more and more of their information into the system, the Informed Sources service keeps trying to push through a story that embodies the worst fears of the Establishment:


It’s a losing, battle, however, and the infiltrators manage to subvert an attempt to push out a “Support Your Police” message:


Before the whole thing goes spiralling out of control, the movement celebrates its triumphs:


LEGALIZE POT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ENACTED

FREE LOVE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ENACTED


The first publication of Informed Sources was itself a counter-culture act. Printed by mimeograph and stapled together by the Communications Company, run by Chester Anderson and Claude Hayward as the publication arm of the Diggers an improvisational theater/community anarchist group, the first few hundred copies were taken to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore and given away free. (Today, the few copies to be found fetch the price $400 on Amazon.)

On its first appearance, the book was considered a sign of great days a-coming. Writing in the L. A. Free Press, Lawrence Lipton proclaimed,

What is being escalated today, among other things, is the dying of the sick & dying society. A day to day chronicling of the deathbed scene. The author, whoever he is, is the master arsonist of ideas, A light-bringer as well as a fire-bringer. This book may turn out to be the first major work of the hip era in writing.

The book’s reputation eventually made its way to the editors of Doubleday, who published it as a trade paperback in 1969. At that time, reviewing the book in the New York Times, novelist R. V. Cassill advised readers not to get distracted by the font and focus on Bain’s message. In doing so, however, he chose a comparison that now makes him seem even more dated that the teletype: “In its quality as political manifesto and in its subordination of eccentric technique to satire and affront, I find it more in a class with the play ‘Macbird!‘”

Now, of course, we know that the Summer of Love had far less political than cultural impact in the long run.
one member of the movement declares with pride, rather in the manner celebrated by the title of Nicholas von Hoffman’s account of the San Francisco counter-culture: We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against. Ironically, the Establishment’s assessment proved more accurate in the end: A COUP WOULD BE UNNOTICED AND IRRELEVANT writes one Informed Sources die-hard. The revolution was televised, but in the end it went the way of “Laugh-In.”

Willard Bain and his wife moved to Marin County a couple of years after he first published Informed Sources. They opened a bookstore in Corte Madera and raised five children. He died in 2000.

Informed Sources: Day East Received, by Willard S. Bain
San Francisco: The Communications Company, 1967
New York: Doubleday, 1969
London: Faber & Faber, 1969

The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled, by Terence Ford


The cover of The Drunk, the Damned, and the Bedevilled is chock full of all that is good in pulp fiction: sex, violence, alcohol and weirdness. The weirdness comes in part from the rather odd perspective of the picture (perhaps the artist had been punched by the guy in the tie and was looking up from the floor), in part from the Gregory Peck-like man in the middle, who seems outraged by the behavior of the guy in the tie but unable to get up from his chair, and in part from the title. Drunk, damned and bedevilled? We can easily imagine a classic pulp titled, The Drunk and the Damned. But Bedevilled? It comes across as hardly stronger than Befuddled.

The title is even odder when one considers that the novel’s original title was He Feeds the Birds, which comes from the Bible, Matthew 6:26: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” One can see how this title wasn’t exactly fit for purpose if the aim was to grab the eye of a scanning would-be buyer of cheap fiction, but did Bedevilled slip in as an unconscious nod to the Christian basis of the original?

Finally, to top off things odd, when Berkeley Books decided to give Terence Ford’s book another try as a pulp in 1959, they steered in the opposite direction, going with the riveting title, Easy Living, and a cover that replaces a cocktail party fight with a starving writer listening to his wife’s pregnant belly.


The Drunk, the Damned, and the Bedevilled, by Terence Ford
New York: Avon Books, 1952

It Was Like This, by Anne Goodwin Winslow (1949)

Cover of first US edition of 'It Was Like This'

Anne Goodwin Winslow’s subtle and fine novel, It Was Like This (1949), offers a remarkable contrast with another book I discussed recently, John T. McIntyre’s 1937 union novel, Ferment. At the core, both books share the same dilemma: two brothers both in love with the same woman. And, ironically, both Winslow’s and McIntyre’s woman is an orphan who was raised in the same household as the brothers.

That’s where the similarity ends, however. Where McIntyre slugs his way through his story with page after page of talk, one gets the sense that Winslow spent most of her time paring away her prose, taking away inessential details, replacing the direct with the indirect, until what was left was timeless in its simplicity and perfection. Where McIntyre pushes his trio into an inevitable confrontation, in which one brother wins over the other and gets the girl, Winslow respects the intelligence of her readers and her characters enough to realize that confrontation would only insult all.

The story is set in the late 1800s along the Mississippi coast. The Martins survived Reconstruction better than most, having lucked into a profitable business of growing pecans. Quiet, serious Lawrence Martin has taken charge of the plantation while his brother Hugh–shorter, softer, more of a reader–has moved to Richmond, where he writes editorials and essays for a newspaper. Lawrence has married Anna, left with Mrs. Martin as an orphan, and now renown for her beauty, if not her personality. “A lot of things must have been left out of Anna to start with–to make room for her looks,” a neighbor speculates.

When Hugh returns for a visit, a series of minor events–the worst of them the brief appearance of a threatening vagrant–puts him in the implausible role of Anna’s protector. And closer contact and memories of his own past interest in Anna leads … well, nowhere. These are all people of moderation, even Hugh, though he aspires to be a novelist, and people of moderation often benefit or suffer–or both–from the capacity to see things from several perspectives.

“It’s an old question–does love want to give everything, or take everything? … Arguments like that are never settled because as a rule nobody is talking about the same thing,” Hugh observes at one point. Though the two realize they have a connection that may be stronger than anything Anna will ever feel with Lawrence, Hugh understands that feeling could be just as destructive as it could be fulfilling. And so he leaves. Not suddenly, not dramatically. “Decently and in order; there was no danger of everything not being kept in its place, as usual.”

Hugh leaves as quietly, as familiarly as he arrived at the start of the book, and we know he will return again and that nothing more will happen between him and Anna.

Having put such an emphasis on the subtlety of Winslow’s touch, it’s difficult to reach for hyperbole to praise It Was Like This. If this book were a painting hanging in a gallery, it’s the one you wouldn’t notice until you’d visited a few times and grown tired of the big, bold works. But when you finally did, you’d think: “Yes, this is a fine and lovely piece.” I look forward to discovering and savoring more of Anne Goodwin Winslow’s fiction.


Incidentally, It Was Like This features a binding design by the pioneering book designer, William Addison Dwiggins. Similar bright two-color designs can be found on a few other Knopf books from around the same time. I know I’ve seen them on several novels by Angela Thirkell and perhaps one of P. H. Newby’s first novels as well, but not many more. It’s a shame the practice was discontinued so soon after it started.

It Was Like This, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949

In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet, translated by Julian Barnes (2002)

Cover of 'In the Land of Pain'

I first learned of Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain from references to it in Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Barnes finds one passage from Daudet so moving that he quotes it twice:

It’s all going … Darkness is gathering me into its arms.
Farewell wife, children, family, the things of my heart …
Farewell me, cherished me, now so hazy, so indistinct

In the Land of Pain is Barnes’ own translation, with extensive annotations, introduction and afterword, of La Doulou (literally, The Painful), which was published in the 1920s, nearly three decades after Daudet’s death.

The book is merely a collection of notes, written over the course of over a decade, while Daudet suffered increasing pain and debility from the ravages taken on his body and mind by syphilis in its tertiary and terminal stage–or, as the Kirkus Reviews reviewer put it, “a 19th-century account of slow death by syphilis.”

One could hardly come up with a less attractive description.

And yet, In the Land of Pain almost radiates with Daudet’s humanity and good humor. Henry James once wrote that Daudet had “an extraordinary sensibility to all the impressions of life and a faculty of language which is in perfect harmony with his wonderful fineness of perception,” and these qualities are on ample display in this slender little book–small in format and under 100 pages long.

And in Julian Barnes, his text has the perfect guide. Barnes notes the unbalanced effect of pain on its sufferer: “… you discover that your pain, while always new to you, quickly becomes repetitive and banal to your intimates….” He provides footnotes that, in themselves, are often quite moving:

Edmond de Goncourt and his brother Jules were so inseparable that in twenty-two years after the death of their mother they were only twice apart for as much as twenty-four hours; so inseparable that they wrote their joint diary in the first person. They moved to Auteuil in 1868; Jules died from tertiary syphilis in 1870. During his final decline, Edmond asked him, “Where are you, my dear chap?” and after a few moments Jules replied, “Always in space, in empty space.” After Jules’ death, Daudet became Edmond’s closest friend, literary confidant and surrogate brother–whereupon Edmond had to witness a harrowing syphilitic decline for the second time. Daudet, for his part, used to quiz Goncourt about Jules’ symptoms, comparing them with his own.

Alphonse DaudetSyphilis took its toll upon Daudet in numerous ways, from random, intense and stabbing pains he could only stay for a few hours with frequent injections of morphine–which had their own unhappy consequences, to the erosion of his spine and the loss of his ability to balance himself and, ultimately, to walk at all. And the range and barbarity of treatments Daudet underwent, as some of them most renowned doctors of his time tried vainly to alleviate his symptoms, if not to effect a cure, are described by Barnes and Daudet in harrowing terms. One learns to value even more the discovery of penicillin.

The disease also attacked Daudet’s very abilities to be a writer:

Are words actually any use to describe what pain (or passion, for that matter) really feels like? Words only come when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful.

His notes became a refuge where he could hide the deterioration of his very ability to hold a pen: “I find it impossible to write an address on an envelope when I know that people will read and examine it; whereas in the intimacy of a notebook I can guide my pen as I choose.”

Nonetheless, the comic aspects of his situation are never too far away:

This resort for anaemics has its funny side. No one remembers anyone’s name; brains are racked all the time; there are great holes in the conversation. It took ten of us to come up with the word “industrial.”

Edmond de Goncourt, Marcel Proust, Zola and other acquaintances all noted that as the disease put Daudet in ever greater pain and invalidity, his patience with and concern for others grew to saint-like dimensions. And one of the strongest themes throughout the book is his concern for how his illness affected his family. His greatest regrets are not for himself but for them: “I only know one thing, and that is to shout to my children, ‘Long live Life!’ But it’s so hard to do, while I am ripped apart by pain.”

Daudet stopped writing his notes about three years before his death. He died on 16 December 1897 as he sat at dinner with his wife, children and mother-in-law, chatting about the playwright Edmond Rostand. He was 57.

In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet, edited and translated by Julian Barnes
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002

“Words for Time,” from New and Selected Poems, by Thomas H. Ferril


Words for Time

Ask a boy on his back
In a track the buffalo cut
How long it takes that cloud
To cross that butte.

How many turns of calico tied to a spoke
Of a wheel
Make a mile
Make a century?

Ask dew on the ox-bow:
Where did the century go?
Ask lantern light on the butternut sleeve
In the evening.

Tonight I was watching a jet-plane lag behind
The spokes of light a hub of sunken sun
Was turning in the under-West
Behind the Rocky Mountains.

The jet-plane, for an instant of twelve mountains,
Held its own with a span of apricot sky
But lost to a fanning blade of choke-cherry;
Nearer, a snow-white-pitch-black magpie bird
Sauntered the West wind faster.

What shall I tell the children about Time?
Children who never counted the sing-back sway
Of the shoes of a single-footer horse,
Surrey by goldenrod or pung by snow,
But know the red light from the green
And when to go
And go
And go so soon
Over and under the poles of the earth
And toss the earth like a toy balloon.

Shall I tell them Time is countable repetition:
Tree-ring, heart-beat, Ocean’s coral accrual?
Shall I speak allegory: Time has teeth,
Forgives, is foolish, yawns, rubs like a river,
Is bald, is nick, is nurse, is pale avenger?

Big Time, small Time, war Time, your Time?
Hickory-dickory Geiger Time?
The mouse ran up the isotope,
Five . . . ten . . . fifteen . . . twenty . . .
Twenty-five . . . thirty . . . thirty-five . . . forty . . .
Where you are you shall burn up
In your hiding place or not!

I’ll say those things for all those things are true,
And I will tell the children Time is Love,
Like a slogan to laugh at on a greeting card,
Like a One-I-Love song made of daisy petals,
Like bidding the mountains sloughing off to sea
Good wayfaring, my hills, goodbye, goodbye!

Let boys and girls grow old and die one day,
Well taught that Time itself does not exist
Where nothing can go faster than the light
That let me love that magpie’s wing tonight:
Love of watching, recognizing, naming,
Knowing why similar ash of men and cattle
Leaves talismans that differ as a hymn
Might differ from an idle opal mine.

And I will tell them . . .
No, I’ll let them learn it:
All constellations, bench-marks, citadels
Continuing and lost and starting over
Within a whisper: “Was it all right with you?”
Passion into slumber into being.

Thomas Hornsby Ferril was a Denver newspaper editor and poet who saw his city grow and change through most of the 20th century, dying at age 92 in 1988. The introduction to this collection was written by novelist H. L. Davis, whose Winds of Morning (published the same year as Ferril’s collection) was one of the first books I featured on this site (link). That novel and this poem have in common the theme of the passing of time in the West–as Davis noted in his introduction:

Time and continuity may seem commonplace elements from which to develop individuality in poetry. Other poets have written about time and its effect on things ostensibly stable and permanent; writers as far back as Xenophon have paid homage to the power of renewal that gives continuity to the human spirit. But with most of them, such things are incidental and minor, reasoned reflections touched on in passing. In Ferril’s poetry, they are fundamental and all-pervading, underlying and coloring thought, emotion, even instinct.

In origin, much of this may be due to environment. The plateau region of the Rocky Mountains has always had, for some strange reason, an intensely stimulating effect on the efflorescence of stock poetical pronouncements about everlasting hills and the earth abiding unchanged and unchanging. The record for generations has brilliantly corroborated and extended the application of the old critical note that the best British poets always wrote their worst poetry in Switzerland. The truth is that hills do change; they shift, alter shape, switch colors and textures; rivers flood, change course, dry up and cut new channels for themselves; grasslands gully out, silt up and saturate with alkali, wind-strip and bank into new grasslands a couple of counties away. This process has been noted often enough in books — Shakespeare’s forty-fourth sonnet, for instance, or any textbook on geology — but reading or reasoning about it is not the same thing as having it happen visibly and persistently, until it becomes a part of one’s inmost consciousness. People in the plateau area of the Rockies are exposed to it from childhood; they come to take it for granted, except when, as sometimes can happen, one of them develops into a poet.

Davis also writes that these poems “… were written primarily to be read aloud, and Ferril’s Library of Congress recordings of some of them do give them a depth and closeness of rhythm that the printed page misses. But even on the printed page, as stages in the achievement of a precise and far-ranging literary artist, they are well able to speak for themselves.”

This poem also makes me think of my grandfather, who was born in a sod house in western Nebraska in 1901, rode a mule to school and studied by a kerosene lamp, and who lived to ride in jet planes and see men walk on the moon on his television. He wasn’t much for poetry, but I’ll bet he’d have appreciated Ferril’s work.

from New and Selected Poems, by Thomas Hornsby Ferril
New York City: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1903

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

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

Breaking Point, by Jacob Presser (1958)


Subtitled “A Factual Novel,” Breaking Point is a chilling account of life in a Nazi transit camp, an official limbo from which the only exit is on the weekly train to Auschwitz. Yet its author, the Dutch historian and secular Jew, Jacques Presser (who was referred to as Jacob Presser in English language editions), never set foot inside a transit camp and spent several years of the war in hiding.

“The one thing I want to repeat for the tenth, for the hundredth time is that all this is true, that it was thus and not otherwise,” writes Presser’s alter ego and narrator, Jacques Suasso Henriques, a Dutch Jew of Portugese descent. Asserting the truth of a work of fiction so forcefully demonstrates remarkable self-confidence in the author, although there was certainly less scrutiny of Holocaust survivor credentials at the time the book was first published in the late 1950s.

Breaking Point is the title given the English language translation by Barrows Mussey. The original Dutch title was De Nacht der Girondijnen, which literally means “The Night of the Girondists.” The reference is to the arrest, trial and execution of the Girondists, a loose political faction that opposed the most extreme measures of the Jacobins and, in the end, fell victim to the very same themselves. (Through much of the war, Presser worked on a biography of Napoleon, Napoleon: Historie en Legende, which was published in 1946.)

Jacques Henriques is a teacher in a secondary school, living in tenuous security due to his family’s “Portugese papers,” in the book’s opening scenes. From time to time, he notes the absence of one or more of his students as the Nazis put increasing pressure on the dwindling Jewish population, but he feels relatively insulated from this terror. Then, one day, while quizzing his students on the “approved” Dutch history textbook, one of them tells him that her mother had been taken the day before:

“And she’d had herself sterilized, because they said …” Then she was crying. This is true; I could repeat it at the Last Judgment: this is what a thirteen-year-old girl said, those very words, in Class 2A of the so-called Jewish High School.

What next? I put down my book, and let the children “work individually for the rest of the period,” the classic phrase of teachers who don’t feel like keeping going.

With that, he walks out of the school without a word and decides to hide himself from the terror in the place he’s least likely to be taken. One of his students puts him in contact with Siegfried Israel Cohn, who runs the Disposition Service at the Westerbork transit camp. The DS, also known as the Jewish SS, polices the inmates of the camp and organizes the selection and loading of the weekly shipments to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. “We, a few intellectuals, office clerks, workmen, traveling salesmen, and peddlers, were to the others undoubtedly the most loathsome scum that God had ever created,” Henriques writes, but they were also effectively immune to selection themselves as they played an essential role in the process.

Henriques enters the camp and joins the DS with a reference from Cohn’s son, and attempts to appreciate the safety of his situation and numbing himself to reality by becoming as cynical as Cohn himself. He even admits to enjoying his position as Cohn’s adjutant: “I did not find it unpleasant. Sure enough, it gave me a pleasing tingle. Plainly I was already beginning to be a man.”

Soon, however, he finds it impossible not to see the camp as a version of hell:

This hell exists today alone. There is no past and no future; everyone knows that in his heart. The past is dead; the future is death. Between the two lies the narrow watershed, life. And that life consists of pursuing a shoelace, of quarreling over a seat by the stove, of fleeting encounters with a woman on the barter system, of intolerable loneliness in intolerable crowds. Each week it rises anew to the fiercest, the unspeakably grisly horror of the one night, the night before the departure; the apocalyptic plunge, forever new, of hundreds of human beings into destruction and death.

Henriques’ cloak of cynicism quickly wears thin, and, in the end, he finds it impossible to keep his anger and fear under wraps. The smallest event–Cohn knocking a book from the hand of a man waiting to board the train–proves his breaking point.

lanotteDespite the fact that Presser never experienced the camps at first hand, Breaking Point is a thoroughly convincing account. So convincing, in fact, that one of the most renown survivors and writers on the Holocaust, Primo Levi, was moved to translate the book into Italian in 1974 (as La notte dei Girondini).

Presser had ample evidence to draw upon. In 1943, his own wife, Debora, was arrested for holding forged papers as sent to Westerbork. Although she later died in the Sobibor camp, her life in the two camps was conveyed to him by her surviving fellow inmates. In 1950, he was contracted by the Dutch government to write a history of the experience of Dutch Jews during the War, a book published in English (and still in print) as Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry. In his research for that book, he came across the diary of a Polish Jew who was a member of the FK [Fliegende Kolonne, or Flying Column], which dealt with the victims’ luggage. Although it did not mention Presser’s wife, it covered in detail the week she spent there.

In an afterword to a Dutch edition of the book quoted in Lina Insana’s 2009 book, Arduous Tasks: Primo Levi, Translation and the Transmission of Holocaust Testimony (Toronto Italian Studies), Philo Bregstein wrote,

And here is an indication of why Presser, before he could begin Ashes in the Wind, first had to write this story about Westerbork: compelled by his sense of personal co-responsibility and in despair over the loss of his first wife, he had searched in this historical material for the place where his wife had last been before all traces of her were lost: that was Westerbork. It was for this reason that Presser knew so much about this subject, even though he had survived the war by going into hiding and had never set foot in Westerbork.

Presser himself saw a link between the two books that was not solely due to their subject. Although meticulous in documenting his sources and a critic of the hagiographic style found in most biographies of Napoleon prior to his own and that of his countryman and contemporary, Piet Geyl, Presser was nonetheless ready to note that both fiction and history were forms of story-telling:

… for me, there’s very little distance between literature like Night of the Girondists and history like Ashes in the Wind … Yes … there is reality in the fable of Night of the Girondists … just as the reality of Ashes in the Wind is … a fable. It goes beyond dry description … it has something to do with literature.

Just over 80 pages long, Breaking Point is barely more than a long short story, and written in an unadorned, frank confessional style. Yet it’s also a remarkably nuanced work that raises themes that extend far beyond its brief scope. I have to look back to Levi’s own last book, The Drowned and the Saved, to offer a comparable text.

Breaking Point, by Jacob Presser
Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1958

The Major, by David Hughes (1964)

Covers of first UK edition, Pan paperback edition, and Tower Books paperback edition of 'The Major'
David Hughes’ 1964 novel, The Major, is a perfect example of the gems one can find by picking through the rubbish heap of literature. Out of print, like Hughes’ nine other novels (including his W. H. Smith Award-winning The Pork Butcher (1984)), it would likely escape notice by even the most diligent book scavenger, given the ho-hum covers provided its various U.K. and U.S. editions.

Like a real gem, The Major is made of incredibly dense material. Just slightly more than novella length, it features one of the most vile characters I’ve come across in years, and packs into its short pages a remarkable amount of violence and malevolence.

Major Kane is a Royal Army officer whose best days were spent crashing through the Italian and French countryside in a tank, and whose most noteworthy combat exploit involved shooting three escaping German officers. Enjoying a cushy assignment as a liaison officer in Hamburg, he’s brought back to his regiment near Salisbury Plain for reasons unknown. A truly blood-thirsty man, he’s given his first quarry when his renters, an elderly knight and his lady, refuse–with the utmost grace and delicacy–to vacate and give him back his house. This launches the Major into a campaign of harassment through a variety of malicious schemes. He eventually gets rid of them by sabotaging their heating system, which leads Sir Austen to contract pneumonia.

Major Kane’s motivation for taking back the house is purely territorial. There is not the least bit of love or tenderness in his heart for his pregnant wife or their teen-age daughter, and, in fact, there are subtle clues that Kane could be capable of incestuous rape if he let his guard down. The battle for the house, though, is just the prelude to his fight to evict the few families living in a hamlet on the edge of the Army’s exercise range. “If you can keep the Jerries happy,” his General tells him, “you can certainly bash some sense into this lot of wets.” As it turns out, the General knows full well just how Major Kane will approach the problem and is careful to have distanced himself when the sordid affair finally blows up in the press.

Hughes is a meticulous writer, and many of his sentences are honed to a razor-sharp edge. At the same time, however, he is able to introduce dozens of different perspectives on the story, so that Major Kane’s narrow and vicious outlook is offset by that of everyone from his patient but bewildered wife to a group of young thugs who decide to interfere with his plans. And in the end, Hughes manages to draw from this story not just the portrait of a mean-hearted man made all the nastier by his experiences in–and since–the war, but of an institution–the Army–willing to use its people in the most cynical and cold-blooded manner, and of a Britain learning to step away from two centuries rich with battles and military memories. Major Kane himself would likely be impressed by its power and efficiency.

The Major, by David Hughes
London: Anthony Blond Ltd., 1964

“Dawn in the City,” from Hesperus, and other poems, by Charles de Kay (1880)


Dawn in the City

The city slowly wakes:
Her every chimney makes
Offering of smoke against the cool white skies.
Slowly the morning shakes
The lingering shadowy flakes
Of night from doors and windows, from the city’s eyes.

A breath through heaven goes:
Leaves of the pale sweet rose
Are strewn along the clouds of upper air.
Healer of ancient woes,
The palm of dawn bestows
Peace on the feverish brow, comfort on grim despair.

Now the celestial fire
Fingers the sunken spire.
Crocket by crocket swiftly creepeth down;
Brushes the maze of wire.
Dewy, electric lyre,
And with a silent hymn one moment fills the town.

A sound of pattering hoofs
Above the emergent roofs
And anxious bleatings tell the passing herd;
Scared by the piteous droves,
A shoal of scurrying doves
Veering, around the island of the church has whirred.

Soon through the smoky haze
The park begins to raise
Its outlines clearer into daylit prose;
Ever with fresh amaze
The sleepless fountains praise
Mom that has gilt the city as it gilds the rose.

High in the clearer air
The smoke now builds a stair
Leading to realms no wing of bird has found;
Things are more foul, more fair;
A distant clock somewhere
Strikes, and the dreamer starts at clear reverberant sound.

Farther the tide of dark
Drains from each square and park:
Here is a city fresh and new-create,
Wondrous as though the ark
Should once again disbark
On a remoulded world its safe and joyous freight.

Ebbs all the dark, and now
Life eddies to and fro
By pier and alley, street and avenue:
The myriads stir below,
As hives of coral grow——
Vaulted above, like them, with a fresh sea of blue.

from Hesperus, and other poems, by Charles de Kay
New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1880

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

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

Like much poetry, particularly from before the World Wars, this suffers from an overly poetic vocabulary, but I appreciate the details that capture a cityscape from the days of coal and wood fires, horses and cattle in the streets, and noises much different from those we would now encounter. “The real background to these formative years, however, was the sound of hooves; the metallic thunder of the big animals drawing the carriages called landaus, the lighter trip-trop of the hansom cabs,” wrote Bryher in her memoir, The Heart to Artemis.

And one detail here sets the time precisely: “Brushes the maze of wire.” This is after the invention of the telephone (1876), after the first proliferation of subscriber lines by Western Electric and other early telephone companies, and before the practices of burying cables and using distribution frames. As more and more people signed up for the novelty service, companies stacked up row upon row of cross-arms, each supporting up to a dozen wire pairs. For a time, people could look up and truly see a maze of wire above their heads.

“Conchology,” by Sarah Hoare




Delightful task, to trace the hand,
In the minute as in the grand,
Of sovereign Deity !
   ‘Tis holy exercise of mind,
Most valued by the most refin’d.
And by the heaven-exalted mind
   Enjoy’d with ecstacy.


Behold beneath, around, above,
Proofs of immeasurable love.
   Illimitable powers;
Those powers the host of Heaven illume,
And give the summer’s varied bloom.
Its treasury of sweet perfume,
   Its fascinating flowers.


Still may thy lore, Oh Linne! charm,
Still with the love of science warm
   The young, the gay, the wise,
Still may the treasures of thy page,
Give youth a charm, and solace age.
And oft retirement’s hour engage,
   And sorrows tranquillize.


Cheer’d by th’ amusement they bestow,
I’ve sought the flowers that earliest blow,
   From spring till winter lour’d;
Fresh breezes cool’d my fev’rish vein.
Amusement dissipated pain.
Gay health reviv’d my sinking frame,
   And healing balsam pour’d.


Nor less Testacea have I sought,
With deepest admiration fraught.
   Of all their vivid dyes;
Their well proportion’d spires’ ascent,
Their foliaceous ornament.
Their varied charms, so competent,
   To dazzle and surprise.

from Poems on conchology and botany: with plates and notes, by Sarah Hoare
London: Simpkin & Marshal / Bristol: Wright and Bagnall, 1831

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

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

The Wife Next Door, by R. V. Cassill (1959)

Cover of 'The Wife Next Door'
“They met like two comets in the night–the bored and restless man, the lush and willing woman.”

That line and the cleavage, pink nightgown and knowing look of the woman on the cover of The Wife Next Door are classic examples of Gold Medal Books at their sleazy best. Anyone buying the book knew that at least one commandment would be broken in the course of this story.

As usual with Cassill’s pulp novels, he gave himself the opportunity to explore material he was interested in while also providing the publisher with material that fit the desired formula. In this case, the story is set at Blackhawk University, Cassill’s fictional version of the University of Iowa, where he studied and taught, which was also the setting of an earlier pulp, Naked Morning. Cassill also drew upon his own experiences, as he, like the characters, lived in the former Army barracks on campus that served as housing for married students during the boom in attendance after the passing of the G. I. Bill.

The story opens with a preposterous incident in which Tom, a hard-partying pre-med student, spies Karen (the wife next door) through his bathroom window, develops a drunken infatuation, and invades her apartment later that night with the aim of consummating his lust. He strips naked and staggers toward Karen, only to have her react as any normal woman might–screaming and kicking and trying to force him out of the place. Somehow Tom manages to escape without either Karen or his own wife learning his identity, although running around naked and drunk does eventually land him in jail.

The entire episode serves no purpose and could have been dropped entirely, for Cassill then begins where we might expect it to–namely, with Tom and his wife becoming acquaintances with Karen and her husband, their new neighbors. Indeed, it’s as if Cassill changed his mind, and from Chapter 4 on, made this more of a story of the predatory wife than the predatory husband. Karen and Tom’s wife Amelia become good friends, although Karen does seem to be more than a little interested in Tom and Amelia’s love life. In short, Tom is a stud while Karen’s husband Willard is … well, not, and Karen soon wants to find out what she’s been missing.

What for Tom is just a lucky jump in the sack becomes an obsession for Karen, and while he appreciates the occasion bit on the side, she convinces herself that the two are in love and destined to be together. While not quite in the league with Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction,” Karen is an early prototype of the jilted lover stalker. Once again fascinated with unstable substances, Cassill goes overboard by introducing a sub-plot in which the sight of Tom and Karen steaming up the car windows in a deserted Iowa state park sends a respected member of the Blackhawk medical faculty into an erotic fugue state that eventually leads him to rape Tom’s wife and then force her to submit to sex with a taxi driver. Even by Gold Medal’s standard, Cassill delivered way more sex, alcohol, violence and weirdness than they asked for. Who knew such things went on in Iowa?

In a way, The Wife Next Door is the most effective pulp novel by Cassill that I’ve read so far. It’s not a very good novel, even if we forget the ridiculous opening of Naked Tom in the Night. But it is effective as pulp fiction along the lines of, say, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, where the characters are fast, loose and out of control. I read the thing in about two hours and felt like I needed to take a shower to clean off afterwards. Which I guess is some kind of benchmark.

The Wife Next Door, by R. V. Cassill
Greenwich, Connecticut: Gold Medal Books – Fawcett Publications, 1959

The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, by Alan Harrington (1955)

Given the number of times it’s been reissued, it’s surprising that Alan Harrington’s fable of conformity, The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, is out of print now. In some ways, it’s a classic text of the 1950s, a satire on normality written in the middle of what, in America at least, may have been normality’s greatest decade.

Harrington’s story centers on Hal Hingham, a sad and unsuccessful insurance salesman who lives in a small, seedy boarding house and has convinced himself and everyone he encounters that he’s a loser, a depressive personality everyone tries to avoid. Then, one night, contemplating suicide but lacking the will, he see an ad at the back of a magazine: “STOP! WHY ARE YOU SO UNHAPPY?” and “FAILURE? TRY CENTRALISM!” Hal sends away to one Dr. Modesto for the doctor’s little self-help guide.

The doctrine of Centralism seems the perfect philosophies for fifties:

1. Since your self grates on others, and makes you miserable, get rid of it.
2. In our society, in our time, it does not pay to be yourself. People laugh at you and call you strange–even it it was your father’s fault.
3. Look around you, and see who is the happy man. He is the one Just Like Everybody Else. “Oh, so that is the way to be?” you ask, and I say, yes, that is the way you and I must be.
5. The only place to be is in the center of their culture. Be more average than anyone!
6. From this moment on, HAVE NO SELF.
7. Have no mind of your own. Have no thought, opinion, habit, no desire or preference, no enthusiasm, love or fear of your own. Be the composite of your neighbors.

Hal sinks himself into the practice of Centralism, and heads off to put it to the test by returning to his home town, where he failed to rise even to the standard of his father, another hapless insurance salesman. With the power of Centralism behind him, however, he manages to sell dozens of policies within just his first afternoon back in town. He drives himself into a frenzy in which he loses all sense of himself and collapses.

At this point, however, Harrington seems to have hit an imaginative wall. Hal falls in with Merko the Human Fly, a carnival performer who trained himself to walk up the walls of buildings through sheer willpower. Then Harrington shifts his focus to Jack Swan, a small-time publicist in thrall with Gladys, the statuesque blonde room-mate of Hal’s girlfriend. We spend some time with Fred Purdy, Hal’s ultra-cynical boss. Finally, he sends Hal off in search of Dr. Modesto, who turns out to be a crazy old coot in a Nebraska asylum.

Harrington was certainly aiming his satire at the combined targets of middle-class American conventions and the sunny-spirited self-help prescriptions of Dale Carnegie, Earl Nightingale and others. He wrote much of the book while staying at his mother’s house in Tucson, Arizona, where he was visited by Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on one of their cross-country trips. In fact, Harrington appears in On the Road under the name of Hal Hingham.

I first read The Revelations of Dr. Modesto over thirty years ago, and since then, have carried a memory of it as a magical little book, something along the lines of Michael Frayn’s Sweet Dreams. On re-reading the book recently, however, I found it disjointed and often flat, with none of the charm of Frayn’s fantasy and not enough of the sharp edge required for satire. Ironically, Harrington tends to treat his characters with too much empathy to skewer them with sufficient cold-bloodedness. I wonder now if I was remembering the wrong book.

The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, by Alan Harrington
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955

“Sustenance,” by Robert Bagg



If you starve anything,
A race, a flower, a fever,
Fear it will rise and cling
To you, for you can never
Kill something true for good
By cutting off its food.

I knew a sinner once,
God was his meat and drink.
He wouldn’t look askance
At Christ, or say he shrank
Because the world had given
No saints lately to heaven.

from Madonna of the Cello, by Robert Bagg
Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

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

Lustful Summer (1958), by R. V. Cassill

lustfulsummerI hate to say it, but the greatest pleasure I got from reading Lustful Summer was the fact that the copy I scored is in mint condition. I regretted opening it because it will never be quite as perfect as it was when I opened the package.

This book is almost as old as I am, and there are very few things left in this world from 1958 that are mint condition, and not many of those are paperbacks. I wonder how this copy survived the last 50-plus years without a scratch, and fantasize about a box of paperbacks from some Avon Books distributor forgotten for decades and then chanced upon by some lucky dealer. I picture seeing Lustful Summer next to Death Hits The Jackpot (Avon T-280) and Honeymoon Guide (Avon T-282, featuring Harold Meyers’ “Spicy gags and cartoons”). Perhaps I should have framed it instead, although I can’t imagine where my wife would have tolerated it.

Sadly, Lustful Summer is of greater interest as an object than a novel. It starts out with promise, with a voice that seems worth hearing more from:

If you are pretty, too many men try from the first minute of meeting to get at you. They crowd a girl too much. Because I was pretty they were always buzzing in my ear that I could have whatever I wanted….

This is a voice with some sass and spirit: “they crowd a girl…. they were always buzzing in my ear.” A voice that will take the world from a different angle. A voice that could spin a story that could hold up for 150 pages or so.

But it doesn’t even last through the first page:

Then I ran past it without recognizing it, so now I don’t even have anything like beautiful memories. The best memories I have hurt me. They hurt bad.

This stinks. It stinks bad.

Lustful Summer is about the short, awkward, and tedious love affair between Laila–our narrator–and Bruce, a married man who’s abandoned his wife to pursue his apparently muted passion to be a painter. We can at least be grateful that Bruce isn’t pursuing a passion to be a writer, given the kind of garbage he dumps out in an early love letter:

Beauty is the Mother. You send them forth and call them back. The dynamo that lights this sacrilegious island by night and illuminates the pageant of doormen shooing to their lust the handsome Westerners and the elastic and steel blondes. Makes the light by which I see the toothless pucker, blood-fringed, in the face of a drunk sleeping on Third Avenue.

What woman on Earth would take that kind of prose as anything but the ranting of a stalker?

John O’Hara took a character similar to Laila and wrote a pretty decent novel, BUtterfield 8, around her.

Read it instead.

Lustful Summer, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Avon Books, 1958

“Further Document on the Human Brain,” by W. R. Moses


Further Document on the Human Brain

This is a bit of rope that lies in the street.
And the stuff of oakum, but it is not blood
Out of half-naked seamen, nor the smoke
Grey from gun-mouths over the rough blue water
Where oaken old vessels would battle as they could.

This is waste-paper, flicked by a dust-filled breeze.
And what they make books on, but no feathered pen
In the hand of one who wore a ready dagger.
Wrote thunderous plays, praised his wine and tobacco,
And kept his whores in Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

This is a fringe of a woman’s fine black hair
Just seen past another; it is sheeting, cool
And crisply smooth to sheathe one’s limbs between.
Behind a locked door; and a heart that makes its throbbing
Noticed much more than in class-rooms in a school.

from Trial Balances: An Anthology Of New Poetry, edited by Ann Winslow
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1935

In Trial Balances: An Anthology Of New Poetry, Allen Tate writes:

The feature of Moses’ work that most forcibly strikes me is the conscious control of his material. I believe he must have stated his problem to himself somewhat in these terms: given the desire to achieve all the shock of immediacy so brilliantly achieves in a poem like Crane’s Paraphrase; but given, too, the desire for the greater range of presentation and commentary that is possible only if the poem is removed from its inciting event, is there any way in which they might be combined, so that they actually reinforce and define each other?

In each of Moses’ poems lurks a hidden generalization that we do not merely infer, as we do with all poetry; it is the conscious selector of the material.

You can find this and two other poems by Moses from the The American Review in 1934: link. Moses’ work was the subject of a commemorative issue of the Kansas Quarterly in 1982.

Dormitory Women, by R. V. Cassill (1954)

Dormitory Women was R. V. Cassill’s second novel. His first, The Eagle on the Coin (1950), had been a substantial, serious novel published by a substantial, serious firm, Random House. It would be a decade years before he published another one. In between, he wrote a dozen cheap paperback novels–most of them original works, a few of them novelizations of films like The Buccaneer (1958).

I’ve become fascinated with Cassill’s pulp novels after reading Wounds of Love a few months ago. In truth, they’re not great pulps, not in the way that, say, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is a great pulp novel: stripped to the narrative bone, full of rough men and tough dames, with no pretension and no apologies. Nor are they great as serious novels, worth proclaiming as undiscovered masterpieces.
What they are, I’ve decided, are experiments. We can appreciate the qualities of a good piece of pulp fiction now, but at the time, the criteria for getting something published by a company like Lion Books or Gold Medal had more to do with the writer’s ability to produce on time and to formula. Chances are that title of Dormitory Women existed before the book did (“Get the title in there and go to work,” to paraphrase Roger Corman’s instructions to the director of one of his sleaze films). The story had to involve women on a college campus and it had to be lurid. The rest was up to Cassill to fill in.

Cassill wasn’t the only writer to recognize that as long as he stayed within its simple limits, the pulp format offered him freedom to try out notions that were risky for mainstream fiction. In A Taste for Sin, he was able to work with sexual material–domination, rape, homosexuality–that would have been tough to get any hardback publisher to accept–material he would later revisit frequently in Doctor Cobb’s Game and other novels of the Sixties and Seventies. In Naked Morning, he tried out a story set in the campus environment he was familiar with from teaching at the University of Iowa, Columbia, and other schools. In The Wound of Love and The Wound of Love, he tossed sexual hand grenades into quiet small town settings and let the havoc ensue.

In Dormitory Women, the material Cassill experimented with was psychopathology. The men who picked it up in hopes of getting some steamy scenes of sophomoric sex did get a little taste of what they were looking for early in the book. Within the first two chapters, we are treated to that scandalous fifties fad, the panty raid. Soon after, Cassill offers up an attempted rape out on Lovers’ Lane.

But then the tale swerves wildly off track. The would-be rapist leaves the girl in the dust, blasts onto the highway back to town, and goes up in flames in a wreck. And we launch into the warped perspective of Millie, the girl. “I’ve got to go all the way through it again,” she says to herself. All the way through what?, the reader wonders. Well, we soon discover that Millie had some traumatic encounter with a man dressed in white in the barn behind her Grandpa’s house, and her attack by the aggressive frat boy sparks a series of psychotic episodes.

Although she convinces her roommates that her nightmares and ravings are just anxiety about getting into her college’s “good” sorority, Millie is actually in schizophrenic fugues in which another voice urges her to sink a butcher knife into the chest of her unwitting targets: “I knew how people could divide themselves and send one part outside time and space by a crooked path that let them sneak up on those they had to kill in order that those they loved be protected.” Twenty years later, Stephen King was able to take similar material and turn it into a best-seller, but in Dormitory Women, Cassill struggled–unsuccessfully–to put his agent of chaos to good use. Maybe readers in 1954 were naive enough to wonder about Millie’s flash-backs to Grandpa’s barn, but any adult today could figure out that she’d been raped by Grandpa (um, he worked in a bakery?). And, despite her violent fantasies, the murder of her favorite professor’s wife and children turn out to be entirely coincidental. In the end, the only thing Cassill can do with Millie is ship her off to an asylum.

For me, Dormitory Women was a failed experiment. Yet it was the only one of Cassill’s pulp novels to earn a review in a major paper, and Anthony Boucher’s praise in The New York Times was enough that his last phrase was quoted on many of his subsequent ones:

R. V. Cassill attempts (and successfully) an even more ambitious study in psycho-pathology in Dormitory Women (Lion, 25c). Disregard the lurid jacket copy (“an explosive novel of sex on the campus”) on this one: it’s a serious and completely terrifying account of the flight of a 17-year-old girl from almost-normal adolescent fantasy (“I am a princess … I can make things happen to people”) into full psychosis. The university background is admirably realized and the novel well-conceived and well-written. Previously known to readers of little magazines and Foley annuals, Cassill shows here that he can combine paperback storytelling at its strongest with subtle literary quality.

One might think that having the main character go mad is one of the cheapest and easiest tricks in the book, but Dormitory Women is proof that it’s harder than it looks.

Dormitory Women, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Lion Books (216), 1954
New York: Signet Books (1646), 1959

Ferment, by John T. McIntyre (1937)

Cover of first US edition of 'Ferment'Published within a year of his award-winning Steps Going Down, Ferment was, in many ways, even more ambitious that that 500-page descent into the world of small-time crooks and back streets. Ferment tackles the subject of the clash between union labor, business, and finance. Like Steps Going Down, it approaches its story from the underside, focusing on the efforts of an undercover factory spy and strike buster, Steve Brown, to make a fortune by organizing a scheme to lure both business and labor into an illusory partnership manipulated to put both in debt to a group of bankers. And like Steps Going Down, it is full of talk–once again, mostly in seedy hotel rooms, cheap apartments, and beer joints. There are pages and pages of conversations–much of it convincing in tone but mind-numbing in length.

McIntyre is more successful from a purely narrative standpoint, as the essential situation is simple. Steve tricks his brother Tom into lending him the money to underwrite this scheme, and Tom–himself an officer in the taxi-drivers’ union–eventually figures it out. To spice things up, both brothers are in love with the good-hearted, beautiful Maggie.

Which leads McIntyre off track from the big story of corruption and industrial violence and into the tedious and overwrought love triangle between Steve, Tom and Maggie, and results in a book I stuck with only in the foolish hope that McIntyre would produce something he failed to provide in Steps Going Down: a plausible ending. The copy I read came from a University of California library courtesy of my son, and it is in such pristine condition that I suspect I may have been its very first reader. Having finished it, I can say why.

Ferment, by John T. McIntyre
New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc.

“10 overlooked novels: how many have you read?,” from the Guardian, 6 May 2014


Source: “10 overlooked novels: how many have you read?,” by John Sutherland, The Guardian, 6 May 2014


In part to plug his new book, How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities, John Sutherland–who may carry around more literary facts and trivia in his head that any other English speaker around–writes,

What other dead and forgotten works would one dig up from the dusty vaults of the British Library? Everyone will have their own overdue for resurrection list: here’s my top 10. Not all of them are what the critics would call “great novels” (a couple most certainly are) but they are, I can guarantee, great reads. And what more do you want from a work of fiction?

Sutherland’s suggestions are eclectic but not likely to pass muster from any serious fans of neglected books. #10, William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley has been out as a New York Review Classic for several years. #6 is Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant: seriously? Has it ever been out of print? Has anything by Anne Tyler ever been out of print? And #1 is Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. Not as well know as Crime and Punishment? Granted. But it’s been in print ever since Penguin started releasing its World Classics series and is certainly accepted as one of the top 10 greatest Russian novels of the 19th century. The only title on Sutherland’s list that narrowly qualifies by my standards is Junicho Tanizaki’s 1961 novel, Diary of a Mad Old Man, which is out of print at the moment, although it had a Vintage Modern Classic release back in 2000.

This list aside, however, there are more interesting genuinely neglected books to be found in How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities, which is not yet available from a U.S. publisher, but probably will be soon.

Romer Wilson, Mexican Interlude, The Game

Several readers contacted me recently with recommendations that range across fifty years, from 1920 to the early 1970s.

• Romer Wilson

David Odell wrote, “I wonder if you have considered the British author Romer Wilson 1891-1930 for your excellent pages”:

She’s a most unusual and interesting writer who has been almost entirely neglected since her death, although most of her work is available on-line at Hathi Trust or the Bodleian Library.

Her first novel Martin Schuler was published in 1918 and largely written a few years before. It’s a somewhat Dorian Gray-ish story of a young and successful German Composer who dies just before 1914. Apart from anything else it is extraordinary that there is not the least trace of jingoistic war-reference in it. It is chiefly about the creative imagination and its relationship with individual egoism and morality, art and life, in other words, set on a German stage.

Her third novel The Death Of Society was her most famous, winning the Hawthornden prize for 1921. There is a good review by Ludwig Lewisohn available at the unz archive website, and an introduction by Hugh Walpole in one of the online editions. The sticking point for many readers was that the central rather ecstatic love affair takes place between a man and a woman who have no common language.

Her other better known books are a sort of biography of Emily Bronte [Life and Private History of Emily Jane Bronte] and the editing of three books of fairy tales, Green Magic (1928), Silver Magic (1929) and Red Magic (1930), the latter of which is extremely rare, due perhaps to the Kai Neilsen illustrations .

Wilson’s third novel, The Grand Tour (1923), is available on the Internet Archive. It’s a loose collection of letters and journal entries by one Alphonse Marichaud, a sculptor who travels around Europe, encountering the rich and artistic, and offering his own ironic commentaries. The Spectator’s reviewer gushed about it:

The book is an extraordinarily good one. Miss Romer Wilson possesses what one of the persons in her novel declares himself to be without “that strange occasional genius which is independent of experience.” …

The Grand Tour is not a book for the indiscriminate devourer of fiction. It is strongly intellectual and cultured stuff, although (since it is truly imaginative) the intellectual content appears in the form of imagery and emotion. Miss Wilson possesses a superb style—exuberant, well-fed, humorous, full of imagery and colour. It gives the impression that she writes rapidly, torrentially, out of a full imagination—an impression reinforced by an amazing inaccuracy in spelling which extends over three languages—English, French and German—and, in the case of French, scatters the accents with the fine carelessness of a henwife feeding poultry.

The Grand Tour, we joyfully confess, has knocked us off our perch, which to the reviewer is the rarest of luxuries.

Mexican Interlude, by Joseph Henry Jackson

Peter Laurence wrote to recommend that the site devote more space to travel books:mexicaninterlude

My #1 suggestion: Mexican Interlude (1936) by Joseph Henry Jackson. When Jackson and his wife drove their Model A across the border, even Mexican food was rare in the United States. He starts with in-depth descriptions of tacos in Laredo and heads south from there. Poor roads and other challenges greet them as they head to Mexico City. They practice the language, learn about the culture and in seeing the art world, meet John and Carol Steinbeck. Cosmopolitan and cheap, Mexico City was to the 1930’s what Paris was to the 1920’s. Mexican Interlude is an exhilarating book.

Reviewing the book for The Saturday Review, Katherine Woods wrote of it,

And when Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Henry Jackson set out in their car they were neither standardizing their travels nor striving after originality: they were having a good time. They were far more eager to see what they themselves found interesting than to follow in the footsteps of other tourists. And they saw uncounted fascinating things, in consequence, that the average tourist never knows exist. The human thing, always. The different thing. The thing that is characteristic. Beauty here, and there only a sudden strangeness. Ancient things, cheek by jowl with
bewildering new upheavals. Nightmare of hybrid architecture, but Diego Rivera to talk with. Real adventure, sometimes, though they followed the new Pan-American Highway and found it good. And the whole journey seen with eyes not only generously open to new sights and oddities and beauty, but quick with laughter.

The Game, by Izzy Abrahamithegame(fr)

Gianni Ponti wrote to recommend Izzy Abrahami’s 1973 novel, The Game:

It’s the only novel that Abrahami–who’s been, at different times, an architect, game designer, graphic artist, journalist, movie maker, and (now) blogger (see–ever published. It’s sort of uncategorizable–SF but not SF, fantastic but not fantasy. Probably the closest thing to it is something by J. G. Ballard from the seventies, but imagine J. G. Ballard with a healthy dose of Balzac’s le Comedie Humaine.

It starts with a man in a tall residential apartment house looking out at the windows of the apartments across from him. It quickly develops into a game in which he begins to predict what will happen based on their behavior patterns,but the game spreads to his wife and then other neighbors and grows more complex, more insidious, and begins to consume them all. [The cover of the French edition (Le Jeu des Grands Ensembles) conveys the situation well.–ed.]

It was published with cover quotes by Anthony Burgess (“It is beautifully contrived, ingenious, economical, thoroughly convincing. It is also witty and civilized, and … must earn a kind of astonished applause.”) and Marshall McLuhan (“a parable of high-rise living. By pushing the voyeur to the extreme, the binocular game flips into the audible-tactible world of existence”).

Steps Going Down, by John T. McIntyre (1936)

stepsgoingdownJohn T. McIntyre was 65 and had been working full-time as a writer for over 50 years when he published Steps Going Down in 1936. Thanks to a little creative public relations work by his publisher, Farrar, Rinehart and some help from Warner Brothers, which was considering it for filming, it was selected as the American entry for something called the All-Nations Novel Prize–an international competition organized by a consortium of publishers, mainly in the U.S. and Europe. It didn’t win the competition, but the selection came with an award of $4,000, which was probably more than what McIntyre had earned in the preceding five years.

For a few months, McIntyre garnered more publicity than he had in his entire career as a writer. The New Yorker praised him and he was positioned by some critics as a grandfather of what Edmund Wilson would refer to a few years later as “The Boys in the Back-Room”–hard-boiled writers like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and John O’Hara, whose works were full of rough characters, tough talk, and hard drinking. But though his next two books–Ferment (1937) and Signing Off (1938) took on suitably tough subjects–union corruption and Italian-American gangsters–they failed to win either popular or critical praise, and soon McIntyre was back to pitching stories about detectives and dime-store romances at newspapers and magazines. Eventually, even these didn’t sell and he was forced to sell off most of his belongings and rely on the charity of his friends. Suffering from alcoholism and cancer, he died in 1951 with barely a penny to his name.

Aside from some of his early crime novels featuring a scientifically-minded detective named Ashton-Kirk, McIntyre’s work has effectively vanished since his death. About ten years ago, Prof. Ron Ebest published an in-depth look back at McIntyre’s life and on Steps Going Down in particular, in the New Hibernia Review. In “Uncanny Realist: John T. McIntyre and Steps Going Down” (link), Ebest called the book “a minor classic of modern Irish-American writing” and praised McIntyre’s “talent for dialogue and his gift for presenting the grittier sides of urban life in realistic fiction.” I learned of Steps Going Down after reading about the All-Nations prize. (The winner for the 1936 competition, by the way, was The Street of the Fishing Cat, a novel about Hungarian emigrants in Paris by Jolán Földes).

Having taken the better part of three weeks to get through Steps Going Down, I struggle now to decide whether it was a waste of my time. By anyone’s standard of what makes a good novel, this one is a failure. Had McIntyre not thrown in a quick and implausible deus ex machina ending, it would have amounted to a five-hundred page equivalent of “Waiting for Godot.” Reviewing the book in The New Masses, Albert Halper wrote, “The story goes round and round and doesn’t come out anywhere,” and that’s a pretty accurate assessment. The anonymous reviewer on Kirkus Reviews said “It’s not strictly a novel,” but “a relentless turning inside out of a way of living –brothels, drug haunts, bars, shady dives, crooks, gangsters in miniature, lodging house keepers.”

Steps Going Down is about a guy named Pete, who has, at various times in the past, been a journalist and vaudeville dancer, and who goes on the lam when he suspects he might be accused of being involved in some crime at the bank where he’s been working. Pete got the job through a friend named Slavin, and he thinks Slavin is trying to pin the blame on Pete. And, as Halper puts it, “for the rest of the book the reader cracks his brains trying to find out (1) why Slavin got Pete the job,(2) who Slavin really is, (3) who Pete really is, (4) what crime Slavin has (or has not) committed, (5) how Thelma, Pete’s current girl friend, always knows where to reach Pete by phone even though Pete may be in hiding or in any of the city’s thousand drug stores, beer joints, or merely passing a public telephone booth.”

Well, I read the book, and I can’t answer any of those questions. I’d say that easily 80% of the book consists of nothing but Pete sitting around in some boarding house, oyster house, chop house, flop house, or bar and drinking and talking. Most often it’s with another character named Gill, who’s an alcoholic, Skid Row philosopher, part-time ink salesman, and black sheep son of a family that made its fortune selling patent medicines now running afoul of the new food and drug safety laws. Despite the fact that Pete spends at least two to three months moving from place to place to avoid being found by the police, district attorney, or Slavin, he somehow continues to have enough cash to buy another drink–even after he gets robbed.

And then another drink. And another. There is a lot of drinking in this book. As Ebest puts it, “Not to put too fine a point on it, essentially everybody in the book is hammered from page one on.” McIntyre himself had a drinking problem, and as you’re reading Steps Going Down, you often get the same kind of blurry sense of what’s happening that comes about three drinks after the stopping point.

And yet, there are some wonderful things in this book. Most of the action in the book takes place in once-respectable neighborhoods now gone to seed:

The Potsdam was a decayed establishment; it had a big lobby on the first floor that had once been a bar; a German bar with sanded floor, and with waterfalls, and old castles and folk in peasant costumes painted on the walls. There was a high, arched ceiling, now dusty and neglected. The Kegelbahn had been in the basement, and the wooden balls had rolled thunderously at night; a brass band once had its headquarters in the second floor front, and German marches and waltzes had poured out from the windows upon a contented neighborhood. German societies had met there; there was a singing of songs, emptying of seidels, the aroma of sausage and cheese; the gabble of all the dialects of the Fatherland. But those days were over; the people who now huddled under the Potsdam’s roof were broken and anxious; they were people whose days slipped by with no flavor of promise in them.

“No flavor of promise in them”–what a superb phrase with which to end a superb paragraph.

There are fine characters who come briefly into focus and then fade off. Like Cork, a small-time, unlucky gambler: “Cork was in the habit of talking about money; in sporting matters he mentioned large sums; the intake of stuss games interested him; the profits in drab houses, the chances of turning over sums by various underhand practices, had a slimy sort of glamour for him.” Or Finney, who spent his whole life dreaming of the time when he could be completely idle: “He used to watch the old men; they had been street sweepers, or cart drivers, or pavers, or weavers; old men that had worked at many trades and were now past their time, and were resting. Finney used to envy them. They could sit down somewhere contentedly, and no word was said against them. It was what was expected of them.”

There are places where you could imagine Oliver Twist hanging around if Dickens had time-travelled to 1930s Philadelphia: “The neighborhood of Shandy’s was one of small rackets; groups gathered at curbs, at newsstands, at corners, around shoeblacks’ chairs; smirking youths in smart overcoats and narrow rimmed hats talked with policemen.” The cheap hotels where Gill and Pete find rooms for a night or two: “Badly lighted, with greasy wallpaper, shabby floor coverings, brass cuspidors. Dejected men in soiled shirt collars sat forever reading newspapers; others wrote long, bitter letters at the little tables…. havens for uneasy men who had separated from their wives.”

The book opens with one of its strongest chapters–certainly the stuff I kept looking for more of–which puts us in the mind of Mrs. Salz, owner of the boarding house Pete lights out from, as she moves around, cleaning her sitting room. Each item she cleans reminds her of someone from her past–the gilt mirror from her brother Albert’s barbershop; Freddie the canary from her childhood now stuffed but still hanging in his gilded cage; the heavy armchair her father bought from a minister, in which her sister Cassy would sit “after her trouble”:

She worked for three or four dressmakers; every time she left a place it was for higher pay. And it was one of their husbands that was the cause of her trouble.

It was an awful shock to her mother; and her father used to curse terrible; and everybody in the neighborhood talked and said things they shouldn’t have said. Uncle Victor wanted the case taken into court; he said Cassy ought to get damages. But she wouldn’t let it be done. After the child died, she came home again, but she was awful changed. You’d scarcely ever hear her speak a word. She didn’t seem to be fit for anything at all. She’d just sit in the chair at the window and look out and think.

Taken together, these bursts of fine description and characterization probably add up to 150 or more pages out of the total 500, which is not such a bad ratio, but for many readers, it’s asking a lot to demand the persistence required for that kind of sifting. And so Steps Going Down will most likely remain out of print and unknown.

Yet, if Steps Going Down is a failure, it’s a noble failure. It’s like a fine old Victorian house, abandoned and neglected for years, shut up behind a tall fence. As you pass by, you catch a glimpse of some intricate, carefully-crafted feature or decoration, a room you can imagine was once dark, warm and welcoming. But no one will ever knock down the fence and put in the hard work to restore it and put it into working order. And so it’s just a lost promise. It reminds me very much of something Zadie Smith wrote in her essay, “Fail Better”: “The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment.” In Steps Going Down, there are such lovely shards–but it will never be a monument of fulfillment.

Steps Going Down, by John T. McIntyre
New York City: Farrar, Rinehart, Incorporated, 1936

Read anything, from Post meridiana: Afternoon Essays, by Sir Herbert Maxwell (1895)

If any young person of leisure were so much at a loss as to ask advice as to what he should read, mine should be exceedingly simple: Read anything bearing on a definite object. Let him take up any imaginable subject to which he feels attracted, be it the precession of the equinoxes or postage stamps, the Athenian drama or London street cries; let him follow it from book to book, and unconsciously his knowledge, not of that subject only but of many subjects, will be increased, for the departments of the realm of knowledge are divided by no octroi. He may abandon the first object of his pursuit for another; it does not matter, one subject leads to another: he will have learnt the habit of acquisition; he will have gained that conviction of the pricelessness of time which stirs a sigh as each day comes to its close.

From “The Craving for Fiction,” an essay in Post meridiana: Afternoon Essays, by Sir Herbert Maxwell (1895)
Available on the Internet Archive: Link

According to Wikipedia, “The Rt. Hon. Sir Herbert Eustace Maxwell, 7th Baronet of Monreith, KT, PC, FRS, FRGS (8 January 1845 – 30 October 1937) was a Scottish novelist, essayist, horticulturalist and Conservative politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1880 to 1906.

He wrote several collections of essays, including Meridiana: Noontide Essays (1892); Post Meridiana: Afternoon Essays (1895); and Rainy Days in a Library (1896).

Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig

erasmusThanks to reissues of his fiction by New York Review Classics and Pushkin Press, and, now, a new biography by George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World and a Wes Anderson film, Grand Hotel Budapest, inspired by his works, Stefan Zweig can no longer be considered a neglected writer. Among English language readers, that is–his works have stayed popular in German, French and other languages.

Very few of Zweig’s non-fiction books have been reissued in English, however. I think this is partly due to the fact that tastes and standards in biography have fundamentally changed in the decades since World War Two. To be taken seriously now, a biography has to be based in a fair level of objective research backed up with proof in the form of footnotes or citations and an extensive biography. In Zweig’s time, it was assumed that the writer had done his or her homework and this left them free to focus on biography as an investigation into character or into the relationship between and individual and his time.

Yet the latter is exactly what makes Zweig’s biographies so interesting now. One cannot read them without being aware of the context in which they were wrote, which gives the books a double effect: one sees both the subject and the author in relation to their respective eras.

Zweig wrote Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1934, not long after Hitler came to power in Germany, but when he and others could already sense that the world he knew and loved, The World of Yesterday as he titled his memoir, was entering a “terrible moment of mass intoxication.” Erasmus’ life was also caught up in the conflicts that arose from the rise of the Protestant faiths. It’s hard not to read the following, for example, and not find oneself thinking simultaneously of the Reformation and the rise of Nazism:

In general, those events which we are wont to deem of great historical importance hardly enter the sphere of popular consciousness. Even the huge waves of the earlier wares merely touched the outside margin of folk-life and were confined within the borders of those nations or those provinces which happened to be engaged in them. Moreover, the intellectual part of the nation could usually hold aloof from social or religious disturbances, and with undivided mind contemplate the welter of passion on the political stage. Goethe was such a figure. Undisturbed amid the tumult of the Napoleonic campaigns, he quietly continued his work.

Sometimes, however, at rare intervals through the centuries, antagonisms reach such a pitch of tension that something is bound to snap. Then a veritable hurricane stampedes over the earth, rending humanity as though it were a flimsy cloth the hands could tear apart. The mighty cleft runs across every country, every town, every house, every family, every heart. From every side the individual is attacked by the overwhelming force of the masses, and there is no means of protection, no means of salvation from the collective madness. A wave of such magnitude allows no one to stand up firmly against it. Such all-encompassing cleavages may be brought about by social, religious, or any other problem of a spiritual and theoretical nature. But so far as bigotry is concerned, it matters little what fans the flames. The only essential is that the fire should blaze, that it should be able to discharge its accumulated store of hate; and precisely in such apocalyptic hours of human folly is the demon of war let loose to gallop madly and joyously throughout the lands.

In such terrible moments of mass intoxication and sundering of the world of mankind, the individual is utterly helpless. It is useless for the wise to try and withdraw into the isolation of passive contemplation. The times drag him willy-nilly into the fray, to right or to left, into one clique or into another, into this party or into that.

Zweig himself essentially suffered this fate, being forced, as a Jew and a liberal intellectual, into exile–an intolerable exile, as Prochnik puts it, during which he grew increasingly despondent. Less than three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and his wife took their lives by drug overdose, feeling that a Nazi conquest of the Americas was inevitable. No doubt in the years leading up to that decision, he often felt himself dragged willy-nilly, utterly helpless.

Knowing where his despair eventually led him, the final sentences in this chapter have a bitter irony:

Fanaticism is fated to overreach its own powers. Reason is eternal and patient, and can afford to bide its time. Often, while the drunken orgy is at its highest, she needs must lie still and mute. But her day dawns, and ever and again she comes into her own anew.

How sad that Zweig was not able to hold onto this confident outlook.

You can read about Jules Romains’ tribute to Zweig in this post from 2008.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul
New York City: Viking Books, 1934

A Taste of Sin, by R. V. Cassill (1955)

Cover of first edition of 'A Taste of Sin'Continuing to scarf down R. V. Cassill’s pulp fiction like potato chips, my latest handful is A Taste of Sin (1955), his third paperback original and his second for Ace Books.

Of the four Cassill paperbacks I’ve read so far, A Taste of Sin most easily fits the stereotype of a cheesy, sleazy book whose contents deliver the “whirlpool of wild parties, illicit loves, and degeneration” promised on the cover blurb.

It’s a fascinating exhibit in the museum of 1950s sexuality. Worth Hudson, a thirty-something ad man married–well, if not happily, then at least conventionally–to the efficient Margaret. Both head off to work each morning and return to the apartment they’re devoting most of their spare cash to fix up smartly. Sex is off limits on work nights, and openness and honesty all the time. Worth is bored and a bit frustrated but afraid to say so to Margaret. And so their marriage percolates along, steadily losing all flavor and interest.

And so it might continue for years if not for an agent of chaos in the form of Worth’s friend Harold, a loud, boozy and lecherous artist. Harold recognizes a patsy when he sees one, and regularly leans on Worth for help, whether its a hand-out or a drinking buddy or someone to break the bad news to a girl Harold needs to dump.

As the book opens, Worth and Margaret are sitting in a bar, and Margaret is pressing Worth to cut Harold off for good. Then Harold comes reeling in, and Worth’s descent into the maelstrom begins with that fatal phrase, “Just one last time.”

Lying, deception, adultery, prostitution, alcoholism, bunko rackets, nymphomania, group sex, rape, sadism and masochism–even a fist-fight in a lesbian bar–Worth’s decision to help out his old buddy leads him into a downward spiral that leaves Worth without a wife, a job, or any self-respect. Cassill actually does quite an effective job of using the same reticence that kept Worth from talking about difficult subjects with Margaret to make him a failure as a sinner, too. In situation after situation, Worth’s dithering about whether to take the wrong step–to bed an alluring call girl or to seduce his wife’s best friend–leads something even worse.

Indeed, A Taste of Sin works best as a character study. After losing all his self-respect–and having what was left of it wrenched away from him, Worth gets together again with Margaret together, ready now to rebuild their relationship on a foundation of honesty. It’s such an implausible and ineptly introduced ending you can see the staples. The book would have been far better ended a chapter earlier, with Worth chasing in vain after a woman who’d already demonstrated that her greatest talent was for leaving ardent and horny men shamed and frustrated. Someone once described Cassill’s paperback fiction as “Dostoyevskian.” Happy endings and “Dostoveyskian” don’t go together.

The most I could say of A Taste of Sin is that it could hold its place on the shelf next to James M. Cain’s two great fables about the unpleasant consequences of men thinking with the wrong head, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. It’s cheap, sleazy, fast, rough, violent, and full of people you’re best off not knowing. Knock off the last chapter and it’s a great slice of pulp. If Jim Cain rates a spot in the Library of America, then someone ought to give a fair shot to Verlin Cassill as well.

A Taste of Sin, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Ace Books, 1955

“Leaves on the Capitol Grass,” by James Dawson


Leaves on the Capitol Grass

Sons of a young land prematurely old,
Gone grey about the hills, stagnant of air,
We walk the prim lots in the growing cold
And comb the brown leaves from the land’s dead hairs,
We watch the old men pass, folding their coats
About their greying necks; we see them pass,
Coughing a little in their drying throats,
Parking their buicks by the aged grass.
Old men, we see you, we who rake the leaves,
Who count the dried leaf-veins in every one,
We know the young land ages now and grieves,
Who see you passing when your day is done.
What does it matter what we think of you?
The leaves are dead. The land is dying too.

from Trial Balances: An Anthology Of New Poetry, edited by Ann Winslow
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1935

Trial Balances: An Anthology Of New Poetry provides this short biography of Dawson:

James Dawson was born in New Bern, North Carolina, July 1, 1910. He received an A. B. degree at the University of North Carolina and is now a graduate student at Georgetown University. In the intervals of securing an education he has been a printer’s devil, a sailor, a chain-carrier for surveyors, and a teller in a country bank.

From a St. Andrew’s Society newsletter from 1963, we learn that he served in the Navy in World War Two, and went on to become an advertising and P.R. executive. His four poems in Trial Balances: An Anthology Of New Poetry appear to be the sum of his published work.

The Hungering Shame, by R. V. Cassill

Cover of original Avon paperback edition of 'The Hungering Shame'Continuing my journey through the pulp oeuvre of R. V. Cassill–a novelist and short-story writer whose mainstream fiction is nearly as forgotten as his more quotidian work–we come to The Hungering Shame (1956), his fifth novel and his first paperback original for Avon Publications.

One would have to be thick not to figure out that it’s a story about rape. “Four Men, A Lonely Road, and A Girl” is splashed under the title, on which we see an attractive woman examining the torn sleeve of her dress, her hair slightly mussed. These were the days before Avon became noteworthy as the publisher of Latin American and other innovative fiction, days when its marketing aim was not so high(brow).

But, as I found with The Wound of Love (1956), his second Avon original, and Naked Morning (1957), his third, the lurid cover and blurb of The Hungering Shame deceives by disguising the seriousness of Cassill’s purpose and his results.

The Hungering Shame is not actually a story about rape, but rather one about the effects of rape. Cassill uses a set of first-person narrators to play out his drama, which concocts an unstable mixture of characters and circumstances and then sets it alight.

rvcassill1955Unlike his next two books, The Hungering Shame is set not in Iowa but in a resort town in the Colorado Rockies. Late the summer before the story opens, a local girl, Joy Everest, was picked up by four visiting frat boys, taken up a deserted forest road, and raped. One of them was the son of Bob Horn, manager of one of the big resort hotels in the town. A divorced father with a weak heart and a guilty conscience, Horn had helped Joy get medical care after the crime and convinced her not to report it. Engaged to marry Al, a local boy, Joy had her own reasons to keep quiet.

Now, a year later, the marriage has disintegrated. Still traumatized by the rape, Joy has been unable to sleep with Al. Then several pieces of bad advice upset the precarious balance of Joy and Al’s psyches. Joy, we learn, has already been scarred from discovering, as a child, her father’s dead body after his suicide, and Al is a nascent sociopath. Add to these ingredients Bob Horn’s genetic predisposition to bad luck (his father tells him that just about anyone other than a Horn “has a better chance than you nor me when it comes time to do the right thing instead of the wrong thing”), a social climbing young woman, and the reappearance of one of the rapists, and it all explodes.

Men might have been hoping for some good old fashioned sleaze in The Hungering Shame, but I doubt they would have been prepared for the brutality of the finale. Al spirals down the path of a classic sociopath, cruising for women, contemplating molesting a young girl, caught masturbating in his car, taking Joy along as he shoots cornered animals, and finally, attacking a couple necking in a parked car. Cassill goes well beyond conventional literary psychology of the 1950s, revealing that Joy finds relief for her own pain by helping Al inflict it upon others.

Bob Horn also discovers unpleasant truths as his fragile world comes crashing down. I liked how Cassill captured the voice and sensibility of an ordinary man being forced to look past the limits of his comfortable notions of evil:

I guess there are, for unlucky men, those times when you are forced to look clear past the edge of what people ought to be asked to stand. It’s a mistake to think there’s nothing out there, a lucky mistake, because in the dark around us there’s a slop and muck and stink that’s stronger than all the daylight we’ll ever get. It moans at you through its stinking lips and says Help me and if you’ve been caught where you hear it you’re tempted to gather it up in your arms and pat it.

The savagery of The Hungering Shame‘s denouement is really quite shocking for its time. I speculated in my post on Naked Morning that Cassill may have used his pulp fiction as experiments where he could try out techniques for use in more serious works. In the case of The Hungering Shame, his ability to work with highly combustible materials proved short of the mark just at the book’s very end.

Q: How to end a story that’s already gone over the edge?

A: Put all your volatile characters in a car and send it careening off a cliff.

Effective–but crude.

The Hungering Shame, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Publications, 1956

Ginx’s Baby and Little Hodges, by Edward Jenkins

Son of a missionary and minister who took his family to India, Canada and the U.S. and who was ordained in three different churches–Wesleyan, Methodist, and Presbyterian–Edward Jenkins had stronger Protestant and anti-imperialist roots than perhaps any other Victorian radical, which is why he might be considered 19th Century England’s closest counterpart to Jonathan Swift. And like Swift, he used the infant as the instrument for his most savage satires.

edwardjenkinsJenkins’ first book, Ginx’s Baby: His Birth and Other Misforuntes (1871), used its title character–the thirteenth child both to Mr. and Mrs. Ginx, a London navvy and his wife–to mock the pretensions of religious charities and high-minded reformers, who claimed to serve the poor but more often used them to serve their own interests. Ginx, his wife, and all their children manage to fit into one tiny room filled mostly with on “thirteenth-hand” bed:

When Ginx, who was a stout navvy, and Mrs. Ginx, who was, you may conceive, a matronly woman, were in it, there was little vacant space about them. Yet, as they were forced to find resting-places for all the children, it not seldom happened that at least one infant was perilously wedged between the parental bodies; and latterly they had been so pressed for room in the household that two younglings were nestled at the foot of the bed. Without foot-board or pillows, the lodgment of these infants was precarious, since any fatuous movement of Ginx’s legs was likely to expel them head-first. However they were safe, for they were sure to fall on one or other of their brothers or sisters.

Although the Ginxes, like good Victorian subjects, take their lot in life for granted (“They regarded disease with the apathy of creatures who felt it to be inseparable from humanity”), the latest Ginx is one too many, and Mr. Ginx considers drowning the newborn in the Thames as a solution. A crowd gathers, and a debate erupts among them as to where the responsibility for the situation lies. One man blames Ginx and his wife for having children when they couldn’t afford them and another wonders why “Parlyment” doesn’t provide better care for the poor. Finally, a nun intervenes and persuades a policeman to let her take the baby back to “the Sisters of Misery.”

There, the nuns consult with the Church authorities and soon little Ginx–now named Ambrosius–becomes the centerpiece of a campaign to encourage procreation as a means for creating more Catholics. This draws the wrath of Protestant churches, and an “Evangelical Alliance” forms to rescue him. They “favor of teaching him at once to hate idolatry, music, crosses, masses, nuns, priests, bishops, and cardinals,” and form a Committee of the Protestant Detectoral Union on Ginx’s Baby to determine the correct approach to the infant’s religious education. Unfortunately, after holding twenty-three meetings and releasing countless announcements, the Committee is forced to disband for lack of funds.

In the meantime, Mr. Ginx resorts to abandoning the baby on a shopkeeper’s doorstep, which then leads to his being placed in one poorhouse and then another. Now near death, the child is rescued by a visiting doctor and his case becomes a cause celebre in the press. The respective guardians of the two poorhouses go to court to determine which is at fault. The baby is returned to the Ginxes, who have given up any hope of surviving in England and decided to emigrate to Australia, and once again Mr. Ginx abandons him, this time on the doorstep of a political club in Pall Mall.

Here he comes to the service of the Radicals, who attempt to launch a debate in the House of Commons on the plight of the poor. However, the Minister for the Accidental Accompaniments of the Empire takes them by surprise by launching his own debate in the House of Lords. Though “he never seen the Baby, and knew nothing or very little about him,” this does not prevent him from delivering “an elaborate speech in which he asked for aristocratic sympathy on his behalf” and proposes a practical solution: send the child to Australia. Unfortunately, this motion runs afoul of the great economic authority, Lord Munibagge, who protests, “Ginx’s Baby could not starve in a country like this. He (Lord Munnibagge) had never heard of a case of a baby starving.” The Lords conclude that “there was no necessity for the interference of Government in the case of Ginx’s Baby or any other babies or persons.”

In the end, passed along from charity to charity, Ginx’s baby grows into a young and still hungry delinquent and decides one night to resort to his father’s first solution: he quietly jumps off Vauxhall Bridge and drowns himself in the Thames.

littlehodgeSeveral years after publishing Ginx’s Baby, Jenkins took another satirical stab at the inertia and hypocrisy of Victorian society through the instrument of a baby–this time in the form of the world’s tiniest baby, known as Little Hodge (1878). Weighing just over three pounds at birth, Little Hodges’ fame soon spreads: “Many visitors came to the workhouse — physicians, surgeons, comparative anatomists, and one or two social science philosophers.” They all come to the same conclusion: “that he was very small,” and “that he could not live.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Hodges, a farm laborer with eight other children, he does live, and, with his mother dead from childbirth, he needs to eat. Hodges turns to his landlord, then to his parson, then to his local poorhouse, and so on, finding all of them greatly concerned and utterly unable to help. When he tries to forage and poach to find some free food for his family, he’s brought up on charges. His plight inspires some of his fellow farm workers to form a union and revolt against the landowners, but this movement also fails to provide solution to the immediate problem of getting enough to eat. Hodge dies one night, probably murdered by his landlord, and his children are taken off to America by a Yankee philanthropist.

Like many other attempts to rework a fictional formula, the tone of Little Hodges seem tired and bitter compared to the gusto with which Jenkins skewered English society high and low in Ginx’s Baby. Where in Ginx’s Baby Jenkins pumped up his targets to exaggerated proportions before bursting them with quick jabs, in Little Hodges, mockery too often gives way to anger and sermonizing. One could trace a line from Swift to Kafka’s The Trial that passes through Ginx’s Baby; Little Hodges, though, is closer to Ten Nights in a Bar-room than anything in the way of lasting satirical literature.

Both Ginx’s Baby and Little Hodges are available at the Internet Archive.

Ginx’s Baby: His Birth and Other Misfortunes, by Edward Jenkins
London: Strachan & Company, 1871

The Brigadier General Bar, from Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill


The Brigadier Club had never endured for more than ten months under any single management and it had borne half a dozen names since the war. Bur it recurs, Martin thought, and may be here in a fresh avatar when the pigeon-loved bronze of General Dirksen has been sublimed away.

It had opened after the war as the clubhouse of a campus Veterans’ organization. The American Legion and the VFW had their own permanent buildings in the business section of town, but a large part of their membership was from townspeople or the incorrigible patriots who would always find something subversive in any organization they had helped found themselves.

The club had moved twice before it found quarters in the labyrinthine back rooms of a hotel that was thirty years fallen from its highwater mark of prosperity. It had gone broke and had been reorganized repeatedly. While it was still—with some pretense of legitimacy–a veteran’s co-operative project. Then it was “taken over” by an ex-aviator. For a while his name had been painted over the main entrance on a side street five blocks from the campus. He told all those who had by this time become addicted to it that “nothing would change.” He was going merely, to put it on a paying basis, “for them.”

Since then the club had been closed some ten times. Now and then it was closed (and disbanded) at the orders of the outraged university or municipal administration on a variety of charges which added up to something like mass moral turpitude. Sometimes bankruptcies closed it–at which times the onetime flyer “re-incorporated” and changed the name, clinging only to those names which had a common military denominator.

The outrage of authority sprang from semi-public disclosures that liquor was being sold here to minors, that obscene movies had been shown on stag nights, that the ROTC staff was using it as an outlet for the French erotic supplies they imported from tours of duty at overseas posts, or that whores from Chicago and Kansas City occasionally based there during the football season or the annual state basketball tournament.

The bankruptcies sometimes resulted from setting the price of drinks too low (the manager had moments of unbusiness-like compassion for his whole clientele), sometimes from over-paying the local police with bribes which they did not respect (a bribe plus a fine can ruin any business venture), and sometimes from emergencies in the manager’s private life (he fell head over heels for one of the Chicago hookers and went home with her when she left, carrying all his liquid assets and dissipating them on her in a six week binge).

But it was open again this fall, as it had been for at least part of every year, “under new management.” This merely meant that the manager would spend more time in a back room at one of the poker tables and less time hanging from the bar corner in ostentatious drunkenness, reaching for the girls as they danced. Each reopening was signalized by some amateur remodeling of the decor will wallboard and gaspipe, the immemorial peephole between the men’s and women’s toilets was usually plastered shut, and a new program of entertainment was advertised on mimeographed handbills. But essentially, year to year, college generation to generation, as Clare had promised–as he didn’t even need to bother promising, Martin thought–the club had not changed. As it had been, it would be.

“Travelogue in a Shooting Gallery,”by Kenneth Fearing, from Afternoon of a Pawnbroker (1943)


Travelogue in a Shooting Gallery

There is a jungle, there is a jungle, there is a vast, vivid, wild,
wild, marvelous, marvelous, marvelous jungle,
Open to the public during business hours,
A jungle not very far from an Automat, between a hat store
there, and a radio shop.

There, there, whether it raihs, or it snows, or it shines,
Under the hot, blazing, cloudless, tropical neon skies that
the management always arranges there,
Rows and rows of marching ducks, dozens and dozens and
dozens of ducks, move steadily along on smoothly-oiled ballbearing feet,

Ducks as big as telephone books, slow and fearless and out
of this world,
While lines and lines of lions, lions, rabbits, panthers, elephants, crocodiles, zebras, apes,
Filled with jungle hunger and jungle rage and jungle love,
Stalk their prey on endless, endless rotary belts through
never-ending forests, and burning deserts, and limitless veldts,

To the sound of tom-toms, equipped with silencers, beaten
by thousands of savages hidden there.
And there it is that all the big game hunters go, there the
traders and the explorers come,

Leanfaced men with windswept eyes who arrive by streetcar,
auto or subway, taxi or on foot, streetcar or bus,
And they nod, and they say, and they need no more:
‘There . . . there . . .
There they come, and there they go.”

And weighing machines, in this civilized jungle, will read
your soul like an open book, for a penny at a time,
and tell you all,
There, there, where smoking is permitted,
In a jungle that lies, like a rainbow’s end, at the very end of every trail,
There, in the only jungle in the whole wide world where
ducks are waiting for streetcars,
And hunters can be psychoanalyzed, while they smoke and wait for ducks.

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.

Ambrosia and Small Beer, arranged by Christopher Hassall

The delight of reading John Guest’s Broken Images, which I posted about recently, led me to look for his other works. A short search, as his few other publications were collections of other people’s work.

ambrosiaandsmallbeerOne, for which he did not even claim credit, bears the odd title of Ambrosia and Small Beer. Subtitled “The Record of a Correspondence between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall, Arranged by Christopher Hassall,” the book was being prepared for publication by Hassall when he died suddenly at the age of 51. Guest, who had been a close friend of Hassall since the two served together in an anti-aircraft battery in 1940, was a senior editor at Longmans, Green and Company, Hassall’s publisher, and took over the final work on the book.

Christopher Hassall and Edward Marsh first met in March 1934. Hassall was 22, just graduated from Oxford, trying to pull together his first book of poetry, and working for Ivor Novello, the legendary singer, actor, composer and playwright. Marsh was 61, a senior Civil Servant nearing retirement, and already well-known as a mentor and patron to creative talents such as Novello, D. H. Lawrence, and Rupert Brooke. The four collections of Georgian Poetry he edited had been hugely successful–selling as many as 20,000 copies each–and Marsh was also known to have been responsible for editing and maturing the prose style of his minister/MP, Winston Churchill. Marsh’s Wikipedia entry categorizes him as a “polymath”–probably one of the few people to earn that label.

Marsh was also something of a cornerstone figure in the homosexual community of his time. At 22, Christopher Hassall was a beautiful young man, and that, combined with his poetic talents, certainly held a strong attraction for Marsh. Within days of their meeting, Marsh was writing long letters filled with detailed criticisms–word by word examinations in some cases–of Hassall’s poetry. Soon, however, the correspondence moved into the wider world of Marsh’s intellectual interests, artistic passions, and social contacts.

Marsh never married and appears never to have had any long-term intimate relationships. He lived alone and had the time and, apparently, tremendous energy to devote to those friendships he most valued. Hassall identifies this as an vital factor in their relationship: “As a solitary man, Marsh tended to live the private lives of other people. Some of his most intense experiences were lived vicariously.” While Hassall includes excerpts from many of his own letters and notes to Marsh, the bulk of Ambrosia and Small Beer comes from Marsh’s pen.

Fluent in a half-dozen languages, Marsh had a prodigious memory for facts, concepts, and poetry. His was a mind of both tremendous breadth and surgical precision. “Nothing seems to have got lost between the brain and the pen,” the writer George Moore once remarked of a letter calling for a civil list pension to be granted for James Joyce. But he was also a great lover of gossip and jokes. Hassall called him “an ornament of society with an inexhaustible fund of small talk,” and the title comes from his description of Marsh’s conversation: “an engaging blend of ambrosia and small beer.”

Marsh continued to write to Hassall as the young man became–in partnership with Novello–a successful librettist, as he married, served in the Army during the Second World War, and enjoyed success as an actor, poet, and producer after the war. Indeed, the correspondence continued right up to Marsh’s death in 1953. Ambrosia and Small Beer collects perhaps a third of the total material, but one suspects that what is omitted is hardly to be missed. As Hassall remarked in his preface, Marsh loved to indulge in gossip that had little lasting value.

What’s left, however, is great fun for anyone who loves literature, people and humor. Marsh knew almost everyone who was anyone in Britain of the 1930s and 1940s, and a healthy share of them invited him to dinner and country house weekends. He read a good share of the better and lesser books published during that period and is generous in devoting space to his personal reviews. I’ve discovered a fair number of neglected titles in the course of reading this book. And he delighted in sharing jokes. I suspect that one of the services Hassall performed on posterity’s behalf was to weed out the duds from the gems, because there are plenty of good laughs to be found here.

In many ways, Ambrosia and Small Beer reminds me of James Agate’s Ego–the nine volumes of diaries that he published between 1935 and 1946: it’s erudite, bitchy, and funny. I would give Ambrosia a slight edge, however, for the invaluable leavening effect of Hassall’s editing and his own contributions. While Agate was notorious for endlessly rewriting his own work, Hassall had a wonderful sense for what to include and what to delete.

We can be grateful, for example, that he chose to include the text Marsh enclosed to accompany the following comment, from a letter in April 1944:

Someone named Adrian Earle wrote to say he was writing a life of Lionel Johnson, and asked if I could contribute anything. I send you the rough copy of what I wrote for him–it’s inexpressibly slight.

Marsh’s piece is as follows:

I met Lionel Johnson only once, when we both stayed with the late Lord Russell for a night in the latter nineties at a little house near London. I forget who else was there, except Harry Marillier and Edmund Garrett. When Russell and the others went to bed, L. J. asked me to stay up with him: he was born with insomnia, he told me, and had never been able to sleep, in his cradle or since; so we settled down to talk. His conversation was enthralling, but alas very little of what he said has stuck in my memory. One topic was the novels of George Meredith, which he put very high; but he owned that after giving one week of his life to the first chapter of The Egoist he had come to the conclusion that it had no meaning whatever. Later in the night he discoursed with eloquence on the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he exalted as the most wonderful structure of thought that the world had produced; and–this is my last fragment–he said that he had never in his life been able to do a sum of any kind.

At about five or six in the morning he poured himself out a tumblerful of neat whisky, after drinking which he said that now he would be able to sleep; so I went to bed, leaving him curled under a rug in a big armchair.

For the justification to forego reading The Egoist alone, I am grateful that Hassall chose to include this.

After Marsh’s death, Hassall began collecting materials for a biography, which he published in 1959: Edward Marsh: Patron of the Arts. One reviewer called it, “The most entertaining biography since Boswell.” If Ambrosia and Small Beer is any indication, I am eager to make my own assessment of the biography.

Ambrosia and Small Beer: The Record of a Correspondence between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall, Arranged by Christopher Hassall
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965

Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill

Cover of Avon paperback original of 'Naked Morning'After reading R. V. Cassill’s The Wound of Love (1956), which I discussed in a post a few weeks back, I’ve become intrigued by the rest of Cassill’s pulp oeuvre–eight or nine novels that he published as paperback originals between 1954 and 1963. One of the most influential writing instructors of his time, Cassill was also a prolific author in his own right, publishing around a dozen other novels as serious mainstream hardbacks and nearly ten times that number of short stories, several of which were included in O. Henry Prize and Best American Short Stories collections.

Born in Iowa, Cassill studied art at the University of Iowa and later became one of the mainstays of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This experience is well reflected in Naked Morning (1957), which is set in the fictional town of Blackhawk, Iowa, home of Blackhawk University–Cassill’s stand-ins for Iowa City and his alma mater.

The novel’s actions play out over the course of about four days in early September, during the break between summer and fall sessions. One of the lead characters, a graduate instructor, “liked that time better than any other part of the year:

Then the campus lay ripe and vacant under a succession of fine days. It was a period when most of the human sounds vanished or were subdued by the heat. The noise of power-driven lawnmowers sham-battled through the afternoons and the shadow of campus trees was as blue as it could ever get.

Cassill knows this Midwestern university town well. He knows the upright but pallid character of the men in administration, the driven wives relentlessly fueling faculty politics, the frustrated cliques of artists and intellectuals feeling themselves exiled from the big time, and the townspeople always a bit bewildered or bemused by the university’s pretensions and eccentrics. He knows the great Victorian monstrosities–“like an oversized statue of two bisons and a wapiti”–now moldering away as faculty homes and student houses. And he knows the kind of bars that offer some of the few places where students and younger members of the faculty can cut loose:

The outrage of authority sprang from semi-public disclosures that liquor was being sold here to minors, that obscene movies had been shown on stag nights, that the ROTC staff was using it as an outlet for the French erotic supplies they imported from tours of duty at overseas posts, or that whores from Chicago and Kansas City occasionally based there during the football season or the annual state basketball tournament.

The cover of Naked Morning proclaims, “A young and innocent stray in a world of men.” In case that was too subtle, Avon Books plastered across the back:


“I have to get of in this here town unless I have some money. So if you want me to go with you….”

As was the case with Cassill’s The Wound of Love, a cheesy, come-on cover hides an otherwise serious work of fiction. In both books, there is a loose link between the cover and the contents. Naked Morning opens with a young man, a student returning to Blackhawk by bus, being approached by Sissie, a young girl somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen, who seems penniless, homeless, and ready to sell herself to survive.

The story revolves around the havoc her arrival in Blackhawk provokes. Sissie is something of a feral child, a corn-fed Lolita with no inhibitions, which, of course, means that she attracts a variety of abusers, exploiters and would-be saviours. A buyer hoping to find the salacious treats suggested by the cover would have been quite disappointed. Cassill only hints at Sissie’s sexual exploits–a glancing reference to a possible gang-bang in a frat house basement is as far as he goes.

Sissie really only serves as the spark to set off crises of character for the student on the bus, his girlfriend, and the graduate instructor. She is off-screen through most of the book, with much more space devoted to the others and their thoughts. And, as is too often the case with novels where the reader has to spend most of the time inside someone’s head, introspection is a poor substitute for action or description. The best parts of Naked Morning are not the result of Cassill’s ability as a story-teller or creator of characters but his ability to capture what Iowa City must have looked like, what it must have been like to live there, in the mid-1950s–as was the case for the small Iowa town setting of The Wound of Love.

Cassill’s superficial motivation for writing Naked Morning may have been money, but it’s clear that writing the book also had some artistic value for him–perhaps as a way to safely perfect his craft away from the harsh scrutiny of mainstream editors and critics. I suspect this was true for his other pulp novels, which is why I’ve ordered a few more to read over the coming months.

Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Books, 1957

The Fortress by the Sea, from Gog, by Giovanni Papini

New Parthenon, October 6
For the last few years the state of the World has been growing more and more alarming and dangerous, and I have thought best to prepare an impregnable refuge for myself. Wars, invasions, and rebellions are sure to continue for some time yet, and no one is safe. Let all who realize this, and who do not wish to be starved or butchered, take early precautions.

On the northern coast of -Brazil and not far from the mouth of the Parnahyba I discovered a small peninsula that exactly suited my purpose, and the work of fortifying it and making it habitable is already well advanced. It is connected with the mainland by a sort of isthmus, where I have laid three rows of mines; thus in case of danger in less than three minutes my peninsula could become an island.

On the highest point I have built a castle faced externally with stone and lined with steel plates, those of roof and terraces being especially thick. At a certain distance, hidden among the trees, are two buildings for the servants. The castle has a deeply excavated underground apartment divided into several chambers, where one could live quite comfortably in case of emergency. There are also spacious cellars for storing provisions and ammunition.

I have installed several plants to render me absolutely independent of the rest of mankind–water cisterns, electric and refrigerating plants, a wireless station, and a vast bin that is already full of coal. The castle is equipped with a library of nearly twenty thousand volumes, comprising the masterpieces of all literaLures, the best encyclopaedias, and manuals of every branch of science. There are also three orthophonic gramophones with thousands of disks, and a gallery containing reproductions in color of the masterpieces of all times and countries. On the highest terrace I have placed a telescope with a twenty-six-inch lens, which will be useful when I am suffering from insomnia. The terrace is also equipped with several anti-aircraft guns in case an inquisitive airplane should seek to pry into my affairs. Fortunately my peninsula has a natural harbor, where I shall always keep two motorboats, a yacht, and two whaling-boats when I am at the castle. I really believe I have not overlooked anything.

As soon as any undesirable changes or alarming demonstrations take place in the country where I happen to be living, I can rush off at once to my fortified hermitage, where I shall find everything necessary for comfort, and there await the end of the crisis in perfect safety. The place is well chosen, for I am near the Gulf of Mexico and in my yacht can cross to New Orleans in a few days. Fortunately there are no towns in my neighborhood, but the hinterland is fertile and could supply many articles that might become necessary during a long period of isolation. I should take some thirty persons with me, among them a doctor, a librarian, an engineer, three capable mechanics, and two athletes. I have already purchased a hundred rifles and six machine guns, and I have ordered twenty battery guns. Thanks to the conformation of the peninsula, it would be quite easy to defend it against an attack from the

A ship laden with all sorts of tinned and preserved foods is already on its way there from Brazil, and I intend to build a stable to hold about a hundred head of cattle. Thus equipped I should be able to hold out for at least a year Without receiving any supplies from outside. Thanks to the precautions I have taken, I need not fear solitude. Time passes quickly when one has books, music, and astronomy.

I am surprised that the great lords of the earth, men as rich or even richer than I, have never thought of preparing similar places of refuge against the misfortunes and upheavals of war and revolution. Man’s shortsightedness is appalling and passes belief. No one foresees, no one provides against, disasters that–if we consider the madness that has invaded mankind–must be regarded as not only possible but actually imminent. The example of Russia has failed to open the eyes even of those great plutocrats who are most in danger of being shot or despoiled. I alone perhaps, in the whole world, have thought of preparing a buen retiro for stormy times-—a bueno retiro partaking of the nature of the feudal castle, the fortified convent, and the pirates’ cave, but which will prove far more useful than those sumptuous villas the wealthy have erected in the open country within reach of every one, as if for the very purpose of arousing the envy of the poor and, by providing the opportunity, of awakening that instinct to plunder which is common to us all.

My peninsular refuge will also serve me in times of peace. Every now and then I am seized with the longing to get away not only from the city but even from thickly populated country places. At such times I shall be able to become an anchorite, a hermit, surrounded by all the comforts of civilization. And to my way of thinking, there can be nothing more delightful than to be able to isolate oneself from one’s own odious kind, to feel in every way independent of them, in a well—defended retreat where they can neither molest nor offend.

Gog, by Giovanni Papini

Giovanni Papini’s 1931 satire, Gog, rates its own Wikipedia and is easily available in Italian, Spanish, French and German, but in English, it’s been out of print since its first publication. Barely noticed, what few reviews the English translation did get were negative. The American Mercury dismissed it for its “somewhat sophomoric and trashy cleverness.” Yet readers in other languages still praise the book, along with its sequel, Il libro nero (The Black Book, never translated into English, for its anarchic humor.

gogWith a short introduction, Papini places Gog as a packet of papers presented to him by Goggins, an eccentric American millionaire he encountered at a private insane asylum while visiting an acquaintance. Papini hesitates to call them “a book of memoirs nor, still less, a work of art,” but merely ” a peculiar and symptomatic document, perhaps startling but possessing a certain value for the study of mankind.”

Son of a member of the Hawaiian nobility and a white father, Gog signed on as a cook’s assistant on an American ship at the age of sixteen, and through a series of business deals, managed to become one of the richest men in America by the end of World War One. At that point, he decided to retire completely from business and devote himself to “enjoyment and journeys of discovery.” The rest of Gog collects about 90 entries, most under three pages long, from his subsequent years of travel and encounters with a wide variety of geniuses and idealists.

libroneroThese include some of the great names of the time–Freud, Edison, Einstein, Henry Ford, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Lenin–with whom Gog gains audiences and records their thoughts. Papini later caught some flack for this device, as when ,i>Life magazine–among others–mistakenly quoted an interview with Pablo Picasso from Il libro nero as if it were the real thing. In the case of the interview with Lenin, it very well could have been the real thing–in hindsight: “It is my ambition to convert Russia into a vast penitentiary…. [W]e should then be able to murder all the peasants as being of no further use. They will either have to turn into laborers or perish.”

The lesser-known men Gog encounters each harbors a unique mania. One proclaims that he has devised the perfect form of sculpture–carving smoke into shapes that dissolve as soon as they are created. Another asks him to endow a chair in phthiriology–the study of lice. He discovers the shop of Ben-Chusai in Amsterdam, devoted exclusively to products made from humans–shrunken heads, “cigar holders made from finger bones, incisors set in gold or platinum, penholders and necklaces of carved vertebrae.” His meeting with the architect Sulkas Perkunas foreshadows Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: the City of Perfect Equality; the Polychromatic City; the Hanging City; the Titanic City; and, yes, the Invisible City. Cocardasse the poet declares he will revolutionize poetry by incorporating all the world’s vocabulary:

Beloved carinha, mein Weltschmerz
Egorge mon âme en estas soledades.
My tired heart, Raju presvétlyj
Muore di gioia, tel un démon au ciel.
Lieber Himmel, castillo de los Dioses
Quaris quot durerà this fun désespéré?
Λαμαδα Φηιξ, drevo zizni….

Liubanoff, on the other hand, gives Gog a book of poems consisting of nothing but titles: “‘The Siesta of the Forsaken Nightingale.’ It contains all the elements of poetic efflorescence.”

There is an understandable amount of humor to be found in taking a notion to its extreme, but the series of encounters with monomaniacs soon grows, well, monotonous. Every person in the book is a figure of ridicule and the end of the book leaves one no wiser than the start. At one point Gog notes, in fact, that there is “nothing more delightful than to be able to isolate oneself from one’s own odious kind.”

If one accepts experimental fiction as a legitimate form, Gog is more successful as experiment than fiction.

At the moment, there appears to be just one copy of Gog available online, but there are dozens available through public and university libraries, according to

Gog, by Giovanni Papini, translated by Mary Prichard Agnetti
New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1931

On the beach at Cark, from Broken Images: A Journal, by John Guest


I knew … that there was a dance on in the camp, so, though I felt little inclined, I decided to go, simply because it entailed no effort. I could at least stand and watch–which is what I did. But never have I felt more cut off from any activity. It was a big dance and I stood there for an hour, just watching and realising with every shake of the floor, every laugh, every sweaty face, every beat of the music, that I was completely isolated. I had a beer or two in the crowded bar, but it was warm and tasteless. Members of my troop greeted me, smiled—-but it was an effort to answer them. Finally I could stand it no longer. I rushed out, across the deserted camp, down to the firing point, over the embankment that holds back the sea, and on to the shore.

The tide was far out. It had stopped raining, and the air was deliciously fresh and salty. Blue rifts were breaking in the clouds above, spreading a benign evening serenity and radiance. The shore here is so flat that the sea recedes almost out of sight, leaving a sheer glistening level of sand that is so immense on all sides, so featureless, as to be actually thrilling. Walking towards the sea, and looking to my right and left, I could see nothing but the level shore and, driven into the sand, miles and miles of solitary poles running, for all I knew, to infinity. Can you imagine it? Like a dream, or the background of one of Dali’s strange thoughts. There being nothing except this luminous waste, the vistas of bare poles like intervals of time, the complete silence and the soft warm light spreading down from the sky, my crisis seemed to drain from me into nothing–there was nothing to hold it or reflect it back; it just flowed away. I don’t think I even thought about anything. I walked and walked towards the sea conscious only of the release and silence one feels with the sudden cessation of pain. The only, only object, mind you, that I recall seeing on all that shore, apart from the poles, was a battered wicker basket sticking up from the sand.

When, finally, I turned towards the land again, it was growing dark-—the sand and the sky were deepening in colour–a deep golden brown and a deep heavenly blue such as lapis lazuli might look were it transparent. Inland could be seen clearly the dark mountains of the Lake District (I never see them without thinking of Wordsworth) and rising above them the moon, neatly full, very clear and creamy; and round about it, in its light, little torn clouds of dimly shining grey. I went to bed, very tired and fortunately fell asleep almost immediately. . . .

Written 18 July 1942, at an Army camp near Cark, England

You can read more about Broken Images in my Featured Books post (Link).

Broken Images: A Journal, by John Guest

Despite all the exhortations to stop and smell the roses, that what matters is the journey, not the destination, I tend to read in something of a rush, mindful of the ever-growing stack of books that still beg to be read and rediscovered. It takes an exceptional writer to subdue this inclination and take a work at his or her own pace.

Coverr of first U.K. edition of 'Broken Images'I took John Guest’s Broken Images: A Journal (1949) along on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, figuring I’d have time not only to finish it (it’s just 220 pages long) but to get through some work-related reading as well. Instead, I spent the entire flight, along with the next leg of my trip, to read it–not because it was a struggle but because Guest’s writing is so superb I wanted to enjoy every sentence.

At the time that World War Two broke out, John Guest was in his late twenties, working in a publishing house and wandering rather aimlessly into his future. He didn’t rush to enlist, but was inducted into the Royal Artillery in May 1940. Broken Images opens with a journal entry written–quite against regulations–on his second day in the Army, and continues until his separation five years later, in October 1945. Many of the entries were sent to the poet and lyricist Christopher Vernon Hassall, with whom Guest served on an anti-aircraft battery stationed near the London dockyards.

When Broken Images was first published, the Spectator’s reviewer wrote of it that, “It will be surprising if the last war produces a more rewarding set of personal impressions than the journal of Mr. John Guest.” What’s remarkable, though, is that I would never think of recommending it as a great war book. True, it is all about Guest’s experiences during the time he served in the Army, and he did experience combat first-hand in North Africa and Italy–where some of the most hard-fought battles of the war took place.

But its finest characteristic is that of a sensibility to life that never, despite all the drudgery and monotony of Army life and all the strains and fatigue of combat, seems anything less than fresh and alert. Here, for example, is an early observation from his first month in uniform:

But doing guard also has its pleasures. It is the only time when one is really alone. It is lovely, too, on warm starlit nights. Another pleasure, relatively new to me, is to see the dawn and hear the birds’ chorus; shortly after the sky has paled, one bird emits a sleepy note–do you remember that magical verse in “Tears, idle tears”:

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half awaken’d birds …

–and within two minutes every bird in creation is singing wildly.

Guest loved poetry and nature. He notes the flowers, bushes and trees wherever he is, knows the names of most of them, and often remembers a line or two of verse they inspired.

While he wasn’t a model soldier, he was no slacker, and was selected for officer training during his first year. Although he’d never had any association with the Army and felt no regret when he left it behind, he early on came to understand that his time in the uniform represented a personal transformation: “Something is between me and everything now. We seem to be breaking apart, diverging, but reality is on my side–vivid reality–while everything I used to be and do belongs elsewhere, connected to me only in memory, not it fact.”

Throughout much of the book, “the war” seems to be a show playing on another stage. Guest does not deploy to a combat theater until he’s been in the Army for nearly three years. He spends far more time training, taking part in exercises, and waiting, and even when he is in within eye sight of the enemy, the fighting is more often incidental than intense. He apologies, in fact, in one entry,

This is just to set your mind at ease in case you thought I was in the big attack. If you have been imagining me in the thick of battle, you would have laughed to see me this afternoon (or indeed most afternoons and evenings) sitting in a canvas chair at the edge of our olive grove–sleeves rolled up, dark sun-glasses, a book on my knee; listening to the birds and swatting flies with a grass switch. In front, the bank falls steeply away through a wood full of cyclamen, genista and honeysuckle, to a green valley below, and from where I site I can hear the stream that runs through it. But, apart from the occasional bang of guns, one wouldn’t know there was a war on.

Being far enough away from the front lines does not equate to enjoying the pleasures of peace, however. “You do not know what a country which has been fought over looks like,” he is careful to caution Hassall:

Everywhere the signs are unmistakable–one knows without thinking about the evidence. It is rather like one of those abandoned industrial areas at home; but here they are not abandoned; people are still living in them. Even if the houses are not in ruins, everything has a tired, disused look. Gates and hedges are broken. Rusting skeletons of vehicles lie in the ditches. Windows are broken. Roads in bad repair. The fields untended. Ground under trees or by the roadside all chawed up and rutted. Empty food tins. Trees cut down or splintered. Charred remains of fires. Human excreta. Broken drains, pools and floods–all the million and one things which should be mended, tidied, tended, buried or otherwise seen to, are left undone.

Guest never takes himself to be anything but a small cog in a big machine, and he often notes the tendency of the Army to grind everything down to an anonymous uniformity. Indeed, as he queues for one in the many steps involved in being processed out of the Army, he muses, “It was really a huge machine which had been churning away at top speed for six years…. All you had to mind was that you didn’t get nipped in the works.”

If there was one thing that most certainly didn’t happen to Guest, though, it was the sacrifice his individual sensibility. His eye was always alert to nuances of landscape, the life going on in the margins, and the endless human comedy. On leave in Rome, for example, he delights in the band playing in the lounge of an English officers’ hotel:

This consisted of three middle-aged Italians–two male and one female. One man played a huge sort of guitar-cum-zither which he held like a banjo and plucked. To the end of our stay I was absolutely convinced that it made no noise whatsoever, and that upon closer inspection it would transpire that the strings were made of elastic or wool. For all that, his gnarled right hand plucked and flipped with all the merriment in the world, and his left hand scrambled deftly up and down the wires.

I’ve already overindulged in the temptation to quote at length from Broken Images. It really is a deliciously well-written book that I have left riddled with dog-eared pages marking particularly fine passages.

About the time that Broken Images was published by Longmans, Green and Company, Guest joined the firm as a litarary advisor, and he remained with the firm until his retirement. Aside from The Best of Betjeman, which he edited, Broken Images is the only book he published. It earned a mention in both Paul Fussells’ Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War and Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to a Modern War, but has been out of print since its first publication. Such a shame. In researching this post, I came across one review in which the reviewer gushed, “I enjoyed this book so much that it is difficult to avoid seeming over-elaborate in praising it.” I second that emotion.

Broken Images: A Journal, by John Guest
London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1949

The People Immortal, by Vasily Grossman

One of my earliest posts on this site was devoted to Vasily Grossman’s epic of the Russian experience in World War Two, Life and Fate. At the time, it was out of print in English translation and had been for over a decade.

Since then, Life and Fate has been reissued as a New York Review Books Classic and Grossman’s work has found a substantial audience. His wartime reporting has been collected as A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945, and about a year ago, his last work, An Armenian Sketchbook, previously unavailable in English, was translated by Robert Chandler and released as another NYRB Classic.

A year or so before I started this site, I came across a copy of Grossman’s first book published in English: The People Immortal in a Charing Cross bookstore that’s since become a pseudo-French bakery. It was in the bargain shelf, priced at one pound.

Out of curiosity last week, I decided to see what it was going for, given Grossman’s recent fame, and found a grand total of one copy for sale, priced at over 100 pounds. Which motivated me to dig it out and give it a read. Now, if by the end of this post you decide you can’t live without a copy, my recommendation is to opt for the U.S. edition, which was published by Julian Messner in 1945 under the title of No Beautiful Nights (there are three copies currently available).

In the English translation, credited to Elizabeth Donnelly in the U.S. edition, The People Immortal appears to be an abridgement of the Russian original, with a shorter text and four fewer chapters. How much has been lost, I cannot tell for certain, but given that Grossman shifts between characters and scenes, much as he did on a much grander scale in Life and Fate, it would have been easy to drop a chapter here and there without affecting the principal narrative.

The People Immortal takes place over the space of about ten days in August 1941, and follows a number of Russian soldiers and civilians as they retreat in the face of the German invasion. When first published in 1942, the book was something of a best-seller and was widely acclaimed. Grossman was nominated for the Stalin Prize for literature that year, but Stalin vetoed the selection and gave the prize to Ilya Ehrenburg instead. At the time, it must have been quite effective as propaganda, as Grossman displays throughout the book a profound confidence in the superiority of the Russian character, which he sees as more significant in the long run than the Germans’ military advantage.

As a work of fiction viewed from a distance of seven decades, it’s an uncomfortable mix of fine descriptive writing and simple Russian boosterism. I say boosterism simply because Grossman’s book lacks the fire and brimstone of the most strident Soviet propaganda. The Germans are referred to as “Germans,” for example, when a hardcore Soviet writer would call them “Hitlerites.” That’s not to say that he doesn’t engage in an occasional bout of character assassination: “German creative thought has been rendered sterile in all fields–the Fascists are powerless to create, to write books, music, verse,” remarks his chief protagonist, Commissar Bogarev, at one point.

Grossman’s approach to propaganda is less to denigrate the Germans than to highlight the most positive aspects of the Russian character. Thus, we get the stoic and indomitable leader (Bogarev), the salt-of-earth Russian mother, the happy-go-lucky soldier who breaks into song to rally his comrades when the going gets rough. Indeed, much of this will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen the Hollywood equivalent from World War Two:

Casualties among the men were heavy. Red Army man Ryabokon fought to his last round of ammunition; Political Instructor Yeretic, after downing scores of the enemy, blew himself up just before he died; Red Army man Glushkov, surrounded by the Germans, went on firing till his last breath; machine-gunners Glagoyev and Kardakhin, faint with loss of blood, fought as long as their weakening fingers could press the trigger, as long as their dimming eyes could see the target through the sultry haze of battle.

On the other hand, The People Immortal is redeemed somewhat by Grossman’s frequent use of nature as a means to set the war in perspective. Even greater than the strength of the Russian people is the resilience of the Russian land. As one soldier lies in a field, waiting for the command to rise and attach a German outpost, he notices the life going on around him:

Running across the dry ground is a crack like a fine streak of lightning. The column of ants winds along a bridge in strict order, one after the other, while those of the other side of the crack patiently wait their turn. A lady-bird–a plump little old woman in a bright red dress–is hurrying along, looking for the crossing. A gust of wind, and the grasses sway and bow, each in its own way, some humbly and quickly prostrating themselves to earth, others stubbornly, angrily, quivering, their ears spread out–food for sparrows.

It may also be that The People Immortal is redeemed by its brevity. Grossman puts his cast into a quandary–being trapped behind German lines, rescues them with a bout of ingenuity and heroism, and brings the story to a quick end. Another hundred pages and it might have become, as someone once described his next novel, For a Just Cause, which has not been translated into English yet, “a Socialist Realist dog.”

In the end, though, like that book, The People Immortal is of interest today only as an early and largely unsuccessful prototype of Life and Fate. Only a Grossman completist should consider hunting down a copy.

The People Immortal, by Vassili [Vasily] Grossman, translated by Elizabeth Donnelly
London/New York/Melbourne: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1943

The Wound of Love, by R. V. Cassill

A prolific novelist and short story writer, as well as an influential teacher of other writers, R. V. Cassill spent most of the 1950s bouncing around the sort of jobs a writer could get–teaching, working on an encyclopedia, editing such noteworthy magazines as Dude and Gent. And writing pulp fiction.

Although he would go on to earn critical acclaim for such novels as Clem Anderson (1961) and Doctor Cobb’s Game (1970), Cassill produced an impressive series of novels for Ace, Avon, Gold Medal and Signet. The titles are evidence enough that Cassill might be called the Fifties’ equivalent of Tiffany Thayer:

The Wound of Love (1956) is one of these. “A respectable town and the iniquity seething underneath” proclaims the cover, which shows a Susan Hayward look-alike and a Mad Man making out in a corn field. Now, anyone who’s ever seen a corn field knows it’s a miserable make-out spot, but the story is set in Iowa and I suppose the editors asked the cover artist to tie that in somehow.
I came across The Wound of Love a couple of years ago in the stacks at Wonder Book in Frederick, Maryland–one of the dwindling number of bookstores in the U. S. where you can still find paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. I recognized Cassill’s name, but I also recognized the book as classic pulp fiction–a paperback original, under 200 pages long, with a lurid cover and plenty blurb promising sex within. At the time, I wasn’t aware of Cassill’s pulp career and picked the book up simply out of curiosity.

I finally got around to reading it recently, and I have to say that it wasn’t too bad. Set in Pinicon, a rural town somewhere between Des Moines and Omaha, the story centers on Dick Fletcher, who’s returned to his home town to work on his father’s newspaper after a few years as a journalist in New York and Chicago. Dick is finding it hard to get used to the slow pace of life in Pinicon, and his marriage to Marsie, a nervous girl from the East Coast is suffering under the strain of living under the same roof as Dick’s parents. He’s befriended by Vance Holland, a hard-drinking, hard-partying local entrepeneur, and soon things begin spinning out of control.

Vance’s farm is sort of the local hang-out for other restless young marrieds, and it only takes one party at Vance’s to find Dick in the backseat of his car with another man’s wife. Although Dick never strays again, Marsie takes to frequent visits to Vance’s, and Dick learns that Vance is also the facilitator of the local wife-swapping circle. Small-town sex intertwines with small-town politics, and Dick eventually gets caught up in a complex deal to buy the town’s co-op electric plant–an issue that Dick’s father has opposed for years.

Born and raised in Iowa, Cassill would return to the state a few years after publishing The Wound of Love, joining the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the book is full of small touches that reflect a writer very familiar with his story’s setting and people. Dick’s father is a good Midwest Lutheran, which means he disapproves of Dick’s drinking and his marital problems–but doesn’t feel it’s his place to say anything about it. Even Dick hasn’t lost all sense of propriety. Early on he cools on Vance Holland simply because “He didn’t like people who insisted on a demonstration that you liked them.” It’s a comment very characteristic of a certain outlook you find in the Midwest.

Cassill manages to fit a fair amount of scandal into 160 short pages–not just the swapping of house keys and wives but gambling, bribery, shooting, alcoholism, and even a climactic airplane crash. Although it’s neatly integrated into the story, I can’t help but wonder if Cassill received a letter from his editor at Avon Books–something along the lines of Roger Corman’s instructions to Jonathan Kaplan when he hired Kaplan to direct one of his legendary low-budget films, “Night Call Nurses”: “Frontal nudity from the waist up, total nudity from behind, no pubic hair, and get the title in the film somewhere and go to work.” What Cassill created, in and around the sex and booze, is a neat exercise about the crisis of character, about the transition from youth and idealism to middle-age and ugly compromises.

Is it deserving of reissue? No, probably not, but it was certainly good enough to make me want to try another of Cassill’s pulp works. He once remarked that he wrote one of his pot-boilers while on jury duty. If The Wound of Love was that book, I’m eager to see what he did when he gave his full attention to what he was writing.

The Wound of Love, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Publications, Inc., 1956

Resurrecting Lost Words, from The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom


Among the possessions which he involuntarily left to me, the deceased had counted a little notebook, which I found in the uppermost drawer, together with a box of dry tobacco, an apple, half-eaten, and some other miscellanea. It was a little notebook, which appeared to be a scholarly diary or journal, in which a method of lexicography was established without which, in my view, the section ‘P’ in the Dictionary could never be complete. An artistic technique emerged from these pages, capable of redressing the sometimes painfully disturbed balance of language. The scope of this idea, which has become crucially important to my own thinking, extends far beyond the realm of mere deductive scholarship and endorses a wider argument, perhaps even bordering on the mystical. According to the theory put forward in the notebook, throughout the evolution of language, some Words out of the pool of possibilities, meanings, nuances and significances have flourished into the form and strength we know today, while others have been condemned to lead a marginal existence, stagnant and fragmented, used, if at all, only by imbeciles, prophets, wise men and babes. They escaped the net of scholarly recognition and finally their usage ceased altogether. Atrophied, shrunken into their embryonic stage and totally neglected, these words still exist in hiding, like the larvae of a butterfly under a coat of snow, only to come out again when they are called upon. The attentive reader will in such a case notice a gap between two words, a missing sound, or concept, which he then must restore with the sensitivity of the true artist, or, as the notebook puts it with exquisite taste, “return to language its prodigal sons.” The notebook, after having established this fact, goes on to state that the really observant editor who strives to write a truly comprehensive dictionary must trace these words and reinstate them at least as possibilities. These words are not neologisms, far from it! Where the latter is the crude invention of a new word out of ignorance of the abundance provided by language already, the task of restoration is only to reinstate what has existed all along.

The art developed in the notebook may be obscure, practised only by the fewest people, now perhaps only by myself. I would not be surprised if this were so, though it would make my responsibility all the greater. Some kindred spirits in the world of poetry, into which I often delve, both for pleasure and for duty, follow the principle of restoration with wonderful sense and sensitivity; while some thrash about in utter ignorance.

A random example: between ‘penumbrous’ and ‘penur’ the trained and perceptive mind senses a gap that cannot be filled without imagination. The symmetry of the whole page may be at risk, the balance of a tongue unhinged, just because nobody has seen that ‘penupy’ is the obvious and necessary word that alone can fill the awesome abyss. As to the meaning of such a regained word, this is a matter of wholly secondary interest. It will be discovered, rediscovered, just like its mortal coil, the word itself. This example was taken from the notebook, but I myself have been able to supply some additions and completions of my own: ‘piebent’ (between ‘piebald’ and ‘piece’) and, daring but absolutely necessary and entirely adequate, ‘pilbout’ (between ‘pilaw’ and ‘pilch’, a great step which had to be taken).

I admit that this art must seem somewhat mysterious,even obscure, to the untrained eye, but as in every refined pursuit in human life, the mind must be attuned to the novelties and joys of any idiom.

from The Simmons Papers, by Phillip Blom
London: Faber and Faber, 1995

The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom

The Simmons Papers“The Only Novel about the Letter P” proclaims the bright blue wrapper around the Faber and Faber original edition of Philipp Bloms’s odd little novel, The Simmons Papers (1995). Not the finest bit of marketing in the company’s history, certainly, but it’s hard to imagine what tag line would have been more enticing. “Kafka Meets the O.E.D.” is the best I can come up with.

Blom himself nearly manages to put off all but the most persistent reader with an introduction that treats the work as a manuscript discovered among the papers of the late P. E. H. Simmons, a fellow in Philosophy at Balliol College. An eccentric figure who spent most of his life in seclusion, Simmons attracted considerable academic interest with this posthumous piece, which is held by various critics to be a diary, “a coded account of masonic rituals,” or a translation of some ancient hymns. Blom includes numerous quotations from several of these exegeses as footnotes throughout the book, managing with every one of them to cloud the meaning of the passages they are meant to clarify. From all this, one could easily categorize The Simmons Papers as a satire on critical theory and similar movements whose interpretations are often more obscure than the original texts.

Myself, I would advise the reader to ignore the introduction, skip right to page 23 and dive into what I’d describe as a lexicographical soliloquoy. The nameless narrator is at work on “the Definitive Dictionary of our language,” a massive work that outreaches even the Oxford English Dictionary in its ambition. Its goal is to “finally define our language beyond the level of ambiguity and doubt.” “With an entry in the Dictionary all questions are settled, all uncertainties removed.”

NB305Such an enterprise involves a large team of contributors and editors. The narrator, who is responsible for the section devoted to words beginning with the letter P, knows almost none of his colleagues, and never met Dr. Javis, the editor-in-chief or even Mr. Lloyd, his personal assistant. He relies entirely upon Malakh, the ninety-three year-old porter who conveys the correspondence and papers from office to office.

Although he acknowledges that P “was a small and modest letter” for much of its history, he is proud to note that, thanks to the influx of words from other languages, it has grown to stand as the third largest section in the Dictionary (after S and C):

It is a letter of immigrants; the loving and attentive ear hears the buzzing of a hundred foreign tongues within it: hymns of the early church; the babble and yelling of Arabian bazaars; Latin precision, elegance and brutality; Germanic harshness; words sailing with William the Conqueror; words drowned with the Spanish Armada (some of which mysteriously drifted ashore); Arabic prose and philosophy; commands given by Hadrian; and psalms, all humming, bubbling and chattering, colorful and delightful.

He sees himself, though, as a liberator: “Once unchained from their heavy bond of syntax and strict grammaticality, they can do anything, start to dance, whirl and revolve, like a bunch of mad little devils.” For each word in the Dictionary, the narrator has to assemble as many known usages as he can find, and then sift and sort through them to eliminate any imprecision in definition that might allow a remnant of confusion to survive the Dictionary’s publication. “I am a mineworker of language,” he writes, “I inhale ambiguities and meanings like coal dust.”

Indeed, the task is so difficult that every day Malakh brings another editions of the Communications of the Great Academy, an endless series of instructions to the dictionary workers attempting to refine their methodology to such a level of perfection that there will be no risk of the Dictionary not achieving its objective. The narrator spends as much time reading and interpreting the Communications as he does working on the Dictionary itself, searching for their central argument: “First the ideal method must be found, and only then can detail and procedures be dealt with.”

Looking out of the one tiny window in his room one day, the narrator catches a glimpse of a woman in a brightly-flowered dress. She becomes a figure of mystery and fascination for him, and, eventually, the antithesis of his own world: “The free range of flowers on her dress defies every method and system, her beauty has no name.” And with this discovery, the narrator’s utility for the Great Academy comes to an abrupt end. The work ends as he is summoned to a final audience with Dr. Javis.

A dedicated reader has to be a lover of words, and I found The Simmons Papers a rhapsody–in words and to words. Let not the stiff academic introduction deter you: there is some wonderful writing in this book, intertwined with some delightful philosophical insights. Although it’s a somewhat uncategorizable book, I would venture to class it as what Ted Gioia has called “conceptual fiction“–“stories that delight in the freedom from ‘reality’ that storytelling allows”–and recommend shelving it alongside the works of Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Stanislaw Lem. And perhaps another odd novel that suffered from ham-fisted marketing, Raymond Cousse’s Death Sty.

Power to the Odd!

The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom
London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995

Cousin Bettina, from The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow


She had no home of her own, and her life was spent in journeying back and forth to the homes of others. This operation she called “flitting,” which was surely a propitiatory term for railway travel in the South of those days; and not only its tediousness but all its odd contacts and predicaments, and even its occasional dangers, she seems to have met with perfect coolness and a sort of light dignity that never forsook her. On one occasion she spent the whole night by herself in a lonely little station, and on another in the company of a lunatic who thoughtfully locked the door on the inside and pocketed the key. I think she was a little proud of the time when the doors of the passenger coach got jammed in a collision and she heard the conductor say to a man who was breaking the window with his boot heel: “You all would do a whole lot better to quit your screamin’ and scufflin’ and go sit back in your places like that lady over yonder with the guitar.”

From The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow (1943)

The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow

dwellingplaceAs someone who just turned fifty-six, I take comfort in the example of late bloomers, and it was a delight to note that Anne Goodwin Winslow was 68 when she published her first book, The Dwelling Place, in 1943. Now, that’s not strictly true–she did publish a collection of her poetry, The Long Gallery, in 1925, at the age of fifty. But in the space of six years between 68 and 75, she managed to publish a body of work that compares well with what some others take a lifetime to produce.

Born on her family’s estate outside Memphis, Tennessee, she and her sisters were educated by their attorney father in a rather laissez-faire manner. He gave them the run of his library and encouraged them to spend long hours reading and thinking and talking about what they read. Then, when she was still a teenager, Eben Eveleth Winslow, a West Point graduate and captain in the Corps of Engineers, asked for her hand and off she went into the itinerant life of an Army wife. Their tours included Oahu, where Winslow oversaw the construction of Fort DeReussy and other fortifications, and Panama, where he built bases to protect the new canal. He became the Army’s expert on coastal fortifications, and his 1920 book, Notes on Seacoast Fortification Construction, can be found on the Internet Archive (link). Over a thirty year career, he rose to be the acting Chief of Engineers when the U. S. entered World War One in 1917 and led the enormous expansion of the Army’s ranks and facilities over the next two years.

When General Winslow retired in 1922, he and Anne headed back to Anne’s family home outside Memphis. There they oversaw the raising of cotton, fruit and nuts, pigs and cattle, and she began to write and publish her poetry. Winslow died in 1928. With both her children grown and out of the house, Anne settled into the graceful life of a dowager, with a steady stream of visitors to keep things interesting.

Her poetry was quickly accepted by such journals as the Atlantic and the North American Review, and she developed friendships with a number of literary figures, including Vachel Lindsay and William Alexander Percy. Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, became particular friends, and the aging Ford Madox Ford came along for a visit while on his extended stay with the Tates as their house guest. In one of his very last books, Great Trade Route (1937), Ford described the Winslow home as antebellum menagerie, very relaxed, where, “… peacocks wandered nonchalantly in and out of the room, and it was quiet, and profuse, and hospitable.” Life there seemed “to run on wheels in a deep shade.”

The Dwelling Place is Anne Goodwin Winslow’s amused, affectionate, and poetic tribute to her home. Despite her many years away with the Army–“the antithesis of permanence”–it remained at the center of her emotional life: “I do not see how anyone can get along without at least one thing in his life that he can think of as being both intimate and permanent.”

Starting with a chapter on solitude, she portrays the house, the land, its people, animals, plants and visitors (living and spectral) over the course of a year through a series of loosely-connected sketches. Although absolutely at home in a way of life–with a grand mansion, a large garden full of magnolia trees and wisteria-laden trellises, and a cook, maid, groundskeeper and handyman–that was near its end, she was also a sophisticated woman, widely-traveled and read. She wrote one of the first articles about Rilke’s poetry to appear in an American journal and was comfortable reading and translating both French and German. When she reaches for a classical allusion or a line from Keats, it’s always at her fingertips.

As a result, there is an elegance and grace throughout The Dwelling Place that makes one wish for the opportunity to have spent some time as Anne Goodwin Winslow’s guest.

She herself wondered, however, why people came to her home seeking a “quiet” week in the country:

How did the idea ever get abroad that nature is given to tranquility? A certain amount of self-restraint is necessary for tranquility, and nature has none. She is all out and total about everything, and noisy besides, and peace, I should say, is about the last thing on the list of her requirements–or solitude. Nothing in nature wants to be alone for one breathing instant, and everything that has a voice is perpetually lifting it up in desire or bereavement, with overtones of threat or challenge, and whinnyings for help–our own unrest made audible. I have grown so suspicious of nature’s motives as expressed in sound that only the accidental, frictional noises–wind rustling the leaves or water slipping over stones–gives me a feeling of repose. I made up my mind long ago that nobody who has had much sorrow, or even too much happiness, should ever go to the country to forget about it.

Writing during America’s first full year in the Second World War, she is quick to acknowledge that, compared to hers, “life has been so shot up to pieces for so many people that I would hesitate to speak again of any bombs that fell on mine.” She doesn’t claim that what she has created is a good book, one that will offer “present help in trouble,” but she credits the effort for its therapeutic value: “… maybe only those who write have learned the saving power that lay in many a poor one.”

She also questions her ability to venture into the realm of fiction: “I doubt very much if I could write a novel, but I would be willing to try for the sake of all the dear people who like to worry over me.” Ironically, the act of writing The Dwelling Place must have released hitherto-unrecognized creative energies, for over the course of the next five years, Anne Goodwin Winslow was to publish five books of fiction: A Winter in Geneva and Other Stories (1945); Cloudy Trophies (1946); A Quiet Neighborhood (1947); Springs (1949); and It Was Like This (1949).

The pace of her writing slowed down considerably after that and her published works were limited to a few short stories and poems. She died in late 1959 at the age of eight-four, and was buried with her husband in Arlington National Cemetery. You can find their grave records here. Her family home, known as Goodwinslow, still stands (see coordinates in Google Map) and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (see entry).

The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943

The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao

If I were looking for an Amazon review headline for The Conquest of Rome, Mathilde Serao’s 1885 novel, I’d probably opt for “Zola Does the Italian Parliament.” For, like a number of Zola’s novels, such as The Belly of Paris, Money, or The Ladies’ Paradise, the story is really just the author’s excuse for a long, leisurely and meticulously detailed description of the workings of the behind-the-scenes world of some enterprise most people would have taken for granted.

conquestofromeIn this case, it’s the world of the Montecitorio, the Italian Parliament, as seen through the eyes of Francesco Sangiorgio, the newly-elected deputy from a remote rural area of Basilicata, one of the poorest parts of southern Italy. Intensely driven, with great ambition despite deep insecurity for his poverty and humble status, Sangiorgio has fought his way from school teacher to country lawyer to district advocate, and now heads to Rome to launch his political career.

A man with little in the way of personality, Sangiorgio soon learns how low is the position of an unknown deputy from a backward district in a parliament as large as the U. S. House of Representatives. Taking a cheap room in a dank and dirty boarding house, he makes almost no acquaintances until he is befriended by Tullio Giustini, a hunchbacked deputy from Tuscany. Shunned for his physical defects, Giustini uses his position as an outsider to act as an acerbic critic of the Montecitorio and its social strata.

“Why should it be concerned with you,” he asks Sangiorgio, “an infinitesimal atom, passing across the scene so quickly? It is indifferent; it is the great cosmopolitan city which has this universal character, which knows everything because it has seen everything.” To conquer Rome, he advises, one must have “a heart of brass, an inflexible, rigid will; he must be young, healthy, robust, and bold, without ties and without weaknesses; he must apply himself profoundly, intensely to that one idea of victory.” It’s obvious that Giustini considers this a fool’s goal, but instead, Sangiorgio is inspired and vows to become the next conqueror.

With no money and no social connections, Sangiorgio has little chance of being noticed, but Giustini takes him along to a reception hosted by Countess Fiammanti, whose salon is one of the true centers of power. Sangiorgio’s looks are nothing to speak of, but the Countess is attracted by his passion for political success, and spins an idle web to see if she can instigate an affair between him and Donna Angelica Vargas, the wife of a Cabinet member.

Although Donna Angelica never puts her position at risk, she encourages Sangiorgio just enough to fill him with a dangerous blend of romantic and political passion, supercharged by his utter naivety. He rushes headlong into a session of Parliament, at which Donna Angelica’s husband is giving a long and dull speech introducing the new budget. It is a predictable matter, and after droning on for an hour, the Minister concludes and begins accepting the congratulations of his colleagues when another speaker is announced: “Honourable colleagues, I beg for silence. The Honourable Sangiorgio has the floor.”

“‘Who ? Who ?’ was the universal inquiry.”

Taking advantage of the suprised silence, Sangiorgio plays the moment for its full dramatic value.

Hereupon the curious eyes of the members sought out that colleague of theirs, whom scarcely anyone knew. … No one thought him insignificant. And then divers speculations grew rife in the Chamber. Would this new deputy speak for or against the Minister? Was he one of those flatterers who, scarcely arrived, hastened to make a show of loyalty to the Government? Or was he some little impudent nobody who would stammer through a feeble attack before the House, and be suppressed by the ironical murmurs of the assembly? He was a Southerner and a lawyer — only that was known about him. Therefore he would deliver an oration, the usual rhetoric which the Piedmontese detested, the Milanese derided, and the Tuscans despised.

Instead, the Honourable Sangiorgio began to talk deliberately, but with such a resonant, commanding voice that it filled the hall and made the audience give a sigh of relief. The ladies, whom the warmth had half lulled to sleep, revived, and the press gallery, empty since the conclusion of the Minister’s discourse, began to refill with reporters, returning to their places.

Sangiorgio delivers a riveting speech that condemns the Government for its neglect of the very peasantry that elected him, and gains the attention of the press, opposition, and a few members of the Government.

matildeseraoIt is, however, just a flash in the pan. Sangiorgio’s only real agenda is to be accepted, and when Donna Angelica begins to take him a little more seriously, he quickly loses all interest in anything aside from having her accept him as a lover. He neglects the affairs of his electorate. He spends money he doesn’t have to create an elegant love nest to entice her. He succeeds only in annoying a better-placed would-be suitor, and the two end up fighting a duel. Sangiorgio wins, but in a manner that merely further alienates him from the people he would engratiate himself with. And so he climbs aboard the train back to the Basilicata, Rome having never really noticed his existence.

It’s a fairly predictable story pattern, one that could be found in dozens of other novels about an ambitious young man from the sticks trying to make it in the big city, and on its own would provide little incentive to read The Conquest of Rome.

What the book really is, though, is a rich and carefully observed journey through Rome as it existed in the 1880s. Serao started as a journalist, and The Conquest of Rome is probably more successful as descriptive rather than artistic work. Here, for example, is Serao’s sketch of the room in which constituents wait for hours on end in hope of an audience with their deputy:

It might have been the anteroom of a celebrated physician, where invalids came, one after another, waiting their turn, looking about with the indifferent gaze of people who have lost all interest in everything else, their thoughts for ever occupied with their malady. And as in such a lugubrious anteroom, which he who has once been there on his own behalf or for one dear to him can never forget, as in such a room are assembled people with all the infirmities that torment our poor, mortal body — the consumptive, with narrow, stooping shoulders, with lean neck, his eyes swimming with a noxious fluid; the victim of heart disease, with pallid face, large veins, yellowish, swollen hands; the anaemic, with violet lips and white gums; the neurotically affected, with protuberant jaws, bulging cheekbones, emaciated frame; and the sufferers from all other diseases, hideous or pitiful, which draw the lines of the face tight, which make the mouth twitch, and impart an unwelcome glow to the hand, that glow that terrifies the healthy — thus, in such a room, did the possessors of all the moral ills unite, oblivious of all complaints but their own. … Every one of those people has a grievance in his soul, an unfulfilled desire, an active, torturing delusion, a secret sorrow, a fierce ambition, a discontent. And in their faces may be seen a corresponding spasmodic twitching, a contraction of angry lips, a dilation of nostrils trembling with nervousness, a knitting of the brows which clouds the whole countenance, hands convulsively doubled in overcoat pockets, a melancholy furrow in the women’s smile, which deepens with every new disillusion. But all of them are completely self-centred, entirely oblivious of foreign interests, indulging in a single thought, a fixed idea, because of which they watch, meet, and conflict with one another, although seeming neither to hear nor to see each other.

There are several dozen such set-pieces in the book–the galleries in the Montecitorio, the grimy quarters of the poorer deputies, the teeming life in the slums along the banks of the Tiber. Like Zola, Serao sometimes forgets to come up for air when she dives into the details, but you just have to slip a page or so further to avoid suffocation. But if you appreciate the chance to step back into a world from 100-plus years ago and soak up the sights and sounds and smells, I can recommend taking a trip through Matilde Serao’s The Conquest of Rome.

You can find electronic editions of The Conquest of Rome on the Internet Archive (Link).

The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao
New York City: Harpers, 1902
First published as La conquista di Roma, 1885

The Blackstone Hotel, from Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth

blackstoneThe Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue, Chicago, is an honorable old stack, presuming honor is an adjunct of any explicitly public aspect of civilization. There are other hotels in town; a good many, in fact, since Chicago has always enjoyed a good business from travelers who had to stop there whether they wanted to or not: a question of the more or less fortuitous itineraries of the transcontinental railroads. Some of these other hotels are prettier than the Blackstone, more modern, more elegant, more expensive. On the other hand, a great many are uglier, older, less expensive, and decidedly less elegant. The Blackstone comes somewhere near the top of the list in these respects, but not at the top itself. Nevertheless, if it is possible to extract an “essence” from the great American hotel myth, then the Blackstone is “essentially” Chicago’s most honorable, most venerable hotel. Because for years it has been the gathering place of powerful men. Some of the juiciest deals in the manipulation of American industry — mergers of railroads, for instance — have been cooked up in the Blackstone, I have no doubt; and as for politics, the smoke-filled room, an indispensable element of American folklore, is virtually by definition a Blackstone room — this, I am sure, all politicos (if they have any sentiment for the traditions of their calling) will concede. Chicago is par excellence the city of political conventions. The jet airliner may rob Chicago of its status as the nation’s foremost stopping-off place, but nothing will diminish its attraction to the politicos — nothing. The blandishments of Los Angeles, so sordid, so crass, may prevail upon one or the other party from time to time, but you can bet they will always come back to Chicago. Los Angeles is mistaken in its belief that simply because a V-8 bosom over a twin-cam ass, hotly idling, will invariably pack the theater with paying spectators, sex must also be what the politicos are looking for. Far from it. Politicos are the least sexy of mankind; ask their wives; even their mistresses. After all, when you are hunched contentedly in conclave, totting up lists of delegates, rolling your tongue around a succulent fifty-cent Havana claw, soothing your ulcers with the larruping twelve-year-old sour-mash Jack Daniels that always appears at convention time, this is just when you do not want the irrelevance of some rutting broad draped on your shoulder. Fact. It is an axiom of all political theory that the center of a woman’s brain is her pudendum; no idea ever occurs to her which does not concern passage one way or the other through that portal. Nothing implicitly wrong with this, of course, but. . . . It’s a matter of power concepts, comparative study thereof. Chicago knows this. Take it as a general rule that all women fare badly in Chicago — you won’t go far wrong. It is a man’s city. Perhaps this is true of all prairie towns: Lewis Mumford would say they have no containing principle, essential to the femininity of a place. Be that as it may, Chicago offers no sex to the politicos at convention time, except to minor female delegates who must be shunted off to the fleshpots of North State Street to get them out of the way. Instead, Chicago offers the far more illuminating and encouraging spectacle of the stockyards. Just what the politicos require — a vision of God’s creatures marching docilely into one end of a machine, from the other end of which issues a steady stream of money. Can anyone doubt that this is the inspiration which calls the politicos eternally back to Chicago? It is demonstrable that the important political orbit at convention time lies between the Blackstone Hotel at one end and the Union Stockyards at the other.

from Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth
New York City: Macmillan, 1963

Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth

Artistic failures are often more interesting than masterpieces–or more accessible, at least. Hayden Carruth’s first and only novel, Appendix A (1963), is a good example of this. “I did the novel in the first place because that was the only way I could get my first book of poems published,” he admitted years later, in an interview published in American Poetry Review.

“I had already written a long story, which I didn’t know what to do with, about a kid in France during World War II, who had been orphaned and adopted as a sort of a mascot by a German unit,” he told the interviewer, Anthony Robbins. “So when Emile [Emile Capouya, his editor at Macmillan] said he had to have a novel, I said I’ll expand the story into a novel, and basically that’s what I did. I added three other sections to the book, making it cover a longer period.”

appendixaThis ad hoc structure is quite evident in the book. Carruth incorporated the story of the French orphan by transporting him to post-war Chicago, giving him the American nickname Charley, and making him the cuckold of an affair between the narrator, known only as E., and Charley’s wife, Alex. The first section shows the affair in midstream, centered around a sweltering July weekend. The second half is set about a month or so later, as Alex decides to leave E.–and Charley–over the course of long and boozy day and night. Framing these three parts is one set ten years later, as E. reflects back on the experience from an asylum somewhere in upstate New York.

It’s an awkward collage. The Charley/Gaston story is a crude graft, a pointless excursion from the main thread of the novel. And Carruth never provides a convincing explanation of what drove E. to isolate himself in a cottage in the Connecticut woods to write his account of the affair ten years later, or how this led to his being sent to the asylum.

Yet Appendix A remains an intriguing book, particularly when you know a little about Carruth’s life. E. is very much based on Carruth. Like Carruth, he served with the U. S. Army in Italy during the war. Like Carruth, he becomes the youngest editor of a prestigious and amply-endowed literary journal (E.’s Pegasus is Carruth’s Poetry). Whether Carruth had an affair similar to E.’s, he certainly did spend a time in an asylum, and spent some time after that in the care of a psychiatrist (Peter Laderman, to whom the novel is dedicated). The book’s second half revolves around a comical account of a reception, attended by the “poetocracy” and a set of ridiculous donors, for an English poet whom Carruth later identified in Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays as a fictional version of Stephen Spender: “… [B]ut I remember almost nothing of it now. I was no doubt drunk.”

As Carruth told Anthony Robbins, “It was a very anxious experience for me because I didn’t really think I knew anything about writing novels. In fact I didn’t.” Inexperience led him into a fair amount of experimentation in the book. A publisher’s note at the beginning states that the book is “part of a subdepartmental dossier in the files of a state bureau of public health.” One chapter is simply a dialogue between E. and Charley about an M. G. sportscar they co-own. Another contains a series of excerpts from such disparate sources as John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, the censure of Samuel Gorton, an early Colonial dissenter, and The Voyage of the Rattletrap, a comic Midwest novel written by an earlier Hayden Carruth. He omits Chapter 26 entirely: “if I left it in it would give the whole show away.” E. even refers to the book as a “levon”: “a feeble invention, but let it pass.”

Carruth considered the book “over-written in places.” And there are some pretty awful sentences, such as: “We are the principles of love, Linda and I, and so you need not remember us; indeed, you cannot — you can discover us only within yourselves, in which event we shall have different names and faces.” But there is something about a book being set in Chicago that guarantees an occasional punch of muscular prose:

Traffic thickened as we left St. Joseph, and would continue to thicken all the way to Chicago as more and more people heading home from points along the Indiana shore joined the stream. The concrete highway was a steady rolling formation of cars, like a railroad train a hundred miles long. At first the pace was quick, but then it slowed, cars jammed up, sometimes there would be a crescendo of aphonic squeals as drivers, one after another, jumped on their brakes; for a mile ahead in the late afternoon light you could see red glowing taillights, and the air would turn blue and acrid with exhaust fumes from idling motors.

I had almost forgotten what it was like to come back into town on a hot Sunday afternoon back in the days before freeways, but reading this sent me right back to the rear seat of my father’s Rambler, stuck with sweat to the vinyl as we inched past mile after mile of drugstores and used car lots.

And there are wonderful observations: “the momentary shame men feel upon seeing their own nakedness exposed before the elegance and subtlety of a woman.” “Chicagoans are as well schooled as most people and have studied their geography lessons in childhood, yet in their hearts they don’t know what lies beyond: space, distance, the incredible vectors and tangents of the nebulae themselves.” And this priceless comment on what we can never experience:

Instantly four poems came to my mind, four celebrations of that tender arrangement of loved flesh, four poems that should have been written by Skelton, Wyatt, Ben Jonson, and perhaps Sackville or Waller; but they didn’t write them, and neither did I. People who complain — with some justice — about the number of poems that are published, should think of the number, including some superb examples, that are never written.

None of which argues that anyone should rush to reissue Appendix A and proclaim it a lost masterpiece. Carruth may not have known much about how to write a novel, but that didn’t stop a fair amount of good writing, combined with astute and sometimes acerbic insights, from shining through the awkward seams and sometimes unchecked verbosity.

Fortunately, there is no need for a reissue, anyway: you can find electronic versions, for free, on the Internet Archive (link).

Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth
New York City: Macmillan, 1963

“A Working Philosophy,” from Blind Children, by Israel Zangwill


A Working Philosophy

The solar system turns without thine aid.
Live, die ! The universe is not afraid.
What is, is right ! If aught seems wrong below,
Then wrong it is — of thee to leave it so.
Then wrong it first becomes for human thought,
Which else would die of dieting on naught.
Tied down by race and sex and creed and station,
Go, learn to find thy strength in limitation,
To do the little good that comes to hand.
Content to love and not to understand ;
Faithful to friends and country, work and dreams,
Knowing the Real is the thing that seems.
While reverencing every nobleness.
In whatsoever tongue, or shape, or dress,
Speak out the word that to thy soul seems right.
Strike out thy path by individual light;
‘Tis contradictory rays that give the white.

From Blind Children: Poems, by Israel Zangwill
New York City: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1903

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

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

Philosopher’s Holiday, by Irwin Edman

irwinedmanDespite the fact that he was born and raised within a few blocks of Columbia University, graduated from it, and spent most of his professional life as a member of its faculty, Irwin Edman was very much a citizen of the world, and Philosopher’s Holiday (1938) is a delightful anecdotal account of some of his favorite places and people in that world. In fact, his outlook could be summed up in the words of a veterinarian in southern France who befriends him: “There is only one country–it is that of people of intelligence. Its citizens are few; they should be acquainted.”
“A professor of philosophy studies philosophy; a philosopher studies life,” Edman writes in this book, and there probably haven’t been many professional philosopher/academics who were as ready to jump feet-first into life. In one of the chapters in this book, Edman receives a fan letter from a sailor named Jewell V. Jones stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Respectful of an inquiring mind regardless of the social status of its holder, he corresponds with the young man and winds up taking him to his first encounter with classical music at Carnegie Hall. “Boy!, that Wagner certainly could whoop it up!” Jewell remarks after hearing the overture to Die Meistersinger. “Do you think we could get him to play it again?”

Edman is too curious to stick to a set itinerary, and the lack of a particular design to Philosopher’s Holiday shows it. There’s chapter on the role music has played in his life, another one recalling some of the teachers who most influenced him, and a third recalling a debate he had with a director of the I. G. Farben company–an ardent supporter of the Nazis–on the veranda of a hotel near the ancient Greek temples in Agrigento. He encounters the Islamic worldview in conversations with Syrian students during a stay at the American University in Beirut. And, in one of the most enjoyable chapters in the book, he recalls growing up in Manhattan–discovering the varieties of vaudeville, learning to love Childs’ Restaurant, figuring out how to avoid being mugged for his pocket change by neighborhood gangs.


Philosopher’s Holiday was something of a best-seller when it was published, so you can find dozens of copies for sale for less than five bucks. He wrote something of a sequel to it, Philosphers’ Quest (1947), which also easy to locate. You can also find his 1939 book, Candle in the Dark: A Postscript to Despair, on the Internet Archive.

Philosopher’s Holiday, by Irwin Edman
New York City: The Viking Press, 1938

“The Question,” from The Music, by Helen Wolfert (1963)


The Question

Sound heard only in
Silence, are you my rush of
Blood in its rivers,

Or the silent spin
Of us through silent space, you
Heard in the silence?


from The Music: Poems, by Helen Wolfert
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1965.

Helen Wolfert (born Helen Herschdorfer) was married to the novelist, journalist and screenwriter Ira Wolfert, whose 1953 book, Married Men, was recently discussed here (post).

Time Stood Still: My Internment in England 1914-1918, by Paul Cohen-Portheim

Paul Cohen-Portheim, 1931“This book tells of the experiences of a German civilian interned in England,” wrote Paul Cohen-Portheim in the preface to Time Stood Still: My Internment in England 1914-1918, “and it is the author’s aim to describe nothing except what he actually saw and experienced.”

This understatement is both typical of Cohen-Portheim’s remarkable humility and an utterly inadequate synopsis of this remarkable book, for Time Stood Still is, in its way, a monument of humanism–the cosmopolitan, cultured, enlightened humanism exemplified by Stefan Zweig, Jules Romains, Thomas Mann and others–that flourished in Europe until exiled or exterminated by fascism. Countless times while reading this book I was awed by the depth and character of the author’s perspective.

Born in Berlin of Austrian parents, Paul Cohen-Portheim was educated in Geneva, took up painting, and was living in Paris when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June 1914. Despite the increasing rumors of war, he carried on with his life and traveled to England to spend a few weeks with friends in Devonshire. When England declared war on August 4th, 1914, he found himself stranded: “My flat and my belongings were in France, my relations in Austria and Germany, I myself with summer clothes, painting materials, and £10 in an England one could not leave.” The next day, he discovered he was now an “enemy alien.”

For the next ten months, he lived in a sort of limbo, unable to leave England, unable to move from one location to another without official permission, unable to hold a job legally. He joined with other expatriates to form a makeshift opera company and busied himself with sets and costumes until, on May 24th, 1915, he received notice to report to the local police station the next morning to be interned.

“What shall I pack?,” he asked the policeman. “I would pack as if you were going for a holiday,” the man replied. And so Cohen-Portheim loaded his luggage with “white flannels, bathing things, evening dress, etc..”

He and several hundred other German and Austro-Hungarian men between the ages of 18 and 65 were loaded into railway cars and then ferried to the Isle of Man, where they were interned at Knockaloe, which was the largest camp set up in England during World War One. A few months later, however, he and about sixty other inmates, considered by the British to be “gentlmen” were transported to a new camp in Lofthouse Park, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. Here he was to remain until mid-1918, when he was sent to the Netherlands to await the end of the war in another form of limbo.

To the authorities responsible for setting up Lofthouse Park, “a gentleman was a man prepared to pay ten shillings a week to them for the privilege of being there.” Cohen-Portheim had been able to contact his mother in Vienna and set up a weekly allotment while at Knockaloe, so, like the other inmates of the camp, he was able to order books and art supplies and to pay for sundries at the camp store. He was able to obtain more suitable clothing, and, as this picture from the Wakefield libraries collection shows, to dress in a manner befitting a gentleman. Other than being confined to the camp, served tasteless but adequate food, and mustered multiple times a day to be counted, he was largely left alone by the authorities and guards.


“Were you treated well?” friends asked him after the war. Cohen-Portheim’s response was carefully qualified: “I am not prepared to say what British treatment of prisoners of war or of interned civilians was–fair, correct, brutal, inhuman, indifferent–I can only speak of my own experience,” and that was that the treatment was “standardized.” He understood that internment was politically motivated, moderated entirely by public perceptions of the treatment of British internees in Germany, and bureaucratically administered.

This was the first war in which there was large-scale confinement of enemy civilians, and the lot of those in England was far better than that of their counterparts in France (as recorded in Aladar Kuncz’s 1934 book, Black Monastery). But, in Cohen-Portheim’s analysis, it was still a brutal and cruel system. Its inhumanity was not based on physical abuse or deliberate psychological mistreatment, but on a more fundamental truth: this was not how humans are meant to live.

Take, for example, the factor of time. Cohen-Portheim chose his title carefully: “One must remember that there was absolutely no limit to be foreseen to the duration of the war and of my imprisonment, not could one know to what one would then return, if one lived to return to anything.” The inmates were well aware of the events going on outside the camp, the progress and set-backs of each side in combat, but they were frozen in time. “The past was dead, the future, if there should be a future, was a blank, there was nothing left but the present, and my present was the life of a prisoner.” This condition was, in his view, unnatural: “where there is no aim, no object, no sense, there is no time.”

Yet it was not the fact of being imprisoned that made the experience horrible. “What was horrible was that one had ceased to be an individual and had become a number.” Any decisions made about the conditions in the camp were made based on an abstract concept of the enemy alien prisoner, and not on any aspect of his individual actions or nature. Cohen-Portheim saw this as a fundamental effect of war: it creates “an abnormal state in which no one can be honestly considered responsible for his actions.”

The obliteration of personal responsibility “undoes what education has built up in years of struggle, or rather in many centuries of effort.” This observation illustrates the particular perspective evident throughout the book. Cohen-Portheim upheld the humanist ideal of man as a rational being with a free will moderated by morality and empathy. And the fundamental crime of internment is that it is inhuman. The fact that the camp population was of such a narrow demographic–male, upper class, German or Austrian, adult, with no women, no children, no other nationalities or classes–by itself made the situation inherently abnormal.

But there was also, “no privacy, no possibility of being alone, no possibility of finding quietude.” The men were cooped up together 24 hours a day, day in and day out, with no end in sight. Because of this, “The worst tortures of camp life were due to the small failings of one’s fellow creatures everlastingly in evidence, and to unimportant little tricks endlessly repeated”:

It is not the men of bad character or morals you begin to hate, but the men who draw their soup through their teeth, clean their ears with their fingers at dinner, hiccough unavoidably when they get up from their meal (a moment awaited with trembling fury by the others), the men with dirty hands, the man who will invariably make the same remark (every day, year after year) as he sits down–and who is quite an inoffensive good-natured soft of creature otherwise–the man who lisps, the man who brags,, the man who has no matter what small defect or habit you happen to object to. You go on objecting quietly, for one does not quarrel about such silly trifles, and the thing gets on your nerves, becomes unbearable by the simple process of endless repetition, until you hate the cause of your torture with a deadly hatred.

“Such an atmosphere is thoroughly poisoned,” he concluded.

What is most impressive about Cohen-Portheim’s account of his experience, however, is that despite all of these wrongs, he could write, “I cannot honestly say that it has harmed me.” Indeed, his time at Lofthouse Park turned his passion from painting to writing, and one of his books, The Message of Asia (1934), was based on material began in the camp. He saw himself as an exception case, though, and was careful to caution in his preface that this must not “induce my readers to think that I call good what in itself is evil.”

After the war, he became a journalist and travel writer, and published such books as England, the Unknown Isle, The Spirit of France, and The Discovery of Europe. Time Stood Still was published in 1931, and like W. V. Tilsley’s outstanding novel, Other Ranks, published the same year, suffered from critical and popular weariness over war memoirs. The Saturday Review’s reviewer dismissed the book as “a ‘document’–by which I mean a piece of writing what has not quite succeeded in becoming literature.” Looking back on Time Stood Still from a distance of eighty years, however, I would place it on a shelf with some of the finest pieces of writing about life behind barbed wire.

You can find a length set of excerpts from Time Stood Still, about his time at Knockaloe camp, on a website devoted to the Isle of Man, at There are no copies currently listed on Amazon and only about a dozen, starting at $37, Internet-wide, according to However, his travel book, The Spirit of London, first published posthumously in 1935, was reissued by Batsford in 2012.

Update: “Enemy Aliens,” a long piece by Andrea Pitzer, author of The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, on Cohen-Portheim’s experiences during the war and his interment, appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.

Time Stood Still, by Paul Cohen-Portheim
London: Duckworth, 1931

Married Men, by Ira Wolfert

Cover of 1953 Eagle Books paperback edition of Ira Wolfert' 'Married Men'I like to take advantage of quiet days of the Christmas holiday to devote myself to a big, long book. Two years ago, it was Benito Perez Galdos’ masterpiece, Fortunata and Jacinta, which offers everything one could ask from what Henry James called a “loose, baggy monster” (“with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary”): a strong narrative, a personable narrator, and plenty of rewarding detours into the sidestreets and marginal characters of 19th century Madrid.

While there were certainly plenty of candidates to choose from, this year’s choice was easy: Ira Wolfert’s massive 1953 novel, Married Men. Ever since I saw an immaculate first edition copy on the shelves of the great Wonder Books store in Frederick, Maryland, I’ve been intrigued to learn just what Wolfert managed to pack into its 1,007 pages.

Ira Wolfert’s first novel, Tucker’s People (1943), often pops up on lists of neglected books. It was mentioned among the additional titles listed at the end of David Madden’s first Rediscoveries collection and Gerald Green provided an essay on it in Rediscoveries II. It’s been reprinted numerous times, most recently by Black Curtain Press and by Amazon itself for Kindle. An Act of Love, Wolfert’s second novel, about a Navy pilot stranded on a South Pacific island, was received with great hoopla, including a cover story in the Saturday Review, and ranked with The Naked and the Dead when it first appeared in 1949. Married Men, however, popped up, received a few reviews, then disappeared, aside from an Married Men paperback edition (with an utterly misleading cover) later that year, disappeared.

One of the obvious reasons for the neglect of Married Men is its daunting size. It’s a brick in hardcover, and even squeezed down to 863 pages through narrow margins and tiny print the paperback is a great block of newsprint. But all of Wolfert’s novels are behemoths. Tucker’s People runs around 400 pages, and An Act of Love nearly 600.

Even considering its size, however, Married Men might have attracted the kind of readership that
Peyton Place won a couple years later if its title had actually provided an accurate clue as to its contents. Based on the jacket blurb or the paperback cover, you’d think this was an exhaustive account of mid-century American males and their adventures in and outside the bounds of marriage.

But this is not at all what Married Men is about. What it really is is a wildly ambitious attempt to write the Great American Business Novel: an epic of manufacturing, money, mergers, politics, and labor. Centered around Wes Olmstead, who builds a mid-sized metal plant in the fictional town of Grand Island in an unnamed Midwest state into a national conglomerate, it spans the period from the late 1800s to the mid-1920s, and features a cast ranging into every corner of the social spectrum.
In a way, it’s Wolfert’s version of Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood saga (The Financier and The Titan), but lacking Dreiser’s deft, subtlety or concision. And if you know anything about Dreiser, you’ll know that none of those were his forte.

In his review of An Act of Love, John Woodburn described Wolfert’s prose as “massive, encircling, slate-colored, and tirelessly industrial.” It’s an apt description, and the experience of reading Married Men is a bit like slogging through a swamp. There are plenty of passages in which the writing just goes on and on without advancing the story or idea a single inch. I was often reminded on William Gibbs McAdoo’s characterization of Warren G. Harding’s speeches: “An army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.” Wolfert’s approach betrays a tragic degree of artistic hubris. To steal from his own description of one character’s piano-playing, “It was as if each word were a bullet and (s)he was waiting for it to hit and sink in before sending out the next one.”

What Wolfert desparately needed was an editor with a drawerful of blue pencils. At half the length, Married Men might still come off a bit leaden, but it would at least have been able to maintain a livelier narrative pace.

A ruthless editor would certainly have eliminated many of Wolfert’s relentless ruminations on his characters’ thoughts, acts, and motives. Here, for example, is just the start of the Byzantine labyrinth he constructs around one minor character’s decision to quit Olmstead’s company:

Roy Warrener did not understand very clearly why or how, but the issue had become a drastic one for him. Krause had allowed his own name to be used on the letterhead of Oscar’s commission only to find out what Oscar was up to. Then, when Olmstead Metals started building its own hospital and the issue with Oscar was joined, he had withdrawn his name.

But Roy had had his name put on the letterhead for other reasons. He was forty-two at that time, of middling height, brown-haired and hazel-eyed, with a worn, lined face that was comfortable to look at because it seemed so honest. He was indeed an honest man and he had an honest heart.

As a medical student Roy had hoped eventually to specialize in obstetrics. But it was only a kind of inclination in him, and Alice Banniman was a passion. Alice was one of the poor relations of the Bannimans. Her father had been the older brother of Claude and Virginia. But he had broken with the family and had spent his life as a counter-jumper at Bushforth & Kopfers.

This goes meandering on through family history, city and company politics, and Roy Warrener’s reflections upon them until, four pages and roughly two thousand words later, we arrive at the point: Roy “had taken a lot of crap” from Claude” (Banniman, Roy’s wife Alice’s uncle, an Olmstead Metals executive and dirty old man). Then, just a few pages later, Wolfert quotes in entirety one of Roy’s early letters to Alice: a four-paragraph invitation to a party with an eight-paragraph P.S. that tells a long-winded anecdote about an aged patient of his who had just died. Alice somehow managed to look past Roy’s gaseous writing, much as a reader who expects to finish Married Men must look past many more pages of Wolfert’s.

Wolfert once wrote that, “I write novels that are objective, naturalistic, realistic works of reportage and social comment. They contain all the poetry, painting and music of which I am capable.” Then he added the telling remark, “It may seem that I am trying to ride off in all directions at once, but actually I ride in one direction: the direction of recording experiences objectively.” If there is one sense conspicuously missing from Married Men, it’s objectivity.

That’s not to suggest that the book is bereft of anything worthwhile. There are some very strong and visceral passages, such as the endless night of drinking and bar-hopping that Wes and a fellow young executive spend early on in the novel, which culminates in a meticulous account of a cockfight. It’s pretty unpleasant stuff but unquestionably powerful writing. And Wolfert does lay out a vast design for his story, taking in countless business and political deals and featuring characters ranging from a night watchman to a vaudeville dance act to a J. P. Morgan-like New York financier. But, in the end, there is just too much of “the arbitrary and the accidental” to allow Wolfert’s loose, baggy monster to wrestle itself into coherent shape.

It may say something about the artistic toll that Married Men took on Ira Wolfert that he never again attempted the novel form.

Married Men, by Ira Wolfert
New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1953

In Search of Myself, by Hans Natonek

Hans Natonek, Paris 1939About a year ago, I posted a short item on Hans Natonek’s In Search of Myself, his account of his experiences as an exile from Nazi-occupied Europe coming to grips with a new life in America. At the time, there were no copies of this book to be found for sale on the Internet, and that’s still the case today.

However, thanks to my son and his access to the great resources of the University of California Library system, I was recently able to borrow a copy and can supplement the reviews I quoted on the original note.

In Search of Myself opens with Natonek and his fellow refugees awakening from their rude beds in the hold of a ship arriving in New York Harbor from neutral Lisbon. The time is somewhere in the fall of 1940.

As we learn, Natonek was one of a number of German and central European writers who fled to France in the late 1930s to escape Nazi persecution. Then, when France fell to Hitler in June 1940, they were uprooted again. Some of Natonek’s friends, such as Ernst Weiss, lost all hope and chose suicide as their escape. Natonek, like Lion Feuchtwanger, made it to Marseilles and were able to link up with Varian Fry, whose Emergency Rescue Committee was able to secure passages to America for over two thousand artists, writers, and others marked for capture by the Nazis.

Natonek did not regard America “as a kind of umbrella under which I may huddle until the storm is past.” He was convinced from the very beginning that it could only be a temporary refuge: it would either join the fight against Hitler or find itself another victim. His frustration with the isolationist view of America as a haven made safe by the Atlantic comes up again and again until the attack on Pearl Harbor brings the US into the war.

A street in lower Manhattan, 1942. From the Charles W. Cushman collection (Archive ID P02677)

He arrived with just four dollars in his pocket and a few vague references. He had no plan for how to survive, and the first fifty-some pages of the book, which describe his first two days in New York–walking around Manhattan, eating in a drugstore, encountering orthodox Jews on the Lower East Side, discovering the cheap hotels in the Bowery where a quarter bought one night in a bed in a room full of other dirty and drunken men–are the most vivid and exciting in the book.

He struggles with a language he knows very little of:

The business of making oneself understood with a minimum vocabulary has a charm of its own, particularly for a man who has made the use of words his métier. I had delighted in the splendor and the ornate richness of my native tongue. I reveled in its abundance, squandering it in intricate expression. Now I found a sober joy in economy, building what words I had into simple patterns solid with meaning. At first I tried self-consciously to carry out this feat. Then, as I embarked upon the vast sea of my subject, my few words began to fail. How could I bail the sea of sorrow with the thimble I had?

While Natonek was early on filled with admiration for the optimism and opportunities of America, he did not consider himself a candidate for a starting a new life from scratch. His counselor at the National Refugee Service quickly dismisses his hopes to continue working as a writer, surviving on the meager $18 weekly allowance provided by the service. “I hope you will not persist in your attitude. Writing is a hobby ….”

Natonek, however, considered it full-time job requiring the most intensive commitment of himself: “To learn a new language at fifty, to learn it intimately as a writer must know it, is, of itself, an almost superhuman undertaking. For only by making the language a part of myself shall I ever succeed in expressing not only what I am, but what I have seen.”

In the end, he is forced by circumstance into a rough compromise. He works a variety of small jobs, often getting fired for incompetence within the first few days, but making enough to eke out a survival and still find time to begin writing a new book in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. He makes a few friends and eventually manages to speak with a literary agent who takes a sample of his new diary and encourages him to carry own.

He connects with Anna Grunwald, an acquaintance from his time in Paris, and through her is able to travel outside New York. The size and openness of America thrills him:

The road unwound like cotton from a spool. I imagined it leaping onward, Nebraska, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming. … It was not necessary to plan this trip or any trip within the confines of this country’s boundaries. You could cross a line and never know that you had entered a new state.

The money I had in my pocket would buy the necessities of living from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There was not a hot-dog stand, a soda fountain, or a tourist camp that would not welcome me. The political ideas in my head were my own business.

Will I ever become accustomed to the wonder of these things?

He continues to scrape by, however, stumbling from job to job, until he accepts, sight unseen, a position as porter working in the morgue of Harlem Hospital. It is while there that he finally hears back from his agent, who has managed to land a contract for his American diary: this book.

Natonek married Anna and took U. S. citizenship in 1946. Although he wrote, late in In Search of Myself, that, “One day, perhaps, if God grants me another year, I will stammer a book in English,” he never did. Nor did he ever publish a new book in German, despite attempts, after the war. He died in Tucson, Arizona, in 1963.

The novel he refers to working on throughout the book, about the life of Gilles des Rais, companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc and a notorious child killer, was published posthumously in 1988 as Blaubarts letze Liebe (Bluebeard’s Last Love). Just a few months ago, Lehmstedt, a German publisher, released a collection of Natonek’s short pieces, Letzter Tag in Europa: Gesammelte Publizistik 1933-1963, along with the first biography, by Steffi Böttger, Für immer fremd (Forever Foreign or Forever an Outsider).