After forty-plus years of nosing through the stacks of book stores, it’s hard to surprise me. When I came across a Modern Library edition of Human Being by Christopher Morley while browsing in the Harvest Book Company store in Philadelphia, it was a double punch: not just a Modern Library title I’d never seen before, but a Christopher Morley novel that I couldn’t recall.
I know most of the Modern Library list by heart–even the early oddities like Artzibashev’s Sanine and Kuprin’s Yama (The Pit). I should devote a post, in fact, to the curiosities that can be found in the full Modern Library backlist. And, of course, I’ve seen hundreds of copies of Morley’s best-known books, particular his two bibliophile novels, Parnassus on Wheels (1917) (a Modern Library title from 1930 till the early 1950s) and The Haunted Bookshop (1919), and his biggest best-seller, Kitty Foyle (1939). And I must have come across Human Being before, as it went into at least six printings when it first came out in 1934. If I had, though, the memory has gone with the wind.
For a solid three-plus decades, between the late 1910s and early 1950s, Christopher Morley was one of the best-known literary figures in America. A prolific essayist, reviewer, and writer of every type of literature, from plays and poetry to short stories and novels. He was one of the founders of the Saturday Review magazine and one of the first members of the Book of the Month Club review board. He did not aspire to creating great art, although he has an enthusiastic proponent of bringing literature to the masses–editing, for example, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets for the popular audience.
Yet, at the same time, he appears to have been happy to follow his whims wherever they led, taking it for granted that enough readers to pay his mortgage would want to come along. And anyone who would read Human Being needs to be ready to follow Morley’s meanderings, as he happily takes many a detour from the narrative.
Starting with the narrator himself. The core of Human Being is based around the attempt by Lawrence Hubbard, a semi-retired accountant, to construct a biography of Richard Roe–a man he meets just once, over lunch with some other acquaintances, a few weeks before Roe’s death. But from the very beginning, another voice, clearly that of Morley, takes over, and reaches over Hubbard’s shoulder to grab the pen whenever the spirit moves him. “This is not the biography of Richard Roe,” he interjects at the start of Chapter Three, “but a biography of that biography.” And, where needed to move things along, an omniscient narrator steps in to let us into the minds of Roe, his wife, his mother-in-law, and even his Pekinese dog.
In giving his protagonist the name Richard Roe, Morley makes it pretty obvious that he wants to tell an Everyman story. Which requires, of course, a character with few distinguishing traits. Recalling Roe from their one lunch together, Hubbard remarks, in fact, that Roe “had a talent for not being noticeable.” He does, however, remember one thing Roe said: “Not long ago, I went up Riverside Drive at night on a bus. Suddenly an electric sign across the river flashed on in the dark, caught me right in the eyeball. It said THE TIME IS NOW 7:59. You know that damned thing frightened me.”
A short while after the lunch, Hubbard finds a short notice in the paper:
Richard Roe of 50 West 81st Street, manufacturer of stationery novelties with an office in the Flatiron Building, was taken ill on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat last night and died before the boat reached Hoboken. A heart attack was said to be the cause.
This leads Hubbard to decide to write a biography of Roe. Partly because “He had reached that period–it usually comes somewhere in the fifth decade–when a man decides that if he is ever going to do anything worth while he had better get started.” And partly because, as an accountant, “He was a great believer in the only law that is unerringly enforced, the law of averages.” Who better, then, to study, than an essentially unknown human being, to answer the question: “What was the basic alloy involved in being human?”
Richard Roe’s story is simple: he gets a start as a go-fer in a touring theatre company and works his way up to house manager. He switches to publishing when offered a job and works his way up to a regional salesman. Then, on a suggestion and a little financing from one of his customers, he starts his own company, making and selling things like ink stands and deskpads. It fares well, even into the start of the Depression. And then he dies.
Morley tries to build a great tragedy upon this slight foundation. Roe marries the box-office manager, Lucille, while they are both working for the theatre company, but she turns out to be a shrew. Years later, he meets Minnie Hutzler, who manages the book section in a Chicago department store. The two are attracted to each other. Minnie inspires Roe to form his own business and comes to New York to help him run it. They eventually have an affair–a very tentative one–but Roe finds himself trapped. Morley would have us believe that Roe dies not of a heart attack but of a heart broken for a love he can never fully express and enjoy. It helps, of course, that Lucille is a bitter, jealous, and relentless harridan, while Minnie is what Alice Kahn called a “gal”: sympathetic, supportive, but also as wily and worldwise as an Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter character.
In truth, what makes Human Being a rich and wonderful book is not the story but the detours. For although Roe’s life “cuts a narrow groove along the canyons of Manhattan,” as Morley puts it at one point, it’s full of intersections that lead down fascinating side streets.
So Roe’s time in show business leads Morley into a three-page meander into the classified ads in Variety. His office supply company gives Morley an excuse for a soliloquoy about inkstands and universal desk calendars. His time as a travelling salesman leads him to wander for seven pages through The Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Cuba:
The Railway Guide became Richard’s Outline of History, his Story of Philosophy. There was the Toledo, Peoria & Western (“The Peoria Road”) which doesn’t seem to go near Toledo at all on its own rails, but begins at Effner, Indiana. He found himself in imagination on a Mixed Train (“passenger service connections uncertain”) passing a long night on the way to Keokuk. Number 3 leaves Effner at 8:30 p.m. It arrives Peoria Yard at 5:20 a.m. There must be a chance for coffee and sinkers at the Peoria Yard? And he would go out on Number 103 (good old Number 103!) at 7:45, arrive at Keokuk 2:30 p.m.–”Is there a bookstore in Keokuk?” he asked Miss Mac.
And there are endless wanderings into the diverse pleasures of mid-20th century Manhattan itself: the Flatiron Building, where Roe moves his offices; the L, which Roe takes to and from work each day; the Museum of Natural History, one of his favorite haunts. And the seasons:
New York is never so lovely as in early summer. In Richard’s familiar region of Central Park West awnings burst out on apartment windows; asphalt streets feel soft under the point of a walking stick. Drug stores are draughty with electric fans, which blow out the gasoline cigar-lighter every time you snap it into flame. In the inner airshaft of apartments housewives indignantly observe little flocks of fuzz that come drifting over the sill from dustpans higher up.
In an essay on Human Being published in The American Scholar magazine back in 2003 (another reason I should have remembered the book), James McConkey described it as “more essayistic than fictional in nature.” “Within the personal essay,” McConkey writes, “subject is inseparable from authorial presence.” If the fictional framework of Human Being is slight, what does that matter in the end, if all its display windows are packed with goodies to delight the eye of the streetside passers-by?
Usually, in the interest of having material to post on a regular basis, I tend to read books quickly. With Human Being, I took my time, happy to get dragged down another side street by such an enthusiastic and amiable tour guide as Christopher Morley.