Keeper of the Flame, by I. A. R. Wylie

July 23rd, 2012

Cover of Popular Library paperback edition of "Keeper of the Flame"

This Popular Library edition of I. A. R. Wylie’s 1942 novel, Keeper of the Flame, dates from the early 1960s. There are some remarkable titles to be found among the best-sellers, bodice-rippers, and dreck that Popular Library released in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I wrote about a few of them about a year ago in the post, Digging into the Popular Libary at the Montana Valley Book Store.”

This is a particularly odd example. MGM purchased the film rights to Keeper of the Flame when the book was still unpublished. It was then published by Random House before the film was released, but subsequent runs featured a dust jacket with a still shot from the movie.

The film is best remembered today as Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s first, but it and the novel are nothing like their usual comedies. Steven O’Malley (Tracy), a celebrated foreign correspondent of the Quentin Reynolds-Vincent Sheean-John Gunter school, recently returned from Europe, takes an assignment to write the life story of Robert Forrest, a New England governor who’s inspired a nationwide populist movement. Forrest is considered a Lincoln-like figure, the great hope of the nation, but as O’Malley investigates, he finds there are some curious figures in Forrest’s household–including his wife.

I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that Forrest proves to have been a little more like Lincoln Rockwell than Abraham Lincoln.

Aside from the unusual story, Keeper of the Flame–both the novel and the film–are far more interesting seen in the context of their external connections and references. One watches the film looking for hints of the budding attraction between Hepburn and Tracy. One reads the novel in light of the figures such as Charles Lindburgh and Father Coughlin who inspired popular movements in America in the 1930s and 1940s–movements we now see as having a darker side.

Having written recently about Wylie’s memoir, My Life with George, I was impressed by two aspects of the book. First, it’s hard not to think that Wylie wrote it for the screen: there are at least a dozen scenes that play out exactly as filmed, and the whole sequence of the narrative matches that of the film so tightly it could have been a novelization after the fact. Second, despite the many superficial and clich├ęd characterizations, it’s obvious that Wylie was a very world-smart woman: if she played down her intelligence, it was because she’d had, by the 1940s, also thirty years’ experience of making a living with her writing.

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