From time to time, I go panning in the ever-widening stream of electronic texts in the Internet Archive. It takes a certain amount of strategy, as there are probably a hundred or a thousand more statistical reports (The Fats and Oils Situation for November 1945, anyone?), court reports, NASA test reports, government reports (e.g., Annual Report Of The Archaeological Survey Of India 1924-1925), and texts in languages I’ll never learn to read (警世通言(十三) might be terrific–what could I be missing?) for every book possibly worth considering.
Sometimes, though, I manage to stumble onto a vein of high-quality material. Today’s find was a collection of several hundred books from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s scanned and uploaded to the archive courtesy of the George A. Smathers Libraries of the University of Florida, with the help of Lyrasis and the Sloan Foundation. I’ve had to accept that I will never manage to read everything I’ve discovered so far, let alone what remains to be found, so I can only offer the following as possibilities for others to try:
- • Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand (1954)
- Now this one I actually own and have sampled from. It’s a collection of short stories and non-fiction articles Marquand published after becoming a professional writer in the 1920s. For me, the most interesting material can be found in the middle section, “The Wars: Men and Places,” which contains both stories and articles drawing on Marquand’s experiences of serving in the Army during World War One and of traveling as a reporter to the Pacific theater during World War Two. The Smathers Libraries have also uploaded Marquand’s Melville Goodwin, U. S. A. and H. M. Pulham, Esq.–the latter, in my opinion, his best novel.
- • More in Sorrow, by Wolcott Gibbs (1958)
- Another collection, this one from a contemporary of Marquand’s. Gibbs was a member of the New Yorker staff for thirty years, contributing more words to the magazine than any other writer during that time. As Thomas Vinciguerra, who edited Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker put it in an article for the Weekly Standard, Gibbs “turned out trenchant fact pieces, cutting yet perceptive criticism, finely wrought short stories, and hilarious vignettes.” More in Sorrow opens with his most famous piece, “Time … Fortune … Life … Luce,” which appeared in 1936 and parodied the awkward prose style favored in Henry Luce’s magazines. Vinciguerra took his title from the line, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which appears in the piece.
- • Touch of Nutmeg, and More Unlikely Stories, by John Collier (1943)
- Collier keeps being rediscovered every twenty years or so. His stories combine horror, black comedy, and pure eccentricity in a way that no one, aside from Roald Dahl, has managed to equal. Many of these stories can be found in Fancies and Goodnights, which was reissued as a New York Review Classic, with an introduction by the late Ray Bradbury, back in 2003. If you’re debating buying that volume, I encourage you to try this free sampler. I warn you, though: it’s like taking just one potato chip.
- • The Boat, by L. P. Hartley
- Hartley is sometimes described as Henry James’ closest successor–a writer of fine-grained and subtle psychological observations. His Eustace and Hilda trilogy goes in and out of print–and is back now, again thanks to the New York Review Classics. But The Boat, which deals with the experiences of an English writer forced by the outbreak of World War Two to return to rural England after years of living in Venice, was his personal favorite. One critic has called it “the nearest thing to a great novel I can discern in the post-war years.”
- • The Big Laugh, by John O’Hara
- This was O’Hara’s big Hollywood novel, and, as with any of his novels, a big step down from his stories. It’s too long, too loud, and too melodramatic–but you can also count of plenty of great dialogue (O’Hara is one of the great dialogue writers of all time). This was good enough to be one of the last books reissued by Ecco Press before they were taken over by Harper Collins in 1999, so it can’t be all bad.
- • Get away from me with those Christmas gifts, and other reactions, by Sylvia Wright
- From a quick glance, this collection of satiric pieces from the mid-1950s looks a bit like Erma Bombeck channelling Dorothy Parker. Kirkus Reviews described it as, “salty and astringent observations on Life’s little lunacies.” For soccer moms with a taste for dry martinis, perhaps.
- • Eye in the Sky, by Louis Grudin
- A readable collection of pieces combining prose and poetry, recounting the life of Manhattan in the course of a winter somewhere in the 1950s. Looks pretty interesting if, like me, you’re a fan of New York books. Grudin’s style is lively and spiced with street chatter, as in this, from “Another Beggar,” where a man recalls running into a street character he can’t stand:
On Broadway in the forties, all dressed up like Monsieur in a temps perdu. Was he cherchezing on that honkytonk street, that island of ginmills for the sailor boys? What was he doing there when he popped out of the darkness as Myrtle and I turned into the wind, hurrying from the show? Still following me! (as we edged away and walked on) and hurled that parting insult.
- • The Armchair Esquire, Esquire’s First Sports Reader, and Esquire’s Second Sports Reader
- Three anthologies taken from the pages of Esquire, which in its day was a bit like Playboy without the photo spreads–the magazine for the midcentury metrosexual. The first is a best-of sampler from the 1930s through the 1950s; the second is a collection of non-fiction sports articles; and the third a collection of short stories on sporting themes. Lots of well-known names such as James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, Bellow, Waugh, Algren. The first includes Arthur Miller’s story, “The Misfits,” which was later made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable that is probably better remembered for its making than its merits.
- • A Name for Evil, The Velvet Horn, and A Novel, A Novella and Four Stories, by Andrew Lytle
- Lytle was one of the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers that included Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. They fought against the prevailing prejudices that stereotyped the South as a place of backwardness and cultural stagnation. The Velvet Horn was nominated for the National Book Award in 1957 and is considered his best novel. It’s out of print now, even though several others he wrote are still available in J. S. Sanders’ Southern Classic Series.
- • The Sin of the Prophet, by Truman Nelson
- According to the Kirkus Review, this novel is, “A handsomely panoplied, fictionalized reconstruction of one of the most sensational fugitive slave trials in which the Massachusetts Abolitionists were involved before the Civil War, and a full-blooded, shade-more-than-life-size portrait of the thunderous Boston clergyman, Theodore Parker.” Nelson was a life-long liberal advocate whose books often dealt with the issue of race in American history. A later novel, The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, was reissued a few years ago by Haymarket Press.
- • The Fly and the Fly-Bottle, by Ved Mehta (1962)
- A collection of pieces–also from a long-time New Yorker contributor–about contemporary (as in 1962) British intellectuals. I must confess that I read this years ago, when I was on a Wittgenstein streak inspired by Ray Monk’s superb biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. (I must digress for a moment to quote a line from Monk’s book that I often think sums up my own predicament. Discussing an acquaintance named Barry Pink, Wittgenstein remarked, “Pink wants to sit on six stools at one, but he only has one arse”). The Fly and the Fly-Bottle takes its title from a statement in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “What is your aim in Philosophy?” “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” I found the book–as well as a succeeding collection, The New Theologian (1965), fascinating, but I suspect it may sit in a disrespected no-man’s land–neither a work of philosopher nor a purely entertaining collection of profiles. But if you’re the type who enjoys TED talks, I’d give it a try.
- • Hour, by Bernard de Voto
- This short book, a light-hearted review of the place of alcohol in American history and in any civilized life, was recently reissued with an added subtitle as The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto with a preface by Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket).