Red Horses, by Felix Riesenberg: A re-write of his first novel, P. A. L.

May 12th, 2013

redhorsesFelix Riesenberg’s 1928 novel, Red Horses, is extremely rare in two ways. There are only two copies list for sale on the Internet–one at $100, the other (signed) at $300, and there are only about twenty copies listed in Worldcat.org. I was only able to read it via my son’s access to the University of California’s superb library system.

But it’s also the only case I know (admittedly, there may be others I don’t) of a novel that’s been rewritten and published by its author with a different title. In a brief note at the start of the book, Riesenberg wrote:

The basis of the present story is my novel P.A.L issued by Robert M. McBride & Company in 1925. I have rewritten my earlier novel and the job has given me considerable amusement. I offer the result without apology or prayer.

P.A.L, which I wrote about back in August 2012, is an acerbic account of the career of an over-the-top entrepeneur and huckster, P. A. L. Tangerman, who shills everything from baldness cures and health tonics to chocolate, cigars and self-improvement books and, finally, to a scheme to produce gold from desert sand. Riesenberg was 44 when he published the book. He came late to writing, having worked as a merchant marine officer, Arctic explorer, civil engineer, and building inspector.

Riesenberg’s view of American capitalism in P.A.L is bitterly satiric, full of an angry that Riesenberg later gave full vent to in his Depression novel, Passing Strangers. He relates the story of Tangerman’s rise and fall through the eyes of Marakoff, a Russian merchant seaman, shipwrecked off the coast of Washington State and tossed into the feverish boosterism of Tangerman’s Seattle. Rather like Gulliver in the land of the Brobdingnag, Riesenberg’s narrator finds a sort of monstrous energy at play:

Power! light! heat! These were everywhere in evidence. As I walked up from the wharf, the sensation of coming again into a highly charged community caused my finger tips to tingle…. Lean, earnest-faced men shouted revolution, others spoke rapidly of religion, and still others, great, full-mouthed orators, extolled the virtues of special medicines. A band of uniformed musicians chanted loud praises of the Lord. Over all was the constant blink of great electric signs.

Later, when the scene shifts to Chicago, the narrator’s sense of a diseased society becomes literal:

Such thoughts came to me of an evening, looking out on the avenue and marveling at the curious folk who walked by. What was going on about me so far exceeded even these fancies that I judged the world throughicurious eyes. At times I felt we were in a great hospital full of patients, all sick, some seriously, some slightly, but getting worse. I even pictured this great hospital managed by a peculiar staff of somber, public doctors. It seemed to me the great hospital of humanity was for a time in charge of the world’s undertakers, men prospering mightily through the general debility.

The intensity of Riesenberg’s reaction to the fervor of the 1920s is muted only slightly in his rewrite of the book three years later. Although I haven’t done a line-by-line comparison of texts between P.A.L and Red Horses, I think I can safely say that Riesenberg’s major change was to pare away whatever he considerable inessential.

P.A.L was structured in four parts, preceded by a prologue describing the voyage and shipwreck of Marakoff’s ship. In Red Horses, Riesenberg dispenses with the prologue completely. He also dispenses with a considerable amount of editorial commentary. The prologue to P.A.L begins,

Of course there is an explanation for everything. Even a state of mind may be explored, and some have attempted to explain the favor of a woman. Chance and time play upon us constantly. Love and murder may be answers to the same demand; Who can see everything and know all, in a universe growing more complex with time?

In Red Horses, Riesenberg wisely dropped this exordium and jumped straight into the story:

I was a sailor, ashore and out of work. I had no money, no friends, no business or profession upon which I might rely.

The cut of the prologue is the largest single change in the text, and there is no equivalent change in the story itself. Marakoff, whose name is taken down as Markham by his rescuers, is given an introduction to P. A. L. Tangerman, who is launching the Cudahy Dome, a contraption intended to cure baldness by applying a vacuum to the scalp, as his first great venture. Tangerman spins off dozens of other enterprises and eventually moves to Chicago with Markham in tow. He continues to surf from one deal to another, relying in most cases more on momentum and hype than real capital, until one of his many paramours shoots him dead. Markham returns to Washington State and settles down happily ever after with Madeleine, Tangerman’s first wife, whom Markham has loved from afar for years.

In fact, it would probably be more accurate to describe Red Horses as an edit of P.A.L than a rewrite. Riesenberg did make other structural alterations beside dropping the prologue, but these consist only of changes in how the text is broken up. What are called “Parts” in P.A.L become “Books” in Red Horses, and instead of “Chapters,” Riesenberg divides these into numbered sections, using nearly twice as many in Books Two and Three–the Chicago books.

Aside from these changes, which make little difference in the reading experience, what is most noticeable between P.A.L and Red Horses is what is missing. As the following excerpts demonstrate, the primary skill Riesenberg developed between the two versions is the use of his blue pencil.

P. A. L. Red Horses
Now began an adventure that defied analysis. I could neither pull it apart, nor could I find the materials out of which it might be logically built. It was an existence, a state of being, or a condition. But the effect upon me was one of bewilderment. My past life had always known its departments or classes. One was an officer, an aristocrat, or one was not. Throughout, this simple relationship had held. Always the patrician and the plebeian. We had a convenient set of bins into which one might throw the facts of life, and forget them.

But, of a sudden, I became engulfed in the democracy of America, without doubt the greatest and most amazing state men have yet achieved. In England I had known the old order modified, the aristocracy backing down, hanging on to their caste while slowly dropping their cash and unearned privileges; but here I found people in a continuous waltz, taking on importance and losing it with remarkable swiftness and facility. The greatest in the land were those most skilled in the art of extracting money from their fellows.

Of a sudden, I became engulfed in the democracy of America, without doubt the greatest and most amazing state men have yet achieved. In England I had seen the old order modified, the aristocracy backing down, hanging to their caste while slowly dropping their cash and unearned privileges; but here I found people in a continuous waltz, taking on importance and losing it with remarkable swiftness. The greatest were those most skilled in extracting money from their fellows.
In the light of retrospection, in cold letters, the adventure that follows comes to me like a nightmare, remembered in the dawn. In a land where the Keeley Motor was given to science, where Turtle Serum was welcomed by an enthusiastic multitude of doctors, where the Cardiff Giant once astonished paleontologists, where Ponzi bewildered financiers, and where Dr. Cook split the millions into contending camps, resting his claims upon the broad back of the King of Denmark, in such a land almost anything may happen, and almost anything may be absolutely true. It is a grand land, a mighty land, and in the very middle of it lies the teeming city of Chicago, the heart and lungs and life of it, free, thank Heaven, from pernicious, outside, foreign interference. In a land where the Keeley Motor was given to science, where Turtle Serum was welcomed by an enthusiastic multitude of doctors, where the Cardiff Giant once astonished paleontologists, where Ponzi bewildered financiers, and where Dr. Cook split the millions into contending camps, resting his claims upon the broad back of the King of Denmark, in such a land almost anything may happen, and almost anything may be absolutely true. And in the very middle of it lies the teeming city of Chicago.
My state of mind in the summer days that followed the death of Tangerman was that of some nascent atom, forcibly released from a powerful combination in which it had long played a dependent part. The city went on just the same, much to my surprise, for it seemed at times that everything should stop, as my own life had stopped amid the jumble of Pal’s affairs.

On the morning of his burial, arranged in its details by the fimeral directors, a great many people met at the church where services were held. Small wreaths were placed on his coffin by humble mourners who walked back and sat through the service. A eulogy was rendered by a solemn speaker who had never laid eyes on Pal in his life. He spoke in hollow monotone, stringing platitudes for a fee-—a paraphrast mumbling behind the awful shadow of death. I positively marveled at the audacity of the man. Better, by far, to have honored Pal by an interval of the human quiet he had never known.

On the morning of Pal’s burial, arranged in its details by the funeral directors, a great many people met at the church where services were held. Small wreaths were placed on his coffin by humble mourners who walked back and sat through the service. A eulogy was rendered by a solemn speaker who had never laid eyes on Pal in his life. He spoke in hollow monotone, stringing platitudes for a fee—-a paraphrast mumbling behind the awful shadow of death. Better, by far, to have honored Pal by an interval of the human quiet he had never known.

In the end, Riesenberg very likely got more amusement than critical or financial reward out of rewriting P.A.L as Red Horses. P.A.L garnered a handful of reviews; Red Horses even fewer. Neither was ever reprinted. Perhaps thanks to my earlier piece, there appear to be exactly as many copies of P.A.L for sale as Red Horses: two. Aside from a couple of surveys of fiction set in Chicago, neither has been remembered in print anywhere outside this site since Riesenberg’s death. I suspect Riesenberg’s work might have fared between if he’d lived in Nebraska or Georgia or Texas, where he might at least have earned some recognition as a regional novelist. Although I wouldn’t claim masterpiece status for either version of Tangerman’s tale, I do think it deserves an honorable mention in the history of American literature and I suspect some industrious graduate student could provide an interesting textual analysis of the two books. Until then, however, we’ll keep a candle burning here in Riesenberg’s memory.


Red Horses, by Felix Riesenberg
New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1928

2 Responses to “Red Horses, by Felix Riesenberg: A re-write of his first novel, P. A. L.”

  1. Alan Gunn Says:

    Another novel which its author re-wrote and published with a changed title is James Salter’s “The Arm of Flesh,” re-written as “Cassada.” “Cassada” may be the best novel ever written about flying.

  2. editor Says:

    Thanks for mentioning this. Knowing Salter’s work, I have no doubt that his rewrite was more substantive than Riesenberg’s.

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