Robert Nedelkoff

Robert Nedelkoff

Archivist Robert Nedelkoff, who’s written on neglected books for McSweeney’s and other magazines offered an even dozen recommendations to the Editor not long after this site opened.

Laughing In The Jungle, by Louis Adamic [Harper, 1932].

Adamic (1898-1952) was a Slovenian immigrant who spent the 10s and 20s struggling at manual labor, first in NYC then LA. After starting his writing career penning Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books, he attracted Mencken’s attention, then wrote Dynamite, an important study of labor violence, then this book, an account of his days as a Los Angeles lumpenproletariat that is the best portrait between two covers of that city in the 1920s – and Hollywood hardly figures in it at all. It’s his hardest book to find (his next one, The Native’s Return, became a bestseller and made him an enormously influential figure — FDR made Churchill read his Two-Way Passage — until the advent of McCarthyism wrecked his career) and the 1969 Ayer library reprint just sold out, apparently. Czezlaw Milosz discusses Adamic at some length in Milosz’s ABC.

The Fair Rewards, by Thomas Beer [Knopf, 1922] public domain] or, alternately, a collection of Beer’s stories.

In the 1950s, during his first lectures at the University of Virginia, Faulkner mentioned that in the days when he read the Saturday Evening Post at his Oxford postmaster’s job instead of delivering the magazine, he had admired Thomas Beer’s (1889-1940) stories and had learned something of characterization and plot from them. He asked if any of the students had read Beer; there was silence. He asked if any had heard of him. One student had heard of Beer’s biography of Stephen Crane and of his bestseller of ’26, The Mauve Decade. Others who’ve admired Beer’s work include Lewis Mumford, historian Frank Friedel and Carl Van Vechten (with whom Beer had some aspects of style and sensibility in common). The Fair Rewards is a portrait in novel form of the American theater from 1890 to 1920, and well illustrates Beer’s gift for delineating pre-World War I America in a somewhat melancholy, elliptical fashion. Long out of print.

The Three Mulla-Mulgars (later titled The Three Royal Monkeys) by Walter De La Mare (Duckworth, 1910; public domain).

Walter de la Mare’s (1873-1956) saga of three motherless monkeys who search for their father through a series of nightmarish and wondrous landscapes and events was a fixture of English nurseries from its publication until de la Mare’s popularity faded some years after his death; writers from T. H. White to Mervyn Peake to Angela Carter felt its impact in their formative years. (In America it was mainly read in the 20s and 30s, and Robert Silverberg was sufficiently impressed by it to adapt its plot in a science-fiction novel.) Nowadays, it would hardly be an acceptable book for children – death and fear of death runs all through its pages, and the one human character, a sailor, refers to Africans as “blackamoors.” But it is still one staggering read for adults – a work of fantasy with far more in common with the prose masters of the 17th Century than with Tolkien. Out of print in both England and America.

An anthology of the writing of Josiah Flynt, from his seven books published between 1899 and 1908 (Tramping With Tramps, Notes of an Itinerant Policeman, The Powers That Prey, The World Of Graft, The Little Brother, The Rise of Ruderick Clowd, My Life) and perhaps from some uncollected articles, all public domain.

Josiah Flint Willard (1869-1907) was the nephew of social reformer and WCTU founder Frances Willard. Fatherless at a young age, he ran away from home several times in his childhood and adolescence and discovered the world of tramps, railroad hobos, smalltime fairs, and corrupt sheriffs and policemen – a different group of people from the distinguished intellectuals and statesmen his family knew. Yet for the rest of his life he moved easily between those worlds and several other ones. He lived in London and studied in Berlin; began writing, as Josiah Flynt; traveled through Russia and spent a few months with Tolstoy; became a friend of Gertrude and Leo Stein (he’s mentioned in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas); was hailed as a precursor by Lincoln Steffens and other muckrakers; had Jack London’s The Road dedicated to him; drank like twelve fishes and got addicted to cocaine; and died in the midst of writing an expose of the symbiosis between crooked cops and poolhalls for (I think) Munsey’s. His writing, generally describing sordid events with a placidity akin to that of Stephen Crane (though his first articles, already in this style, were published when Crane was still thinking of becoming a pro baseball pitcher, in 1890), sometimes describes the despair of rootless men with an intensity all the more remarkable for its quiet pitch. (A sampling of his articles, in facsimile, may be found at Cornell University’s Making of America site.) Though only Van Wyck Brooks, Lloyd Morris, and muckraker historian Louis Filler seem to have written about him in the last 70 years, and only Morris (a writer whose extraordinary histories themselves deserve reissue) grasped his real significance, Flynt stands at the beginning of that tradition of the dark side of the literature of the Open Road later exemplified in Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, Jim Tully’s less sentimental pages, William Burroughs’ novels, noir in its manifold aspects.

Lonely Boy Blues [Scribner, 1944] by Alan Kapelner.

One day, I suppose in ’43, Max Perkins, who needs no introduction, sat down to a manuscript by Alan Kapelner (1913-1990), who does – the latter was from Brooklyn, had been in the Party in the late 30s but was expelled, had hoboed around the country. What Perkins read, simply put, was the story of a young man who fails his draft physical and is beaten to a pulp by his humiliated father. But the book’s not that simple. It essentially adapts The Brothers Karamazov’s principals into a tale equally influenced by the most radical transition fiction of the 1920s and the social realism of the 1930s. Perkins had not been an aficionado of either of these schools but he saw something in Kapelner and set to work. The book came out but attracted little notice in the middle of a war. Perkins died. Sixteen years later, Kapelner published at Braziller an even wilder book, All The Naked Heroes – the missing link between the proletarian novel of the Thirties and the “metafiction” of the Seventies. He attracted the praise of Seymour Krim (which is how I found out about him) but was unable to get two more novels published, despite the best efforts of another admirer, Norman Mailer.

The World of John Lardner [Simon & Schuster, 1961].

John Lardner (1913-1960) was one of Ring’s four sons. He started as a reporter and then became a much-admired sports columnist with Newsweek – Roger Kahn (who co-edited this anthology), as recently as last year, called him in print “the best sports columnist I have ever read.” After covering the Pacific Front in World War II he started writing longer articles, generally about boxing or horse-racing, for The New Yorker and other magazines. After 1950 he wrote a number of television reviews which, in acuity and style, match his father’s pieces about radio. He had a sense of humor which was a match for Ring’s, embedded in a style more compressed and understated that that of any writer of his time; his best work easily ranks with Joseph Mitchell’s and John McNulty’s. Walt Kelly of “Pogo” fame was his best friend. He died at almost the same age as his father, of exactly the same causes (plus multiple sclerosis). A few months after he died, Robert Frost asked a visitor, “What’s going on with John Lardner? I haven’t read anything of his lately and I’d like to see some more of his articles.” The anthology includes a sample of all areas of his work.

A Dream Of Tartary [George Allen & Unwin, 1963] by Henry McAleavy.

When I was in ninth and tenth grade I took a course in modern Chinese history. Our textbook, was, naturally, The Modern History Of China [Praeger, 1967] by Henry McAleavy (1911-1968). For a couple of decades afterward, I could repeat sentences and whole paragraphs verbatim from this, the best-written textbook I’ve ever encountered. McAleavy had lived in China from 1932 to 1949 and had a complete command of the language and literature of that nation, which influenced his style in myriad surprising and felicitous ways. This book is a biography of Henry Pu Yi, the “Last Emperor,” which, naturally, relies to a considerable part on Pu Yi’s Maoist-era autobiography and several Chinese books, but incorporates a lot of McAleavy’s first-hand observation of the emperor’s milieu. I hoped, when the movie came out, that it would be reissued, but no luck – McAleavy’s achievement seems to be completely forgotten even among Sinologists.

Caleb Catlum’s America [1936] by Vincent McHugh.

McHugh (1905-1983) was a Rhode Islander and a Brown classmate of Perelman and Nathanael West’s. His first two novels, Touch Me Not and Sing Before Breakfast, were so greatly admired by Fitzgerald that he wrote to Max Perkins to urge him to consider Caleb Catlum’s America for publication (you’ll find that in Letters Of F. Scott Fitzgerald). Perkins passed, but when Stackpole (in those days an important firm) published the book it went into at least three printings. It’s the story of an American boy who grows up in Colonial times and never dies – he just strides through American history roughousing with historical figures (Franklin, Whitman, Lincoln, Twain) and mythical ones (Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan) alike. McHugh at the time was a pivotal figure in the New York City office of the Federal Writers’ Project and the novel could have been the prototype of a whole school of fabulations had World War II and some other things not interfered. Ishmael Reed, one of the leading figures of a later age of fable, admires the book enormously and has said so in interviews. Rather surprisingly, Robert A. Heinlein did too. In 1990, Yarrow Press republished McHugh’s I Am Thinking Of My Darling and two Dawn Powell novels. Tim Page read the latter books and we all know what happened. Time to give McHugh another shot.

The Cool World [Little Brown, 1959] or Flush Times [Little Brown, 1962], or Looking For The General (McGraw-Hill, 1964)

James Baldwin called The Cool World “one of the best novels of Harlem that has yet come my way” and said that when he first read it he could not tell if Warren Miller (1921-1966), a Jew from Pennsylvania, was black or white. Don DeLillo, in a letter to the author, has expressed his admiration for the book. Miller also counted among his friends and fans writers as diverse as Larry L. King, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Dan Wakefield, Paul Engle, and Victor Navasky. Looking For The General more strongly prefigures the work of Elkin and DeLillo, in theme and style, than is the case with any other writer of the WWII generation. So how does a guy like this get forgotten? Well, smoking too many cigarettes and dying young was a big factor. Being an unapologetic leftist (although one who never lets his political views get in the way of telling a good story or penning superb dialogue, as Flush Times, set in pre-Castro Havana,
shows) had something to do with it too. Thirty years before The Baffler, Miller exemplified all of what it hoped to encourage among creative writers. Or, as he put it in a letter to editor Frank Taylor back when he was still an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa alongside Flannery O’Connor: “Austin Warren [an Iowa professor] sensed hovering over [an early novel draft] the spirits of Kafka, Nat West, and Djuna Barnes, [and] that I was striving for some kind of fusion of Miss Barnes’ sensibility and Dos Passos’ social consciousness.” But Miller, soon enough, became very much his own writer.

Operators And Things [Arlington Books, 1958] by Barbara O’Brien.

When I came across an Ace paperback edition of this book, published in the early 1960s, I at first thought I was reading one of Philip K. Dick’s greatest achievements. It opens with a solemn introduction by a psychiatrist explaining that this is the story of a young woman who not only has managed to cure herself of schizophrenia, but has written well of the experience. The next chapter reads like a breezy magazine article about mental illness. Then we’re plunged into the story: a woman, apparently in her late 20s, wakes up to find three people standing by her bed: an old man, a boy, and a weird-looking, long-haired man. She is a “Thing,” an automaton, like most everyone else on earth. The old man has been her “Operator” – one of the handful of people who “own” and control everyone else on earth. He is handing her over to the control of the long-haired man, who has decided a) to make her aware of her status as a Thing and b) to have her walk away from her job and get on a Greyhound bus – the only way to go for a smart Operator, because the drivers are all Operators themselves and are contractually obligated not to interfere with the chattelship of Things. Then the book gets really unpredictable. After a while, Ms. O’Brien (a pseudonym) is told that her time as a vagabond Thing is over and that she has to go see a psychiatrist and be cured. She obligingly goes to a psychoanalyst who, of course, can’t make head or tail out of delusions and behavior that don’t even remotely resemble the normal model of paranoid schizophrenia (she does think one group of Operators is planning to kill her, but she makes no claim to being a Prometheus-figure with the gods or the world against her). She then goes (and this takes place in the early 1950s, during the heyday of hospitalization) to a mental hospital, but can’t get the staff to admit her. Finally, she goes to another psychiatrist who encourages her to write a (presumably unpublished) novel, then this book. And she goes right back to her job.

As I said, I thought this might be an early, albeit rather atypical, Philip K. Dick book – perhaps written after reading Fritz Leiber’s The Sinful Ones, describing a cosmos somewhat reminiscent of this book. But no – on a university library shelf I found the hardcover, published by a bona-fide psychiatric publisher in 1958. The psychiatrist penning the intro was for real. A British literary agency, Mark Paterson Company Ltd, represents the author, whoever she is. The agency’s website plugs the tome as “possibly the first articulate view of schizophrenia from a sufferer.” Well, it isn’t (there was the account in Marguerite Sechehaye’s Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl in the Forties) and I’m not sure that what is being described is not an extended psychotic episode of a schizoid nature with a spontaneous cure (or perhaps better phrased, an abatement) like the mathematician John Forbes Nash’s. But it still is a very strange and dispassionately told book. The Ace paperback compared it to Three Faces of Eve and the Signet reissue of 1976 (which apparently had an “18 Years Later” afterword by O’Brien) compared it to Sybil, but it doesn’t even remotely resemble these books. If it were made into a movie, only David Lynch and someone else whose name slips my mind should be allowed to make it. Every time a paperback copy shows up on Abebooks, Bookfinder or Amazon it sells in a couple of days, so there’s surely a demand. The only edition in print is in Russia – a county whose citizens could well relate to the cosmos it describes.

The Ern Malley Affair by Michael Heyward (Faber and Faber, 1994)

The story of the Australian literary hoax of the early Forties which had a devastating impact on that nation’s literature and a surprising one on the New York School of poets. The story is too long to tell here but suffice to say that it is, in unpredictability and hilarity, to the Spectra hoax of 1910s poetry what Lucky Jim is to a Bazooka Joe comic.

One of the early novels (I Can Get It For You Wholesale or The Enemy Camp) or early story collections (The Horse That Could Whistle “Dixie”) of Jerome Weidman (1913-1998).

Fitzgerald and Hemingway admired his early stories and novels and say so in their published letters; Rebecca West thought highly of him too; Alistair Cooke made the point of devoting a BBC “Letter From America” to him when he died. There could hardly have been a Philip Roth without him. Yet somehow he’s kept being overlooked for twenty years and more

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