Americans in Glasshouses, by Leslie James

“What’s so funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding?,” Nick Lowe once asked in a song. But there’s nothing funny about them, of course, which is why there are times in each of our lives when Hatred and Intolerance bust through our better selves like the Tasmanian Devil. Which is usually a mistake.

But there are rare times when giving in to our lower devils is as satisfying as picking at a scab and watching it come off clean. I suspect Leslie James felt that way throughout the entire process of writing this book.

Americans in Glasshouses is a straight-faced dissertation, written in the voice of a dispassionate scholar, on the subject of what is wrong with Americans and why. The situation, as James saw it back in 1950, when the book was first published, was, at the root, very simple:

    AMERICANS feel they are the most insecure people on earth. That is natural, because they have:

    1. A highly competitive culture in which no one can feel himself to be permanently successful.
    2. A compulsive need to consume.
    3. An unhealthy and woman-dominated family-structure.
    4. No culture.
    5. A political system which no mature people would tolerate.
    6. No souls.
    7. Much more than their just share of the world’s goods.

Ah, to have the confidence of such unadulterated prejudices.

Of course, sixty years later, this is still both stereotype and uncomfortably close to the truth.

James’ aim is “to standardize the diverse impressions about America in European minds.” There is such nonsense written and said about America in Europe, argues this serious-minded academic, and it leaves too many merely confused. If only Europeans could gain a real understanding of America, then they would be able to teach Americans to conduct themselves properly. And what is proper conduct? Why, “in the manner English gentlemen thought other Englishmen should conduct themselves, when England was the leading Power in the world,” of course.

James writes with the power of authority, authority gained from close study and painstaking analysis. He is familiar with all the latest research and an experienced traveler who has seen every corner of the country. This is why he can assure, as he does in one of the many scholarly asides footnoted on almost every page, that, “All people who do not read The New Yorker are forced to live in the suburban equivalent of city slums, referred to as ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ Those who do not read the Reader’s Digest either, are forced to live on the tracks. Neither group is permitted to own a station-wagon or join a country club.”

This is, of course, utter nonsense, and if you’ve made it to this point in the book, you’ve already figured out that this is a book-length counterfeit, as fake as a three dollar bill. And as deft and successful as a hat trick.

It’s clear within a few pages that this is all tongue-in-cheek and artfully pompous. And if that’s all it were, this would have been better done as a three-page piece in Punch. What makes Americans in Glasshouses worth reading after sixty years is that it’s still a good old-fashioned hoot. James’ stereotypes are occasionally a bit long in the tooth (though I guess that cocktail parties are sort of coming back), but always so overblown that it’s hard not to smile:

As is well-known outside America, Americans lack souls. This makes them even simpler to understand. It makes them both simple and simple-minded. (Souls are notoriously correlated with complexity, and therefore with higher mental development.) It is therefore unnecessary to go below the surface to learn about Americans, because most of them only live on the surface.

And it’s impossible for James’ windbag scholar not to let more than a few equally amusing stereotypes about the English slip in:

Everyone in Europe knows that American children are badly brought up. This is because their parents bring them up themselves instead of using nannies and boarding schools.

Thus, reading Americans in Glasshouses comes to seem like a guilt-free vacation from tolerance and understanding.

Copies of Americans in Glasshouses are available on Amazon for as little as $1.98, but you can get electronic versions free at the Internet Archive:

Americans in Glasshouses, by Leslie James
New York City: Henry Schuman, Inc., 1950

A Dream of Treason, by Maurice Edelman

Cover of UK paperback edition of 'A Dream of Treason'Elected at the age of 34 as the member for Coventry in the Labour wave that swept Churchill out of as Prime Minister after VE Day, Maurice Edelman served in Parliament until his death 30 years later. And while he may not have enjoyed the historical fame of Disraeli or the sales of Jeffery Archer, he may be the supreme representative of that exclusive class, the British MP-slash-novelist. Between 1951 and 1974, he published over a dozen novels, along with a handful of non-fiction works.

While I wouldn’t call him a great writer, Edelman was certainly adept at producing novels that managed to be both entertaining and intelligent. His paperback publishers tended to slap racy covers on his books in blatant attempts to convince unsuspecting browsers into thinking them essentially indistinguishable from other shelf fodder. One can picture copies of A Dream of Treason or Shark Island or Disraeli in Love next to the finest works of Erle Stanley Gardner, Mac Bolan or Barbara Cartland. Had he been more of a publicity hound, he might even have been able to boost his numbers into Jeffery Archer’s range.

If you were to judge by their covers–and if they weren’t pandering, they were just boring–you’d think Edelman’s books fully deserve their fate today: utterly forgotten and disregarded. But good things sometimes hide behind terrible packaging. Flip past the title page of any of his novels, and you will find material far more subtle, sophisticated and intelligent that you’d have reason to suspect.

A Dream of Treason, his third novel (1955), is a perfect example. Its protagonist, Martin Lambert, is a mid-level civil servant in the Foreign Office who appears to be doomed to spend the rest of his career in mediocrity. Lambert is married to an alcoholic who’s spent her recent years hopping into Lambert’s colleague’s beds, spending months in institutions, or making scenes at embassy affairs–in other words, a frightful liaibility for an aspiring diplomat. Too unstable a property to risk putting her husband in more prominent positions.

Until he’s approached by Brangwyn, the brash and ambitious new Foreign Secretary, with a proposal to pass some controversial state papers to a radical French journalist. It is a patently treasonous act, and Brangwyn has marked Lambert as someone just desperate enough to do it, in return for a posting that will give his career a second wind. The deal is made, and Lambert makes the drop in a quiet room of the National Gallery, looking forward to a move to Tokyo.

And then Brangwyn dies in a plane crash, leaving Lambert with no posting, no protector, and no alibi. The leaked material makes the expected splash in the French press, and the Foreign Office security officers begin hunting for its source. Lambert is quickly suspected but the investigation is pursued with typical bureaucratic deliberation–which means he is allowed to spend days wondering about his fate and his options. Edelman is quite effective in portraying the plight of a man who is about to be caught and has no good way out.

But he is at his best in capturing the intricate interplay between politics and bureaucracy that defines the workings of British government. The permanence of the Civil Service and the transcience of part-led governments creates an environment where the leaders can often find themselves subordinated to the people who are meant to follow them. Lambert’s biggest mistake, the Permanent Undersecretary–the senior civil servant in the Foreign Office–points out to him, was to put his faith in a politician rather than in his own kind:

“I’ll tell you this, Martin. The politician’s never been born who in the long run can stand up to a determined Civil Servant. Oh, I know that some tough Minister can come along and throw his weight about. He’ll stir up the Department study the functional diagram say he wants this and that. And then he’ll have to go off to a dinner or a conference or to a Cabinet meeting. And in the meantime, the Civil Servant will be co-operating with his great ally inertia. Inertia: it’s eminent among the graces.”

Edelman is at his worst, however, when he wanders from office and club into the realm of sex. There is a romance, between Lambert and a girl of nineteen. It is veddy British and veddy icky: “He put his arm around her waist and from there, under her left armpit, and they walked together slowly and with out speaking towards the light of the postern-gate, while beneath his fingers, he felt her breast, firm and pendant in the rhythm of their motion.” This is low, not love.

If you can overlook the ham-fisted attempts at romance, A Dream of Treason is remarkably successful as a thinking person’s entertainment, the sort of thing you read as a nice break between weightier books. I’ve ordered a couple more of Edelman’s novels for just such occasions.

You can find electronic copies of A Dream of Treason online at the Internet Archive:

A Dream of Treason, by Maurice Edelman
New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1955

My Life: or the Adventures of Geo. Thompson by George Thompson

If you’re in the mood for some cheap–heck, free–lowbrow reading, I can recommend George Thompson’s brief autobiography, My Life: or the Adventures of Geo. Thompson, which you can find at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. Thompson offers up a double murder plus suicide, blackmail, robbery, gambling, teenage drunkenness, prostitution, child abuse, and adultery–and that’s just in the first three chapters.

George Thompson’s name won’t be found in too many histories of American literature. That’s because his claim to fame was as perhaps our country’s first great writers of trash. Thompson wrote dozens, maybe hundreds of works with such titles as Venus in Boston, The Gay Girls of New-York, The Mysteries of Bond Street, Adventures of a Sofa, and The Amorous Adventures of Lola Montes, which were as popular and pandering in their day as, say, “Jersey Shore” or “Date My Ex” are today. As David S. Reynolds puts it in an entry on “Sensational Fiction”, “Among the kinds of sexual activity Thompson depicts are adultery, miscegenation, group sex, incest, child sex, and gay sex.” These books were sold by publishers advertising “Rich, Rare and Racy Reading,” and sold for 25 or 50 cents–equivalent to $50 to $100 today, if Internet inflation calculators are reliable.

No surprise, then, that he lays the melodrama on thick when it comes to telling his own life’s story. He runs away from home after knocking his uncle down a staircase and quickly meets up with one Jack Slack, a thief and swell barely older than him, who proceeds to introduce Thompson to beer and champagne. Before the night is over, they’ve met up with a prostitute and fallen into a card game. “What wonder is it that I became a reckless, dissipated individual, careless of myself, my interests, my fame and fortune?,” Thompson reflects.

Methinks he doth protest too much.

He gets a job working as a printer’s apprentice, but the work is, of course, merely the pretext for introducing us into the tangled affairs of the printer and his wife, both of whom are cheating on the other. This soon leads to one of the book’s many dramatic climaxes, as the enraged husband offers the wife one final choice:

With these words, Romaine cocked his pistol and approached his wife, saying, in a low, savage tone that evinced the desperate purpose of his heart—

“Take your choice, madam; do you prefer to die by lead or by steel?”

The miserable woman threw herself upon her knees, exclaiming—

“Mercy, husband—mercy! Do not kill me, for I am not prepared to die!”

“You call me husband now—you, who have so long refused to receive me as a husband. Come—I am impatient to shed your blood, and that of your paramour. Breathe a short prayer to Heaven, for mercy and forgiveness, and then resign your body to death and your soul to eternity!”

So saying the desperate and half-crazy man raised on high the glittering knife. Poor Mrs. Romaine uttered a shriek, and, before she could repeat it, the knife descended with the swiftness of lightning, and penetrated her heart. Her blood spouted all over her white dress, and she sank down at the murderer’s feet, a lifeless corpse!

Now that experience would have been enough for a lifetime for most folks, but it’s just the beginning in Thompson’s case.

Eventually, after a detour into acting, a jail break, a few dozen romantic entanglements and enough other scandals that one soon gives up keeping track, Thompson decides to head to the peace and civility of Brahmin Boston. Oddly, however, for a man who made his fortune on telling other people’s secrets, Thompson took great offense at the prying nature of Bostonians:

A stranger goes among them, and forthwith inquisitive whispers concerning him begin to float about like feathers in the air. “Who is he? What is he? Where did he come from? What’s his business? Has he got any money? (Great emphasis is laid on this question.) Is he married, or single? What are his habits? Is he a temperance man? Does he smoke—does he drink—does he chew? Does he go to meeting on Sundays? What religious denomination does he belong to? What are his politics? Does he use profane language? What time does he go to bed—and what time does he get up? Wonder what he had for dinner to-day?” &c., &c., &c.

Thompson spends just one year in Boston before heading back to the fleshpots of New York, which is where the book comes to an end. Not, however, before he has a chance to swear that “not one single word of fiction or exaggeration has been introduced into these pages.”

And I am Marie of Roumania.

My Life; or The Adventures of George Thompson, Being the Autobiography of an Author
Boston: Federhen, 1854

The Chosen Valley: the Story of a Pioneer Town, by Margaret Snyder

A few days ago, President Obama stopped in the town of Chatfield, Minnesota while on a bus tour of the Midwest. He visited a kids’ summer camp and posed for some photos with them.
President Obama joking with kids in Chatfield, Minnesota on August 15, 2011
By pure coincidence, I just finished reading a book about Chatfield and had started this post when the President’s stop brought this small town into the spotlight for an hour or so. Margaret Snyder’s 1948 book, The Chosen Valley describes how a quiet spot, a small valley where a creek joins the Root River, a tributary of the Missippi, was settled and grew for its first fifty or so years.

Most Americans have a general notion about how we got from the days of the American Revolution to today–about hunters and trappers exploring ever westward, followed by settlers who set up small farms, then small towns, the railroads, industrialization, wars big and small, and somehow, to now. How many, though, have any notion of the step-by-step changes that took us from wilderness to land claims to towns to sewer systems, electic lights, and school districts? The Chosen Valley does just that for Chatfield, population (2010) 2,779, and it’s a story that deserves to be far better known than either Chatfield or Snyder’s book are today.

Chatfield got its start in 1853, when one Thomas Twiford, who was essentially a would-be land developer, scouted out an area along the banks of the Root River, a small tributary of the Mississippi in the far southeast corner of Minnesota. He hurried back to the nearest town of any size and managed to get several other men interested enough to pack family and chattel into wagons and head to the place they decided to name Chatfield after a prominent judge of the new Minnesota Territory. As Snyder shows, through careful tracing of what at times were often intricate arrangements of ownership and financing–particularly during the rush of land speculation surrounding the mapping out of possible railroad routes–money, politics, and wheeling and dealing was far more often at the heart of development than anything we might nostalgically call the “pioneer spirit.”

Not that there weren’t plenty of hardships:

When January let loose its fury the hills were no shelter against the blizzards that blotted the world in a frenzy of snow, or the sly cold that crept into bed with the sleepers. John Luark’s wife died in the depths of that winter’s cold, despite the care of two doctors. Every man in town took his turn in the sad labor of chipping out a burial place in ground flint-hard with frost. They made her grave on the slope between the little house she lived in and the road that wound up the side of Winona Hill The townsfolk stood silent about the grave that January of 1855 as the first of their dead was buried.

The first few dozen settlers were followed by others the next spring. Within another year, the town had a flour mill, several general stores, regular church services if not a church building, a one-room school (private at first), and a land office. The last was set up by one Jason Easton, an ambitious young man from New York state who had arranged through a family friend in Washington, D. C., to win the job of opening a land office for the partitioning and sale of properties throughout the area of southeast Minnesota around Chatfield.

“The biggest thing going in Western business was undoubtedly land and the lending of money for the purchase of land,” Snyder observes. And here we begin to learn that, contrary to the myth of how the West was won, the transfer of land from its uncharted, undeveloped state to small farmers and businessmen–orchestrated through government land offices and countless political arrangements large and small–was the single most important factor in the transformation of the Midwest.

Jason Easton of Chatfield, Minnesota (circa 1876)Jason Easton embodied the zeal for deal-making that was an essential survival skill for an effective entrepreneur in the growing Midwest. He cajoled banks in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia to get loans or attractive rates on his deposits. He fired off volleys of letters asking for patience when money was tight and delighted in managing to foist off a lot of dried peaches that “were wholly worthless but brought 5 cents per pound.”

For Chatfield and its surrounding counties, Easton was at the center of what was perhaps, for the Midwest, its most controversial and significant development: the routing and building of its first railroads. Chatfield had significant competition with nearby towns in the decision of where lines linking St. Paul and other growing cities and towns to Chicago. It failed to win a spot along the main line, but Easton was able to convince the Southern Minnesota Railway Company to run a spur to Chatfield from Winnebago, and to get himself appointed as president of the Southern Minnesota Railway Extension Company. He founded the town’s bank, bought up large plots of property around the town that he hired out to tenant farmers, and organized and invested in dozens of enterprises, more of which succeeded than not.

Easton apparently found it difficult to shift his attention from his latest batch of deals. Snyder recounts that, “there was one direful passage when Easton, deep in a cut-throat fight for the wheat markets of the state, refused to go to his mother, who had begged him to come in her serious illness. His letter to his brother, who had written for the mother, said: ‘. . . the demands of my business are just now so great that it is impossible for me to leave. My comfort must be in knowing that you are giving our mother every care.’ He enclosed ten dollars and urged his brother to ‘call on me freely if anything more is required.'”

In terms of wealth, Easton was an exception in Chatfield. One man did make a small fortune with a dry goods store, but he then moved his family to Minneapolis. Most of the people in and around the town were poor. Some, like the man who set up the town’s first mill, fared better. Everyone had no choice but to work hard. As a result, Snyder notes, there is no evidence of any art or literature, beyond amateur poems for ceremonial occasions, being created in the town.

Most of the first decade’s settlers were Americans–some first generation, some with American roots going back over 200 years. All but three states were represented in the 1860. Nearly a third of these came from New York, where poor families had a harder time getting enough land for a working farm or were moving west as Irish, Poles, and other immigrants began taking jobs for lower pay.

In 1860, one in four Chatfield residents was foreign born. Snyder traces the paths some of these followed to come to the town. Norwegians were spurred by the revolution of 1830. Germans by the revolution of 1848. One man snuck across the border from Bohemia into German one night to escape an abusive miller he was indentured to. The miller, James Marsar Cussons, “son and grandson of millers and with uncles and cousins beyond number in the trade,” came from England to have an opportunity to run his own mill. Ireland accounted for the greatest number by far–in large part due to the great potato famine of 1845-1852. As the figures from the census show, none of them came from southern Europe.

Foreign-born inhabitants of Chatfield, Minnesota (from 1860 Census)

Perhaps as much as a third or more of the new settlers moved on after a year or more. There were enough failed farms and stores to keep anyone from getting too complacent. The soil in the valley was excellent. Wheat was probably the most common crop, but almost everything one could plant was tried by someone at least once. Apples, plums, hops, sugar beets, potatoes, pumpkins, cabbages, and most other plants familiar from northern Europe did well. Most farms had some cows and hogs, but only the latter were raised for meat. Milk was too valuable to let a cow get killed for.

Dairy farming grew to be one of the town’s biggest businesses. In 1889, a few of the dairy farmers formed the Cooperative Creamery, which became a model for much of the country and one of the few employers to meet its payroll throughout the Great Depression.

By the late 1880s, Chatfield was no longer a frontier town but a well-established, prosperous, and stable. Which meant that opportunities were no longer so easy to find. “When the Dakota country opened up,” Snyder writes, “considerable numbers of the younger Chatfield men, some of them with wives and children, turned to that West to seek their fortunes.” Others moved on thanks to the educations their parents’ hard work and success had allowed them. When the local paper surveyed a group of young men who had left the town’s school a decade earlier, it found that over half worked “in business” rather than on the farm and most of these no longer lived in the town.
A postcard view of the main street of Chatfield, Minnesota in the late 1800s.
The town’s social values began to set like concrete, too. “As the population became relatively stable, and the excitement of change and conquest was lost, new ways were found for satisfying the individual’s sense of his own worth,” Snyder writes. It’s hard to believe that sentence wasn’t written with tongue in cheek, though, because the “new ways” she then describes are the Masonic Lodge, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Columbus.

The town’s infrastructure also matured. The common well dug in 1854 led to a simple system of distribution through hollowed-out logs and continued to grow until a full system with a pumping station, sewers, and drains was built. The groves of trees that greeted the first settlers were wiped out within a decade to build houses and make fence posts. The telegraph arrived within a few years. Electricity, which made it possible to gather in the evenings for more than a sing-along or a dance, arrived in the 1880s and the telephone not long after.

What I most enjoyed about The Chosen Valley was that Snyder describes almost all these developments by telling us who took the first steps–which were usually to a neighbor’s door to try to stir up interest and support. Three men decide the town needs a cemetery, and arrange to have a plot of land on the ridge behind the town set aside for it. The town’s first Catholic residents bring a priest over from nearby Winona to say the first mass in 1854. By 1874, they had their own church, paid for entirely from their own contributions. An amateur bucket brigade becomes the Fire Company and eventually the town fire department. Through all these stories, The Chosen Valley makes it crystal clear that the pioneer spirit was as much about interdependence as it was about independence.

If the book has any significant weakness, it is Snyder’s limitations as a writer. There is little romance in the story of the settlement and development of Chatfield, but that didn’t prevent her from inserting lyrical little passages that read like bad high school literary club prose. And as she brings the town’s story up to her present day, she seems to have run out of ideas completely. Instead of any stock-taking or long view of the ninety years she has covered, the book ends with a description of the start of World War Two and its effect on the town that is one of the worst pieces of writing I’ve come across in quite a while: “For the future, in its turn, would become the present, and no present can wholly escape the effects of its past. Where should the people begin the task of understanding the things-that-are, if always they set it aside for the headier wine of things-to-come?” Just typing that out was painful.

The Chosen Valley appears to have been the only book Margaret Snyder ever published. Aside from the few and brief passages of purple prose, it is well worth reading if you have any interest in American history with a small h. Through the small example of Chatfield, Minnesota, you can learn a great deal about a patch of land with trees and a little river running through it became a microcosm of America (at least up to the middle of the 20th century).

The Chosen Valley: the Story of a Pioneer Town, by Margaret Snyder
New York City: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1948

The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, by Seumas O’Brien

Now I know where Samuel Beckett really got his inspiration.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Whale and the Grasshopper'Seumas O’Brien’s The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables is one of the most absurd books written before the rise of surrealism, full of tales tall as Paul Bunyan that serve as the backdrop for a series of philosophical debates that wrap nihilism in a cloak of old country weave.

At heart, it’s nothing more than a collection of Pat and Mike stories–except in this case, it’s Padna and Micus. “I want to tell you about the morning I walked along the beach at Ballysantamalo,” Padna says to Micus at the start of the title story.

So I ses to meself, Padna Dan, ses I, what kind of a fool of a man are you? Why don t you take a swim for yourself? So I did take a swim, and I swam to the rocks where the seals go to get their photographs taken, and while I was having a rest for myself I noticed a grasshopper sitting a short distance away and ‘pon my word, but he was the most sorrowful-looking grasshopper I ever saw before or since. Then all of a sudden a monster whale comes up from the sea and lies down beside him and ses: ‘Well, ses he, is that you? Who’d ever think of finding you here? Why there’s nothing strange under the sun but the ways of woman.”

“Tis me that’s here, then,” ses the grasshopper. “My grandmother died last night and she wasn’t insured either.”

“The practice of negligence is the curse of mankind and the root of sorrow.” ses the whale. “I suppose the poor old soul had her fill of days, and sure we all must die, and tis cheaper to be dead than alive at any time. A man never knows that he’s dead when he is dead, and he never knows he’s alive until he’s married.”

That’s a pretty good taste of the whole book. Each tale is nothing less than fantastic. The Czar of Russia comes to visit the Mayor of Cahermore. Johnny Moonlight meets up with the Devil and Oliver Cromwell on a lonely country road. The King of Montobewlo finally gives up cannabalism after an encounter with his first Irishman. Matty the Goat seeks the advice of the King of Spain on whether it would be better to commit suicide in New York or Boston. Shauno the Rover, feeling underappreciated by the world, dresses up as Henry the Eighth and cons a Royal Navy captain to take him on a royal cruise to Sperrispazuka, where he pays a visit on the Shah. (Shauno, by the way, is “a gentleman withal,” Padna assures Micus: “Never known to use his rare vocabulary in the presence of ladies, but would wait until their backs were turned, like a well-trained married man, and then curse and damn them one and all to perdition.”)

But the actual stories themselves, even at their most ridiculous, are just excuses for Padna and Micus to play games of platitudinous one-upmanship. In the first few pages of the book, it seems as if O’Brien is doing nothing more than using some wild tales as an odd way of celebrating naive folk philosophy. “Decency when you’re poor is extravagance, and bad example when you’re rich,” Micus counsels Padna at the start of “The Whale and the Grasshopper.”

OK. I’d accept that as a wee bit o’ wisdom from the Oud Sod. But take a close look at what follows:

“And why?” said Padna.

“Well,” said Micus, “because the poor imitate the rich and the rich give to the poor and when the poor give to each other they have nothing of their own.”

“That’s communism you’re talking,” said Padna, “and that always comes before education and enlightenment. Sure, if the poor weren’t decent they’d be rich, and if the rich were decent they’d be poor, and if every one had a conscience there’d be less millionaires.”

“But suppose a bird had a broken wing and couldn’t fly to where the pickings were?” said Micus.

“Well, then bring the pickings to him. That would be charity.”

“”But charity is decency,” Micus replies. At which point it becomes clear that Padna and Micus are less country sages than precursors of Vladimir and Estragon. Indeed, one could argue they have even less of an idea what’s going on than Beckett’s pair waiting for Godot.

I suspect that the whole book is nothing more than an attempt to pop the bubble of fuzzy nostalgia surrounding the softer-headed elements of the Irish Renaissance. In O’Brien’s view, Crazy Jane isn’t insightful–just crazy. Indeed, H. L. Mencken wrote in one review that the book, “saved the Irish Renaissance from its prevailing melancholy.”

Seamus O’Brien was born in Cork and trained as a sculptor and taught at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. He took up writing in his mid-twenties. His play, “Duty” (available with four other O’Brien comedies on Project Gutenberg) was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1913, and has been called the best Irish comedy every written. But soon after that he moved to America, where he remained for decades. The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables was published in 1916, after which he appears to have written nothing but an occasional article or short story. The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables is available in print from a number of direct-to-print republishers, but don’t pay their exorbitant prices: get it free and use your eReader or print out a copy. After all, as O’Brien writes, “Flies never frequent empty jam-pots, but money always brings friends.”

Whatever that means.

The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, by Seumas O’Brien
Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1916.

Life of Campestris ulm, the Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis

Title Page of 'Life of Campestris Ulm'I’ve read the biography of a dog, of a cow, of an elephant, of a lion, and of a seagull (yeah, that one). But this is my first biography of a tree. Life of Campestris Ulm: Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common is a quirky tribute written by Joseph Henry Curtis, a Boston native, around the time of the 130th anniversary of the oldest living tree on Boston Common.

Campestris Ulm, the oldest tree on Boston Common, around 1910Campestris ulm is the scientific name for the English elm. Although a different elm–the Old Great Elm, an American elm sometimes known as the Liberty Tree–was better known until it fell in an enormous galestorm that hit Boston in 1876, this elm was one of a number planted at the behest of John Hancock, prominent signer of the Declaration of Independence (literally) and first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachussetts, around the time he took office in 1780 and outlasted it.

At the time, cows grazed on Boston Common. The Common itself survived only because it served practical concerns, although Hancock–very much a lover of fine clothes, fine living, and beautiful public spaces–was beginning to change things. Still, Massachussetts at the time was a state strongly under the Puritan influence. Curtis recalls Sundays in the early years after the tree’s planting:

From midnight Saturday to sunset Sunday was weekly a day of rest for Campestris. He hardly dared to stir a leaf; even the cows abstained in large measure from chewing their cuds and the Common was deserted. One Sunday, however, he was astonished and shocked to observe the Governor taking a turn in the mall on his way home from church. He was glad to learn the next day that the Governor was fined, and, much as he respected his sponsor, felt that it served him right.

As Curtis tells us, Hancock fell afoul of a relatively recent statute, that ruled that “travelling or other secular employments, unless for some purpose of necessity or humanity, was prohibited on the Lord’s day; and wardens, tithingmen, and other functionaries, were clothed with unusual powers to enforce its observance.”

As time passed, certain of the old time prohibitions lapsed and the beauty and benefits of the Common came to be increasingly accepted and protected–particularly after the return of Oliver Wendell Holmes and others from Paris, where, as David McCullough describes it in his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, they marvelled at the Garden of the Tuileries and other public spaces. Yet not so fast that a few victims of pragmatism remained. In 1820, for example, a local bit of folklore was obliterated on the simple policy that a boulder takes up valuable productive soil:

One morning in 1820, in his fortieth year, Campestris observed a cluster of workmen around his old friend, the Wishing-Stone, one holding a drill, while another was swinging a heavy sledge-hammer. After a time this ceased, and another man seemed to be busy ramming and tamping something into a hole. Shortly after there was a great scampering of cows driven wildly at a distance and the cluster of men dispersed in various directions along the several paths, waving their hands as a warning. One man left behind lingered a short time, and then ran rapidly away. There was a flash, an explosion, the air was filled with smoke, and when it cleared, to the astonishment and grief of Campestris, his beloved boulder, the friend of his youth, was observed blown to fragments.

In the language of trees, Campestris exclaimed, as he shook his limbs, “What have you done, you stupid louts, you churls and sons of churls? Know ye not, that it was no common stone; that, hallowed as it was by the vows of countless swains and maids, it possessed a sentimental value which, translated into dollars and cents, the only measure of value your vulgar, commonplace lives can appreciate, would amount to a sum you could never replace by your labor, if your lives were prolonged beyond the age of Methuselah? Would that you were buried in the debris of your own blast. “Alas, alas!” he soliloquized, “a large part of the pleasure of my life has departed,” and sadly he watched the stupid, indifferent men load the fragments on a drag and carry them away.

In after years Campestris could never allude to the destruction of his old friend without manifesting his grief and sorrow.

The tree survived the great storm that felled the Liberty Tree, as well as some man-made cataclysms such as the construction of the MTA and of public restrooms in gloriously hideous late Victorian style within its eyeshot. Curtis writes of regular visits to converse with the elm and reports on some of its recent complaints. “He lately had been greatly disturbed by the borings for the new Cambridge Tunnel,” Curtis tells us.

I don’t know if this tree is still standing on the Common. Other than Curtis, no one seems to have taken particular notice of it within the last century. And though Life of Campestris Ulm: Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common is certainly no more than a pleasant bit of amusement, Curtis deserves some credit for having managed to organize an interesting social and historical panorama around the figure of a simple sturdy tree providing some shade to those walking along one of the paths through the Common.

Life of Campestris ulm, the oldest inhabitant of Boston Common is available free online through the Internet Archive in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, ASCII, and other formats.

Life of Campestris ulm, the oldest inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis
Boston: W. B Clarke, 1910

Overlooked, by Maurice Baring

I need to catch up with a post on some of my recent reads, most of which have turned out to be among their authors’ lesser efforts, unfortunately.

Cover of House of Stratus reissue of "Overlooked"Of the lot, by far the most interesting and, within its limited range, successful was Maurice Baring’s slim 1922 novel Overlooked. Had the term been in use back then, Overlooked would have been called an experimental novel. For what Baring undertook was truly an experiment in fiction.

The first half of the book is titled, “The Papers of Anthony Kay.” A blind man sent by his doctor for two month’s rest at a seaside resort called Hareville, a fictional stand-in for Deauville or a similar society retreat of the early 20th century. There he encounters a sampling of international society–a scandalous Italian/French widow; a French/Russian princess; an ambiguously Slavic intellectual; an upright but neer-do-well English lady, Mrs. Lennox, and her beautiful niece, Miss Jean Brandon; and an English novelist named James Rudd.

Kay contemplates writing a novel as a way of relaxing, and he and Rudd fall into discussing Miss Brandon. Kay quickly gives up on his idea, but she inspires Rudd to begin sketching out his own story based on his imaginative speculations about her life:

“She talks, but she cannot express herself. Or rather, she has nothing to express. At least, I think she has nothing to express : or what she has got to express is not what we think it is. I imagine a story like Pygmalion and Galatea. Somebody waking her to life and then finding her quite different from what the stone image seemed to promise, from what it did promise.”

While Rudd sequesters himself to work on his book, Kay befriends a cross-section of his hotel’s residents. With each of them, the conversation eventually gets around to the topic of Miss Brandon–her belligerent late father, her apparently broken engagement with an heir dispatched to India, her beauty and air of mystery. Each conversation is a mix of fact, gossip, and rumor, and each creates, in effect, a portrait of her from a different perspective.

Late in this first section, Miss Brandon’s erstwhile fiancé arrives in Hareville, but he seems to spurn her for the attentions of one of the scandalous widows du jour. Miss Brandon turns for solace to the mysterious Slav, and for a moment, they become secretly engaged. Kay departs before learning the outcome of the story.

Much of the second half of the book is devoted to the text of Rudd’s long short story, “Overlooked,” which he published in a private edition of 500, sending a copy to Kay. In “Overlooked,” Miss Brandon has become “Kathleen Farrel,” and Hareville “Saint-Yves-les-Bains.” All the main characters Kay encountered reappear with different names and slightly altered back stories.

As promised, Rudd provides a fairy tale to explain Brandon/Farrell’s sense of evanescence:

Once, when she was a little girl, she had gone to pick flowers in the great dark wood near her home, where the trees had huge fantastic trunks, and gnarled boles, and where in the spring-time the blue-bells stretched beneath them like an unbroken blue sea. After she had been picking blue-bells for nearly an hour, she had felt sleepy. She lay down under the trunk of a tree. A gipsy passed her and asked to tell her fortune. She had waved her away, as she had no sympathy with gipsies. The gipsy had said that she would give her a piece of good advice unasked, and that was, not to go to sleep in the forest on the Eve of St. John, for if she did she would never wake. She paid no attention to this, and she dozed off to sleep and slept for about half-an-hour. She was an obstinate child, and not at all superstitious. When she got home, she asked the housekeeper when was the Eve of St. John. It happened to fall on that very day. She said to herself that this proved what nonsense the gipsies talked, as she had slept, woken up, come back to the house, and had high tea in the schoolroom as usual. She never gave the incident another thought ; but the housekeeper, who was superstitious, told one of the maids that Miss Kathleen had been overlooked by the fairy-folk and would never be quite the same again. When she was asked for further explanations, she would not give any. But to all outward appearances Kathleen was the same, and nobody noticed any difference in her, nor did she feel that she had suffered any change.

Rudd plays out his version, including the return of the fiance and the secret engagement, which is broken off as the two lovers realize the arrangement could only work in a fantasy world free of the constraints of class, money and prejudices.

The book then returns to the “Papers of Anthony Kay.” Kay describes his reaction to “Overlooked” and discusses the book and the story of the real-life Miss Brandon with several people he knew from his time at Hareville. Kay and his friend Doctor Sabran conclude that Rudd got it wrong … but aren’t sure what “right” is:

“I am convinced of one thing only, and that is that the novelist drew false deductions from facts which were perhaps sometimes correctly observed.” [Sabran]

I said I agreed with him. Rudd’s deductions were wrong ; his facts were probably right in some cases; Sabran’s deductions were right, I thought, as far as they went; but we either had not enough facts or not enough intuition to arrive at a solution of the problem.

To another acquaintance, Kay argues that, “Rudd had started with a theory about Miss Brandon, that she was such and such person, and he distorted the facts till they fitted with his theory. At least, that was what I imagined to have been the case.”

In the end, Miss Brandon is reunited with her fiancé, who appears never to have any other objective in mind, and the pair enjoy the most conventional of marriages. Kay, Rudd, and almost everyone else in the book(s), it seems, were all guilty of reading far more into her situation than ever existed.

Characterization is not Baring’s forté in Overlooked. Kay, Rudd, and the rest are sketched just as superficially as Miss Brandon. But for Baring’s purposes, little more than stick figures are needed. Years before it got its name, Baring was experimenting with the Rashomon effect. Rudd applies a fantastic interpretation on Miss Brandon’s story, but his is just the most overt form of fiction in the book. Every one puts his or her spin on her story, influenced by all sorts of factors–from the English sense of propriety to the Italian love of the game of romance. Baring puts the final seal on the artificiality and impermanence of the social affairs of Hareville by noting the date of his departure from the town: June 27, 1914.

Overlooked was Baring’s second novel, published soon after Passing By, which is also something of a play on the nature of a work of fiction. Although the books received warm if not enthusiastic reviews, neither sold well. His next novel, C, was far more conventional in approach–a Bildungsroman set in Edwardian England–and weighed in at a whopping 700-plus pages. C is in print from Faber Finds.

Overlooked was reissued about ten years ago by the House of Stratus, which appears to be a hybrid between a legitimate reissue house and one of the many print-on-demand open source publishers. Stratus reissued a good chunk of Baring’s better work, each with a relatively attractive cover, between 2001 and 2003, but none of these appears to be in print now and Stratus no longer lists Baring among their authors. And the quality of their cover art–and editing–seems to have dropped dramatically, if the Caustic Cover Critic’s example of their version of Brain Aldis(s)’ Dracula Unbound is any indication. But save your money and download a free copy from the Internet Archive: Overlooked, by Maurice Baring.

Overlooked, by Maurice Baring
London: William Heinemann

Twin Beds, by Edward Salisbury Field

Twin Beds was a book ahead of its time. Its time being somewhere between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s, the golden era of screwball comedies. For Twin Beds is just the sort of comedy of errors you’d expect to see in a Preston Sturges movies or an episode of “I Love Lucy.”

Blanche and her husband Henry live in a New York apartment. Looking to buy a new bed, she lets the salesman convince her to purchase that novelty, a set of twin beds, instead–they’re “stylish and everybody was using them.” Blanche and Henry are happy trend-followers, but Blanche’s ma, visiting from Centerville, finds the situation a little scandalous.

This would be the end of the matter but for the ensuing set of accidents. Henry heads out for a night of bowling and beer with the fellas–which puts Ma, already at odds with the new fangled ways of life in the big city:

Pa had never had a night out, so why should Henry! It wasn’t safe for married men to go gallivanting around alone nights; it gave them wrong ideas. What if Henry did work hard all week! Hadn’t Pa worked hard, too! Hard work was good for men; it kept them from getting too skittish. Besides, New York wasn’t like Centerville. New York was a wicked city, full of temptations. “And you needn’t tell me times has changed,” said Ma; “men are just the same as they always was.”

“Yes, Ma,” I said, “but women ain’t.”

“What did you say!”

“I said Henry has a perfect right to go out Saturday nights if I let him.”

“Well, it ain’t right,” declared Ma. “If Henry loved you the way he ought to, he wouldn’t want to leave you.”

Blanche and Ma retire for the night. Somewhere around midnight, a man staggers into the apartment, fumbles to get his clothes off, and climbs into Henry’s bed. Listening in the dark, Blanche thinks it’s Henry.

It’s not, of course. It’s one of their neighbors, who’s mistaken their place for his as he teeters home from his own night out. What are Blanche and Henry to do, particularly if they don’t want to upset Ma? Well, the whole affair ultimately involves a fire escape, an enormous clothes hamper, a policeman, an angry wife, slamming doors, thrown shoes and most of the other comic cliches short of a rolling pin.

In fact, Twin Beds was such prime material that Field made it into a play, co-written with Margaret Mayo, and Hollywood filmed it not once, not twice, but three times–in 1920 starring Carter and Flora Parker DeHaven (Pa and Ma of Gloria); in 1929 starring Jack Mulhall; and in 1942 with George Brent and Joan Bennett.

An interesting footnote to: Some years after Robert Lewis Stevenson’s death in 1894, Field went to work for his widow, Fanny. At the time, Field was 23 and Fanny was in her sixties. They grew very close, and when she died, he reported said she was “the only woman in the world worth dying for.” Which didn’t stop him from promptly marrying Stevenson’s daughter, Belle, who just 22 years older than him.

You can find digital versions of the book online at the Internet Archive:

The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub, by Ada Blum

About a dozen years before James Joyce invented Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, Ada Blom wrote her own soliloquy and published it herself under the odd title, The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub. She offered her 100-some page booklet for sale: “This book will be sent by mail, postpaid, to any address upon receipt of 25 cents in silver.” And she put her proud and somewhat defiant portrait on the front page.

“I was born in Sweden, of Swedish parents,” she begins. It is about the last straight-forward sentence in the book. Ada was quite obviously a self-taught writer as well as publisher, but her voice and outlook have a brilliant daftness and honesty:

When I start in to criticise a person I always begin at the lower, and, firstly, he wore commonplace, soft-leather shoes. I find these new styles abominable. It is something radically wrong about the man who wore them. I’ll climb a little. Then there comes an evening shirt, stiff and stately. Then there is the head to describe, and I commence with the ears. The ears were deceiving, though. I’ll tell you that some other time. Blonde, curly hair, having the latest style of tint. The forehead was innocent and humorous — eyes with a sad longing in them like some little children have when they are out for mischief. A beauty mole on the right cheek, a good nose, a teasing-looking mustache of the right kind and a chin which said: “I am going to have it, but if 1 don’t get it I don’t care.” That was the look of the Echo from the Swedish mountains.

She is born and raised in a small town and taught strict Lutheran morality. When she asks her father, innocently, why God must be so angry and vengeful, he beats her with a rod, and by the time she is fifteen or so, she runs away from home to escape his abuse and harsh Christianity.

A string of jobs gets her first to Denmark, then Germany, where she gets a job singing in a music hall. A series of men try to woo her and she eventually falls for a diamond merchant from Amsterdam. After many rounds of promises and disappointments, she tracks him down in Wiesbaden and discovers that he is both married and confidence man. So she buys a cheap passage to America, landing in New York.

Ada was nothing if not industrious. Though her fortunes rise and fall more than a few times in the course of the story, she always manages to pick herself up, dust herself off, and start all over again. She manages to save enough money to buy own townhouse and set herself up as a landlord. Then she loses it, winds up back on the street, gets a job as a hotel scrub–a situation that lasts all of about two pages, despite the title–and then as a waitress, then as a singer again, and then returns into real estate. There are several rounds of this before the book’s abrupt end.

Her problem, in a nutshell, is a weakness for the wrong type of man. The confidence man is Wiesbaden proves the rule, not the exception. Her first husband, one John Shea, turns out to be a drunk, a thief, and an adulterer who tries to rob and then murder her. She falls for the concertmaster in one of the New York music halls, an affair she recalls in a rambling revery that can’t help but bring Molly Bloom’s to mind:

J–Jealousy. Yes, that is the course of my lady. I was jealous, and maybe I had no reason to be jealous; but K–kalsomine. Not at all. I don’t paint and powder any more. For whom should I bother? L–lament. Yes, but not here in the in park. M–money; money. Yes, the little I have left. What can I do with it alone and in a sore dilemma, sick and sorrowful? N–name and nobody he called me. No one and nobody. That was our last word of parting. Am I nothing at all? No, I suppose not. Well, O—-ordained. Am I ordained to this continued suffering? Yes, I suppose I am. P–Paradise. Yes there is a Paradise at least; that is if one can eat substantial food and drink plenty of water only; then you can work with brain or body and you’ll get tired and youll sleep—-sleep. If I only could sleep. No, I only slumber now and then, and then I am plagued with the nightmare and see hideous sights before my face. Q–yes, that is the question. Where will I go to? R-R-R–R–reminds me of something. R–what was it? I hear a violin around me and I see a sweet severe face, the chin resting on a white silk handkerchief, and both caress the violin through his glasses. I can see two noble, brown eyes watching me on the stage. With his right arm he holds the violin bow and caressingly and very carefully he strokes the violin until he has let me find my B, moll, tune and then we both join in together and tell each other through wonderful music how good, how true, what a happy life we could live together. But no; we both drank beer–could not afford to buy good beer, but had the tin can filled with cheap stuff, and then didn’t we both smoke cigarettes? Yes, we had enjoyed a cigarette before our acquaintance, which is no harm whatsoever, but we overdid it. Between every kiss we had to take a puff–a kiss and a puff, and a kiss and a puff. Then the kiss was too long and the cigarette went out, and striking a match we took no time to let the sulphur burn off and sucked the poison from the burning match into our system. Heavens!

When I spotted The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub on the Internet Archive, I assumed it was the sort of cheap, salacious literature sold in ads in the back of blood-and-guts rags around the turn of the century. And if anyone did send 25 cents in silver to Ada, it was probably in hope of just such lurid accounts of lust and lechery in the bedrooms of New York hotels.

They would have been pretty disappointed. Although there’s plenty of situations that would have caused Ada’s father to reach for his rod, the closest things get to the risque is when Ada finds a welching tenant drunk on his soft with a half-dressed woman asleep next to him.

But for a reader a hundred years later, the attraction of The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub is not the story but the storyteller. Could anyone but Joyce or Beckett have come up with such raw, unfiltered native craziness:

What was in that beer I drank? One good swallow–: only I took to quench my thirst, but anyhow I was paralyzed. I could not move. I produced money and sent for clam juice. The clam juice didn’t come. I produced money and sent for Dr. O’Brian. Dr. O’Brian didn’t come. I sent for the ambulance. The ambulance came and I was haled to the Harlem Dispensary, and there I was received as a helpless drunkard and imbecile and cigarette fiend. What happened to me there I shall cut out, but not long after that I was haled to Bellevue on Twenty-second Street, or Twenty-sixth, and there I was laid on the floor among a heap of misfortunates with empty stomachs, and I suffered the tortures of hell until the following day at about two o’clock in the afternoon, when the doctor came to look after our welfare.

To quote the one and only Ada Blom, Swedish runaway, tenament landlady and precursor to the fictional Molly: “Howl L. Lulua!”

You can purchase print copies of The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub from several different instaprint public domain publishers, or you can just get for free from the Internet Archive: I would advise, though, to go with the PDF version, as the rest are based on an OCR version of a poor quality copy and essentially unreadable.

The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub, by Ada Blom
New York: Ada Blom, 1909

The Easter Egg Hunt, by Speed Lamkin

The Wikipedia entry for Speed Lamkin quotes composer Ned Rorem’s characterization of him as “the poor man’s Truman Capote”–which is probably not how Lamkin would choose to be remembered. The comparison was unavoidable, however, at least for the first thirty-some years of his life.

Portrait of Speed Lamkin by Jean de Gaigneron (circa 1948)Born in Monroe, Louisiana, son of a wealthy businessman, Lamkin like Capote went North young–to Harvard in 1948 at the age of 16. He quickly found his way into the circles of Eastern avant-garde and gay society. As early as 1949, Tennessee Williams mentioned “Speed Lamkin, whom you may know or know of, sometimes referred to as the new Truman Capote” in a letter to a friend. He published his first novel, Tiger in the Garden, while still an undergraduate. Drawing heavily on Lamkin’s perceptions of Monroe society, the novel was, in the words of Time’s reviewer, “made up of old ingredients: miscegenation, aristocratic drunks and flowerlike ladies, languid Southern talk and fiery Southern tempers.” While there was no doubt that Lamkin’s book was informed by personal knowledge of at least a few skeletons in Louisiana closets, most reviews found the book a bit artificial: the New York Times’ reviewer said it gave the “sense of a low-powered, highly polished Hollywood product.”

This was a prescient comment. In the same letter, Williams wrote that Lamkin “wants to get a Hollywood job,” and less than a year later, Christopher Isherwood, living in Los Angeles, mentioned Lamkin for the first time in his diaries. Lamkin was the first to try to adapt Isherwood’s Berlin stories for the screen, and while he didn’t succeed in this effort, he did work as a screen writer, mostly in television for most of the 1950s.

In 1954, he published his second novel, The Easter Egg Hunt (later retitled Fast and Loose in paperback). Although labeled a Hollywood novel, the book is, to be more precise, a novel of Beverly Hills. The distinction is subtle but important. A Hollywood novel is, in some way or another, about the business of movie-making and the people involved in it.

Beverly Hills, on the other hand, while populated by many in the entertainment business, is first and foremost a town of the rich–or, as Lamkin describes it, small “wealthy city, two thirds suburb, one third resort.” The Easter Egg Hunt is more about lives lived around expensive homes, poolsides, and nightclubs than about directors, actors, and producers.

During the photographing, new people arrived. Cobina Wright’s secretary; and the Abe Abramses, who had money in Van-color; and an Egyptian princess, who had drifted to Beverly Hills in the entourage of the Queen Mother Nazli; and a blank-faced Dutchman, who owned a pepper business; and a man in pink shorts, who sold Fords; and the man who had once played Dagwood Bumstead

While many of the extravagances described in the book relates to the efforts of Clarence Culvers, a Louisiana tycoon, to make a star of his young second wife Carol, show business is never more than a presence on the periphery of the story.

The story itself is pretty thin. Lamkins’ narrator, Charley Thayer, a young writer for Time magazine from Miro (read Monroe), Louisiana, encounters Angelica O’Brien, a a childhood playmate and bright young thing, now married to Laddie Wells, a pompous would-be intellectual and assistant to a producer of “A-movie” westerns. At first the narrative seems to be leading into a triangle between Charley, Angelica, and Laddie, but then Charley, whose bumper sticker must have read, “I Brake for Bright, Shiny Objects,” becomes the confidant of Carol Culvers and the course takes a sharp turn. From there on, we follow the rocky course of Carol, who idles at unstable and regularly revs up to self-destructive, her affair with Laddie, and the ambitions and jealousies of Clarence. Although Charley hints at one point about halfway in the story that this all will climax in some violent, headlines-grabbing event, what we get at the end is more whimper than bang. Overall, I thought The Easter Egg Hunt an utter failure as a novel.

At the same time, however, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Lamkin might not have been an effective novelist, but he is a terrific observer. If he kept a diary during his time in Los Angeles, somebody needs to convince him to publish it. The Easter Egg Hunt is a treasure trove of descriptions of the people, places, and trappings of Beverly Hills in the early 1950s. If you read L.A. Confidential and other James Ellroy novels for the scenery, you’ll love The Easter Egg Hunt. Take, for instance, just a portion of the account of one of the Culvers’ frequent parties:

They sat drinking in sixes and eights around the tables under the marquee; and they would dance for half an hour to the bouncy music of an orchestra playing the songs of South Pacific. Then the orchestra would alternate with a rumba-mambo-tango band. People spread their fur wraps and lay down on the grass, and people had their fortunes told by a swank Beverly Hills numerologist. Two snobbish English actors arrived with Vera Velma the strip-tease queen, who wore pink dyed fur and was introduced as Mrs. T. Markoe Deering of Southampton and New York.

At two-thirty sharp the man who had played Washington in Valley Forge vomited over the buffet, and a sturgeon and three red herrings had to be taken away. Down the hill in the Japanese tea house two ensigns were having a crap game with Len Evansman, the columnist. Len Evansman wanted to know if I could change a thousand-dollar bill. At a quarter of three a dozen Hawaiian girls did the hula-hula and a dignified producer, who had an obsession for pinching young women’s behinds, got his face slapped by the ukelele player. A thin man who did rope tricks followed the hula girls. It was during the rope tricks that somebody started throwing the plates out over the hill. “Look,” cried a starlet, “flying saucers! ” Forty-five people rose from their chairs to look. Three men started throwing plates, then a woman started.

The book is rich of succinct character sketches full of efficient defamation: “George Martin was not handsome, he was not well-mannered, he was not entertaining in the least; in fact, every remark he made, every opinion uttered, was something stupid and inane; yet when George Martin entered a room, the eyes of every woman in it went to him.” Or the studio founder who “lived on in a Norman castle on Doheny with trained nurses to tend his artificial bowels.”

Although Lamkin’s alter ego Charley has a one-night stand with Angelica, his role and perspective seems more gay than straight. He becomes the confidant of both Angelica and Carol without stirring up much in the way of a jealous reaction from either husband. He spends much of his time in the company of an English novelist named Sebastian Saunders, who is clearly a fictionalized Christopher Isherwood (to whom the novel is dedicated): “His court consisted of two sailors in uniform, a trim little middle-aged Englishman, to whom he addressed most of his remarks, and a boy who could not have been over fifteen years old.” I don’t know if Lamkin was trying to camouflage his homosexuality or just using the language of his time, but there are regular references to gays that are likely to offend today: “Gladys Hendrix typified the sort of well-off older woman who goes around with swish young men; and the Titson twins with their talk of ‘stunning’ this and ‘smart’ that were horribly, horribly swish.” Charley and Angelica go to a “pansy bar”; the Culvers’ personal secretary, “a tall, stout, broad-shouldered woman with the complexion of a steaming red crab” is known as “Butch” Murphy.

The Easter Egg Hunt did well enough to be reissued as a lurid-covered paperback, but got reviews that consistently riffed on the theme of “imitation F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Lamkin abandoned the novel after this, but he did get one play, “Comes a Day,” produced on Broadway starring George C. Scott, in 1958. He returned to Monroe in the early 1960s and appears to have devoted his energies towards collecting. The New Orleans Museum of Art featured a number of items from his collection of furniture, paintings, vases, and other items in the exhibition, “A Taste for Excellence,” several years ago.

Although hardback and paperback editions of The Easter Egg Hunt are available, you can find copies of the book in various electronic formats for free: The Easter Egg at the Internet Archive.

The Easter Egg Hunt, by Speed Lamkin
New York City: Houghton Mifflin, 1954

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, by John Poole

I’ll start 2011 with a post on the funniest book I’ve read in at least the last ten years.

I don’t recall how I first came across Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians while browsing through the Internet Archive. I downloaded the text at least two years ago and kept meaning to read it, but it was only when I bought a Nook that I finally did. I have to say that the experience did strain my marriage for a few weeks as my wife had to put up with me bursting out laughing each night as I clicked through the book in bed beside her.

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is an account of two visits by one Paul Pry, a gentleman resident of London, to the town of Little Pedlington, population 2,972, somewhere around 1835. Pry, who has “been everywhere, seen everything, heard everything, and tasted of everything,” has been wondering where to escape from London’s “unendurable” summer when a parcel of books arrives from his bookseller. Sorting through it, he lays aside “Denham’s Travels in Africa,” Humboldt’s in South America, and ” Parry’s Voyages” to peruse a slender just-published volume, “The Stranger’s Guide through Little Pedlington,” by Felix Hoppy, Esq., M.C..

Although he acknowledges that such guides can be found be every provincial crossroads in England, the hyperbole of Hoppy’s book (“Hail, Pedlingtonia! Hail, thou favoured spot!/What’s good is found in thee; what’s not, is not.”) overwhelms Pry and convinces him that the town must be a “very Paradise.” So off he sets for Little Pedlington.

Or at least he tries to. It turns out there is no direct coach from London, and only a chance of finding a connection by way of Squashmire Gate. But even Squashmire Gate proves inaccessible, as the coachman drops him at an isolated hamlet called Poppleton End. “Poppleton End?” he exclaims. “Yes, sir, and has been since time out of mind,” replies the coachman with a snicker. Stuck there in a poor excuse for an inn, Pry attempts to make the best of things, but he soon finds nothing even remotely passable in the place. The locals argue over how far it is to Squashmire Gate–“thirteen good mile” … but that way is blocked, so it’s seventeen-and-a-half if you go by way of Lob’s Farm. And the only transport available is a one-horse cart–“but our horse died Friday-week, and my good man hasn’t yet been able to suit himself with another.”

Finally, he resigns himself to wait until something better comes along and asks the maid for dinner. What follows is arguably the lost template for Monty Python’s famous spam skit:

“What would you like, sir ?”

“A boiled chicken”

“We have never a chicken, sir, but would you like some eggs and bacon?”

“No. Can I have a lamb-chop?”

“No, sir, but our eggs and bacon is very nice.”

“Or a cutlet — or a steak?”

“No, sir; but we are remarkable here for our eggs and bacon.”

“Have you anything cold in your larder?”

“Not exactly, sir, but I’m sure you will admire our eggs and bacon.”

“Then what have you got?”

“Why, sir, we have got nothing but eggs and bacon.”

“Then have the goodness to give me some eggs and bacon.”

“I was sure you’d choose eggs and bacon, sir. We are so famous for it.”

Despite these obstacles, though, Pry is set on his mission of visiting Little Pedlington, particularly after hearing the maid’s endorsement: “Sir,” she said, ” all the world can’t be Lippleton; if it was, it would be much too fine a place, and too good for us poor sinners to live in.” Eventually, after hours of riding on a rickety coach through drizzle, mud, and detours, he arrives late in the evening at “Scorewell’s hotel, the Green Dragon, in High Street. Forgetting all my bygone troubles, I exultingly exclaimed, ‘And here I am in Little Pedlington!'”

Though he resolves to keep a faithful journal of his visit, within the first minutes of his first morning in town, it becomes apparent that Pry’s expectations are not going to bend to the mediocre reality that is life in Little Pedlington–at least not until he has the chance to look back with some perspective upon his return to London. He has a fine breakfast at Scorewell’s. Excepting the over-cooked egg, which is replaced with an under-cooked one; the “Nanking-coloured” coffee (“One quarter ounce per quart,” the waiter proudly informs him); and the fact that the only London paper–three weeks old–is in the hands of preferred customers (“the family with the fly”). Just before setting out for his first stroll around the town, he arranges for his dinner–which becomes the forerunner of another, lesser-known Python sketch, “The Cheese Shop.”:

“Well, Mr. Scorewell, that will do for the present. I will now, guide-book in hand, pay a visit to the town; at five o’clock I will return; and since (as I perceive by the book) you have a well-supplied market …”

“The best in the whole universe, sir.”

“Well, then, you will let me have a nice little dinner; some flsh and …”

“Fish! To-day is Monday, you know, sir, and Wednesdays and Saturdays are our fish-days. Couldn’t get fish to-day in Lippleton for love or money. But I’ll tell you what, sir ; if Joe Higgins should bring any gudgeons in to-morrow, I’ll take care of ’em for you—unless, indeed, the family with the fly should want ’em.”

“A veal cutlet then, and …”

“Veal! We only kill veal in Lippleton, sir, once a week, and that’s o’ Tuesdays, But if you’d please to leave it to my cook, sir, she’ll send you up as nice a little dinner as you’d wish to sit down to.”

In the course of the next week or so, Pry meets all the illuminati of Little Pedlington. His self-appointed guide is one Jack Hobbleday, a gossiping cheapskate busybody windbag bore–although Poore manages to make this clear without ever putting it into such direct terms:

Obligingly communicated to me the fact, that he took three thick slices of bread-and-butter, one egg, and two cups of tea; adding to the interest of the information, by a minute detail of the price he paid for the several commodities, the quantities of tea and sugar he used, the time he allowed his egg to boil, and his tea to draw; and also, bv a particular description of the form and size of his teapot. Though early in the day, I experienced sensation of drowsiness, for which (having slept well at night) I could not account.

It turns out that most of the inhabitants of Little Pedlington share the same affliction. There is Major Boreall, “who, for instance, is a longer time in telling you of his ordering a dinner than it would take you to eat it.” Or Rummins, the town antiquarian, whose “pro-nun-ci-a-ti-on precise accurate even to inaccuracy, and so distinct as to be almost unintelligible — at least, to one accustomed, as I had hitherto been, to the conversation of ordinary people, who utter their words in an everyday sort of manner.” Or Colonel Dominant (an escapee from Bob and Ray’s “Webley Webster Playhouse”), who screams, “D__n your arrogance!” at virtually every syllable his meek companion Mr. Truckle utters.

Little Pedlingtonians find virtue in the utter lack of privacy in their town. When Pry informs Yawkins, the town bookseller, that London is such a big and anonymous place that half the city’s residents wouldn’t even take notice if the other half decided to shave the hair off all the dogs in town, Yawkins replies, “Then blessed be Little Pedlington!–where everybody is acquainted with everybody else’s affairs, at least as well as with his own!”

The highlight of Pry’s first visit is a soiree hosted by Rummins, during which each of the town’s intellectual elite shows off his or her best talents. The evening culminates in a song recital by Miss Cripps, Little Pedlington’s resident coloratura, Pry records in careful detail one of her songs:

Thanks to the lady’s method of singing-— a method which, I am informed, is commonly taught in Little Pedlington — I can answer for it that the following copy of her “exact and exquisite little effusion” is literally correct:

“Se turn sn en sm se,
Me o sn tarn se oo.
To nm te a te me
Pe tam ta o te poo.”

And these words, running through five verses, she articulated with as much distinctness as if she had been regularly educated as a singer for the English Opera.

If this review is beginning to seem like a bit too much of a good thing, you’ll have caught on to what is the one big drawback to Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians. The book was first published in 1836 as Paul Pry’s Journal of a Residence at Little Pedlington. Poole then reissued the book in 1839 as Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, expanding its length from just over 200 pages to over 500. The second half describes a second and last visit and includes a scene-by-scene account of the theatrical spectacle, “The Hatchet of Horror, or The Massacred Milkmaid,” as well as lengthy excerpts from the “Life and Letters of Captain Nix,” a recently-deceased resident. These include such fascinating items from Nix’s diary as:

Sept. 26.— Rose at 8— shaved— 9, brekd.” [For breakfasted.] 3, Biled beaf for dinr. and carets hot. [It adds considerably to the interest of the work that, in all cases where Nix’s MS. are consulted, his own system of orthography is adhered to. The same may be said of his peculiar mode of pronunciation whenever he is made to appear as the narrator or interlocutor. Of these the dramatic effect is thereby considerably heightened.] 6, Walkd. to Vale of Health — 10, Supper. Welsh rabbet, gin and water, then to bed.

Sept. 27.— Rose 8— -shaved— 9, brekd.— 3, biled beaf for dinr., cold — 6, walkd. to V. of H. — 10, supp., Welsh r., gin and water — 11, bed.

In many ways, Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is in a class with Mark Twain’s travel books, particularly The Innocents Abroad, which are studded with wonderful comic set-pieces and pastiches but begin to bog down from sheer length after page 400. Still, the quality and wealth of the set-pieces and pastiches in Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is astonishing and kept me richly amused for over two weeks.

During his life, John Poole was best known as a comic dramatist–experience that certainly informs his account of “The Hatchet of Horror.” Although Little Pedlington was well known enough in its time to earn an entry (“The village of quackery and cant, humbug, and egotism, wherever that locality is.”) in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Poole himself fell on hard times in his later years, and was supported financially by Charles Dickens, who considered him an inspiration.

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is in print from a number of publishers specializing in reprinting open source texts, skip the middlemen and get the text yourself, either from the Internet Archive (Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians) or Google Books (Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians). Just make sure to give fair warning to whoever you’ll be reading in bed with.

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, by John Pool
London: Henry Colburn, 1839

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching, by Henry C. Barkley

Covers of "Rat-Catching" by Crispin Glover (1999) and "Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching" by Henry C. Barkley (1896)If anyone has heard of Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching in the last ten years, it’s undoubtedly due to Crispin Glover’s 1999 reconstruction of the book, Rat Catching. Most mentions of Glover’s book identify Barkley’s work as “a 19th-century non-fiction book” or a handbook on how to catch rats.

Which it is. On one level, at least. Studies purports to be the recollections of one Bill Joy, master rat-catcher, who was enticed into putting them down in print after regaling a country house full of young people with them one weekend. Much of the first two-thirds of the book takes the reader step-by-step through the process of ridding farms and houses of rats for profit, starting with picking the right ferrets, dogs, and shovels and continuing into stories of memorable hunts. There is also a chapter on rabbit-catching, reminding us that, in the days before Beatrix Potter, farmers like Mr. McGregor looked on them as pests, not pets.

But how then to take Barkley/Joy’s introduction to the book?

Ever since I was a boy, and ah! long, long before that, I fancy, the one great anxiety of parents of the upper and middle classes blessed with large families has been, ” What are we to do with our boys ? ” and the cry goes on increasing, being intensified by the depreciation in the value of land, and by our distant colonies getting a little overstocked with young gentlemen, who have been banished to them by thousands, to struggle and strive, sink or swim, as fate wills it. At home, all professions are full and everything has been tried ; and, go where you will, even the children of the noble may be found wrestling with those of the middle and working classes for every piece of bread that falls in the gutter. Nothing is infra dig that brings in a shilling, and all has been and is being tried.

Rat-catching, it appears, is Barkley/Joy’s solution to the problem of upper class unemployment:

I believe kind Dame Nature during the last summer has stepped in and opened out an honourable path for many gentlemen’s sons, that I think will be their salvation, and at all events, if it does not make them all rich, will, if they only follow it, make them most useful members of society and keep them out of mischief and out of their mammas’ snug drawing-rooms.

Thus, he dedicates the book to “the Head Masters of Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Rugby, and all other schools,” Old Joy is no rube, but the son of a country parson, and not completely out of touch with the mores and manners of the upper classes. He is careful to advise his young readers, for example, to “show your respect by not taking ferrets or dead rats in your pockets into her drawing-room, and by washing your hands a little between fondling them and cuddling her.” And he takes pride in his humble but honest and worthy profession. He expresses his hope that his book will serve as a more practical alternative to learning Greek and Latin, which only equips boys to become “such scourges of society as M.P.s who make speeches when Parliament is not sitting.”

So there is clearly more going on here than a simple handbook on rat-catching. Barkley is taking a sly shot at public school education. Most chapters end with Joy instructing his young Etonian readers: “There, young gentlemen, if you have well digested that chapter and forgotten the story at the end, you can put up your books and form up for your usual walk to the second milestone and back again”–or admonishing Croker minor, the trouble-maker of the class: “The top part of Jones’ leg was not made to stick pins into!”

But then, in Chapter VIII, “A Trip to the Seaside,” Joy meanders his way from telling about his annual excursions to a seaside town for hunting rats on “the Denes” to a long-winded story about the rescue of a child from the wreck of a ship smuggling arms to Irish separatists–a story that has nothing to do with rats or educating public school boys. “Oh, dear! oh, dear! What a muddle, what a hodge-podge I have made of this pen work! I sat down thinking it would be quite easy to write a book on ‘Rat-catching for the Use of Schools,’ and I have drifted off the line here,” he laments. “I had hoped to have opened up a great career to many young gentlemen, but have failed,” he concludes, abruptly ending the book.

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching is, then, a practical guide to rat-catching, as its title claims; and an attempt to mock the education and employment prospects of the upper class; and a collection of quaint tales of life and adventures in rural England. It’s certainly not wholly successful in being any one of these, but I’d argue that Barkley managed to create something of an 19th century cut-up–which itself makes the book quite a bit more than just some dull old book Crispin Glover reworked a hundred years later.

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching, by Henry C. Barkley
London: John Murray, 1896

Our Own Set, by Ossip Schubin

As I poke around the less-frequented aisles of the Internet Archive, I continue to stumble across long-forgotten gems. Certainly the loveliest so far came as just the kind of happy accident that encourages me to keep on digging. I had been impressed by the quality of Clara Bell’s translations from the Spanish of several works by Benito Perez-Galdos–himself a neglected giant of the 19th century novel–and decided to see if the archive held any other examples of her work.

One of the dozen or so titles I found was the opaquely titled Our Own Set by one Ossip Schubin. I did a quick Google search on the title and author and found very little listed, so I downloaded it to my Nook and started the book a few days later.

Our Own Set takes place in Rome in 1870. The set of the title is a group of Austrian nobles living in the city on long-term holidays, escaping the provincialism of Viennese society–only to create their own form of it. The harmony of the scene is disrupted when the secretary of the Austrian embassy–not much of a diplomat, but a fine waltzer–is sent off to London and replaced by Cecil Sterzl.

The set instantly takes a dislike to Sterzl, who fails to play its game:

He could never be brought to understand that the flattery and subterfuge usual in company were merely a degenerate form of love for your neighbor; that the uncompromising truthfulness that he required must result in universal warfare; that the limit-line between sincerity and rudeness, between deference and hypocrisy, have never been rigidly defined; that the naked truth is as much out of place in a drawing-room as a man in his shirt-sleeves; and that, considering the defects and deformities of our souls, we cannot be too thankful that custom prohibits their being displayed without a decent amount of clothing.

His situation is not aided by his seating on a relatively low rung on the ladder of Austrian nobility, earned only by virtue of his mother’s slim claim to title:

Baroness Sterzl was a typical specimen of a class of nobility peculiar to Austria, and called there, Heaven knows why, “the onion nobility” (zweibelnoblesse). It is a circle that may be described as a branch concern of the best society; a half-blood relation; a mixture of the elements that have been sifted out of the upper aristocracy and of the parvenus from below, who find that they can be reciprocally useful; a circle in which almost every man is a baron, and every woman, without exception, is a baroness. Its members are for the most part poor, but refined beyond expression. The mothers scold their children in bad French and talk to their friends in fashionable slang; they give parties, at which there is nothing to eat–but the family plate is displayed, and where the company always consists of the same old bachelors who dye their hair and know the Almanack de Gotha by heart.

And, to top it off, he comes to Rome not only in the company of his “onion” baroness mother, but also that of his sister Zenaide–Zinka for short–a stunningly beautiful but naive girl. Soon after their arrival, the charming Count Sempaly, Sterzl’s bureaucratic subordinate but social superior, dashes off a mocking sketch of Sterzl as an auctioneer, holding up a beautiful doll–Zinka–before a crowd of crowned heads: “Mademoiselle Sterzl, going–going–gone–!” Sempaly’s caricature delights his salon, but when he meets Zinka in person, he quickly discovers she is no social climber but a genuine innocent, tender and lovely.

Sempaly becomes entranced by Zinka and soon he is paying call upon her and accompanying her on carriage rides. She, in turn, falls completely for his charms.

There is, of course, a big problem with all this. For Sempaly to marry Zinka would be to stoop far below his standing. Nor is her innocence sufficient to overcome the resistance of the rest of the Austrian set–particularly after the arrival of his well-placed cousins, the Jatinsky sisters, who consider Zinka little more than a rube. And there is the matter of Sempaly’s massive gambling debts, which only his very conservative brother can pay.

Still, he continues to pay court. The truth is that he is genuinely attracted to Zinka–but he is also utterly captive to the perceptions of his social peers and betters. Schubin takes critical weight of his character:

His behavior to her was that of a man who is perfectly clear as to his own intentions but who for some reason is not immediately free to sue for the hand of a girl whom in his heart of hearts he already regards as his own. What did he mean by all this? What was he thinking? I believe absolutely nothing. He went with the tide. There are many men like him, selfish, luxurious natures who swim with the stream of life and never attempt to steer; they have for the most part happy tempers, they are content with any harbor so long as they reach it without effort or damage, and if in their passive course they run down any one else they exclaim with their usual amiable politeness: “Oh, I beg your pardon!” and are quite satisfied that the mishap was due to fate and not to any fault of theirs.

Finally, one warm evening at a cotillion, he takes Zinka for a walk in the garden and tries to have his cake and eat it, too. He proposes to her–but demands her promise to keep it a secret until his debts are repaid and his older brother departed. Unfortunately, someone else sees them depart the ballroom and places a suggestive item in a local society column: Will Mademoiselle S___l “earn her reward in the form of a coronet?” The column, Schubin observes was “abused and condemned by everybody, covertly maintained by several, and read by most.”

Sterzl is infuriated, especially when Sempaly fails to register any outrage or acknowledge any responsibility for his actions–indeed, fails even to see Zinka for several days afterward. Sempaly uses his brother’s visit as an excuse: “He was utterly miserable, but this did not prevent him from allowing his good-natured senior to pay his enormous debts, nor–in order to propitiate him–from paying specious attention to his cousins.”

In defense of his sister’s honor, Sterzl challenges Sempaly to a duel. He only learns afterward of the engagement, but in keeping with his character, cannot reverse course and call things off. In swords as in society, sophistication tops earnestness every time, and Sterzl is carried off with a fatal wound.

Aloisia Kirschner, AKA Ossip Schubin, at the time of the publication of "Own Our Set"True love does win out in the end–but in Zinka’s case the winner is Count Truyn, the quiet, distinguished widower who has remained loyal to Sterzl and Zinka throughout. And Sempaly drifts ever higher in the estimation of Austrian society, wistfully recalling his courtship.

I am no expert on Jane Austen, but Our Own Set struck me as a work very much in the spirit of her work: wise, comic, hyper-attuned to the subtleties of social hierarchies, and full of the business of love and courtship. Particularly given that Ossip Schubin was the pen-name of one Aloisia Kirschner, a woman of Austrian-Slovak origins. Her father was an Austrian noble and she was raised in Prague and in a castle in the Bohemian countryside. The marriage ended, however, in circumstances that are not clear, and Kirschner, her mother, and sister began a nomadic life among the expatriate Austrian societies in Rome, Paris, Geneva, and Brussels.

Early on in their exile, Kirschner began writing fiction, and her mother sent off a piece of hers to an Austrian publisher, who responded enthusiastically, demanding more. She quickly pulled some material into a novel, Ehre, which was published in 1882, when Kirschner was 28. She took Ossip Schubin as a pen-name–Ossip being the Slovak form of Joseph and Schubin from Helena, a lesser-known novel by Turgenev, whom she had met in Paris. A reviewer wrote authoritatively, “Whoever Ossip Schubin may be–we are sure that he can no longer be a young man!” The book sold well and her mother pressed her to write more.

Our Own Set, published in 1884, was her third novel. It was the first to be translated into English and gain attention with English readers. One reviewer offered a somewhat left-handed compliment in assessing the book as “rather more dainty in touch than is usual in German fiction,” while another rated Clara Bell’s translation as “one of the best” of contemporary European writing of the time. An anonymous reviewer in The Critic wrote,

Its interest lies hardly in the story, though the story contains a little plot not unsuccessfully put together and told, but in the character-drawing, and in the author’s terse, bright epigrams, which have the pleasant keenness of one whose gentle and transparent cynicism is not his least attractive quality…. There is not a page that does not hold one with a keen sense of enjoyment, and a certain delicacy running through all the brilliancy justifies one in a pleasure not exhausted by a single reading.

Kirschner went on to publish at least seventeen more novels as Ossip Schubin between 1884 and 1910, but her production appears to have fallen off after that, and her popular and critical recognition–in Germany and Austria as well as abroad–soon followed. Her entry in the German-language version of Wikipedia suggests this had to do with her being Jewish and the influence of National Socialism on literary historians of the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly her English-language readership suffered somewhat as a consequence of the First World War. In the academic world, Schubin’s work has been forgotten for the most part. She has a short entry in the Oxford Companion to German Literature, but nothing in Women Writers of Germany, Austria and Switzerland (Frederiksen), Women Writers of German-Speaking Countries (Frederiksen and Amestsbichler), or The Encyclopedia of German literature (Konzett), and only a passing mention in The Feminist Encyclopedia of German Literature (Eigler and Kord).

Aloisia Kirschner, AKA Ossip Schubin, in middle ageOne of the few texts I’ve been able to locate with any substantive material on Kirschner/Schubin, Wilma Iggers’ Women of Prague, includes a recollection by the poet Hedda Sauer that suggests another reason:

Ossip, led by an intelligent, but presumably autocratic mother, remained … somewhat of an enfant terrible all her life … Her human greatness lay in the fact that she easily made her peace with the vicissitudes of her material life. When the prosperity of her parental home broke down, Ossip and her sister Marie–in a life of hard work–again created an existence for themselves which seemed pleasant to them … in hotels and in rented little castles, with coachmen and servants.

Over-production may have much to do with it. As early as 1893, one English reviewer commented on “the inferiority of Ossip Schubin’s later tales, written as it would seem too hastily, under the pressure of a sudden popularity…. It is unfortunate that a novelist of such marked ability should yield to the temptation to strain and hackney emotional effects.”

Kirschner survived for over twenty years after the last of her books was published, dying in 1934 at the age of eighty. Iggers quotes a sad letter from late in her life that gives a sense of how dependent she had become on the wealth and fame she had gained from her writing:

Having outlived one’s time is a miserable state … Where is the Ossip Schubin whom everybody wanted to know, beginning with Austrian archduchesses and Russian Grand Princesses? … like many has-beens I have been sent from the ‘belle étage’ to the attic … sometimes when I lie down for my afternoon nap, I think it would be nice not to wake up. At other times I would like to throw myself at the inkwell and put down the many things which still bubble inside of me. Then I laugh at myself. In the present jazzy belles lettres there is no room for me any more.”

Around a dozen of Ossip Schubin’s novels are available free online through Google or the Internet Archive. Perhaps not all are truly worthy of rediscovery, but I can highly recommend Our Own Set and intended to check out Gloria Victis, which is something of a sequel, taking up with Count Truyn and Zinka in Paris after their marriage. Asbeïn, from the life of a virtuoso and its sequel, Boris Lensky, which deal with the career of a composer and musical virtuoso, were also considered–at the time, at least–as two of her better works.

Our Own Set, by Ossip Schubin (pen name of Aloisia Kirschner), translated by Clara Bell
New York City: W. S. Gottsberger, 1884

I Travel by Train, by Rollo Walter Brown

Heading for a Train, from "I Travel by Train"In 1939, Rollo Walter Brown was 59, a former Harvard professor of literature, a popular lecturer, and a dangerous man. In I Travel by Train, he recalls some of his many trips across the United States through the depths of the Depression. His work as a lecturer on literature, politics, and history took him to all corners of the country, from San Francisco to New Orleans and Atlanta, from the industrial towns of Michigan and Ohio to the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and north Texas. Wherever he went, he made a point of venturing out and trying to understand what was going on and why.

On more than a few of these trips, he seems to have found himself in conversation with some businessman, industrialist, clergyman, or other establishment figure. As Brown recounts it, at some point in each of these exchanges, he found himself accused of being a trouble-maker:

The other four smoked and looked toward the floor out in the center of the room, but their spokesman squinted at me, turned his cigar over in his mouth a time or two, and then demanded: “Say, are you a socialist?”

“Why? Does a man who believes that people ought not to starve have to be a socialist?”

“Well,” and he squinted his eyes and the whole of his big face into deeper lines as if he were trying to think and to be amiable at the same time, “it always looks a little suspicious, doesn’t it?”

Three capitalists in the smoking car, from "I Travel by Train"

Brown was born in Crooksville, a small town in the coal country of Southwestern Ohio, and though he went on to teach at Harvard and serve on the board of the MacDowell Colony, his allegiance remained with the working poor, who were hit hardest by the Depression. In many ways, I Travel by Train is a travelogue of the Depression. Brown visited coal miners in Kentucky and Ohio, striking auto workers in Flint, and share-croppers in Georgia; tight-lipped Lutheran farmers in Iowa, and boisterous oil speculators in Norman, Oklahoma. And he ventured deep into the heart of Dust Bowl country several times, offering descriptions of the relentless dust storms that bring this hard time back to life:

When I reached over to turn on the light I had a sudden taste of earth that was not unlike the taste of clay I had known since youth. I sneezed. Then I noticed a strange furry feeling in my ears.

It was eight-thirty.

I walked in bare feet to the southeast window and looked out. In the east there was not so much as a place for the sun. The reddish-gray wall was everywhere, though apparently thinner, more nearly translucent, when one looked straight up toward a sky that might be clear. Off to the south there seemed to be a stream of water in a mist, with reddish flat-land just beyond. In the stiff wind, the clouds of thick dust and thinner dust followed one another slowly. At a moment when visibility was fairly high I saw that my stream was a low, white stucco building, and that the flatland was the long red roof of another just beyond.

I happened to put my hand to my head. My hair was as gritty as if I had been turning somersaults in a sandpile. I lifted a bare foot. The bottom of it was covered with clean-looking dust. I touched a protected window-sill. It was so thick with dust that I could have made a topographical map on it. I walked over to the dresser where a bell-boy had put a pitcher of ice-water when I arrived. Red dust had been sliding down the inner sides of the pitcher until there was a stretch of land entirely around the body of water.

Unemployment Line, from "I Travel by Train"
Even though I Travel by Train depicts a rough time and more than a few scenes of grim conditions, Brown’s outlook is fundamentally optimistic. He’s always pointing out someone refusing to give up, whether it’s a woman who works nine months a year on cotton farms to pay for one quarter’s study at a small Oklahoma college or Ben Cable, an Illinois farmer and sculptor, or a young Texas coed he catches a ride with:

The driver confessed that she herself had been awake all night, but for a different reason. Her fiance had been rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation. She had been unable to sleep at all. And now that she knew he was going to live, she did not want to sleep. It was so good to be alive that she had to stay awake and enjoy the experience. She had invented the necessity of this trip just to participate in the great brightness of the day and the easy rhythm of gliding over low rolling hills that afforded long vistas. In a world where so many people give the wrong reasons for everything they do, her profound joy and unaffected frankness were so startling and so beautiful that I sat in a kind of enraptured amazement and listened all the way.

I Travel by Train is also worth reading if you have any sense of nostalgia for the era of train travel, for every chapter offers a slice of the experience of Pullman coaches, smoking lounges, dining cars, and people jumbled together for long hours:

A man can put in a lot of time in a dining-car if he is experienced. He can order item by item as he eats, and then eat very slowly, with full pauses now and then to read two or three consecutive pages in some interesting book, and with other pauses for the passing landscape. So for an hour and a half I sat and ate lettuce salad, and belated blueberry pie, and ice-cream, and read a little, and reordered coffee that was hot, and looked out at the sea, and heard, without trying, the conversation of the two youths at the other side of the table who professed ardently to believe that their prep school had more class than either Groton or St. Mark’s.

One of them had just bought a yacht for which he had paid more than I in an entire lifetime had ever earned or at least had ever received. He felt sure that his father would be able to stampede somebody into buying several blocks of stock at a good fat advance and by so doing pay for the boat without any drain whatever upon the established treasury.

Back in the sleeping-car I grew weary of the rhythmic jungle cries, and decided to seek out a place in the observation-car. I have made the test through a dozen years, but I made it yet again with the same result: on these Boston-New York trains, as one walks through, there are more people reading books than on any other trains in the United States. It must be said also that there are more feet stuck out in the aisle, more people who glance up in disgust at you when you wish to put the aisle to other use.

Driving across Texas in the night, from "I Travel by Train"
I Travel by Train is available from the Internet Archive, but make sure to read it in a version that allows you to enjoy Grant Reynard’s illustrations as well.

Don’t bother to read the last chapter, “Panorama,” though. Brown launches into a poeto-philosophical fugue about America, progress, goodwill among good people, and other nonsense. I was reminded of the infamous last chapter of War and Peace, which has the same effect of having to sit through a lecture at the end of a memorable and delicious meal.

Wait for Mrs. Willard, by Dorothy Langley

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Wait for Mrs. Willard'After enjoying Dorothy Langley’s third novel, Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, I was pleased to find that her first, Wait for Mrs. Willard is available as a free text on the Internet Archive. I quickly downloaded a copy and read it a few days ago on my Nook.

In many ways the two novels form a matched set. In Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, a weak man with a rich imagination finds refuge from an unhappy marriage in fantasies that include conversations with God. In Wait for Mrs. Willard, a gentle woman searches for ways to escape her husband’s stifling controls upon her life. Henry Bremble finds himself constantly on trial for his failings with his wife, Amelia, and her mother as judge and jury. Edith Willard’s husband, Charles, thinks so little of her judgment that Charles refuses to allow her to keep her own library card for fear of the fines she might incur from overdue books. But Bremble does at least acknowledge that while Amelia’s efforts towards her various charitable causes lacked empathy, they were usually successful. Charles Willard is nothing but a pusillanimous petty tyrant.

When he loses his job as a professor of archaeology at the start of the Depression, Charles’ response is to retire to his bedroom. His self-absorbed despair gradually drains Edith’s will to fight for the family:

Mrs. Willard had formed a bleak habit of making a daily definite report of the state of the larder to Charles, who groaned. It had become a dreary routine; at five o’clock in the afternoon Mrs. Willard would appear at his bedroom door and announce that there was only enough food left for six days, or five days, or four days; Charles would groan, and Mrs. Willard would go down to the kitchen to cook dinner. She did not know what her purpose was in pursuing this course; she no longer really hoped to rouse him. Her mind was like a sailing vessel becalmed for years in some impossible sea and beginning to decay.

Finally, there comes a day when there is nothing left for supper and the children will go to bed hungry. While Charles hibernates in self-pity, Edith rouses herself and manages to sell an encyclopedia to an equally destitute family. It’s a hauntingly memorable scene, as Edith struggles between her awareness that the family cannot afford the book and her will to see her children fed.

Charles and Edith eventually manage to find jobs and maintain a household, but Charles concedes nothing to Edith’s ability to keep the family afloat. Indeed, he deeply resents the short time he has to look after their two children before she returns from work. One evening, she finds him raging at them for bouncing on a bed and she resolves to take them and leave Charles for good the next day. As she walks with the children to the elevated station the next day, however, she is surprised to find them disraught: “Poor Daddy!,” they wail, and her plan is soon aborted.

As difficult as Charles alone is, when he combines forces with his Aunt Gertrude, who comes to live with them, the atmosphere becomes almost unbearable:

She was a firmly corseted fat woman with a paradoxically hatchetlike face surmounting a medley of graduated chins. She greeted Charles with warmth, Mrs. Willard with resignation, and the children with open dislike. Her eyes, bright, black, and penetrating, darted like roaches toward the corners of the baseboard in whatever room she entered. Mrs. Willard, a casual housekeeper, told herself with dismal conviction that within three days Aunt Gertrude would be down on her knees digging at these comers with a hairpin and displaying the results to Charles.

This was a too-conservative estimate. Within twenty-four hours Mrs. Schnabel had virtually taken over the house-keeping. She lived from morning to night with a dusting cloth in her hand, and Mrs. Willard and the children were literally hounded from room to room as she urged them out of the way of her passionate cleansings.

Edith suppresses her revulsion for the sake of the children, but after years of bearing with Charles’ and Gertrude’s judgment and belittling (compounded when her supervisor, Miss Motherhead, turns out to be a good friend of Gertrude’s), her patience snaps one day and she decides to run away, taking the first bus out of Chicago.

The bus is involved in a serious accident before it even reaches the city limits, though, and Charles appears at her bedside full of tender concern:

“Not only have you forced me into the dishonor of misrepresenting the facts to your employers and to my own children,” continued Charles, “not only have you flouted my authority as head of the family by proposing to go on a trip without consulting me; not only have you insulted me as your husband, forgotten your duty to your home and your children, humiliated me before Aunt Gertrude, and made yourself ridiculous by flying off the handle like a half-baked schoolgirl, but you have actually been guilty of a criminal act. You took money that did not belong to you, money from our common fund, which should have been sacred to you. Do you know what that is called, my dear?” He smiled, showing his teeth. “That is called theft. Theft.”

Fortunately, Edith is rescued by doctor’s orders that she spent two months recuperating at a small resort in the Indiana dunes. Charles confines himself to an occasion nasty letter, and she soon responds to the fresh air, hearty food, and freedom. And, most conveniently, to the care of Dr. Alec Maclane, who shows an unusual level of interest in her case.

At this point, Wait for Mrs. Willard falls into a fairly familiar formula of two wounded souls finding solace in the sanctuary of a place apart from their everyday lives (viz. the 1975 film “A Brief Vacation”, among others). Edith wins the love and acceptance she has long deserved and Charles, we are left to assume, carries on with Aunt Gertrude in smug superiority until they both crawl up their rears and die.

Despite its final surrender to a predictable happy ending, Wait for Mrs. Willard is, overall, a far better-crafted and successful work than Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. While it’s pleasant to watch as Edith and Dr. Maclane fall in love, the story is much more interesting and entertaining in the trials and miseries of the first two-thirds of the book. Langley pulls out her best adjectives to deal with Charles, Gertrude, and other monsters such as Miss Motherhead (who, “… like some slit-lidded saurian of the wild, oozed up over the edges of her littered desk and across to some other desk, bearing disaster and swollen with punctual venom”).

A masterpiece Wait for Mrs. Willard is not. A well-written, quick-reading, and enjoyable piece blending drama and comedy without overdoing either, it certainly is, and considering its going price if you download it from the Internet Archive–free–an excellent bargain.

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Wait for Mrs. Willard, by Dorothy Langley
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1944

Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, by Dorothy Langley

Henry Bremble has “been helplessly gardening ever since the day when, early in their marriage, he had learned to his astonishment from her lips that he adored it.” “Henry simply adores gardening,” his wife had declared to a neighbor, and that was that.

Mr. Bremble’s Buttons starts out as a fairly predictable portrait of a hen-pecked husband, complete with controlling wife and dismissive live-in mother-in-law (Mrs. Corey) and her nasty little dog (Queenie). He keeps the peace by keeping his thoughts to himself, doing crossword puzzles and word games, and occasionally admiring the collection of unusual buttons he hides in the bedroom. He lives much of his life “below the surface, whatever the surface was.” On the rare occasions when he does speak up, he usually regrets it:

Mr. Bremble, who talked as little as possible when they were present, was nevertheless impelled occasionally, sometimes by desperation, sometimes by mere civility, to say a few words on whatever subject occupied the group at the moment; and on each and every occasion, after he had done so, there was a silence during which the eyes of Queenie and Mrs. Corey dwelt upon his face, then sought each other with a dry surmise, then returned as if by clockwork to Mr. Bremble; and at the conclusion of another prolonged stare they sniffed.

But he has an even bigger secret than the button collection: God comes and talks with him, almost every night:

It was the one real mitigation of his lot that almost every night, after he had gone to bed, God came and sat with him. They did not usually talk much, but nearly every time, though the only sound in the room was Amelia’s gently whistling snore, Mr. Bremble went to sleep cradled in God’s love like a child held close in its mother’s arms.

Together, they attempt to understand the world’s problems. When Bremble reads about a child found in a closet, abused and abandoned, he asks why God allows it. “You don’t think I like this sort of thing, do you?,” God replies. God blames himself for letting Satan talk him into giving men and women free will then he created mankind: “Of course, I know now that it was just some more of his finagling. He knew that if I gave the idiots free will he’d be able to make plenty of use of it. But he sold Me on it; he sold Me. A bargain’s a bargain.” God offers no easy consolation for his companion, though. “It will be all right some day, for this child–and others?” Bremble asks. God gives him a stern look, then departs.

This story might have gone somewhere on its own, but Langley introduces several twists in an attempt to force Bremble to surface from his private fantasies. A young woman at his office, pregnant by a married man, asks for his help. A woman who matches his boyhood ideal–“a bright and different being, willowy yet heroic, flowerlike, mysterious, and indomitable”–moves into his neighborhood, and ends up providing a refuge for the wayward. He befriends a young girl who shows an appetite for reading and is enlisted into a good cause by an energetic pastor. His wife begins to wonder about his sanity and arranges for him to consult a psychiatrist.

It all becomes a bit too much like a game of last straw. When the inevitable collapse comes, Langley has only two choices: let Bremble escape all the constraints that have bound up his life, or destroy him. Having such a convenient device at hand throughout the book, should it be any surprise that she reaches for a Deus ex machina–literally?

Despite this weakness, Mr. Bremble’s Buttons is, overall, a light and entertaining read. Langley frequently highlights the limitations of the so-called ideals of his wife and her friends in the “League for Democracy” and other ladies’ clubs, as in this exchange about the purchase of score cards for an upcoming bridge game:

“And try to pick out nice ones, even if they do cost a little more. Something suggestive of democracy. Mrs. Cable had such pretty ones when the ladies met with her: children dancing around a Maypole, really charming.”

Mr. Bremble admitted that this was a charming idea. “How many of them were Negro children?” he inquired curiously after a moment.

Amelia stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

“You said something suggestive of ….”

Amelia compressed her lips. “Really, Henry, there are times when it seems to me you’re not quite bright.”

Dorothy Langley published three novels between 1944 and 1947: Wait for Mrs. Willard (1944), about a woman trying to escape from an oppressive marriage; Dark Medallion (1945), about a poor family in southern Missouri, which won a Friends of American Writers award as the best novel by a Midwestern writer; and Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. According to her biography in American Novelists of Today (1951), she was a mother of two who grew up in the Ozarks, lived in Chicago and worked on the editorial staff of several professional journals. She died in 1969 at the age of 65.

In 1982, Academy Chicago published Swamp Angel. According to the publisher’s press release, Swamp Angel was “originally accepted for publication by Simon & Schuster on condition it be heavily revised… It was so largely revised it became another book, Mr. Bramble’s Buttons [sic], with the original manuscript’s tone entirely changed and former central characters relegated to minor roles… This book is original manuscript rescued from oblivion and published for the first time … presents a fascinating picture of primitive rural Missouri society of 60 years ago in which everything (including) transcribed dialogue rings true.” I don’t have access to a copy of Swamp Angel to check its introduction by Helen Bugbee, but I suspect that the transformed book was Dark Medallion, not Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. “Swamp angels,” by the way, is Missouri slang for what most of the rest of the country calls “hillbillies.”

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Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, by Dorothy Langley
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1947

Cynthia, by Leonard Merrick

Leonard MerrickContinuing my journey through the works of Leonard Merrick, the “Forgotten Novelist’s Novelist,” I read Cynthia (1896), recommended by Eric Stott–and an excellent recommendation it was!

This is, quite simply, a terrific piece of work. Cynthia tells the story of the courtship, marriage, separation, and eventual reconciliation of Cynthia Walford, the daughter of a prosperous goods broker of, and Humphrey Kent, a struggling writer. But much of the book focuses instead on Humphrey’s situation as a working writer and his difficulties in achieving financial stability, artistic aspirations, and personal integrity at the same time. And it is a mark of Merrick’s skill at what William Dean Howells called “shapeliness”–the effective use of form–how subtly and indirectly it becomes apparent to the reader that the book is really about two people coming into a mature relationship with each other.

When the two meet at a resort in Dieppe, Kent has just published his first novel to fine critical acclaim. His legacy and the hundred pounds from the sale have taken him the first step into the upper middle class. Cynthia is something of a bourgeois princess and the Walfords quite smug about already occupying a solid place, with a house called “The Hawthorns” in Streatham, servants, and the luxury of taking resort vacations in France. Humphrey is smitten with Cynthia’s beauty and grace, and Cynthia responds to his undivided attention. But engagement is impossible without her parents’ approval. After Cynthia’s father grills him about his prospects and Mrs. Walford begins to fantasize about having a “renowned” author in their family, though, the match is soon made, and the couple move into a house near The Hawthorns, complete with servant, and Humphrey starts in on his second novel.

The bloom quickly comes off the rose. “Companionship, and not worship, was required now, and neither found the other quite so companionable as had been expected,” Merrick writes. Humphrey finds Cynthia’s interests materialistic, superficial, and mundane: “… her manner was as dull as her topics.” He longs to share his daily labors with her, to discuss narrative development and emerging characters, but spends his evenings talking about furniture or enduring visits to the Walfords. And she is more than a little disappointed to have become so marginal in his time and thoughts.

The momentum of the narrative picks up rapidly as their first year together ends. A son–named Humphrey at Cynthia’s insistence–is born. Humphrey manages to finish the novel–a few months behind his self-imposed schedule but much to his artistic satisfaction, and posts it off to his publisher. Two hundred pounds, he thinks, should be a fair price. After all, the household expenses are growing and have consumed much of his inheritance.

Unfortunately, the novel comes back from the publishers a few weeks later with a short note: “The faults seem inherent to the story, and irremediable, and we are therefore returning the MS. to you to-day, with
our compliments and thanks.” He tries a second. Then a third. Then others, as time and what little money he has left slip away. He begins applying for positions, but London has nothing to offer. As a last resort, he accepts an editorial post with an English magazine from expatriates based in Paris.

Humphrey and Cynthia hastily pack up baby, nurse, and a few trunks and head off to Paris. The magazine proves a second-rate affair, mostly full of loosely plagiarized material. Its owner, an English baron with gambling debts and an expensive French mistress, has founded it as a lark and neglects tedious details such as paying his staff. Humphrey and Cynthia are forced to move to cheaper, dingier digs. Soon, they are avoiding the landlady, taking small loans from a sympathetic maid, and pawning bits of jewelry. Humphrey spends more and more time trying to chase down his employer for the week’s pay. As soon as the baron’s own funds start drying up, he pulls the plug, leaving them stranded. At the very last minute, just hours ahead of being tossed on the street with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they manage to arrange for the money to get themselves back to London.

I found the whole Paris sequence as gripping as a thriller. You know their situation is doomed from the start but you can’t look away for fear of missing a single development.

At this point, Humphrey is outright in panic. He faces the reality of losing everything: his family, his right to a place in a respectable class, his right to consider himself a serious artist. He agrees to ghost-write a novel for a highly successful and prolific woman writer. He takes it as a one-time job, but the woman adroitly manipulates his emotions and his financial straints and the arrangement turns into a full-time production line. Humphrey endures the insult of seeing the hack work raised high and his own refused: “There were not in London five papers making a feature of fiction, which did not repeatedly reject the man’s best work, signed by himself, and accept his worst, signed by somebody else.”

Meanwhile, Cynthia has taken the boy and moved to a small cottage in the country to improve her health. Humphrey resolves to visit, but feels he has betrayed her and well as himself and keeps putting it off.

Just as everything about the couple is about to dissolve, the fifteenth or twentieth publisher to review Humphrey’s novel offers him a contract, and the book comes out to glittering reviews. He walks away from his ghost-writing work and heads to the country to celebrate with Cynthia. But now, he finds, the dynamic of their marriage has profoundly changed. Cynthia, he comes to recognize, has grown in perspective and character–has surpassed him, in fact:

The alteration in her impressed him still more strongly now that he had opportunities for studying it ; and the gradual result of three years, presenting itself to him as the fruit of ten months, was startling. His wife had become a woman—in her tone, in her bearing, in her comments, which often had a pungency, though they might not be brilliant. She was a woman in the composure with which she ignored their anomalous
relations—a very fascinating woman withal, whose composure, while it won his admiration, disturbed him too, as the weeks went by. It was in moments difficult to identify her new personality with the girl’s whose love for him had been so constantly evident.

The two have reached a point where they are, effectively, friends living under the same roof, and Humphrey holds himself most to blame. His obsession with his career and work has blinded him to the strength of his feelings for Cynthia, feelings developed as they have weathered the hardships and disappointments. But as Merrick has been showing us–just in touches here and there throughout the second half of the book–there is more going on with Cynthia than she shows, and in the very last few lines, we learn that hope for their love remains.

There is so much going on in Cynthia beside the story of Humphrey and Cynthia. There are some wonderful characterisations, deft observations on the business of writing and the conventions of middle-class life in late Victorian England, and bits of fine comedy, such as this description of a recital by Caesar, Cynthia’s brother, a fat, pompous pretender who’s been led to believe himself a talented basso:

It was a prodigious roar. No one could dispute that he possessed a voice of phenomenal power, if it were once conceded to be a voice, in the musical sense, at all. It seemed as if he must burst his corsets, and shift the furniture — that the ceiling itself must split with the noise that he hurled up. Perspiration broke out on him, and rolled down his face, as he writhed at the gas-globes. His large body was contorted with exertion. But he never faltered. Bellow upon bellow he produced, to the welcome end — till Cynthia struck the final chord and he bowed.

“A performance?” asked Walford, swollen with pride.

Kent said indeed it was.

My admiration for Leonard Merrick’s talents continues to grow and I will head further into his oeuvre in search of more such delights.

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Cynthia, by Leonard Merrick
London: Chatto & Windus, 1896

A Honeymoon Experiment, by Margaret and Stuart Chase

Cover of first edition of "A Honeymoon Experiment," by Margaret and Stuart Chase

“Any man that wants a job can get it!”

I believe that this statement, despite the deep groove that it has worn in the average unthinking mind, is utterly without foundation in fact. I want to tell you why I believe that it is not true. I want to tell you how I tramped for nine weeks through the streets of a great American city, and how I was unable upon application to secure work at a wage that would keep me alive.

Thus opens A Honeymoon Experiment, a remarkable little book published in 1916 by a remarkable couple, Margaret and Stuart Chase.

When considering how to spend their honeymoon after marrying in the summer of 1914, the Chases decided to take it as an opportunity to engage in an unusual life experiment. From the start, they had been attracted to each other by a passion for independent thinking. At the age of 23, Stuart Chase had composed as his personal credo, “I must choose my own path… from among the many and follow it in all faith and trust until experience bids me seek another,” and he stuck to it with exceptional success throughout the rest of his life. His wife, Margaret Hatfield Chase, a teacher at a number of alternative schools, shared his willingness to venture outside conventional patterns.

And so, Chase wrote,

We decided to devote our honeymoon to the task of finding out more concerning the matters that so profoundly perplexed us. Ever since our first talks together we had wanted to know how it felt to live beyond the pale of family and class influence. Here was our chance. We could utilize these honeymoon weeks to start clean and clear at the bottom.

What they decided to do–after a few weeks canoeing in the Ontario woods–was to go to Rochester, New York “… as a homeless, jobless, friendless couple, and see what it meant to face existence without an engraved passport.” It was, for 1914, a unique choice, and even in the century since, only a rare few newlyweds have taken such a leap into the unknown.

A Honeymoon Experiment is told in two part: “The Groom’s Story” and “The Bride’s Story.” They picked Rochester based on its size, its industrial base (Eastman Kodak, a shirt collar factory, other light manufacturing), and the fact that they knew no one there. They donned their oldest clothes, boarded a train, and got off in Rochester as “Mr. and Mrs. Chase,” a bookkeeper and his wife trying to make a go after losing jobs in Boston.

Their hypothesis was simple: with perserverance, they would be able to land jobs earning a decent wage and survive on solely on what they made. They gave themselves nine weeks.

They failed.

Each morning they made plans of businesses to inquire at, employment ads to answer, agencies to visit, fending as best they could in an age when there were no state services to help out the jobless. They walked miles around the city as tram fare became a luxury. Food and shelter became their “supreme masters.” As days went on without success, they grew more exhausted and depressed. They conceded their battle against the dust, dirt, and grime pervasive in their quarters: “One’s standards collapse.” And they understood just how precarious life was on 1914’s poverty line.

Stuart applied for 92 jobs in nine weeks, not to count the number of “opportunities”–i.e., scams, such as selling useless cures and shoddy gadgets door-to-door–he investigated. In the end, he landed one–a part-time job as a bookkeeper, and that only through another tenant.

Margaret fared only slightly better. She also applied for 92 positions. She did get hired at several businesses, only to discover just how dangerous and intolerable working conditions, particularly for women, were in the days before occupational safety standards. And she also learned that male employers had no compunctions about intimidating and harassing their female employees. She usually had to leave within two to three days.

The problem of survival was multiplied by the fact that most of what few jobs were available were at wages below the level at which they could cover their rent and food. Stuart and Margaret calculated that, at twenty five dollars a week, a couple could manage to maintain a tolerable quality of life, though one without any type of savings, insurance, or other security. In their best week, they together made fifteen.

“So long as there is steadiness of employment, there is at least some continuity and some hope in existence,” Stuart wrote. They learned for themselves, as well as from other tenants, how quickly the fall into hunger, degradation, sickness, homelessness, and the break-up of families could happen when a living income is lost.

At one point, Stuart–hungry, tired, and frustrated after “when an army of cockroaches invaded” their room–tells Margaret to get her hat so they can head off to a respectable hotel for the night. “You quitter!” Margaret chides him.

When they finally end the experiment and get ready to return to their normal lives, Margaret has a moment’s second thought:

“Let’s stay here and be free and unconventional and and human for ever and ever!”

“In this room,” I asked, “for ever and ever? Could you stick it out?”

“No,” said Margaret soberly; “I don’t suppose I could stick it out in this room for ever and ever.”

Our eyes wandered over the battered furniture, the peeling plaster, the stained ceiling, the unwashed tin dishes.

“How long could we stick it out?” I mused.

They agreed that they would write this book to try to demonstrate to other Americans the consequence of having no legal guarantees of employment and a living wage.

As I read A Honeymoon Experiment, I kept thinking that it would be an excellent text for high schoolers to read. Largely contemporaneous with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which is commonly assigned in English and American history classes, it may lack the same level of melodrama and “gross out” factors, but it’s also very straightforward, told mostly from a very accessible personal standpoint–and not weighted down with Sinclair’s club-footed prose. It’s an effective way to convey what the economic, social, and political conditions were in the U. S. a hundred years ago–or, to steal the title from a book edited by Otto Bettmann: The Good Old Days–They Were Terrible!.

Stuart Chase, around 1960Margaret and Stuart Chase divorced in 1922. Stuart had become by then a crusading staffer on the Federal Trade Commission, attacking industry corruption and practices. When the meatpacking industry strong-armed President Harding into getting rid of Stuart (he was called a “Red accountant” in Congress), Stuart fell back on his personal credo and seized it as an opportunity and chose his own path.

He collaborated with the economist Thorstein Veblen to attack corporate inefficiencies and unfair trade practices. He became a prolific writer on a wide variety of topics and vocal advocate for reforms. His 1934 book with F. J. Schlink, Your Money’s Worth, was one of the first to address the cause of consumer rights. The Tyranny of Words, one of the earliest popular works on semantics, is still in print today. In Roads to Agreement he dealt with negotiation techniques, psychology, and human relations, and in Guides to Straight Thinking he showed how logic can be used to deal with everyday problems.

In the 1950s he wrote and spoke in favor of disarmament; in 1968, at the age of eighty, he was calling for measures to reduce pollution in Rich Land, Poor Land. He died at the age of 97 in 1985 with 35 books to his name.

A Honeymoon Experiment is available from several direct-to-print publishers via, but you can get it for free in ASCII, EPUB, PDF, Kindle, and other digital formats from the Internet Archive.

A Honeymoon Experiment, by Margaret and Stuart Chase
Boston and New York : Houghton Mifflin Company

One Man’s View, by Leonard Merrick

In last month’s post on Graham Greene’s “The Century Library” series, I noted that George Orwell was unsuccessful in his attempt to have Leonard Merrick’s novel, The Position of Peggy Harper, included in the series. Patrick Murtha commented that, “The collected ‘Works of Leonard Merrick’ were issued in a 15 volume set with introductions by some very big names (such as J.M. Barrie).” Now, however, “Merrick doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry; someone ought to remedy that [Someone has! A short entry was tossed one up right after this post appeared.–Ed.]. He is the very model of The Neglected Novelist.”

William Baker and Jeannettes Robert Shumaker, authors of the 2009 biography, Leonard Merrick: A Forgotten Novelist’s Novelist, would certainly agree. As would William Dean Howells, who as early as 1907 wrote enthusiastically, in The North American Review, “I can think of no recent fictionist of his nation who can quite match with Mr. Merrick in that excellence [of “shapeliness” or form in the novel]. This will seem great praise, possibly too great, to the few who have a sense of such excellence; but it will probably be without real meaning to most, though our public might well enjoy form if it could once be made to imagine it.”

Several leading English and American publishers shared this high regard, which led to the release of a 15-volume series, “The Works of Leonard Merrick,” in both the U. S. and the U. K. between 1918 and 1922. Each title in the series was selected by one of a number of well-known writers, including H. G. Wells, James M. Barrie, G. K. Chesterton, and Howells, as well as now less-recognized names such as Maurice Hewlett and Sir Arthur Pinero, and featured a preface written by them.

Writing in Publisher’s Weekly in 1920, as “The Works of Leonard Merrick” series was in the midst of being released, Frederick Taber Copper noted the double-edged effect of Merrick’s typical choice of subject. When J. M. Barrie “assures us, as quite rightly, that ‘Mr. Merrick’s fellow writers are agreed that he is one of the flowers of their calling,’ and has long been ‘the novelist’s novelist,’ he has inadvertently drawn attention to the fact that the distinctive atmosphere of Mr. Merrick’s books is that of the literary, artistic and dramatic circles of London–and, other things being equal, the literary and journalistic setting is a recognized handicap.” Still, he acknowledged that, “one of the most delicate artists of his age, one of the most finished and resourceful craftsmen of his art, a past master of the elusive and the unexpected is at last coming tardily into what is so justly his own.” Yet even this series did not succeed in fixing Merrick’s place in the canon of the English novel. Less than ten years after the first volumes of “The Works of Leonard Merrick” appeared, another writer noted that though Merrick’s work “… [P]ossesses artistry, charm, gaiety, humor, power, narrative inventiveness and fluency…”, “still his position is not what its merits deserve to make it.”

I decided to give one of Merrick’s novels a try. Having experimented with a number of eReaders in the last few months, I also wanted to try out my current choice, the Barnes & Noble Nook wifi. I’m not much interested in B&N’s eBook offerings but wanted to start tapping into the ever-growing library of free books available online, particularly through the Internet Archive. All volumes of “The Works of Leonard Merrick” are available in a variety of formats, including PDF, HTML, ASCII text, Kindle, and EPUB, although, as seems to characterize Google’s haphazard book-scanning, the titles and other metadata are entered inconsistently and defy easy searching. This search link–“The Works of Leonard Merrick” in the Internet Archive–brings up about three different entries for each volume, but it’s a starting point.

I chose, for no particular reason, One Man’s View, first published in 1897, and this edition from the New York Public Library because their standard of scanning and entry seems a little higher and more consistent than others. The EPUB version of the file was relatively free of OCR errors and read easily on the Nook.

The story of One Man’s View would have been controversial at the time Merrick was writing. George Heriot, a rising solicitor, younger brother to Sir Francis Heriot, fantasizes about a pretty young woman he sees on the promenade in Eastbourne. By coincidence, she turns out to be the daughter of a long-lost friend, Dick Cheriton. Cheriton had been a promising artist, but he burned his canvases and took off to America to seek his fortune. His fortune proved to be running a hotel in Duluth, Minnesota, and he has returned to England to foster his daughter Mamie’s aspirations for a career on the stage.

Heriot agrees to help Mamie as much as he can, lacking any acquaintances in the theatre world. For the next year, Mamie makes the rounds of agencies and stage doors, hoping first for a speaking role, then anything–even an extra’s part–that would get her on stage. Merrick–writing from personal experience–is coldly realistic about the possibility of breaking into the theatre at the time:

The Stage is generally supposed to be the easiest of all callings to enter. The girl who is unhappy at home, the boy who has been plucked for the army, the woman whose husband has failed on the Stock Exchange, all speak of ” going on the stage ” as calmly as if it were only necessary to take a stroll to get there. As a matter of fact, unless an extra-ordinary piece of fortune befall her, it is almost as difficult for a girl without influence, or a good deal of money, to become an actress as it is for her to marry a duke. She may be in earnest, but there are thousands who are in earnest ; she may be pretty, but there are hundreds of pretty actresses struggling and unrecognised ; she may be a genius, but she has no opportunity to display her gift until the engagement is obtained…. To succeed on the stage requires indomitable energy, callousness to rebuffs, tact, luck, talent, and facilities for living six or nine months out of the year without earning a shilling. To get on to the stage requires valuable introductions or considerable means. If a woman has neither, the chances are in favour of her seeking a commencement vainly all her life. And as to a young man so situated who seeks it, he is endeavouring to pass through a brick wall.

When Mamie’s stamina finally wears down and she decides to return to Duluth, Heriot confesses his love and begs her to marry him. Mamie agrees–not out of love but merely in hope of finding a more palatable future than life in Duluth or with her aunt in equally dreary Wandsworth. The first few years pass amicably, but eventually Mamie meets and falls madly in love with a rising young playwright, Lucas Field. She leaves Heriot and the two take off for Paris, where passions quickly cool. This is no Anna Karenina, though. Merrick is unashamedly terse about the affair: “If a woman sins, and the chronicler of her sin desires to excuse the woman, her throes and her struggles, her pangs and her prayers always occupy at least three chapters. If one does not
seek to excuse her, the fact of her fall may as well be stated in the fewest possible words.” He’s also coldly realistic about their long-term prospects. “Romance,” he writes, “does not wear any better because the Marriage Service is omitted. A lover is no less liable to be common-place than a husband when the laundress knocks the buttons off his shirts.”

Fields sneaks back to London, where he contracts a fever and dies before having to admit that he has abandoned Mamie. Heriot obtains a divorce and seeks to put it into the past. Mamie seeks refuge with her aunt, insisting only that they move to Balham to avoid confronting any acquaintances, and she resigns herself to a life of quiet desparation: “She lived in Balham; she saw the curate, and she heard about the range in the neighbour’s kitchen. One year merged into another; and if she lived for forty more, the neighbour and the curate would be her All.”

Some years later, having risen to the post of Solicitor General, Heriot decides it would be fit to take a wife again. He convinces himself that his best prospect is the step-daughter of an American billionaire, and he follows her to New York City, trying to decide to propose. In the end, he lacks the motivation and sails back to England. By coincidence–once again–he encounters Mamie, returning from her father’s funeral, and the two end up remarrying.

Overall, the mood of One Man’s View is that of one utterly familiar with the ways of the world high and low, skeptical of miracles, wise to shams, yet still capable of a certain amount of empathy, compassion, and hope. The world, in Merrick’s view, will not give you a break, but a helping hand can be found on occasion.

I think C. Lewis Hinds provides an accurate assessment of Merrick’s work in his 1921 book, Authors and I: “I have read all the prefaces, such capering, delightful Merrick idolatry, and I have read six of the volumes. It was no hard task; each story was a grave pleasure. Leonard Merrick is an artist, not a great artist like Turgenev, not a master of insight like Meredith. He works in the temperate zone; he is never wrong but he never soars. His subtlety is equable; his finesse is exquisite, but I find it difficult to remember the plots and characters of the six Merricks I have just read.”

Subtlety and finesse may be the qualities Howells was trying to capture in writing of Merrick’s excellence in “shapeliness.” He is, without a doubt, a grown-up writer. He holds himself no better or worse than his characters or his readers, and in that regard, he continues to be a rare creature among novelists. There is little of the mustiness of much of the prose found in novels of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and I found his writing splendidly accessible. I plan on reading and posting on other of his works.

Find a copy

One Man’s View, by Leonard Merrick
London: Grant Richards, 1897