Guard of Honor, by James Gould Cozzens

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Colonel Ross did not have the facts on whatever other troubles Colonel Woodman had or thought he had; but he knew all about this episode of the AT-7–perhaps more than Woody thought. It was really all you needed to know. A routine order had gone from Washington to Fort Worth and from Fort Worth to Sellers Field; give an AT-7 to General Beal. Understandably, Colonel Woodman didn’t like giving away planes; but anyone not obsessed with a persecution complex need only look at a map to figure it out. The finger was put on Sellers Field because it was the point nearest Ocanara to which AT-7’s were then being delivered. Moreover, Sellers Field, as Woody so loudly protested, was not scheduled to be, and was not, ready to use all its planes. Still, standard operating procedure would be to query the order. Fort Worth grasped, at least as well as Colonel Woodman did, that basic principle of military management: always have on hand more of everything than you can ever conceivably need. If Colonel Woodman in the normal way queried Fort Worth, Fort Worth could be counted on to query Washington.

What Woody did was compose and immediately fire off a TWX message to the Chief of Air Staff. Naturally, he had known and flown with this officer back in his comical bastard days. Woody now said that every AT-7 he had or could lay his hands on was absolutely indispensable to the Sellers Field program. Giving one to General Beal was quite out of the question. He made an oblique but unmistakable reference to those fancies of his about his superiors at Fort Worth. He made another, incoherent but no doubt intelligible enough, to the duplication of effort, waste, and working at cross-purposes bound to result when exempt organizations under the Chief of Air Staff, like AFORAD, supposed to do God Knows What, were given the inside track on everything.

At the Headquarters of the Army Air Forces the second summer of the war was a nervous time. They still put up those signs about doing the difficult at once and requiring only a little longer to do the impossible. Nearly every day they were forced to make momentous decisions. On their minds they had thousands of planes and hundreds of thousands of men and billions of dollars. Their gigantic machine, which, as they kept saying, had to run while it was being built, gave them frightening moments and bad thoughts to lie awake at night with.

Now, then, toward the end of the usual exhausting day, came a long and stupid message which, if it were going anywhere, should have gone to Fort Worth. It fretted them about one training plane. It lectured them on what was indispensable to Sellers Field (the AAF had so many fields that you could not find one man who knew all the names). It informed them that the Training Command was not run properly and that the project at Ocanara was a poort idea.

Enemies of Woody’s, a “hostile clique” trying to do-him-in, would have asked nothing better than a chance to make these attitudes and opinions of Colonel Woodman’s known at AAF Headquarters. Woody made them known himself, in black and white, over his signature. Colonel Ross could not help thinking that the evidence showed, if anything, that there were “certain parties” at Headquarters who were still ready, for old times’ sake, to cover for Woody, to try and keep him out of trouble. An angry man (so Colonel Woodman thought a little wire-pulling could determine Air Staff decisions, did he?) might have walked across the hall, laid the message before the CG/AAF and watched the roof blow off. Even a mildly annoyed man might have supplied Fort Worth with an information copy and left Woody to explain. Instead Woody got a personal reply at Sellers Field. He was peremptorily ordered to make available at once one of the first ten subject articles delivered to him. He was curtly reminded that direct communication between Headquarters Sellers Field and Headquarters Army Air Forces was under no repeat no circumstances authorized.

Of course, Colonel Woodman had done irreparable damage to any remaining chances he might have had for advancement, or an important command. Still, there was such a thing as the good of the service; and Woody, making it certain that he had no future, might be promoting that.


from A Reader’s Delight, by Noel Perrin:

Any generation is apt to know two classes of books: the current one favored by the Establishment and the classics selected by professors.

Guard of Honor is a classic (I think) but it is a hard one to put into an American literature course. Why? Because Cozzens was not a romantic. Most American writers, from Cooper, Poe, and Hawthorne onward, have been, and nearly all the novels in our canon are romances. This has advantages for teachers and students both. It’s handy for teachers, because there is usually more to say in class about something rich in symbols and hung with cloudy portent. It is wonderful for students, because practically everyone is–and should be–a romantic at eighteen or nineteen or twenty. Clear-eyed realism comes later….

Either way, it is hard to assign books to twenty-year-olds that there is little chance they can really appreciate until they are about thirty-five, and that is another reason Guard of Honor doesnot occupy its rightful place. Hardly anyone read it in college.

Its rightful place is as one of the greatest social novels ever written in American. It’s not just a slice of life, but a whole rounded pie. The action takes place at Ocanara Army Air Field in Florida over a three-day period in 1943. There are about twenty thousand men and women stationed at Ocanara and its satellite bases, and Cozzens seems to understand every single one of them. He has the kind of authority as author that supposedly went out with Balzac and George Eliot….

Guard of Honor is more than an account of the complex workings of a large air force base–and, by extension, of a country at war. It is two other things as well. For the reader, it is a living one’s way into the military mind. The two characters through whose eyes we most often look have both fairly recently been civilians, and with them we encounter the blundering idiocy of career officers, the well-known absurdity of army regulations. But from here (which is a point at which Catch-22 stops) we go on to understand and even to accept. Not that the military mind is right, but that there are right things about it–and more important, that there are comprehensible reasons why it is as it is.

The second thing is closely related to the first. Guard of Honor makes a continuing judgement of all its characters in terms of their maturity, or capacity for achieving it. That is, the characters are divided into children and adults–a division in which Cozzens can take advantage of the military slang of that period: a commanding officer being the Old Man, a pilot a fly-boy, and so on. Some of the children are gray haired, notably Colonel Mowbray, second in command at Ocanara. Some of the adults, such as Stanley Willis, are barely out of their teens. At first the two main observers think that all the career military people are children, and one of the book’s movements is toward their discovery that there are adults who went to West Point, or have been twenty years a noncom.

Editor’s Comments

Years ago, I read a profile of then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher in the Stanford University alumni magazine. In it, a fellow alumnus recalled something Christopher said to him when the two were serving on a corporate board of directors. The board was considering an ambitious but risky move for the company, and during a break, the alumnus asked Christopher his opinion of it. “The little boy in me really wants to do this,” Christopher replied.

At the time I first read that, it sounded pretty silly. Christopher had always struck me as a bit of a dandy. Only much later did I come to understand Christopher’s meaning: the move in question was tempting, exciting, immediately gratifying–and utterly impractical. This is the kind of sense that Perrin identifies as one of the signal merits of Guard of Honor. Colonel Woodman’s teletype message to Washington is the act of child. Cozzens’ shift from Woodman’s indignant passion to the wider perspective of the headquarters in the heat of war-making is the sense of an adult: the ability to look upon a situation from other angles and grasp the complexities that prevent most decisions in life from being simple.

I first read Guard of Honor soon after receiving my commission in the Air Force, and then read it again months before retiring with twenty-five years’ service. I can vouch for the truth in Perrin’s comment about books we can’t appreciate until we’re thirty-five or older. The first time I read Guard of Honor, I thought it was a good story, if a bit lead-footed. But then, I was young and full of ideas and confidence and sure that I would fix some things that were seriously wrong with this stodgy service I was joining.

I did, I think, though far fewer than I expected. Almost nothing, I soon discovered, and more slowly, came to understand, was as simple and straight-forward as it seemed on the surface. That was not, as I first expected, because this was a bureaucratic monstrosity that thrived on inertia, but because the very nature of a large organization is complex. The quick and clear decisions of a child almost never achieved their intended effects.

This was not because the system tended to inaction, but because genuinely successful action required two apparently contradictory qualities: the ability to make clear and quick decisions and the dedication to follow them up through all the tedious and conflicting secondary, tertiary, and unexpected effects. The decisions were often the easiest part, and I saw more than a few instances where officers made the childish mistake of confusing the act of making a decision with the task of carrying it out. No two people in any organization are precisely aligned in motivation, perspective, and ability. Getting hundreds or thousands to achieve some coherent result involves so many interactions and moments of conflict or cooperation that no simplistic account could ever come close to capturing its reality. Twenty-five years later, when I reread Guard of Honor, I found Cozzens’ insight into the nature of a large organization so subtle and complete that at some points, I wanted to break into applause.

There are plenty of novels about love and family passions and adventure, but there are very, very few worthwhile novels about the world in which many of us spent much of our adult lives: the world of work in organizations. Not labor or business or power, all of which have been treated, often in simplistic ways, in more than a few books, but the multi-dimensional world of work where we are one of hundreds or thousands, each with our own responsibilities, pressures, motivations, constraints, and prejudices.

It might seem odd, at first, that something that has occupied such a large place in so many lives in the last century has been so rarely been the subject for a novelist. But writers are often in a bad position to take on such a subject. Novel-writing is usually a solitary task. A full-time job with some measure of management responsibility allows little time for it. Louis Auchincloss, Wallace Stevens, and Charles Ives are among the rare cases of the active man of business with time and energy left over to create.

Cozzens had the advantage of being brought into the Army Air Force’s headquarters by its commander, General Henry A. “Hap” Arnold, in the midst of World War Two. Although he spent his time of various publicity projects that never went anywhere, he had the chance to travel around the service and to see it in all its scale and complexity.

While his contributions to the Army Air Force’s mission were negligible, Cozzens had the rare opportunity to survey this organization of over a million men and women with a novelist’s eye. As Matthew Bruccoli writes in the introduction to A Time of War, a collection of Cozzens’ diaries and memos from his time in the Air Force, he was “a highly intelligent, keenly observant, civilian-in-uniform granted temporary access to the highest command levels.”

This experience enabled Cozzens to step beyond the one-dimensional view typically taken by novelists depicting military life. In a letter written after the war, Cozzens remarked,

… I know that any writer, caught by the mil. ser. is expected, as soon as he gets shut of it to fearlessly expose the corruption and inefficiency, and not to shrink from getting square with any high placed lugs who had him at temporary disadvantage. It is awkward to have to say that, after seeing about all there was to see in the AAF, I am for, rather than against, the mil. ser.

This could be sheer ignorance; but of course I don’t think so. During many months in Washington one of my jobs, sordid but interesting, was to prepare a daily burn-this-report diesting information supplied me confidentially by all the AC/AS offices on what was going wrong. I think it was unlikely that any one person in the Air Force was more fully and regularly advised of the scandals, misadventures, and dirty deals which here and there enlivened the record. On reflection, none of it seems to me important compared to the remarkable work of a remarkable number of able and devoted men.

In Guard of Honor, he took this raw material and shaped it into a masterpiece. Perrin’s essay refers to it as “the Best American Novel about World War Two” (as has biographer Edmund Morris). I think it’s even better than that. I would argue that Guard of Honor is the best novel written so far about life and work in an organization. And for that, it deserves much greater recognition.


· Time magazine, 25 October 1948

Most so-called serious novelists have an ax to grind, a true bill to find, a point of view that they want to uphold regardless of how many opposing points of view they may have to howl down or ignore in the process. James Gould Cozzens is like his fellows in this respect–with one admirable difference. The point he insists on making is that the world if far too wrapped up in different points of view for any one of them to be entirely true, that “the Nature of Things abhors a drawn line and loves a hodgepodge.”

… In Guard of Honor he not only shows again his fine descriptive talents but boldly tangles with two of the toughest subjects of his day–the nature of war, and racial intolerance. Guard of Honor is a big, fat book–much bigger than Sinclair Lewis’ Kingsblood Royal or Laura Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement–bigger, and far better.

· New Yorker, 9 October 1948 (review by Brendan Gill)

Despite its size, then, Guard of Honor is compact and stringently disciplined, with Cozzens hitting his stride in the first sentence of the first chapter (“Through the late afternoon they flew southeast, going home to Ocanara at about two hundred miles an hour”), and ending, without a word too many, as neatly and pregnantly as a sonnet. A war novel courageously concerned not with the field of battle but with a segment of the Zone of Interior–a sprawling, newly activated Army Air Force installation in central Florida–it provides, in that formidably unsympathetic setting, the conventional “everything” that a big novel is expected to provide, from reflections on the metaphysical bases of right conduct to the question, teasingly unresolved until near the end of the book, of whether the virtuous Captain Nathaniel Hicks and the no less virtuous WAC Lieutenant Amanda Turck are finally to go to bed together…. The dramatis personae who move across the hot, bleak setting of Florida cheapness and Florida sand range from privates to general officers, and each of them not only is distinguished as an individual but strikes the reader as being impossible to do without, for there is nowhere that blurring of focus and pitch in the midst of so many faces, that a less practiced writer might have been unable to avoid.

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Guard of Honor, James Gould Cozzens
New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948

The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder

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From the first, Lansing admired John Ashley and imitated him, stumbingly. He went so far as to pretend that he, too, was a happily married man. Society would have got nowhere without those imitations of order and decorum that pass under the names of sonbbery and hypocrisy. Ashley converted his Rainy Day House into a laboratory for experiment and invention. Lansing built a Rainy Day House behind “St. Kitts” and revived his interest in “snake oils.” Perhaps it was the influence of the Debevoises, perhaps the example of the Ashleys, that enabled Eustacia to bear a child that lived, and then another, then a third. The Lansings were older the the Ashleys, but their children were closely of an age: Felicite Marjolaine Dupuy Lansing (she was born on St. Felix’s Day; the Iowa Lansing names had been carried to Heaven by the dead infants) and Lily Scolastica Ashley; George Sims Lansing and Roger Berwyn Ashley; then Sophia alone; then Anne Lansing and Constance Ashley. Eustacia Lansing carried well her torch of hypocrisy or whatever it was. In public–at the Mayor’s picnic, on the front bench at the Memorial Day exercises–she played the proud and devoted wife. Creole beauty is short lived. By the time the Ashleys arrived in Coaltown Eustacia’s tea-colored complexion had turned a less delicate hue. her features had lost much of their doelike softness; she was decidedly plump. Nevertheless, everyone in Coaltown, from Dr. Gillies to the boy who shined shoes at the Tavern, knew that the town could boast to handsome and unusual women. Mrs. Ashley was tall and fair; Mrs. Mansing was short and dark. Mrs. Ashley–child of the ear as a German–had no talent for dress, but a magical speaking voice, and she moved like a queen; Mrs. Lansing–child of the eye as a Latin–was mistress of color and design, though her voice cut like a parrot’s and her gait lacked grace. Mrs. Ashley was serene and slow to speak; Mrs. Lansing was abrupt and voluble. Mrs. Ashley had little humor and less wit; Mrs. Lansing ransacked two languages and a dialect for brilliant and pungent mots and was a devastating mimic. For almost twenty years these ladies were in and out of one another’s house, as were their children. They got on well together without one vibration of sympathy. Beata Ashley lacked the imagination or freedom of attention to penetrate the older woman’s misery. (John Ashley was well aware of it but did not speak.) One art they shared in common: both were incomparable cooks; one condition: both were far removed from the environment that had shaped their early lives.

For these two families the first ten years went by without remarkable event: pregnancies, diapers, and croup; measles and falling out of trees; birthday parties, dolls, stamp collections, and whooping cough. George was caught stealing Roger’s three-sen stamp; Roger had his mouth washed out with soap and water for saying “hell.” Felicite, who aspired to be a nun, was discovered sleeping on the floor in emulation of some saint; Constance refused to speak to her best friend Anne for a week. You know all that.

Editor’s Comments

Is it fair to include a failure as a neglected book? Not that The Eighth Day was a failure in a commercial sense: it sold over 70,000 copies in hardback, was picked up by the Book of the Month Club as a featured title, and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for half a year. Nor was it a complete critical failure. Edmund Wilson called it Wilder’s best work ever, and it received the National Book Award for fiction.

Other reviewers were far less enthusiastic. Stanley Kauffmann, writing for The New Republic, called it “a book that means nothing.” Josh Greenfield in Newsweek assessed Wilder’s message in the novel “a worthless bauble.” In The New Yorker, Edith Oliver judged that “none of the characters, major or minor, rings credible to the reader.”

A large paperback run was issued by the Popular Library to follow the hardback’s success. In the UK, Penguin issued it as part of its “Modern Classics” series within a year of its publication. But, other than a paperback reissue by Avon in the mid-1970s, for most of the last forty years, it’s been out of print. It became one of those books you often saw in thrift stores, and then it largely disappeared. It was forgotten by readers and ignored by critics.

If these were its just desserts, we’d be right to let The Eighth Day pass into obscurity. But if it’s fair to call The Eighth Day a failure, that’s not the same thing as calling it worthless. If The Eighth Day fails, it’s in part due the scale of Wilder’s perspective, which could easily be mistaken for his ambition.

“Is it possible that there will someday be a ‘spiritualization’ of the human animal?” asks the narrator early in The Eighth Day. As a group of the main characters celebrate the start of the 20th century near the start of the book, the town’s doctor is asked to predict what the new century will be like. It would be easy to read the answer to the narrator’s question in his reply:

Nature never sleeps. The process of life never stands still. The creation has not come to an end. The Bible says that God created man on the sixth day and rested, but each of those days was many millions of years long. That day of rest must have been a short one. Man is not an end but a beginning. We are at the beginning of the second week. We are the children of the eighth day.

Wilder certainly offers us suggestions that a new spiritual man may be emerging. The book centers upon John Ashley, an engineer working in the near-exhausted mines of Coaltown, who’s tried and convicted of killing the mines’ superintendent, Breckenridge Lansing. On his way to the peninentiary, Ashley is freed by a group of men wearing disguises. Ashley’s flight, which eventually leads him to the copper mines of Chile, and the fate of his wife and children, as well as those of Lansing, forms one parenthesis around the murder. The other is formed by the histories of Ashley and Lansing and their wives up to that moment. In six parts of unequal length, Wilder takes us forward and back in time, attempting to explore the meaning of their stories, and the life of the spirit remains a constant subject throughout.

Ashley is the most obviously saintly character. Devoid of ego or concern for social successful, his life before and after the killing is punctuated by acts of selflessness, whether it’s lobbying for a rise in the miners’ pay or building a church for the Indian copper miners. He is not alone, however. His son Roger becomes a reporter whose occasional pieces celebrate the minorities, underdogs, and lost causes of a booming Chicago. His wife and Lansing’s both demonstrate almost superhuman strength of character in their respective sufferings. His daughter Sophia outdoes Horatio Alger’s heroes in rescuing her family from removal to the poor farm.

But Wilder is no Ayn Rand. For all the efforts of these saints, he also recognizes that human progress is more often illusion than ideal. As the doctor speaks of the possibility of a new man emerging, Wilder lets us in on a secret:

Dr. Gillies was lying for all he was worth. He had no doubt that the coming century would be too direful to contemplate–that is to say, like all the other centuries.

Wilder’s view of man’s spirituality is more devious than mere Christianity. “The Bible is the story of a Messiah-bearing family, but it is only one Bible. There are many such families whose Bibles have not been written.” Elsewhere, a fellow orderly in the hospital where Roger works soon after running away to Chicago tells him, “We must wait until all the men on all the stars have purified themselves. No man can wish to be happy until everyone else in the universe is happy.”

But Roger just stares at him, “uncomprehendingly. His family had been happy at ‘The Elms’ [the Ashley home in Coaltown].” A few rise out of the muck of human existence. Perhaps they are elected, in the Puritan’s sense. Perhaps it is their own effort. Wilder leaves us to decide for ourselves:

There is much talk of a design in the arras [tapestry]. Some are certain they see it. Some see what they have been told to see. Some remember that they saw it once but have lost it. Some are strengthened by seeing a pattern wherein the oppressed and exploited of the earth are gradually emerging from their bondage. Some find strength in the conviction that there is nothing to see. Some

And so ends the book.

I think this may be why The Eighth Day has failed to keep the attention of a large reading audience or a solid critical reputation. That there is more to life than “birth, feeding, excreting, propagation, and death” is clearly Wilder’s message here. That it clearly makes a difference in the end, however, is not. Nevertheless, we do have to decide for ourselves if it does, or else we are no better than “a fly that lives and lays its eggs and dies–all in one day–and is gone forever.”

By not offering a simple answer, Wilder forfeited many of his potential readers after the first wave of best-sellerdom ebbed. By suggesting at the same time that there might be something to those staid old-fashioned notions of charity and piety, he also ran counter to prevailing prejudices among the academics and critics who might otherwise have kept his name in circulation.

Though out of print, The Eighth Day has moved at least a dozen readers to leave their own comments on “A Must-Read”; “An undiscovered treasure”; “a great and sadly neglected book”; and, “one of the books that has moved me more than any.”

What’s particularly interesting is what one of the National Book Award judges, John Updike, had to say upon reading the book again after thirty-five years. In his essay, “Chasing After Providence,” describes Wilder’s struggles to resist his own tendency to allow drink, socializing, and endless intellectual distractions to pull his attention away from the novel.

For the original National Book Award citation, Updike wrote:

Through the lens of a turn-of-the-century murder mystery, Mr. Wilder surveys a world that is both vanished and coming to birth; in a clean gay prose sharp with aphoristic wit and the sense and scent of Midwestern America and Andean Chile, he takes us on a chase of Providence and delivers us, exhilarated and edified, into the care of an ambiguous conclusion.

From the perspective of thirty-five years, Updike moderates some of these judgments. Still, he remains in awe of Wilder’s easy handling of countless small and specific details of time, place, and custom that manages to coexist with a conception of “globe-spanning nimbleness and cosmic lift-off….”:

The Eighth Day-—his one real novel, he more than once said, and much his longest—-opens itself to the digression, the sermonette, the stray inspiration that might capture the simultaneous largeness and smallness of the human adventure. Untidily, self-delightingly, it brims with wonder and wisdom, and aspires to prophecy. We marvel at a novel of such spiritual ambition and benign flamboyance.

Ironically, this is much the same conclusion Denis Donoghue reached when reviewing the novel in the NYRB in 1967:

The Eighth Day is one of those old-fashioned things called novels, stories with truth in them…. A big novel, then, impressive in its scale, The Eighth Day is touching in its regard for truth, that great lost cause. It is grand to know that there are still writers who believe that the world is a real garden with real toads in it.


Time Magazine, 31 March 1967

By leaving that last word adangle, Wilder presses home his conviction that man’s story is unending and that come what may, man will prevail. The thought is unarguable, but its demonstration leaves the reader with characters who are merely symbols and a story that is an abstraction. After visiting Coaltown, readers may want to hop a fast freight to Grover’s Corners, the setting of Our Town, whose scale was smaller but whose philosophy seemed almost as tangible as its strawberry sodas.

“Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day,” from “20th-Century American Bestsellers”, a research course at Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In all of this, the readers are reminded, by Wilder’s
style of historical review from a timeless position as God would have, through these
families that the characters’ lives are only “a hand’s-breadth” of the tapestry, which is
important on a much grander scale. To appreciate Wilder’s novel for the way it
characteristically points out these particulars in representative lives implies by his last
words that the reader must live its meaning and aim to fulfill his/her part of the design.
Wilder’s fans came back to his novel for his style, seen in his earlier best-selling
novels and plays. They got what they asked for and more.

“The Eighth Day as a Christian Work”, By Paul Simon, Student

Indeed, Christianity is not only part of the novel, it is essential to the novel. It adds a sense of vastness to novel that could not be done by solely secular means. To think that Jesus was only one messiah, only “a hand’s-breadth” of the tapestry of history, adds an immensity to the work that mere geographical allusions such as “range upon range”, could not.

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The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder
New York: Harper & Row, 1967

De Vriendt Goes Home, by Arnold Zweig


Irmin, who the fateful news had at least reached, looked at towering figure in that low-roofed room, throwing a doubled shadow on the floor and walls. His eyes rested for a long while on the dead man. “I should like to have a model taken of that face,” he said huskily; ‘in plaster or something of the kind.”

Gluskinos shook his round head. “Impossible, quite forbidden by Jewish custom.”

Confound your customs, thought Irmin angrily. What appeared in that face ought to be preserved. What was it?–just the face of a man gone home. He looked like one redeemed, like the prodigal son, to whom all things were forgiven–his wanderings, his defiance, his humiliation, and companionship with swine. What exaltation in those closed eyes and on those cheekbones, what peace in those lightly parted lips. It was Dr. de Vriendt’s real face. Irmin breathed quite calmly as he held the dead man’s head in his–this cold hand of a corpse, already stiff. A tune was hammering in his head, to the rhythm of his breathing, as always happened when he was deeply stirred, this time the cavalry signal “Stand to!” though its forceful clarity seemed hardly suited to this moment. His was a quite unsentimental mood, grave and stern. A man lived, and then he lived no longer; too much was made of the change. It was far easier to understand the indifference of the Orient at the contemplation of the teeming life upon the earth, than the attitude of the West. Irmin had been too deeply stamped with the lofty indifference of Jerusalem to birth, sickness, disaster, and death, for the shock, received through the little polished telephone, to have lasted very long. This face must not be allowed to perish. Next day he would come and photograph the dead man. For the rest, the only task that now awaited him was the obvious one of catching the murderer and hanging him.

Three shots, sideways from behind, and from very close at hand; quite a modern weapon, of small calibre. At the post-mortem next morning two of the bullets would be discovered in the body, so the doctor predicted. It was a pity, it was a damned pity that another of the most amusing people in the city had been taken.


The story in De Vriendt Goes Home is quite striking for a forgotten novel from the early 1930s. The title character is a Dutch-Jewish intellectual who has emigrated to British-administered Palestine. In private a poet with a strong sensual style, in public he is a law professor and a somewhat controversial figure in Jewish politics for his accomodating stance toward the Arabs.

Near the middle of his forties, he finds himself falling in love with Saud, a young Arab boy he tutors as a volunteer. He hides the situation from all his acquaintances in recognition of its double risk of rejection: by prevailing morality as a homosexual, and by Zionists for taking his friendly attitude toward the Arabs to a personal level. But he throws his emotions fully into the infatuation, somewhat amazed to find such passion in what has to now been largely a life of the mind.

Before the situation has a chance to develop, however, De Vriendt is murdered as he walks through Jerusalem. The murder sets off divides throughout the complex mix of cultures and politics in Palestine. Most Jews assume the killer is an Arab–but many are quietly pleased to see this difficult man taken off the scene. Some Arabs suspect others on their side; some see it as a Jewish conspiracy to incite animosity towards them. The British administration simply finds the situation tedious, as it interferes with their work and results in additional unplanned expenses at a time when the Foreign Office would rather see Palestine fade away as an issue.

As usual with Zweig, a simple story provides the basis for excursions into every corner of a society–or, in this case, three societies: Jew, Arab, and British. Irmin, an officer in the British security service who investigates the murder, does eventually track down the killer–a hot-headed Jew just off the boat from eastern Europe. But he finds that, like Palestine itself, the whole matter has become too complicated to subject to a simple judgment and execution, and decides to allow fate to pass judgment. By this point, the reader, too, has long stopped being concerned about the outcome of Irmin’s pursuit. Instead, like Irmin, he comes to appreciate the difficult of passing moral judgments against any party in a situation where each believes so fervently in its own case.

Zweig based the story on the life and murder of Jacob Israel de Haan, a Dutch Jew murdered by the Haganah in 1924. Like De Vriendt, de Haan was a moderate Zionist, in favor of negotiation over conflict, as well as a homosexual whose liaisons with young Arabs was the subject of his own poetry and the gossip of others. In de Haan’s case, as has been demonstrated by Schlomo Nakdimon and Mayzlish Shaul in their 1985 book (in Hebrew only), De Haan: The first political assassination in Palestine, the murder was organised and political. However, as with De Vriendt, the initial speculations about motive were fed by suspicions about sexuality and racism as well as politics.

Although shorter than most of Zweig’s novels, De Vriendt shares their common features of a kaleidoscopic tour through the personalities and forces at play in a situation. Zweig shows us the world through dozens of perspectives in the course of a little over 300 pages. In some ways, the shorter length forces him to distill his themes, thereby increasing their strength. I found it a remarkable book that definitely deserves to be rediscovered as a insightful yet entertaining story, one not without relevance for the current states of Israel and Palestine.


Time, December 4, 1933

Though Author Arnold Zweig is writing a tetralogy of War and Peace (already published: The Case of Sergeant Grischa, Young Woman of 1914), De Vriendt Goes Home is not a part of it. Based on the Palestine disturbance of 1929, this book is no brief for or against Zionism, the Arabs or the British mandate. Author Zweig, a Jew, writes not as a Zionist or an Agudist. His chief characters are of different races, different creeds. A good novelist, he never takes sides, and there is no villain in the book. Scene of De Vriendt Goes Home is narrower than The Case of Sergeant Grischa’s, but its theme is as wide: tolerance.

Dr. De Vriendt, able Dutch Jew, settled in Jerusalem, was a tower of strength to the Agudist party–orthodox, devout, antipolitical Jews, friendlier then to the devout Arabs than to the freethinking, politically-minded Zionists. But De Vriendt had two secret weaknesses: one was writing agnostic verse, the other was an Arab boy. He thought no one knew about either, but when the boy’s family found out and his life was threatened, his friend Irmin of the British Secret Service discovered one of De-Vriendt’s frailties. Knowing the perilous political situation in Jerusalem and fearing the consequences of what would look like a political murder, Irmin tried to get De Vriendt to leave town. On the eve of his departure he was shot. Immediately riots popped. The Agudists made a martyr of him; the Zionists and the Arabs each accused the other of his murder. Irmin began a relentless search for the killer. Meanwhile De Vriendt’s followers had learned the shocking truth about him. Soon he was deliberately forgotten by nearly everybody. But Irmin remembered him so well that when he finally ran down De Vriendt’s murderer he let him go.

F.T. Marsh, Books, 10 December 1933

Enthusiasts of all parties will not like the novel, neither English nor Arab, nor those among the hosts of Zion. It will be attacked in Israel. But it will be read. … To the observer bemused by conflicting propaganda about a bitter struggle which is still waging, the book is a great document. But primarily it remains a strong and distinguished novel relating the immediate to the universal. That is the meaning of literature.

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De Vriendt Goes Home, by Arnold Zweig
New York: The Viking Press, 1933

Delilah, by Marcus Goodrich



She was very slim and light. She was always tense, often atremble, and never failed to give the impression of almost terrible power wrapped in a thin fragile blue-grey skin. The materials that went into the making of her complete being were more curious and varied that those that went to compose her creator, Man–for Man, himself, formed part of her bowels, heart, and nerve centres. She ate great quantities of hunked black food, and vented streams of great debris. Through her coiled veins pumped vaporous, superheated blood at terrific pressure. She inhaled noisily and violently through four huge nostrils, sent her hot breath pouring through four handsome mouths and sweated delicate, evanescent, white mist. Her function in existence was to carry blasting destruction at high speed to floating islands of men; a her intended destiny, at the opposite pole from that of the male bee, was to die in this act of impregnating her enemy with death. It was, perhaps, for this reason that she carried her distinctly feminine bow, which was high and very sharp, with graceful arrogance and some slight vindictiveness, after the manner of a perfectly controlled martyr selected for spectacular and aristocratic sacrifice. Her name was Delilah.


The suave, glistening Sulu Sea parted before Delilah’s sharp bow and slid under her flat stern with great but smooth rapidity. It was only in her wake, where there was left a white commotion, that there was betrayed the adequate evidence of the effort of her progress. A few feet above the cause of this foaming propulsion–two whirling typhoons of metal–an old Irish monk sat on the edge of a camp cot and gazed intently forward along the destroyer’s narrow steel deck at what was taking place amidships. He seemed unmindful of the sweat that exuded from his tonsure and leaked down the white fringes of his hair and over his big hands, in which he was resting his head. He seemed unmindful of the very sun, itself, which so fiercely inflamed the universe with white glare that it was difficult to look at the opal circle of the sea and impossible to look for long into the sky. Yet he was sitting in the full blaze of it, because even the quarter-deck awnings had been furled as possible hindrances to the attainment of maximum speed.

The ship, too, seen from one of the small islands she occasionally passed, must have appeared insensible to the limitless conflagration, a compact creature skimming easily along the water, naked to the sun and docile bearer of the few visible people ensconced along her thin length.

Deep inside of her, however, the Engineer Officer, who was also the Executive Officer, was thinking that she was a skidding shelf of hell.


Niven Busch in Rediscoveries:

“… Delilah got good reviews too, and some the kind an author dreams of, particularly an author who has in him the quality of genius but has been forced to follow lowly trades while he bought time–“Ha!”–to do his work….

Delilah charged onto the best-seller lists, where it held a place for all too short a time. But it had made readers, and these readers, like the critics who had sensed in the book the emergence of a major talent, waited for Delilah‘s sequel–or if not another sea story, then at least a new novel of comparable stature. None came. We are left with this one work.

Rereading it after a lapse of almost thirty years, I was as much impressed as at first contact by its drive and dimension, its memorable, incisive prose, and the queer subtle spell through which Goodrich, defying the ukase that a sea story must have plot, enmeshes us in his own love for Delilah. Through his love he delivers us to the bony morality that knits up men at sea, binding them in a skeleton made up in part of hate, suspicion, fear, and boredom, but viable nevertheless, strong where it must be strong, bestowing enlargement. Through this love we become as familiar with Delilah as with the pulse, the tread, the perfume, and the proportions of a woman we have loved; we can move about her decks and use her weapons, energies, conveniences, and quarters as we would move around in our own house. Goodrich has seduced us. He has demanded and enforced our surrender, even against our conscious resistance (had we time to develop such resistance) to the codes of Navy tradition. The ship, a tiny furrow opening behind her, moves through a circular immensity of sea and sky, her furnaces blazing, her thin steel skin far too fragile for the tests she must endure, for victory or death….

… One leaves Delilah with regret–not only that her journey is over, but that there has been no other book since from Goodrich, and none to match from anyone else.

… Someone–it could have been I!–introduced him to Olivia de Havilland, then coming to the peak of her career as a serious dramatic actress. They fell in love. Mark disappeared for a war stint, which he described in his stick for Who’s Who: “commanded Naval Detachment working with Chinese guerillas behind Japanese lines.” Regardless of the interference of this apocryphal duty and its hazards, he came back to marry Olivia. They had one son, Benjamin. For a time the marriage seemed very successful, even though a person alert to such situations could detect in its outline a time-honored disaster pattern…. Presently Olivia went on tour and the marriage went up the spout.

If that is what stopped the second book (and when you saw Mark, he always said he had been working, though it took time, ha! it went slowly), I am sorry. Ten years ago, giving a party to celebrate some luck with a book of my own, I had undercover agents looking for him all over New York City–his native habitat when not at sea–to no avail.”

Editor’s Note

Delilah was reissued in the 1960s as one of the titles in the Time Reading Program and in the 1970s as one of the titles in the Lost American Fiction series. It was reissued in 2000 in paperback from Lyons Press.

Marcus Goodrich was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1897. He ran away from home at 16 to join the Navy. He left the Navy after World War One and attended Columbia University, graduating in 1923. He worked in New York and Philadelphia as an advertising copywriter, then moved to Hollywood. He served in the Navy again in World War Two. He and Olivia de Havilland married in 1946 and divorced in 1952. Although he worked as a screenwriter before and after the marriage, he is incorrectly credited with writing the original treatment for the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” (the credit goes to Francis Goodrich). He retired to Richmond, Virginia, in 1963. He died there in a nursing home, of heart failure, in 1991. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


· Time, 24 February 1941

By any standards, it is a top-notch yarn. But what frames the story, gives it symbolic sense, restrains the turbulent narrative from getting too diffuse, clarifies each character, even makes amends for the faulty structure of the plot, is the bony morality of the sea.

The story of Delilah begins a few months before the U. S. entry into World War I. She moves feverishly around the south Pacific, her obsolete engines incredibly overtaxed. She carries a Catholic monk to an island of rebellious Morros, noses through the southern Philippines searching for caches of firearms, finally docks while her old body is torn apart and filled with new organs. The human action is a series of bloody brawls, the friendships and conflicts of men too close together for too long a time. Included in the novel’s 496-page sweep are three brilliant novelle: Ensign Woodbridge’s encounter with the hypocritical missionaries, the story of the Irish monk and the satanic trader, Parker, and Seaman O’Connell on a berserk rampage. Included also is many a burst of virtuoso prose, in which Author Goodrich compares the ship to a walled town, to the Tower of Constance, to the Alamo, to anything that represents man’s constant war against an unfriendly world.

Marcus Goodrich was famous in New York literary circles ten years ago for his golden tongue. He used to talk this book in evenings of inspired storytelling. In it he put his experience on a destroyer in the last war, heightened by his study of Melville’s towering symbolism, Conrad’s profuse style, and James’s snakelike character analyses. While he talked his book, Goodrich earned his living from advertising and the movies. Now that he has got it on paper, he is a full-fledged, first-rate novelist.

· Clifton Fadiman in The New Yorker, 1 February 1941

I don’t know whether the book is worth the decade its composition has required–that’s entirely the author’s affair–but I am certain it is a remarkable work of art. Its defects are the defects of excessive vigor and of an overleaping imagination, which are perhaps preferable to the anemic virtues of caution. If 1941 gives us a better first novel by an American, it will be a year of wonders….

… there is one set piece–the story of the monk and the fiendish Mr. Parker, whom nothing but music could subdue–which has, I fear, nothing at all to do with the novel but which Conrad or Melville would have given a finger or so to have written.

… This is, all things considered, a mature work of imagination on a subject ordinarily left to writers of adventure yarns. It cannot fail to make its author’s reputation.

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Delilah, by Marcus Goodrich
New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941

Augustus Carp, Esq. by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man, by Henry Howarth Bashford (first published anonymously)


Nor shall I forget the thrill, perhaps a trifle guilty, with which I discovered, soon after I was sixteen, how to descend from a vehicle in motion without the sacrifice of an erect position. Hitherto, like my father, when travelling by tram or omnibus, I had always insisted upon complete immobility prior both to entrance into and departure from one of these public conveyances; and many a conductor had been reported by us both for failing to secure the requisite lack of motion. Upon my sixteenth birthday, however, perceiving that the omnibus in which I was journeying could not be brought to a standstill at the desired position, I decided to alight from it notwithstanding and boldly descended from its posterior step.

Naturally leaving this at right angles, what was my rather rueful amazement to discover myself, in the next instant, lying upon my side in the roadway. At first I imagined that I must have stepped upon something slippery or that some such article must have been adhering to my footwear. But a minute examination both of this and the roadway failed to reveal any such cause. Completely baffled, I made a second attempt, but with an equally discomforting result, and time after time, in spite of my utmost efforts, I was the victim of a similar loss of equilibrium. Many a less determined and timider lad would indeed have given up the venture, and again I ought to confess, perhaps, in view of municipal regulations, that my pertinacity was not wholly defensible.

Robbed of candour, however, such a record as the present would lose the greater part of its spiritual value; and while I am prepared to admit that, in this particular instance, my youthful conduct may have been open to misjudgement, I cannot concede that it was in any degree incompatible with the highest expression of the Xtian character. Refusing to be cast down, therefore, save in the most literal sense, I continued dauntlessly with my efforts, to be rewarded at last with a final success no less gratifying than entire. Failing to remain upright in departing from the moving vehicle either at right angles to it or with my back towards the driver, I found that by facing in the same direction I could not only descend from it with greater immunity, but that by running after it, as it were, for two or three steps, I could do so with complete integrity. Needless to say, having acquired this knowledge, I only made use of it in an occasional emergency, and for some years now, owing to declining success, I have discontinued the practice altogether.


One can only speculate what led Harley Street physician Henry Howarth Bashford to write Augustus Carp. He appears, by all accounts, to have been a pillar of his profession and community, becoming at one point personal physician to King George VI. Although he published a number of books, both professional and literary, nothing else in his oeuvre suggests its unique genius.

It would be easy to categorise Carp as a parody, but few parodists have ever succeeded in submersing themselves into a character’s voice and viewpoint as Bashford did. Back in the decades when the book was out of print and not available in editions that trumpeted it as a “comic masterpiece” or “the funniest book in the world” right on the front cover, I can imagine an unsuspecting reader thumbing through–perhaps even reading–Carp without once suspecting that it was anything but a stone-serious memoir written by a sober gentleman of strong Christian faith.

What I find marvelous about Carp is how brilliantly the book works on two levels simultaneously. On the one hand, it is solemn, sanctimonious, humorless, and completely lacking in irony. On the other, through nothing more, in most cases, that slipping the right word into a sentence, it’s ridiculous, mocking, riotous, and dripping in irony.

Take this passage as an example:

After every such exhibition of pristine vigour, however, my father experienced an acute reaction, and for many weeks would become a martyr not only to neurasthenic indigestion, but to digestive neurasthenia accompanied by flatulence of the severest order. For months on end, indeed, my mother would be obliged to sit by his bedside in case he should wake up and require abdominal kneading, and few were the nights upon which she had not in addition to go downstairs and make him some cocoa. But he would never allow himself to be daunted. His breakfast the next morning would be as hearty as usual. And he was never deterred by even the most obstinate inflation from the performance of a moral or religious duty.

We hear the voice of Augustus–pained yet proud at his father’s suffering, concerned that we understand in plight in precise detail, insistent as always in noting his father’s dedication to his Christian duties. At the same time, however, we picture the sanctimonious old windbag farting his way through the night, forcing his poor wife to keep a bedside vigil in case he needed help in squeezing out a gust or felt like a nice cup of cocoa. And stuffing himself again in the morning despite the probability of another gas attack.

And why not? As Bashford portrays so effectively, Augustus and his father are devoid of any sense of shame or embarassment. It is not they, but most of the world around them, in fact, that’s in the wrong. Certain he is without sin, Augustus vigorously takes up Jesus’ invitation to cast the first stone. Much of the book deals with his various attempts to correct the ways of the world. Convinced of his just cause of bringing “Xtian” principles to their proper place, Augustus spies, blackmails, cheats, shortchanges, shirks, evades, and undertakes other justified measures to achieve his ends.

Take, as another example, his attempt to save the actress Mary Moonbeam. Augustus barrels full steam into her life:

`I am the Vice-President,’ I said, `of the Anti-Dramatic Union.’
`And Saltatory,’ she said. `Don’t forget the Saltatory part.’

`Would that it were possible,’ I replied. `But it isn’t.’

She gave a little sigh.

`No, I suppose not,’ she said, `not with all us girls earning our living by it.’

‘ And hurling others,’ I said, `to their deaths.’

`Oh, no,’ she said, `not really?’

`Every night,’ I replied, `in thousands and thousands.’

`Oh, good gracious,’ she said, `not every night?’

I nodded gravely.

`Every night,’ I said, `in thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands.’

`But goodness me,’ she cried, `that’s more than ever.’

`It’s more and more,’ I said, `every night.’

`Well, I never,’ she said. `What a fearful mortality.’

`Fearful indeed,’ I replied, `and you are responsible.’

Invited by Mary to instruct her in the proper Xtian ways, Augustus gladly accepts, eager to take the opportunity to lecture Mary and her party on the error of their ways, fueled by great quaffs of a beneficent beverage, “Portugalade”:

I was gratified to observe that, apart from water, the only other beverage was Portugalade. It was again, to my annoyance, however, served in wine glasses, although Miss Moonbeam immediately apologized, pouring out a tumblerful for me with her own hand, just as I was beginning my second partridge. Nor did I find it any less agreeable than upon my first acquaintance with it at the theatre, and indeed I had seldom experienced such a sense of warmth and comfort as it very quickly began to endow me with. Peculiarly attractive to the nostril, it was no less grateful to the tongue, while upon its downward passage, it lent an extraordinary balm to a naturally irritable digestive system.

Nay, it did more, for as it enriched the blood mounting to an always responsive brain, I found myself the vehicle of a delightful flow of new and most valuable ideas. I say valuable, and this was indeed the case, but many of them were also outstandingly humorous, and time after time I was obliged to call for silence so that none of those present might fail to hear them.

(Augustus inherits his father’s bowels as well as temperament). Augustus proceeds to get roaring drunk, and feeling himself quite full of the spirit(s), is disappointed to find the party has abandoned him just as he’s ready to deliver an address on the evils of the theatre. He carries on, however, more convinced than ever in his mission: “Such was the cross that had suddenly been imposed upon me–a cross so gigantic and of such a character that only the most prolonged and assiduous training could have enabled me to bear it.”

Bashford insisted on Carp being published anonymously in 1924, perhaps sensitive to the risk that some readers might object to his characterisation of members of the High Church middle-class, and for many years after that, it was only word of mouth that kept the book’s reputation alive. Somewhere along the way, Anthony Burgess came across a copy and became the book’s champion, eventually convincing Heinemann to reissue the book in 1966 and writing an introduction for this edition. Carp was subsequently issued in paperback by Penguin in the mid-1980s and by the now-defunct Prion Books in 2000. Fortunately, all of these editions include the wonderful original illustrations by “Royal,” pen-name of Punch artist Marjorie Blood.


· Thomas Jones in London Review of Books, 16 November 2000

“The spoof memoirAugustus Carp, Esq. by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man was first published anonymously in 1924. Carp is a pious, hypocritical, gluttonous, not very bright and, yes, carping resident of Camberwell, and the narrator of what Anthony Burgess called ‘one of the great comic novels of the 20th century’. He begins one recollection of his childhood with a description of how he was ‘happily employed combing a grey rabbit, to which I was deeply attached, and which I had named, but a day or two previously, after the major prophet Isaiah.’ That use of ‘major’ speaks volumes.”

· Michael Dirda in The Washington Post, 20 September 1998

Augustus Carp, Esq appeared in 1924 anonymously but is now known to be the work of a distinguished physician named Henry Howarth Bashford. Anthony Burgess considered it “one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century,” as will anybody else who finds and reads the book. Like other classics of English humor (Vice Versa, The Diary of a Nobody), Augustus Carp is the tale of a father and son. The two Carps are models of unconscious hypocrisy; that is, each imagines he behaves as a perfect Xtian (always so spelled) even while exploiting loved ones, blackmailing teachers, bringing suit for minor infractions, and wrecking lives. In particular, young Augustus’s narrative voice is a masterpiece of controlled irony. One revels in every word and turn of his elegant syntax:

“From the time of his marriage to the day of my birth, and as soon thereafter as the doctor had permitted her to rise, my father had been in the habit of enabling my mother to provide him with an early cup of tea. And this he had done by waking her regularly a few minutes before six o’clock. . .”

Note that devastating use of “enabling”–sheer genius.

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Augustus Carp, Esq. by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man
by Henry Howarth Bashford (first published anonymously)
London: Heinemann, 1924

Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments, Resources, Condition and Proposed Canal, by E. G. Squier

From The New York Times, 19 April 1998:

Traveling Companions

… One of my favorites is a forgotten classic called Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments, Resources, Condition and Proposed Canal, by E. G. Squier, who served as the American charge d’affaires in Central America during the 1850’s. The years have not diminished its value as a guide.

I watched the collapse of Nicaragua’s 40-year Somoza dictatorship, and was amazed to read Squier’s account of a terrible bandit who roamed the countryside in his time, “a lawless, reckless fellow under proscription for murder, named Somoza.” One of my favorite pastimes there was climbing to the steaming crater of the Masaya volcano; Squier had also done it, and proclaimed the experience “singularly novel and beautiful.”

In the town of Granada, I visited a neglected museum where two dozen giant stone idols found on an island in Lake Nicaragua were on display. No one there knew much about them, but they had so impressed Squier that he shipped several home to the Smithsonian. He surmised that before Jesuit missionaries cut off their genitals, they had been worshiped as gods of a fertility cult.

“They are plain, simple and severe, and although not elaborately finished, are cut with considerable freedom and skill,” he wrote. One of them, he said, “seemed like some gray monster just emerging from the depths of the earth, at the bidding of a wizard-priest of some unholy religion.” Another, Squier wrote, “was a study for Samson under the gates of Gaza, or an Atlas supporting the world.”

According to, there are copies available for sale, but the prices start at $150 and go up into the high hundreds.

A network of roads, from Jew Süss, by Lion Feuchtwanger

from the opening:

A network of roads, like veins, was strung over the land, interlacing, branching, dwindling to nothing. They were neglected, full of stones and holes, torn up, overgrown, bottomless swamp in wet weather, and besides everywhere impeded by toll-gates. In the south, among the mountains, they narrowed into bridle-paths and disappeared. All the blood of the land flowed through these veins. The bumpy roads, gaping with dusty cracks in the sun, heavy with mud in the rain, were the moving life of the land, its breath and pulse.

Upon them travelled the regular stage-coaches, open carts without cushions or backs to the seats, jolting clumsily, patched and patched again, and the quicker post-chaises with four seats and five horses, which could do as much as eighty miles a day. There travelled the express couriers of courts and embassies, on good horses with frequent relays, carrying sealed despatches, and the more leisurely messengers of the Thurn and Taxis Post. There travelled journeymen with their knapsacks, honest and dangerous, and students as lean and meek as the others were stout and saucy, and monks with discreet eyes, sweating in their cowls. There travelled the tilt-carts of the great merchants, and the hand-barrows of peddling Jews. There travelled in six solid and somewhat shabby coaches the King of Prussia, who had been visiting the South German courts, and his retinue. There travelled in an endless tail of men and cattle and coaches the Protestants whom the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg had driven with insults from his country. There travelled gaily-decked actors and soberly-clad devotees, sunk in themselves; and in a magnificent calèche with outriders and a large escort the lean and arrogant Venetian Ambassadors to the Court of Saxony. There travelled in disorder, on laboriously constructed vehicles, Jews deported from a middle-German city of the Empire, making for Frankfurt. There travelled schoolmasters and noblemen, silken harlots and woolen clerks of the Supreme Court. There travelled comfortably with several coaches the plump, sly, and jolly-looking Prince Bishop of Würzburg, and on foot and out-at-elbows a Professor Lanshut from the University of Bavaria, who had been dismissed for seditious and heretical opinions. There travelled with the agent of an English shipping company a party of Swabian emigrants, wives, dogs, children and all, who wanted to go to Pennsylvania; and pious, violent and bawling pilgrims from lower Bavaria on the way to Rome; there travelled, with a rapacious, sharp, observant eye on everything, the requisitioners of silver, cattle, and grain for the Viennese War Treasury, and discharged Imperial soldiers from the Turkish wars, and charlatans and alchemists and beggars and young gentlemen with their tutors journeying from Flanders to Venice.

They all swept forwards, backwards, and across, came to a standstill, spurred on, stumbled, trotted easily, cursed the bad roads, laughed bitterly or with good-natured mockery at the slowness of the stage, growled at the worn-out hacks, the ramshackle vehicles. They all poured on, ebbed back, gossiped, prayed, whored, blasphemed, shrank in fear, exulted, and lived.

Jew Süss, by Lion Feuchtwanger (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir)
London: Martin Secker, 1926:

The death of Scarponi, from The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith

from Chapter Twenty-Two: The Death of Scarponi

In Chicago there was half an hour of heavy rain. Underpasses flooded, water roared black and white along the gutters, and the streets and buildings gleamed as though shellacked. Throughout the city the name of Scarponi spelled itself repetitiously on the neon signs that hung before Scarponi’s liquor stores, reflecting in fuzzy, elongated, and glaring grean, red, and white letters on the slick black pavement of the streets. Cars splashed through the colors, took and bent the letters momentarily on their trunks and hoods. Pedestrians who crossed the street stepped into an O, waded through a P, took the colors on their rubbers and domes of their umbrellas. Like spilled gasoline, streaks of color ran in the flooded streets. Inside the Scarponi stores, which were the size of supermarkets and like great technicolor billboards set out against the night, drowsy clerks stood in the aisles between the shelves of bottles and lines of empty grocery carts with their arms folded across their chests, or they leaned upon the counters by the cash registers, pencils tucked behind their ears, staring out through the downpour that rolled down the plate-glass window at the bedraggled, floundering, pedestrians and the creep and glitter of the traffic in the streets.

It was tonight that the Tanker, who was not a professional killer but only a young car thief and burglar of far less experience than he liked to claimed, was to kill Scarponi. In fact he had been hired to kill him not once but twice and, although he did not know it, by two different men. On the shortest possible notice he had been ordered to follow the skeleton of a plan and to improvise the rest. He had received these orders from Romanski, who had allegedly received his from Fiore but actually from the Doctor, who had received his from his nephew Allegro, and he now in turn entrusted the first step of the plot to kill Scarponi to Ralph Borman, a boyhood friend. They had grown up together in the old North Side neighborhood of narrow, odd-sized frame houses often shingled in asphalt and in various stages of decay and expedient repairs, with no two of them on the same street the same color, looking as though they had been saved from demolition and moved to their present lots from somewhere else. It was a neighborhood that smelled of machine oil and the tannery on the river, that was traversed day and night by big trucks, where someone was always working on the engine of his car in the street and boys were interested in cars and jobs and money and left school at sixteen to apprentice to a trade. Both Tanker and Borman still lived in this neighborhood. Tanker knew that Borman needed the fifty dollars he had promised him if he would steal a late model Oldsmobile and leave it with the keys on the front seat at the designated hour in the parking lot of a restaurant in Edgebrook in the northwest section of the city. Friendship alone determined his selection of an accomplice. If Tanker had a favor to give, he gave it naturally to a friend. That Borman, in his opinion, was weak, unlucky, and incompetent only gave him, the stronger and more competent if not exactly always the luckier of the two, all the more reason for helping him. He felt responsible for his old friend.

At present Borman was under indictment for armed robbery but was out on the bail Tanker had arranged through Romanski. He had held up a cab driver, who, as his luck would have it, was a moonlighting cop. Upon hearing the childlike and apologetic voice at his back demanding his money and observing that the pistol pointed at him was made of plastic with a seam running down the center of the plugged-up barrel and the color of the plastic a kind of mauve, the policeman had taken his time in removing a thick piece of hose from the glove compartment (“I always carry an extra piece of hose with me,” he was later to tell the press, “because you never know when the hose to your radiator might spring a leak”), had taken his time in locking both rear doors, and taken his time in clubbing Borman unconscious on his seat. Tanker had first heard of it on the news in his car radio and had shouted out loud in surprise at the mention of his old friend’s name. It was typical of Borman’s destiny that the announcer treated robbery and robber with amusement, as did the newspapers in the morning. It was the light side of the news. Tanker had been puzzled by Borman’s resort to robbery. He thought he held a steady job as a bartender in an old-fashioned tavern in the old neighborhood. Located on a residential street corner that even the local residents rarely passed, it had large unwashed windows, steps you had to walk up to enter, and a musky air that smelled like beer thrown on the embers of a wood fire. Borman had stood behind the bar in a white apron and soiled white shirt, with his pale, fat, frightened face and his blond hair slicked down along his sideburns, looking as though he were afraid of being robbed, fired, or ordered to make a drink he had not heard of before. Even his numerous tattoos did not suggest military service, manliness, or evil so much as his having been held down forcibly by sadistic friends and mutilated.

The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974:

The Universal Exhibition of 1867, from Money, by Emile Zola

from Money, by Emile Zola, (translated by Ernest Allen Vizetelly)
London: Chatto & Windus, 1894

It was on April 1, in the midst of fetes, that the Universal Exhibition of 1867 was opened with triumphal splendor. The Empire’s great “season” was beginning, that supreme gala season which was to turn Paris into the hostelry of the entire world–a hostelry gay with bunting, song, and music, where there was feasting and love-making in every room. Never had a regime at the zenith of its power convoked the nations to such a colossal spree. From the four corners of the earth a long procession of emperors, kings, and princes started on the march towards the Tuileries, which were all ablaze like some palace in the crowning scene of an extravaganza.

And it was at this same period, a fortnight after the Exhibition opened, that Saccard inaugurated the monumental pile in which he had insisted upon lodging the Universal. Six months had sufficed to erect it; workmen had toiled day and night without losing an hour, performing a miracle which is only possible in Paris; and a superb facade was now displayed, rich is flowery ornamentation, suggestive in some respects of a temple, in others of a music hall–a facade of such a luxurious aspect that passers-by stopped short in groups to gaze upon it. And within all was sumptuous; the millions in the coffers seemed to have streamed along the walls. A grand staircase led to the boardroom, which was all purple and gold, as splendid as the auditorium of an opera house. On every side you found carpets and hangings, offices fitted up with a dazzling wealth of furniture. Fastened in the walls of the basement, where the share offices were installed, were huge safes, with deep oven-like mouths, and transparent glass partitions enabled the public to perceive them, ranged there like the barrels of gold that figure in the folk-tales, and in which slumber the incalculable treasures of the fairies. And the nations with their kings on their way to the Exhibition would be able to come and view them, for all was ready, the new building awaited them, to dazzle them, catch them one by one, like an irresistible golden trap scintillating in the sunlight.

Caspar Hauser, by Jakob Wassermann

Caspar Hauser, by Jakob Wassermann
New York: Harold Liveright, 1928


from Chapter II. Caspar Hauser’s Story Recorded by Daumer

So far as Caspar could remember he had always been in the same dark space, never anywhere else, always in the same space. Never had he seen a man, never had he heard his step, never had he heard his voice, never the song of a bird, never the cry of an animal; he had never seen the rays of the sun, nor the gleam of moonlight. He had never been aware of anything except himself, never becoming conscious of loneliness.

The room must have been very narrow, for he thought that he had once touched the opposite walls with his outstretched arms. Before this, it had seemed immeasurably large; chained to his bed of straw without seeing his chain, Caspar had never left the spot of ground on which he slept and waked dreamlessly. Twilight and darkness were differentiated, therefore he must have known day and night. He did not know their names, but he did see darkness, for when he woke up in the night the walls had disappeared.

He had no measure of time. He could not say when this unfathomable loneliness had begun, and there was no time at which he thought it might ever end. He did not feel any change in his body, he did not wish that anything might be different from what it was, nothing casual frightened him, no hope of anything to come drew him on, and the past had no words. The regulated hours of this scarcely conscious life passed silently, and his inner being was as silent as the air which surrounded him.

When he awoke in the morning he found fresh bread near his bed and the water pitcher filled. At times the water did not taste the same; when he had drunk it, he lost his livelineness and fell asleep. Then, when he woke up, he had to take the pitcher to his hand very often, he held it for a long time to his mouth, but no water came out any more. He constantly put it down and waited to see whether the water would not come soon, because he did not know that some one had to fetch it, for he had no conception that any one existed beside himself. On these days he found clean straw on his bed, a fresh shirt on his body, his nails cut, his hair shorter and his skin clean. All this had happened while he was asleep, without his having noticed it, and it left no after thoughts to disturb his mind.

Caspar Hauser was not entirely alone; he had a comrade. He possessed a little white wooden horse, a nameless, motionless thing which at the same time was something in which his own being was darkly mirrored. Since he dimly conceived that it was a living form, he regarded it as his equal, and all the light of the outer world was centered in the dull glance of its artificial pearl eyes. He did not play with it, he did not even converse silently with it, and although it stood on a little board with wheels he never thought of pushing it about. But before he ate his bread he passed every bite to the horse before putting it to his own mouth, and before he fell asleep he stroked it with a caressing hand.

This was his sole occupation, for many days and for many years.


Wassermann’s novel retells the Kaspar Hauser, which Werner Herzog depicted in his film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Hauser was found wandering the streets of Nürnberg in 1828, virtually unable to communicate. Eventually, people came to believe that he was an illegitimate member of the Baden royal family who had been locked away in a solitary, windowless cell since infancy.

Although a frail and wholly naive youth, Hauser managed to unsettle Nürnberg and German society in a number of ways. The speculation about his royal connections stirred up currents of intrigue among various court factions. At the same time, his emergence from years of isolation led to fascination about the nature of human development or horror at the unknown nature of one who had grown up without any of the normal framework of customs and morals.

Wassermann is quite effective at weaving all these threads together. On one hand, he shows how players large and small tried to manoeuvre Kaspar to gain the best advantage from his situation, almost none of them concerned for the effects on Kaspar himself. On the other, he shows us the world through Kaspar’s eyes–a world in which almost none of the labels that enable us to make sense of the sounds, sensations, shapes, and concepts we encounter exist.

The story is so interesting and so well told that it’s hard to believe this novel has been out of print in English for decades. But Wassermann was one of a generation of German-Jewish novelists–including Lion Feuchtwanger and Arnold and Stefan Zweig–who sat uncomfortably between two traditions. Although heavily influenced by Freud and the psychological approach to the novel, they wrote novels of a style and structure rooted in the 19th century, full of details and detours, where the pace is measured and deliberate and perhaps a bit too pedestrian for current readers. For the patient reader, however, the reward is a rich reading experience, sensitive in its depiction of both the emotional and social worlds of the novel’s characters. Caspar Hauser was one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in the last year.

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Marcus Bullock, “Jakob Wassermann 1873-1934,” in Encyclopedia of German Literature, 2000

With Caspar Hauser, Wasssermann achieved a major success in 1908. This novel was based on extensive research into the famous case of a foundling reputed to have been the dispossessed heir to the throne of Baden; according to the author, the theme had been maturing in his mind for many years before he felt sufficient confidence in his judgment to execute it. He conceived the novel as a study of a great injustice perpetrated by a harsh world against a completely innocent party, and he regarded the historial events it retold as an injustice from which the conscience of an entire society would remain poisoned until it acknowledged and then atoned for this wrong. All the brutalities perpetrated against Caspar Hauser are ascribed, ultimately, t the human failing to which Wassermann refers in the title as Tragheit des Herzens (inertia of the heart). This idea returns in different aspects throughout his oeuvre. On the one hand, it provides a foundation for his thought, which he is able to vary with some subtlety, but on the other hand, it always reasserts a simple concept of human failings that seems to enthrall his judgment with its narrow certainty.

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Vagabond Adventures, by Ralph Keeler

I stumbled across the following references to Vagabond Adventures, Ralph Keeler’s memoir of life as a minstrel player, card shark, low-life, and hobo along the Mississippi and throughout the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s:

from Cambridge Neighbors, by William Dean Howells:

There could be no stronger contrast to him in origin, education, and character than a man who lived at the same time in Cambridge, and who produced a book which in its final fidelity to life is not unworthy to be named with Two Years Before the Mast. Ralph Keeler wrote the Vagabond Adventures which he had lived. I have it on my heart to name him in the presence of our great literary men not only because I had an affection for him, tenderer than I then knew, but because I believe his book is worthier of more remembrance than it seems to enjoy. I was reading it only the other day, and I found it delightful, and much better than I imagined when I accepted for the Atlantic the several papers which it is made up of. I am not sure but it belongs to the great literature in that fidelity to life which I have spoken of, and which the author brought himself to practise with such difficulty, and under so much stress from his editor. He really wanted to fake it at times, but he was docile at last and did it so honestly that it tells the history of his strange career in much better terms than it can be given again.

He had been, as he claimed, “a cruel uncle’s ward” in his early orphan-hood, and while yet almost a child he had run away from home, to fulfil his heart’s desire of becoming a clog-dancer in a troupe of negro minstrels. But it was first his fate to be cabin-boy and bootblack on a lake steamboat, and meet with many squalid adventures, scarcely to be matched outside of a Spanish picaresque novel. When he did become a dancer (and even a danseuse) of the sort he aspired to be, the fruition of his hopes was so little what he imagined that he was very willing to leave the Floating Palace on the Mississippi in which his troupe voyaged and exhibited, and enter the college of the Jesuit Fathers at Cape Girardeau in Missouri.

… during the Cuban insurrection of the early seventies, he accepted the invitation of a New York paper to go to Cuba as its correspondent.

“Don’t go, Keeler,” I entreated him, when he came to tell me of his intention. “They’ll garrote you down there.”

“Well,” he said, with the air of being pleasantly interested by the coincidence, as he stood on my study hearth with his feet wide apart in a fashion he had, and gayly flirted his hand in the air, “that’s what Aldrich says, and he’s agreed to write my biography, on condition that I make a last dying speech when they bring me out on the plaza to do it, ‘If I had taken the advice of my friend T. B. Aldrich, author of Marjorie Daw and Other People, I should not now be in this place.'”

He went, and he did not come back. He was not indeed garroted as his friends had promised, but he was probably assassinated on the steamer by which he sailed from Santiago, for he never arrived in Havana, and was never heard of again.

I now realize that I loved him, though I did as little to show it as men commonly do. If I am to meet somewhere else the friends who are no longer here, I should like to meet Ralph Keeler, and I would take some chances of meeting in a happy place a soul which had by no means kept itself unspotted, but which in all its consciousness of error, cheerfully trusted that “the Almighty was not going to scoop any of us.” …

He had a philosophy which he liked to impress with a vivid touch on his listener’s shoulder: “Put your finger on the present moment and enjoy it. It’s the only one you’ve got, or ever will have.”

and from My Mark Twain, also by Howells:

There is a gap in my recollections of Clemens, which I think is of a year or two, for the next thing I remember of him is meeting him at a lunch in Boston, given us by that genius of hospitality, the tragically destined Ralph Keeler, author of one of the most unjustly forgotten books, Vagabond Adventures, a true bit of picaresque autobiography.

You can read a sample of Keeler’s prose, “Three Years as a Negro Minstrel,” at the Circus Historical Society’s website.

I searched all over the Internet for Vagabond Adventures and can’t find a copy for anything less than $150, so I’ll have to wait until I have access to a well-stocked university library.

Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski on “The lost boys (and girls)”

Source: “The lost boys (and girls),” Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski, The Independent, 14 November 2004

“It’s a dismal afternoon and I’ve ended up searching for lost authors on the internet: writers who once had flourishing careers, but who now face extinction. Like many things that occur online, it’s a kind of sordid game, depressing even; but it’s addictive. I type an author’s name into a search field: Marlowe, Gabriel. He cropped up in a memoir I was reading; a mysterious figure who had a critical and commercial success in the mid-1930s with his first novel, I Am Your Brother, a tale of someone who finds he may have a brother hidden in the attic above his studio, fed offal and fairy stories once a day by their mother. I like the sound of it, and but I’m primarily interested in how many copies of it still exist: how much Marlowe there is left in the world.” At the end of the artice, Boncza-Tomaszewski selects his own “Five Forgotten Gems”: Thru (1975), by Christine Brooke-Rose; The Woman With the Flying Head and Other Stories (1997), by Yumiko Kurahashi; Crisis Cottage (1956), by Geoffrey Willans; L’Ecume des Jours (Froth on The Daydream) (1947), by Boris Vian; and The Life of Cardinal Polatuo (1965), by Stefan Themerson.

A Contract with God, by Will Eisner

Greg Hill, director of Fairbanks, Alaska North Star Borough libraries, gives this site a plug in the Fairbanks News-Miner and add his own recommendation:

As with all lists, there are bones to pick there, too. How’d they leave out Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, the first graphic novel and the one that paved the way for that new literary form? Reading a graphic novel is a different experience from reading pure text, but the same parts of the brain are exercised, unlike watching videos, which utilizes fewer. And graphic novels re-engage reluctant readers and hone their reading and comprehension skills.

Jane Smiley on Emile Zola’s “The Fat and the Thin”

“Try This, 2–Excess in All Things,” by Jane Smiley

In this guest post to Ariana Huffington’s blog, Jane Smiley celebrates The Fat and the Thin (also translated as “The Belly of Paris”), a volume from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, which brims with food and characters: “I almost said that the best thing about The Fat and the Thin is the complexity of the characters, major and minor, but really, so many things about the novel are both astute and beautifully rendered that there is no best thing. Foodies should not miss this novel, because it is an incomparable trip to the original monument of cuisine, high, low, and everything in between.” Zola’s Money, an Editor’s Choice, does the same for the world of banking and stock market speculation.

Raymond Chandler’s Neglected Authors

Sept. 22 1954
To: Hamish Hamilton

… If you want to know what I should really like to write, it would be fantastic stories, and I don’t mean science fiction. But they wouldn’t make a thin worn dime. That would be just a wonderful way to become a Neglected Author. God, what a fascinating document could be put together about these same Neglected Authors and also the one-book writers: fellows like Edward Anderson who long ago wrote a book called Thieves Like Us, one of the best crook stories ever written … Then there was James Ross who wrote a novel called They Don’t Dance Much, a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town. I’ve never heard that he wrote anything else … And there was Aaron Klopstein. Who ever heard of him? He committed suicide at the age of 33 in Greenwich Village by shooting himself with an Amazonian blow gun, having published two novels entitled Once More the Cicatrice and The Sea Gull Has No Friends, two volumes of poetry, one book of short stories and a book of critical essays entitled Shakespeare in Baby Talk.

from Raymond Chandler Speaking.

From what I can determine, Aaron Klopstein is a figment of Chandler’s imagination. The Library of Congress never heard of him or his books, nor has the Social Security Death Index, and the only place the name appears to show up is in this letter.

A Very Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainey


In 1801, the Annual Register, a popular book which chronicled the year’s events, declared that the outgoing century had been remarkable. Science and technology, more than in any previous century, had leaped ahead. While Europe was often at war with itself, it was busy spreading science, religion and civilisation into the remotest forests and gorges. Never had there been such exploring ‘of the more remote and unknown regions of the globe’. The thirst for knowledge, claimed the Annual Register, had supplanted the thirst for gold and conquest. Never had long-distance trade so increased. On the familiar sea lanes the sailing ships were much faster than before; and even the long voyage from Europe to India was no longer feared as an ordeal.

The world had shrunk but even rich people did not travel far in search of knowledge or pleasure. A queen rarely travelled outside her realm. Only a few European missionaries crossed the seas to work in strange lands. In eastern Asia a few pilgrims sometimes travelled far to visit the great Buddhist shrines, but few Islamic pilgrims travelled far to worship in Mecca. Scholars–and in every nation they were few–stayed at home and learned of the world through books. When the young London poet John Keats wrote the words, ‘Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen,’ he signified that he travelled by reading. At that time he had never moved far from his birthplace.

The most travelled people in the world were not scholars and priests but ordinary European and Arab sailors, who, in their mobility, were the air crew of their day. Between 1700 and 1800 the largest category of long-distance travellers in the world consisted of those who had no wish to travel: the millions of African slaves led as captives across their own continent or shipped across the tropical sea to the Americans.

The world was composed of tens of thousands of small, self-contained localities. Even to sleep one night away from home was an uncommon experience. This was true of China, Java, India, France or Mexico, though not of Australia and its Aborigines. People spent their whole life in one place, and from it came nearly all the food they are, and the materials they used for clothing and footwear. Here originated the news and gossip that excited or frightened them. Here they found their wife or husband.

A holiday by the beach or in the mountains belonged to the future. Spa towns, where people drank the mineralised waters for the sake of their health, were the only specialised tourist towns in Europe. In these ‘watering places’, tourists drank the waters according to a strict formula that prescribed so many jugs or glasses a day. In the early 1800s perhaps the most international of the spa resorts was Carlsbad, a pretty town hemmed in by steep granite hills and pine forests a few days’ ride from Prague and Leipzig. In 1828 an average of no more than 10 visitors arrived each day in order to partake of the medicinal water. Its main spring still rises in a hot perpetual stream, and the water still has an excruciating taste which improves with amnesia.


“This,” Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey writes in his preface, “as an attempt to write a world history that is not too voluminous. It tries to survey history since the time when the first people left Africa to settle the globe. Inevitably, some large themes which I investigated are described so fleetingly that they are like glimpses from the window of a passing train.”

If so, then Blainey manages to route his train through some of the most fascinating scenery to be found in the landscape of world history. Condensed from his already brief Short History of the World, this is a terrific book, one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining I’ve read in years. Blainey does an amazing job of squeezing the history of human life on this planet into 450 small pages.

Faced with a task of condensation on this scale, Blainey tends to focus on trends instead of events, but he succeeded in keeping my interest where others (e.g., William McNeill) have failed. He manages to shift from the specific to the general and back again without seeming formulaic, and as a result, there is something new in every few paragraphs.

I kept dog-earing pages with such paragraphs as I read, and by the end, there were nearly a hundred pages so marked. Here is just a sampling:

Virtually all contact between the Americas and the outside world ceased, and maybe for another 10,000 years the silence continued. Migratory birds moved between the two continents, but people lived in isolation. Eventually the inhabitants of America had no knowledge of the place of their origins.

The Mesopotamian lion, which was smaller than the African lion, was the target of countless hunts. It is easy to guess why this species of lion became extinct. A baked tablet surviving from 1100 BC records that one royal hunter while on foot killed a total of 120 lions. When he was hunting from the relative safety of the chariot he killed another 800 lions.

Madagascar and New Zealand were the last two sizeable areas of habitable land to be discovered and settled by the human race [in about 400 A.D.].

A member of the camel family, though lacking the conspicuous hump, a llama could carry a load weighin 40 or 50 kilograms, thereby compensating for the absence of the wheel in Andes civilisation.

It was Venice, the Silicon Valley of its era, which improved on the old Roman methods of making glass. The glassmakers of Venice had become so numerous, and the fires burning in their workshops posed such a danger of setting fire to the whole city, that in 1291 the government moved them to the adjacent island of Murano. The first mirrors or looking glasses of any clarity were made in Venice about 1500, and the Venetians kept secret their novel process of manufacture for more than 150 years.

[In 1900] A skeleton of knowledge about remote lands was now in the curriculum of a thousand schools. Coloured maps of the world became commonplace. It is doubtful whether in the days of Napoleon more than a fraction of the people in Europe had ever set eyes on a map of the world; but a century later most of Europe’s schoolchildren had seen such a map or globe and could even recite the names of rivers and mountains in each continent.

In 1901, in the arid centre of Australia and far from the nearest railway, a miraculous thread was tied between the 20th century and the era of nomads. Professor Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen captured the dances of Aborigines on one of the first movie cameras and recorded their haunting songs on the wax cylinder of a phonograph …. It was a remarkable occasion and time signal. Here were the representatives of a dying way of life that had dominated the entire world in 10,000 BC, standing face to face with the latest step in technology. The dancing Aborigines retained the sense that they and not the strange intruders held the key to the universe.

Blainey manages to squeeze millenia into a few pages by deliberately slighting political developments in favor of technical, economic, and geographic factors. By so doing, he not only avoids dry accounts of regimes and rulers, but enables the reader to feel, sometimes almost viscerally, how the substance of daily life has changed. “Without initially intending to, I gave space to what people ate and how hard they worked in order to earn their daily bread,” Blainey comments reflectively in his preface.

Another refreshing aspect of Blainey’s approach is the attention he pays to the environment and the changes in man’s relationship to it. Here, for example, he touches on something as simple–yet so easily overlooked–as the moon:

The moon, small or large, was usually a commanding presence. The largest object in the night sky, rising and setting some 50 minutes later on each successive day, it moved majestically. A new moon was invisible, for it marched in step with the sun across the day sky. In contrast the full moon could be seen throughout the night. Alive and powerful and personal, the moon was a female to some peoples and a male to others. It was a symbol of life and death, and was said to determine when the rains would fall. It was believed to influence the growth of vegetation; and for thousands of years it was a rural rule that farmers always should plant during the new moon. At a later time, in India and Iran and Greece, it was believed that people after death journeyed to the moon. The cycles of the moon were to constitute the first calendars, after the art of astronomy appeared.

Blainey also overcomes the perennial bias towards the Northern Hemisphere, giving space throughout the book to developments in Polynesia, Africa, and Latin America. His prose is simple and lucid, easy enough for it to be accessible by young teens. Indeed, one could argue that A Very Short History of the World deserves a place on any short list of recommended reading for high school students. There are few places where one can learn so much about human history in so little space–and at the same time, be so richly entertained. Less than two years after its first publication, A Very Short History is already out of print outside of Australia. It’s our loss.

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A Very Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainer
London: Penguin Books, 2004

Little Lives, by John Howland Spyker (pseudonym of Richard Elman)

Little Lives, by John Howland Spyker (pseudonym of Richard Elman)
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1979

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Lace Curtains
Lacey (Lace) Curtains began as a drayman and became a joiner. In short order he was a cooper, a puddler, a mason, a hod carrier, a pedlar, a pinch bottler, and a short-order cook. Lace flailed wheat and farmed fennel. He was a boilerman, a pot stiller, and a punchboard collector, repaired Wurlitzers and Atwater Kent wireless radios, and wove and patched caneback chairs. He had an abiding interest in the Mexican gold half-peso, which he collected, when he could, and old wax Zimmerman consolette recording cylinders, conducted Bingo games, leaf tours in the fall, and grew chrysanthemums for the high-school football “boosterettes.” In the winter he harvested Christmas trees, was the check-out at the Grand Union, and pumped gas for Cumberland Farms.

This simple yeoman, a perfect amalgam of industry and thrift, lacked only one thing: skillfulness, and craft. He was, in fact, a bit of a bungler, and gollywoggler. A bad drunk, too. In his last years he raised pregnant mares for their urine which was then used in the synthesis of birth control pills.

Lace had none of the advantages of the educated man and it showed. Whatever he put his hands to he usually failed at: his barrels leaked and his walls would not stay up. When he plucked ducks and dipped sheep the poor creatures usually died before their appointed times. But in his later years he collected many abrimming stoop of urine and prospered, until a mare kicked him almost fifty feet and he had to retire.

Well, you know, he died miserable and poor, and he even lacked good will. People said they stopped caring for Lace when he overcharged them at the Grand Union.

Lace always said the most important thing he owned was his last name. If drunk, he would sometimes add: “It will be curtains for you, too, my man, if you don’t learn to respect that.”

He was also quoted as saying: “When I die I want to be that TV fellow, George Plimpton. Queen for a Day.”

Needless to say, he had a son with Rose Edmundson and they called the lad Bledsoe, and when I asked why, Lace explained, “Because it’s Eosdelb backwards.”

Washington County, New York, where Little Lives is set, lies upstate, across the border from Vermont and south of Lake George. It’s hilly, scarcely populated, mostly devoted to dairy farming:

The County has one of the lowest per capita incomes in New York (and the Nation); it is settled largely by the descendants of Dutch, Canuck, and Scotch Irish yeomen and farmers, with more recent sprinklings and ejaculations from other minorities, such as the Eyties.

As its fictional chronicler, John Spyker describes the County, “It was the birthplace of nobody lasting or famous beyond its borders that I know of.”

Instead, as Spyker protrays in a hundred-plus sketches that range from before the Civil War to present day, its inhabitants are a collection of mediocres distinguished most by their physical deformities (the Boleg twins “were noted for their ‘canker sores” and bad teeth”), bizarre notions (“Fred was no ordinary GOP supporter, or loud mouth Buckley-ite. He was an out-right fascist, but polite about it as never-you-mind”), and most of all, sexual proclivities.

There’s Vanessa Wunderlich, for example:

The poor thing was suffering from an infection that venereally gnawed at her gums. It came from what she had once eaten, in a rash moment, at her cousin Ellen’s house in Chestertown: the hair pie, or so I was told….

There is Doc Morgan, the local Ob/Gyn, to whom Spyker attributes at least ten children: “All I know for certain is he made a lot of money and most of the local women, when they mounted his stirrups, chose his ‘raw beef injections,’ too, though Ma always said he had a gentle soul.” There are Little Rose of Sharon and Evelyn DeVilbliss, “friends, as well as lovers”: “Nobody ever knew of any discords between them; they were thick as tracel, and good to everybody who approached them except Brubaker, the knife and scissors grinder.”
There is Stace Coleman, who traffics in “pessary sponges,” which “… affixed to the cervical os, finally was to provide our local women with some protection against that most habitual infection to their wombs–increase.” Spyker’s own grandmother admitted to owning one:

As a token of that amity he gave her one of the few devices he was able to salvage from his second voyage, which she told me she used for nearly twenty years to good effect. She even produced the thing for my inspection and it was not only walnut-shaped, but walnut-hard.

Alongside the intimate relations of the county’s residents, however, Spyker also recounts some tender tragedies. Hetta Wessels, a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage and housed with a malicious mother-in-law, goes quietly mad one day, puts rat poison in her children’s potato-and-leek soup, then packs their bodies in two suitcases and attempts to run. Caught, she chokes on a hunk of bread while awaiting death by hanging: “Her jailors say her cell walls were covered with a three-word scrawl in Hetta’s hand: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry.’

Some sketches are brief–Naomi Kigelhoff’s is just two sentences: “Bart’s wife. Totally and thoroughly undistinguished except they say she drove every Friday morning to Troy to buy Kosher meat for the week.” Most are a page or two long. One of the longest tells the story of Lorelei Dembitz, who believed “that her ‘soul’ was not her own but that of another person, even smaller, frailer, and morally more ‘tattered’ than she.” Lorelei thought “‘this alien’–Francine, by name–had come to take possession of her sometime before her sisteenth birthday….”

But this is not a simple case of split or multiple personalities:

“I am most certain,” she declared, “she and I do not converge throughout our entire integuments. If I lie down she extends somewhere between my shoulders and my knees. When I stand up she peers out through the nipples of my breasts. But we are not corollaries. She crowds my soul. She cramps my heart. I am not her coefficient.”

The two co-habit, awkwardly and uncomfortably, for over forty years. As time goes by, Lorelei struggles to keep Francine separate: “In the voting rolls from 1922 on she listed herself as F. Lorelei Dembitz.” In the end, Lorelei is removed to the County Home in Argyle, then buried in the Argyle Free Cemetery. A second headstone is placed beside hers “inscribed, simply, FRANCINE.”

The odd vernacular Elman created for Spyker is one of the highlights of Little Lives. Spyker may be the Washington County’s chronicler, but his perspective is hardly objective and detached. His voice comes right from the odd mix of proper and profane that characterises many of the portraits. The stereotypes and bias of the County are his, too. Kissy Kigeloff is a “lezzy.” The depression of 1881 is blamed “on Jew bankers such as the Goulds and Fisks of metropolitan Gotham.” Brody Shansky is “a mick neighbor I had for a while….”

Spyker’s prejudices are inherent in his raising, but he claims no superiority for himself. At one point, he tells of the time when he learns that Chester Bowles is visiting the county. Assuming this is the minor political figure of the 1940s and 1950s, he rushes over to make his acquaintance. It turn out to be Chester Bowles, the “retired D&H railway engineer.” “He wasn’t quite the go-getter I expected,” he remarks afterward. “Teach me to social climb.”

Little Lives did garner favorable reviews when it came out in 1979, but faded quickly after its paperback release. Its cover featured enthuastic comments from critic Maxwell Geismar and novelist Frederick Busch (“If Grandma Moses had ball and could spell, this would have been her book”), but most of its hardcover edition went quickly into remainder. I actually bought a copy from a remainder house years ago, but it took A.P. Siegel’s mention in an item on neglected books in Maud Newton’s blog to get me to give it a second look. I’m glad I did. I will never think of upstate New York in quite the same way again.


Time, 12 March 1979

Like its literary antecedents, Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg, Ohio, John Howland Spyker’s Little Lives consists of sketches: hard, brilliant line drawings of small-town Americans. With a roving eye for bawdy detail, Spyker (pseudonym for Poet and Novelist Richard Elman) compresses each life into a tidy epiphany; an individual is captured with an anecdote or gesture, an eccentricity or epitaph. Judge Fury collected wives and knives; “P.C.B.” Terry, who once took a swig of that carcinogenic chemical, spent the rest of his life growing tomatoes that no one else dares to eat. Hypolite Hargrove made a small fortune concocting cocaine-spiked fruit drinks savored by Mark Twain and Jenny Lind.

Each biography is enlivened by a macabre whimsy: a man is steamed alive “like a lobster” when his car wash malfunctions; children are fed meals of worms; decent folk fall victim to robbery, infidelity and bad genes. Spyker reports it all, creating a community from the disparate characters as well as a portrait of the narrator, an “outlander… struck more by bits of detail than the total sepia haze of the picture: by odd names or locutions, specific items and photographs that have survived, the price paid for caring.”

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Out of Print Expert Weighs In, from Maud Newton’s Blog

from Maud Newton’s Blog, out-of-print expert Robert Nedelkoff nominates three American novelists for rediscovery:

“What I’d like to do here is to present to any interested editors (at major houses, or at small presses with the kind of resources that would be needed) three American authors, whose oeuvres are extensive, and entirely out-of-print — writers whose work deserves the kind of treatment that Dawn Powell received at Steerforth or Stanley Elkin received at Dalkey Archive.”

His nominees:

Peter De Vries:

“De Vries … invariably hailed as ‘America’s foremost comic novelist.’ A writer whom Robertson Davies, in the Seventies and Eighties, repeatedly called the best American novelist, period. A writer praised by Kingsley and Martin Amis, Christopher Buckley, Julian Barnes, Thurber, Paul Theroux . . . the list could go on for centuries.” [Ed. Note: The University of Chicago Press reissued De Vries’ The Blood of the Lamb and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo in 2005.

Vance Bourjaily

“His first novel, The End Of My Life, was very nearly the last book edited by Max Perkins — and Bourjaily, to my knowledge, is the last living writer who worked with Perkins. (And, speaking of another of Perkins’ writers, Hemingway, in a conversation with Leslie Fiedler in 1960, singled out Bourjaily as the best writer of his generation….)”

Jerome Weidman

“Not long before he died, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote (it’s in his published letters) that Weidman was worth fifty or a hundred Steinbecks (forget which it was). Later in the Forties, Hemingway said in a letter that Weidman, in his first books, certainly proved he could write. Rebecca West liked him too.”

The Family Carnovsky, by I. J. Singer

Israel Joshua Singer was the older brother of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Also a novelist, I. J. Singer wrote several well-regarded sagas of Jewish life in Germany and Poland. Here’s what Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in Commentary magazine reviewing a reissue of his novel, The Family Carnovsky, in February 1970:

In an era of novels in which the milieu is evoked with a stroke of the pen if it is rendered at all, in which the novelist’s craft is praised in direct proportion to that amount he is able to show without telling, I. J. Singer comes to remind us of some long forgotten relish in the novelist’s activity. The Family Carnovsky will come with strange thickness to an audience which has learned that the novelist’s genius is economy, those deft single strokes, the gesture which defines a whole universe, as though the art of the novelist were the art of the dancer. It will seem even stranger to the reader who has been given to understand that the more he is left to gather from the unspoken and the unrendered, the more likely it is that he is in the toils of a vision rare beyond rendering.  

Nothing is too rare for Singer. To read him is to know again the pleasures of an endless novelistic energy, a loving and discursive relish for detail not far from the fashion of the 19th-century novelist. Indeed, that is what Singer is, though The Family Carnovsky, his last complete work, was published in 1943. And, though he is more often compared with Thomas Mann than with Dickens, there is the Dickensian in him very much more, in his insistence on the meaning of social detail, and on its moral meaning precisely.  

The world of Singer’s novels is morally fateful, always. In The Family Carnovsky, the social question, and its moral valuation, quite simply hang on the question: how does one live as a Jew, if it is hard to be a Jew? And it is always hard to be a Jew. It is hardest of all to be a kind of Jew or a part of one, since for the most earnest assimilationist, there is no guarantee that the world will recognize which kind of Jew he is, or, if he is part of one, which part is which. There was certainly no such guarantee in the world of the late 19th-century German-Jewish enlightenment, the era in which David Carnovsky leaves his Melnitz shtetl to join, an assimilated Berlin Jewish society.  

The Family Carnovsky is the story of three generations of Jews, each more surely rooted in its German culture than the last. But culture is not blood, and it is not character, and Singer never fails to remind us of the ineradicable ancestry of the Carnovskys. Let them assimilate: their hair is black, their doctor’s hands are brilliant, their scholarship natural and effortless, their ethos prominent…. 

It is that radical difference, that degree between men, which is Singer’s novelistic concern. This he engages without any depth of formal psychological scrutinythough there are things which make for psychic allusion in an old way: Georg’s uneven, flashing teeth, his wife’s blush, the wasted awkwardness of their son. These are all we know: these and circumstances, and somehow it is enough. From a complex structure and milieu, characters emerge affecting and powerful, as much as to say, when we know what happened to them, we know very well how they felt.


French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime, by John McManners


There was a fund of resourcefulness, truculence and independence in Robin’s character which made him a most redoubtable opponent. He was of solid bourgeois origin, and as proud of it as another man might be of four quarters of nobility. A little country house which he built at Empiré, on the outskirts of his parish, was adorned with busts of himself and of the wholesale corn, iron and coal merchant of Saint Florent-le-Vieil who was his father, while his boastful autobiography in Latin verse does not allow us to forget that he had sacrificed a profitable inheritance in the family business by seeking ordination. Perhaps out good abbé insists too much on these worldly advantages nobly forgone, yet we may readily forgive him, for, while at different levels of the hierarchy, to the son of a noble or a peasant an ecclesiastical career was an avenue of advancement, for children of the prosperous lower bourgeoisie it was likely to entail genuine sacrifice. Minor promotion pleased those who escaped from poverty, major promotion went to those with influence: those who were neither poor nor influential could more easily be disappointed. Robin’s vocation certainly involved him in a long period of apprenticeship as a vicaire in various parishes before he obtained the modest living of Chanehutte, and he was thirty-seven years of age when he finally rose from the morass of minor country clergy to a stall at Saint-Maurille at Angers. Being no careerist, he does not complain of this comparatively slow promotion, but there is nevertheless a bourgeois pride and self-conscious rectitude about him which forms the basis of his vivid and combative personality.

His egocentricities were reinforced by another and very different passion, which added a delightful touch of extravagance and whimsicality to his character. An oddly erudite student of the past, he was caught up in fantasies born of his own living, and was deliberately acting a part of the stage of history. He believed that his writings were destined to immortality, and to make assurance doubly sure, he immured copies of his books in walls and public monuments for the benefit of future archaeologists. “They call me impossible,” he confided to one of his vicaires, “but they will come in pilgrimage to my tomb”–and that tomb, complete with a Latin epitaph, was already prepared for veneration in the chapel of his little house at Empiré. The canons of Saint-Pierre were faced by an opponent who could not easily be brought to reason by practical or cautionary considerations, for while they fought for their profits and their privileges, he had posterity in mind as well. In 1752, six months after acquiring a stall at Saint-Maurille, Robin exchanged it to return to parochial work. It seems that the role he had set himself to play and which filled his imagination was essentially that of a curé, and for no worse reason than a genuine love of the manifold duties of parochial responsibiliy, which brought him into daily touch with common people, who saw little of his pride and inflexibility, and loved him for his unconventional sermons, his care for children and his genial accessibility. In everything, our curé was a partisan–witness his opinions, pungently expressed, on a trip to Paris and Rome in 1750. After being present at a disputation of the Sorbonne, he observes that this was an “ordinary” difficulty compared with subjects normally set at his own university; when he first sees Genoa, he reflects that the tiles on the roofs are of poorer quality that those in Angers; his considered opinion of Rome is that only “a French pope with 50,000 men of his own nation” could possibly “introduce good manners and honest morals” there. And above all, he is a partisan when he considers the dignity of his own office of parish priest. To a footman, who tried to exclude him from watching the King at table, he replied, “I am one of the King’s men, I am a curé of his dominions, and I desire the honour of seeing him dine”; that being so, he stayed to examine the gold plate and sample the dessert. After seeing the Pope at his devotions, he declares openly and dangerously, that he’d rather be curé at Chanehutte than Pope at Rome. If the humble priest of Chanehutte admitted no superior, clearly the curé of Saint-Pierre would not yield an inch of ground when his just rights were in question. If this was the green tree, what would he be in the dry?


French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime was recommended by Peter Gay in The American Scholar’s “Comments on Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years” feature from 1970. In the article, Gay wrote:

Your idea of rescuing neglected books from oblivion strikes me as a most excellent, and, as a matter of fact, I have a candidate. The book is rather specialized and is not likely to appeal to a very wide audience. Still, I think it might be worth calling to the attention of your readers, especially since I believe it was never published in the United States. The author is John McManners, and the title is French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime, published by Machester University Press in 1960. The book is a brilliant, affectionate, and at the same time detached and sardonic portrait of a town in eighteenth-century France whose single industry in a very real sense was the church. By digging through the most recondite sources and making sense out of what must have appeared at the beginning a mess of unrelated facts and trivial reports, Mr. McManners has succeeded in clarifying confused issues, laying out, as it were, before our eyes the life of a city which was engaged, above all, in religious observances and in its religious business, and has done so with so much skill and so much historical objectivity that what emerges is a wholly authentic and convincing account of a single town in the process of change and face to face with revolution. Mr. McManners is a master of research and possesses the synthetic historical imagination at its finest. As many historians know, the eighteenth century, particularly in France, is normally protrayed as a single, simple fight between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Of course, if one happens to be not a Christian, the forces of light are the philosophes; if one is a Christian, the forces of light are the representatives of the church. Mr. McManners avoids such unfortunate oversimplification; he shows life as it really was — complex in all its manifestations. He rescues a number of interesting individuals from oblivion, he clarifies complicated matters of rivalry among clerical orders or houses, and in that sense greatly advances our knowledge of the eighteenth century in France. I can think of few books that I would rather give to a student of history — even of other periods — than this one.

French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime: A Study of Angers in the Eighteenth Century, by John McManners.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1960.