View of Dawn in the Tropics, by Guillermo Cabrera Infante


The comandante gave him a story to read. In it a man would go into the bathroom and spend hours locked inside it. The wife worried about what her husband was doing in the bathroom for such a long time. One day she decided to find out. She climbed out the window and walked along the narrow ledge that went around the house. She slid up to the bathroom window and looked in. What she saw stunned her: her husband was sitting on the toilet and had a revolver in his hand with the barrel in his mouth. From time to time he took the barrel of the gun out of his mouth to lick it slowly like a lollipop.

He read the story and gave it back to its author without further comment or perhaps with an offhand comment. What makes the story particularly moving is the fact that its author, the comandante, committed suicide seven years later by shooting himself in the head. So as not to wake his wife, he wrapped the gun in a towel.


Best known for his masterpiece, Three Trapped Tigers, Cabrera Infante described View of Dawn in the Tropics as “a personal statement of the strategies of history.” This short book, barely 140 pages long, comprises approximately 100 vignettes drawn from the history of Cuba. Cabrera Infante’s approach is similar to Eduardo Galeano’s magnum opus Memory of Fire, but distilled to a piercing intensity.

The theme of virtually all of the vignettes is violence. The violence of the first Spanish masters against the natives, the violence of slave rebellions, the violence of colonial wars, the violence of coups and counter-coups, the violence of Castro’s revolution, and the violence of its repressions. Many of the vignettes end in death.

Violence, Cabrera Infante seems to suggest, is endemic to the presence of humans on the island. Whether repressive or liberating, the violence continues, in contrast to the qualities of the island itself:

And it will always be there. As someone once said, that long, sad, unfortunate island will be there after the last Indian and after the last Spaniard and after the last African and after the last American and after the last of the Cubans, surviving all disasters, eternally washed over by the Gulf Stream: beautiful and green, undying, eternal.

Writing from his chosen exile in London, Cabrera Infante seems to draw some hope from this perspective. If violence is the legacy of humans on Cuba, it’s a legacy that will last only as long as there is human memory. As he writes in one vignette (quoted in entirety): “In what other country of the world is there a province named Matanzas, meaning, ‘Slaughter’?”

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View of Dawn in the Tropics, by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978
First published in Spain in 1974 as Vista del Amanecer en el Tropico

The Wet Flanders Plain, by Henry Williamson


The Salient Now — and Then
Flatness of green fields, no tall trees anywhere, clusters of red-tield, red-bricked farms and houses, and a dim village-line on the far horizon, only very slightly higher, it seems, than the green flatness everywhere–that is the Salient to-day. Yet for years these few square miles were shapeless as the ingredients of a Christmas pudding while being stirred. Not even worms were left after the bombardments–all blasted to shreds, with the bricks of ruins, stumps of trees, and metalling of roads. We used to say it could never be reclaimed: that in fifty years it would be the same dreadful morass.

Mankind suffered over a million casualties within the dish, double-rimmed with inner and outer “ridges,” of the Salient. It had the outline of a skull, the teeth trying to crack Ypres–so the Germans, with grim humour, drew it during the War. A fit man can easily walk round the skull’s outline in a day; but in ’17, could he have walked without human interference, he would ahve dropped, exhausted, before he had floundered a hundredth part of the way, and been drowned with his face under the thin top mud. The bombardments broke the bekes, or brooks, draining this land, which was once covered by the sea; and the pudding became porridge, a-swim with icy water.

The only way over the morass was by the wooden tracks that serpentined over the mud–baulks of teak and beech laid side by side, looking like the sloughs, cast by monsters of the primeval slime. Always at night the tracks glowed and glared with fire and smoke and dreadful crashes; sections would rise splintered into the air, wagons, horses, mules with them; the mud bordering the tracks was piled with old broken and swelled things. The young German gunner cadets were trained in night-firing on these tracks, which were visible along their ribbed and winding lengths by day. Now if you would recall 1917 to your memory, you must stay away from this fine agricultural district.

The Genius of the Salient
Near St. Julien, opposite Triangle Farm, at a place called Vancouver, stands the most beautiful thing in the Salient. People call it the Canadian Memorial, but for me it is the memorial for all the soliders in the War. It faces towards Ypres, not towards a vanquiched enemy, as do so many of the war memorials to be seen in France to-day, such as the Gallic cock crowing triumphantly on a broken cannon at Roclincourt, or the caribou roaring eastwards from Beaumont Hamel, or the defiant artisan-soldier standing firm and fierce at Lens.

Do the dead feel cock-crowing triumph over the dead? The crowing is for the industrial magnates, the Lens or the Ruhr mine-owners, not for the poor unknowing working-men who fell in the Great Horror, and became part of it.

No; the colossal head and shoulders of the soldier with reversed arms emerging from the tall stone column has the gravity and strength of grief coming from full knowledge of old wrongs done to men by men. It mourns; but it mourns for all mankind. We are silent before it, as we are before the stone figures of the Greeks. The thoughtless one-sided babble about national righteousness or wrongess, the cliches of jingo patriotism, the abstract virtues parasitic on the human spirit, fade before the colossal figure of the common soldier by the warside.

The genius of Man rises out of the stone, and our tears fall before it.


The Wet Flanders Plain is truly an exceptional book. Of the many–and good–books written about the First World War, this is the only one I know of in which a soldier returns to the scene of his battles–or at least, until Michael Kernan’s The Violet Dots came along over fifty years later. Considering the enormous number of men who served on the Western Front between 1914-1918, and the depth to which the experience shocked and wounded many of them, it seems odd that there aren’t more like it.

But after reading The Wet Flanders Plain, the absence becomes understandable. Returning to the scene of their worst traumas is hardly something that would have been undertaken lightly. Williamson returns to the area of the Western Front in hopes of ridding himself of what he calls his “wraiths”: the memories of the many young men he served with and killed or saw killed in his time at the Front. As he describes in the moving introduction, “Apologia Pro Mea Vita,” these wraiths haunt him even ten years after the War, and drive him to seek refuge in the belfry of his village church, where only the deafening tolling of the bells can drown out the rush and noise of his memories and nightmares.

The fact that Williamson survived the War is in itself miraculous. Arriving in France in the fall of 1914 with the first wave of volunteers that followed the Regulars, he served on the Ypres Salient and the Somme throughout much of the next four years. The numbers of fellow soldiers he saw killed and wounded would certainly have left any with at least a few “wraiths” to haunt his dreams and memories.

In 1928, Williamson and another unnamed veteran journeyed back to Flanders and Northern France to revisit the places they served. Much of The Wet Flanders Plain comes from the diary he kept during the trip. They travelled on the cheap, staying in estaminets and eating at workers’ cafes, and expenses are a constant concern throughout the book.

As the excerpt above describes, they find, to their surprise, that the land has been quick to recover the calm and order it knew before the War. The sodden battlefields are all productive farmland, and birdsong–unknown during the War–can be heard everywhere. Williamson–best known as a nature writer–notes a dozen different types of song birds, and remarks on the similarities between the natural environment here and at home in England.

What remains from the War are the man-made scars: mostly German machine gun emplacements, so well-built and extensive that now sledgehammers are having to do the work millions of British shells failed at. And there are new scars as well: the many orderly cemeteries for the War dead. Even for the German dead, although these, he observes, are given cast-off bits of land, out of sight and begrudged.

The local people show little nostalgia for the soldiers who overwhelmed their land for four years. The money the battlefield tourists bring is accepted, but not as recompense for their losses. Instead, their interest seems in restoring the way life was before the war, when small matters of money, property, and neighborhood jealousies were the main concerns of everyday life.

In summary, what Williamson finds is that energies of both nature and man are devoted to recovery, not carrying on the conflict.

The dug-outs of Y ravine had subsided, the dry-rotted timbers broke with a touch; the pistons and mainshaft and cylinders of the aeroplane rusted in the grasses–I remembered the charred framework on the ridge above Station Road–with rifle barrels and holed helmets and burst minenwerfer cases. Those dreaded oil-drums of the minnies! Rust and mildew and long tangled grass and frogs. The Ancre flowed in its chalky bed, swift and cold as before, gathering its green duckweed into a heaving coat as of mail, and drowning the white flowers of water crow’s-foot. Only one thing of all our work remained–the wooden military bridge over Mill Causeway. “Out work?” a voice seemed to say, a voice of the wan star. “What you seek is lost for ever in ancient sunlight, which arises again as Truth.” The voice wandered thinner than memory, and was gone with the star under the horizon.

With the exception of the Canadian memorial described above, the cemeteries and statues seem more designed to reassure the living than to commemorate the dead. The memories of Williamson and other veterans are the truest memorials. In the end, Williamson finds “the wraiths were fled,” and himself “filled with longing for my home.” His journey has allowed him to move forward, at last, to “the new part of myself, overlaying the wraith of that lost for ever.”


Herschel Brickell, New York Herald Tribune, 1 December 1929

One of the best written of all the books on the war. It is slight in size and unpretentious, but worth putting aside to read again when the next storm threatens.

Frances Bartlett, Boston Transcript, 30 November 1929

Among the books of today marking the recrudescence of a general interest in stories of the Great War–also the growth of an abhorrence of all wars, and the determination to avoid them by every honorable means–Mr. Williamson’s is uniquely notable. It is epic in prose; elegaic for the most part, yet in certain of its nuances possessing a delicately lovely pastoral quality.

F.L. Robbins, Outlook, 27 November 1929

Unheralded by fanfare of advertisement, The Wet Flanders Plain emerges from the mass of War books as the most beautiful and the most terrible. Henry Williamson, the English prose writer and nature mystic, had revisited the scenes of his War years, and in a diary weaves the past and present into a series of scenes, pure and strange and deeply stirring.

Harold King, Saturday Review of Literature, 21 December 1929

The book is a series of vignettes, done with that delicate skill of which Mr. Williamson is master. It is deep and tender and moving, and will probably rank with the few really great books of the war.

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The Wet Flanders Plain, by Henry Williamson
London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1929

Dust jacket image courtesy of Great War Dust Jackets:

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman


David watched the door close: gently, smoothly, as though drawn by a magnet, the steel door drew closer to its steel frame. Finally they became one.

High up, behind a rectangular metal grating in the wall, David saw something stir. It looked like a grey rat, but he realized it was a fan beginning to turn. He sensed a faint, rather sweet smell.

The shuffling quietened down; all you could hear were occasional screams, groans and barely audible words. Speech was no longer of any use to people, nor was action; action is directed towards the future and there no longer was any future. When David moved his head and neck, it didn’t make Sofya Levinson want to turn and see what he was looking at.

Her eyes–which had read Homer, Izvestia, Huckleberry Finn and Mayne Reid, that had looked at good people and bad people, that had seen the geese in the green meadows of Kursk, the stars above the observatory at Pulkovo, the glitter of surgical steel, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, tomatoes and turnips in the bins at market, the blue water of Issyk-Kul–her eyes were no longer of any use to her. If someone had blinded her, she would have felt no sense of loss.

She was still breathing, but breathing was hard work and she was running out of strength. The bells ringing in her head became deafening; she wanted to concentrate on one last thought, but was unable to articulate this thought. She stood there–mute, blind, her eyes still open.

The boy’s movements filled her with pity. Her feelings towards him were so simple that she no longer needed words and eyes. The half-dead boy was still breathing, but the air he took in only drove life away. He could see people settling onto the ground; he could see mouths that were toothless and mouths with white teeth and gold teeth; he could see a thing stream of blood flowing from a nostril. He could see eyes peering through the glass; Roze’s inquisitive eyes had momentarily met David’s. He still needed his voice–he would have asked Aunt Sonya about those wolf-like eyes. He still even needed thought. He had taken only a few steps in the world. He had seen the prints of children’s bare heels on hot, dusty earth, his mother lived in Moscow, the moon looked down and people’s eyes looked up at it from below, a teapot without its head, where there was milk in the morning and frogs he could get to dance by holding their front feet–this world still preoccupied him.

All this time David was being clasped by strong warm hands. He didn’t feel his eyes go dark, his heart become empty, his mind grow dull and blind. He had been killed; he longer existed.

Sofya Levinton felt the boy’s body subside in her hands. Once again she had falled behind him. In mine-shafts where the air becomes poisoned, it is always the little creatures, the bird and mice, that die first. This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.

“I’ve become a mother,” she thought.

That was her last thought.

Her heart, though, still had life in it; it still beat, still ached, still felt pity for the dead and the living. Sofya Levinton felt a wave of nausea. She was hugging David to her life a doll. Now she too was dead, she too was a doll.


If War and Peace had never been written, it might have been easier for Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate to win an audience. To compare Life with War is so obvious and instinctive it’s almost an autonomic reflex. They’re both big, thick novels about Russia at war with enormous casts of characters, real and fictional.

The comparison does Life and Fate a disservice on two counts. First, any reader put off by the bulk or subject of War and Peace would hardly think twice of giving Life and Fate a try. And second, although Life is a superb novel, it is not quite on the level of what is arguably one of the pinnacles of the novel as an art form.

Still, the comparison is inescapable. Like War and Peace, Life and Fate is a tapestry, with numerous narrative threads, many of them dealing with members of an extended family: Alexandra Shaposhnikova, her three daughters–Lyudmila, Yevgenia, and Marusya–and her son Dmitry. There is Viktor Shtrum, Lyudmila’s second husband, is an ambitious physicist who encounters an early version the post-war campaign against Jewish intellecturals but is saved by Stalin’s deus ex machina intervention. Yevgenia struggles with the deprivations of home front life, falls in love with a maverick Army officer who leads a crucial tank assault at Stalingrad, and puts herself at risk by sending a parcel to her ex-husband, a commissar fallen from favor, in Lyubyanka Prison. Dmitry’s son Seryozha fights in the ruins of Stalingrad, part of a small group of soldiers isolated and holding out in house 6/1.

But the cast ranges far wider than just the Shaposhnikovs. Stalin, General Paulus, the German commander at Stalingrad, and Adolf Eichmann all make appearances. Robert Chandler’s excellent English translation provides a seven-page list of characters at the end of the book. The categories alone give an indication of the scope and diversity of Life and Fate:

  • The Shaposhnikov Family and Their Circle
  • Viktor’s colleagues
  • Viktor’s circle in Kazan
  • In the German concentration camp
  • In the Russian labour camp
  • On the journey to the gas chamber
  • In the Lubyanka prison
  • In Kuibyshev
  • At Stalingrad power station
  • Getmanov’s circle in Ufa
  • Members of a Fighter Squadron of the Russian Air Force
  • Novikov’s Tank corps
  • Officers of the Soviet Army in Stalingrad
  • Soldiers in House 6/1
  • In the Kalmyk Steppe
  • Officers of the German Army in Stalingrad

Despite this scale, the action in this novel is on a small, intimate level. A young girl fantasizes about her lover. The tank commander, Novikov, removed from his post for diverting ever so slightly from the official plan, waits in a room to be questioned and probably beaten. Viktor Shtrum bickers with his wife and agonises over minor incidents of office politics. Lyudmila fights to make her way by tram to see her wounded son. Krymov, the commissar, listens to his interrogator chat on the phone about cottage cheese and a dinner invitation “as though the creature sitting next to the investigator were not a man, but some quadruped.”

Grossman’s capacity for getting inside the minds of his characters is not limited to the Russians:

… The brain of the forty-year-old accountant, Naum Rozenberg, was still engaged in its usual work. He was walking down the road and counting: 110 the day before yesterday, 61 today, 612 during the five days before–altogether that made 783 … A pity he hadn’t kept separate totals for men, women and children … Women burn more easily. An experienced brenner arranges the bodies so that the bony old men who make a lot of ash are lying next to the women. Any minute now they’d be ordered to turn off the road; these people–the people they’d been digging up from pits and dragging out with great hooks on the end of ropes–had received the same order only a year ago. An experienced brenner could look at a mound and immediately estimate how many bodies there were inside–50, 100, 200, 600, 1000 … Scharfuhrer Elf insisted that the bodies should be referred to as items–100 items, 200 items–but Rozenberg called them people: a man who had been killed, a child who had been put to death, an old man who had been put to death. He used these words only to himself–otherwise the Scharfuhrer would have emptied nine grams of metal into him….

One of the most moving of these small stories is that of Anna Semyonova, Viktor’s mother, who, like Grossman’s own mother, is trapped in the town of Berdichev with thousands of other Jews when the Germans sweep through the Ukraine. Grossman’s mother was shot and buried in a mass grave outside the town. After months of captivity in a ghetto, Anna is packed onto a cattle car and transported to Auschwitz. Along the way, she befriends an orphaned boy, David, and, in the excerpt above, they are herded into the chambers and gassed.

Before leaving the ghetto, however, she composes a letter to Viktor, knowing she will never see him again:

They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren’t going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bak honey-cakes and goose-necks–this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear forever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won’t be here, we will have vanished–just as the Aztecs once vanished.

This letter is easily one of the finest works in the literature of the Holocaust. The filmmaker Frederic Wiseman was so affected by this chapter that he adapted it into a play, “Last Letter,” which he filmed in 2003.

Life and Fate also reflects Grossman’s own development, his disillusionment with the Soviet state and his acceptance of his Jewish roots. Born in Berdichev in 1905, Grossman was raised as a secular Russian. Educated as a chemist, he started writing while still attending Moscow State University. After working for a few years in the Donbass mining region, he switched professions.

By the time Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman was a member of the Writer’s Union and a popular journalist. He spent much of the war as a frontline reporter for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, including during the battle for Stalingrad, which forms the centerpiece of Life and Fate. He also witnessed the liberation of Treblinka and other concentration camps, and wrote some of the earliest coverage of the extermination of the Jews to be published anywhere.

The strength of Life and Fate’s depiction of combat, destruction, and its effects on soldiers and civilians stems directly from his wartime reporting, which has been collected and published in A Writer at War. The collection was edited by Luba Vinogradova and Anthony Beevor, who openly acknowledges his debt to Grossman for much of the descriptive power of his own account of the battle, Stalingrad.

During the war, Grossman wrote a great deal of propagandist material proclaiming the victory of the liberating Soviet state over the fascist Germans. In the novel The People Immortal, a realistic account of the demoralisation and panic of Soviet troops before the onslaught of the Wermacht in 1941 turns into a socialist fantasy in which a heroic commissar organises a successful counter-attack that routs the enemy. The Germans, “accustomed to victory for seven hundred days, could not and would not understand that on this seven hundred and first day defeat had come to them.” The soldiers celebrate not only their victory, but also the courage and leadership of their commissar: “The Commissar was in front, the Commissar was with us!”

In fact, Grossman’s loss of idealism began before that, starting with the mistaken arrest of his wife, Olga Guber, during the purges of 1937-1938. In Life and Fate, the war is portrayed as a contest between two equally ruthless states, two forms of totalitarianism differing only in ideology and technique. What heroism there was to be found was only as isolated, individual acts.

In the latter stages of the war, Grossman, Ilya Ehrenburg, and others compiled documentation of the Nazi persecution of the Jews–and instances of Jewish resistance–in The Black Book. The Soviet authorities refused to publish it, however, and Grossman watched Stalin turn to persecuting Jews himself in the late 1940s.

Grossman condensed many of these experiences into Life and Fate, which he worked on through much of the 1950s. The purges, the persecution of Jewish scientists and engineers, the Holocaust, the battles, Stalin’s manipulation of all aspects of Soviet life all come to play in the novel. It developed into a very unfavorable and unapologetic account of the state’s power and corruption. It was all too realistic to pass as socialist realism. When Grossman submitted the novel for publication, a Politburo member told him it was unpublishable and would remain so for the next 200 years. As Vladimir Voinovich later pointed out, the most telling part of that remark was the certainty that the book’s merit would easily survive that long.

Grossman died without seeing Life and Fate in print–believing, in fact, that every copy in existence had been confiscated. Fortunately, his friend, the poet Semyon Lipkin, was able to photograph the manuscript, and passed a copy to Andrei Sakharov, who in turn provided it to Voinovich, who smuggled it to Switzerland in 1980.

Although the book was highly praised when first released, its bulk and grim subject put most potential readers off, and it soon passed out of print. Harvill Press reissued it in 1985 and 2003, and New York Review Books announced it would be released as part of its Classics series in May 2006.

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Locate a Copy

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler
New York: Harper and Row, 1980

David Hume, by J. Y. T. Greig

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Other Comments
· Locate a Copy


His duties as Librarian cannot have been very onerous. He did the necessary jobs, or some of them: he ordered new books, and now and then took a turn behind the issue desk. But he probably considered that a salary of £40 a year measured the services he ought to render; and after less than three years, having fallen foul of the Curators, he declined to pocket even the £40, handing the whole sum over to the blind poet, Blacklock, and installing him, despite his blindness, as assistant.

He already had at least one assistant, Watty Goodall, whom he had taken over from the previous Librarian. What precisely Watty did, and who paid him for it, are alike mysteries I cannot solve. The Faculty allowed him £5 a year. But that would scarcely buy his drinks. For Watty, so the legend goes, could seldom be discovered sober. Nevertheless he wrote the first defence of Mary Stuart, and so started that interminable controversy on the question of the Casket Letters and the murder at the Kirk o’ Field.

One day David came upon the drunken Watty in the library, fast asleep, his head resting on his table; and he crept up to him and shouted in his ear: “Queen Mary was a whore.”

Watty started up, half awake (or whole drunk), seized David by the throat and nearly throttled him, shouting: “Ye’re a bawdy Presbyterian minister, wha’s come to murder the reputation o’ a sainted queen. Ye’re a’ the same, you Presbyterians. Your predecessors told a wheen lies aboot her to that bitch Elizabeth, and helped to murder her; and noo …”

David, before he died, was called many names; but this, one fancies, was the only time that “Presbyterian” and “minister” were hurled at him.

Editor’s Comments

When I started assembling the initial set of lists for this site, I googled a number of phrases such as “lost masterpiece,” “forgotten classic,” and “neglected work” in hopes of finding a few relevant needles in the Internet’s haystack. The last phrase led me to Adam Potkay’s selected bibliography on David Hume, which had the following to say about J.Y.T. Greig’s biography of Hume: “A literate, witty, and unjustly neglected work. As an instructive contrast to Mossner’s serene and saintly Hume, Greig offers us a more feisty and pugnacious character.” “Literate, witty, and unjustly neglected”–it sounded like a perfect candidate.

A little more searching revealed that the book won the 1931 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography. That cinched it. I located a copy on AddAll and ordered it.

From the very first page, it’s quite apparent that this is a style of biography no longer written. Today, it is taken for granted that a serious biography demands the writer don an impersonal, objective voice. The word “I” shall not appear outside of quoted material. Greig, on the other hand, often inserts himself into the text. He does so out of candor, not vanity.

At times, it is to admit gaps in his own research or knowledge: “But why February, not September or October, as the date for signing [the Matriculation Book of Edinburgh College, which Hume attended]? I have no idea.” In other cases, it’s to mark his opinions with an honest copyright:

A noisy, primitive, confused and very casual mode of education, we should deem it now. It had little system and still less equipment. The teacher kept is going by a deal of flogging, cruelty and hard driving of his often half-starved and shivering pupils; he assumed, as his religion taught him, that a boy is naturally wicked and must therefore be dragooned to virtue. But with all its faults of theory and practice it had certain admirable qualities: it was homely, human, un-mechanical; it treated boys as persons, not as units in a system. I cannot lay my hand upon my heart and swear I think our present methods overwhelmingly superior.

Greig also recognizes that his readership might include both serious students of philosophy and amateurs simply interested in a good tale of a noteworthy life. Thus, he advises at the very start: “Readers who do not take an interest in philosophy as such will be well advised to skip the first chapter. The biography of David Hume opens with the second.”

Indeed, Greig manages to craft an account that is just as full and diverse as Hume’s life itself. As Hume spent much of his life jousting with the conservative side of the Scottish Kirk (church), Greig takes care to help the reader understand the church, “its discipline, its forms of worship, and its doctrines” in a remarkable set-piece early in the book. He describes a typical Sunday for the Hume family in precise detail, concluding,

So ends the holy Sabbath. It has been a day devoid of beauty, liberty and joy. The kirk, twice visited, was bare, ugly, mean, dirty and dilapidated; no instrument of music has been heard in it; the singing has been half-hearted and lugubrious; no liturgy, composed with loving care by men sensitive to the cadences of speech, has charmed the ear; the unwritten sermons and extempore addresses to the Deity have lacked every grace except vigour. Every moment of the day had been controlled, every free movement of the children’s minds and bodies checked and thwarted: to run, hop, whistle, sing, laugh, throw a stone, cut a stick, or even walk a hundred years except to kirk and back again–these have been repressed as sins…. Need we wonder at the bitterness with which David Hume afterwards assailed Puritan and Presbyterian “enthusiasts?”

Greig gives the church a healthy number of knocks for its strident practices and positions, but he acknowledges its suitability for the majority of its followers. Reviewing the reformist trends that began to emerge in the mid-1700s, he writes,

The Moderates of the XVIIIth century, like their successors, the would-be Moderates of the XXth, offered a religion that was cool, respectable and decked out to look extremely rational. But it did not give the Scotsman what he wanted. In Scotland, those who want religion want it hot, and those who do not want it hot do not want religion. The absurd but quite effective compromises of the English are abhorrent to the Scottish mind.

By now, it should be clear that Greig’s opinions offer some of the finest fare in the book. Hume turned Scotland on its ear with his hearty disbelief, and confounded many with his affectionate embrace of the outcast. In much the same way, Greig injects a measure of humor into his accounts of many of the controversies of the time:

… the Select Society, momentarily off its head, published a scheme to suppress the Scots dialect and accent, and to teach Scotsmen how to speak like Cockneys or like Oxford dons. Happily the Scots people overwhelmed the whole affair with ridicule.
   As Hume’s biographer, I am happy to report that he escaped participating in this folly, being in London at the time. Otherwise he might, I fear, have shown himself as crazy as his friends.

Greig is also willing to take Hume himself to task on occasion. His harshest criticism deals with Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. In his original manuscript, Hume deftly dispenses with those who would personify God:

It is an absurdity to believe that the Deity has human passions, and one of the lowest of human passions, a restless appetite for applause. It is an inconsistency to believe that, since the Deity has this human passion, he has not others also; and, in particular a disregard to the opinions of creatures so much inferior.

After talking it over with his friends Adam Smith and Gilbert Elliott, though, Hume had second thoughts and altered the text to end, in Greig’s words, “on a note of sham piety.” “That, at least,” he continues, “is my conjecture; and if I am right, it represents the weakest action of his whole career.”

Hume’s composure in the face of his imminent death (apparently from cancer of the colon) has been written of eloquently by James Boswell and Adam Smith. Boswell was so unsettled by Hume’s calm declaration of his disbelief in immortality that he had to console himself with a wench afterward. Greig, however, offers an interesting psychological take on Hume’s attitude towards his death:

The equanimity and fortitude with which David Hume faced death, when he saw it imminent, is worthy of all praise. But the supposition that his philosophical indifference was attained suddenly, and with private struggles, is improbable and needless. David may have been a brave man–as I think he was–but was not more exempt than Dr Johnson from instinctive fears common to the whole human race. He conquered his instinctive fear of death. All honour to him. But he did not do it in a week or month; and the symptoms of his quiet struggles with himself in the few years before 1776 is that he attempted to persuade himself that nothing was amiss with him.

Greig edited the first comprehensive edition of Hume’s letters, and his text is speckled with excerpts of these and those of many of Hume’s contemporaries. It’s a mark of Greig’s accomplishment, though, that even these nuggets from the greatest of all letter-writing centuries often come as unwelcome interruptions from the flow of his own lively and irreverent prose. Rarely have a subject and a biographer complemented each other so well.

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Wallace Brockway, Bookman, November 1932

Hume’s present biographer, who obviously admits humanity as a sufficient reason for the reconciliation of such disparate qualities and attributes, leaves a splendid, all-dimensional portrait of the great materialist.

The Christian Science Monitor, 24 December 1932

Mr. Greig’s work is excellent in almost every respect; it is learned without ostentation, and lively without being facetious.

Percy Hutchinson, New York Times, 8 January 1933

An excellent life…. The Scotsman, Hume, is vividly set forth in his many sturdy qualities; and as the biographer has the keenest appreciation of Hume’s dry, frequently mordant Scotch wit, the biography is at times also lively in the extreme.

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David Hume, by J.Y.T. Greig
London: Jonathan Cape, 1931

High Water, by Richard Bissell


When you are out on the boats you think a lot about things that are over on the land, things you never bother to think about at all when you are there. The girl problem, for one thing, becomes something you live with, and think about, and talk about. Oh man, the millions of hours that have been spent since the Egyptians or somebody invented boats, by men and boys sitting around on deck and in messrooms and bunkrooms and engine rooms talking about girls. There are a lot of topics covered but it will come around to girls almost every time, especially amongst the deck hands and wipers and other younger generation; a whole lot of your older men have had enough of the subject and some to spare, and would a whole lot rather talk about squirrel hunting.

We were sitting around the messroom in all that water up above Cape au Gris someplace. It was midnight. The boys going off watch were setting there thinking about whether to peel an orange or go to bed. The boys coming on watch were yawning and stretching and pouring coffee and blowing on it.

On the After Watch, which works twelve to six, and which I now had since Casey made the changeover, for deck hands I had Zero and Arkansaw and Swede. Zero was nothing. He was just a guy someplace between twenty-five and fifty in a pair of dirty pants and a denim jacket. He ate and slept and got up and followed the boys around and did his work all right but hardly ever said a word. He probably had less personality, so to speak, than any deck hand on the whole upper river. I don’t know what he looked like.

Arkansaw on the other hand was a boy with plenty of noise. He had opinions, facts, stories, jokes, reminiscences, and when he run out of any of these just to freak the silence he would whistle or play the harmonica to raise the dead. He used to tell funny stories about Arkansaw, but we will spare the reader by not listing any of them here. Frankly I can’t get too much humor out of these hillbilly comics, but some people simply dote on it. Arkansaw wore bib overalls and a railroad engineer’s style shop cap of blue with large white polka dots on it. He would kind of lose some of the worst of his accent after forty or fifty days on the boat; then he would come back from ten-day vacation down home and it would be so thick again you couldn’t understand him at all for two or three days until it had wore off a little. He was the type that calls his wife “waaf” and an egg an “aig” and all that crap. To us Northern boys he sounded like he had been listening to too damn many hillbilly radio programs and was just putting it on. I still think Southern people could talk like normal human beings if they wanted to, but they think it is cute to talk like that. Arkansaw also had a clasp knife with a spring blade that he was supposed to of killed somebody with down in Helena. All I can say is, I’ve been to Helena quite a bit on the oil tows, and he could kill two or three dozen in that town and it couldn’t help but be an improvement.

The other one on my watch was the Swede. He was what the name indicates–a Swede. You no doubt know the rest. He came from the outskirts of Two Harbors Minnesota and all his folks were Great Lakes people. He was a Great Lakeser too and went out on the ore boats when he was only a kid, but to get him to tell about it was an honest chore as he had about as much gift of gab as the average telephone pole and conversation was like drawing teeth with a pair of pliers. The Swede was a big lunkhead like all Swedes in other words, and also like all Swedes he had boats and the water built into him alongside of his blood vessels. And although a lunkhead, he was a good old lunkhead, “loyal and true,” and he would work until he dropped. He was always wanting me to come up to Two Harbors. He was going to take me deer hunting and all that and I had a notion I would go sometime.

Well, that was my watch–Zero, Arkansaw, and the Swede.

Comments–by Elmore Leonard from Rediscoveries II:

I told Bob Nally at lunch in Cape Girardeau that Richard Bissell had influenced my style more than any other writer with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. It’s a fact that I learned to write studying Hemingway, inspired and encouraged by a style that appeared easy to imitate….

About the time I realized Hemingway’s views of life in general and mine weren’t compatible I discovered Richard Bissell and heaved a great sigh of relief. Look–his work said–you can keep it simple, be specific, sound authentic, even ungrammatical if you want, and not act as though your words are cut in stone.

But I discussed Bissell in Cape Girardeau from some gray memory that his work had changed my thinking about writing, giving the idea that I could adapt his style to my sound and within a million words or so have a style of my own.

It wasn’t until I got home and began rereading Bissell that I realized what a profound effect his work has had on mine: not in themes or settings but in the development of the attitude we seem to share about people’ the idea of the author getting down in there with his people, because he likes them, and letting them tell the story. Bissell showed me you could write a book without it looking as if it was written.

… Bissell’s skill in bringing the reader onto that towboat and into the messroom and out on the barges is the book’s strength. But it’s also a good story that builds with the rising water, dangers faced and Duke falling in love with a girl they rescue from the rook of a flooded fishing camp. It’s high adventure told low-key, not the least bit plotty, with Bissell maintaining his riverman’s tone throughout. High Water was published more than fifty years ago but I swear it holds up. A few of the odd expressions might be dated, but for the most part the sound is regional rather than recently archaic.

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High Water, by Richard Bissell
Boston: Little, Brown, 1954

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

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.

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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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.