Posted by: zhiv | October 3, 2013

The Disenchanted: Christmas 1950 #1 Bestseller!

I thought that I saw somewhere that The Disenchanted was a #1 bestseller, but I wanted to take a quick look and confirm the fact. The search led to a lengthy perusal of the bestseller lists from 1950 and 1951, and it was a fascinating exercise, in the broader sense well worthy of any student’s or classroom’s time. There are plenty of forgotten or vaguely mentioned, unread books, not just towards the bottom but also at the top of the list. There’s a certain thrill when a well-known book appears and makes its rise, and it’s almost as if you can feel it rippling through American culture. These lists are a good window through which to watch post-war American culture defining itself.

My notes for the first part of this jaunt are a bit sketchy, but it appears that the big popular books in the fall of 1950 by known authors were The Wall by John Hersey, World Enough and Time by Robert Penn Warren, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams (made into a 1961 film, but a novel, not a play–who knew?) and Son of a Hundred Kings by the lesser-known Thomas B. Costain. But the biggest book, with the most staying power on the list, was Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal, which became an Academy Award-nominated Otto Preminger film in 1963. Can’t say I ever heard of it before.

On September 24 Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees debuts on the list, and it goes to #1 on October 15. This is one of Hemingway’s lesser works, certainly (and that’s being kind), but its popularity shows the reach of his fame at the time. His prior book was For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and it set the stage for The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Hemingway’s position atop the bestseller list towards the end of 1950 marks a sharp contrast to the standing of F. Scott Fitzgerald, eight years dead and the subject of Budd Shulberg’s new novel. The Disenchanted appears on the list three weeks later on November 5, at #16. Hemingway hangs on to the top spot through November, as Schulberg climbs to #4 for the last two weeks (Thanksgiving). On December 3 The Disenchanted goes to #1, supplanting Hemingway, and it stays at the top through Christmas and into January. Schulberg gets some strong competition from Frances Parkinson Keyes’ novel Joy Street, and they trade the top spot a couple of times in January and February. The Disenchanted’s last week at #1 is March 11–the same week that the next major book, James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, debuts at #12. The Disenchanted was still at #6 on May 27, after 30 weeks on the chart, and it dropped off after going to #16 on June 17. Reading a veiled version of Schulberg and Fitzgerald boozing their way through the Dartmouth Winter Carnival would have been great fun during the holidays and through the winter, but it’s wasn’t a summery beach book.

The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk, comes on the list on April 22 at #12, and it would rise to do battle with From Here to Eternity throughout the year. The other book competing with these two, which are much better known, was The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Montserrat, which started at #14 on August 19. Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore appears on June 17 at #11, but doesn’t stick. The Catcher in the Rye shows up at #14 on July 29, and it sells well, moving into the top 5 briefly and staying on the list for a good while. William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness arrives on September 30 at #9. Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp appears on November 11, followed a week later by Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. John P. Marquand’s Melville Goodwin USA arrives on October 21, and it stays high on the list through the end of the year.

The Pulitzer for 1952 was given to The Caine Mutiny. A look at the Pulitzer list provides some background to the above 1950-51 bestsellers. John Hersey’s The Wall was a follow-up to A Bell for Adano, which won the Pulitzer in 1945, and his better-known and lasting Hiroshima was published in 1946, after appearing in The New Yorker. All the King’s Men won in 1947, setting up Robert Penn Warren’s World Enough and Time as a 1950 bestseller. James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific won the 1948 prize, and his book Return to Paradise appeared briefly on the list in 1950. The 1949 winner was James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor, preceding the Eternity/Caine Mutiny/Cruel Sea group. It gets a bit strange from there, as A.B. Guthrie wins in 1950 for The Way West–it would be interesting to look at the books that were snubbed by this western saga. And Conrad Richter beat out Schulberg and the others in 1951 to win with The Town, the last book in his trilogy about an Ohio Valley settlement.

I want to know more about the Hollywood Novel. I had an interest and read a few at one point, getting a sense of the main titles and developing a TBR list. And I remember breaking off in the middle of Day of the Locust and moving on to another topic, something else. I’m sure that What Makes Sammy Run (1941) was on the list of titles, but I don’t think that I put it on the TBR, and I don’t recall having any interest in looking at it, feeling like I knew enough about it. Some of my friends read it decades ago, and it was known as a half-primer, half-cautionary tale about going to work in the film business and the supposed ethical vacuum of the industry. It was a Fountainhead of blind Hollywood ambition and a dangerous book, especially for WLA Jewboys like myself and my group, a dark prophecy at least one of us was destined to fulfill, maybe more. The book itself was never something I cared to know about first hand.

But Budd Schulberg was a name and writing talent that loomed over the industry at midcentury (not unlike Henry Adams did over 19th century history, another current interest). On The Waterfront, even with its murky politics, is part of the basic vocabulary of American Cinema, but the film that stunned me just as I was leaning towards the film business was A Face in the Crowd (1957), a phenomenal companion piece to Schulberg’s earlier works about media, creativity and ambition. So I was in awe, and I knew that Schulberg, to use his beloved boxing as a metaphor–has anyone seen a copy of The Harder They Fall(1947–it doesn’t even have its own wiki entry)–, was a hard-punching heavyweight and yes, a contender, but I didn’t know his record very well.

The funny part is that I’m also in Hemingway mode these days, the shortest of hops away from F. Scott Fitzgerald. I knew enough about Fitzgerald’s story to have a vague sense of his screenwriting stumbles, and I even remember something about some sort of Ice Follies project. Maybe I skimmed over the story of Fitzgerald and Schulberg before, in an earlier life, and it didn’t make an impression. It might have even been when my interest in Hollywood was just starting, in its first flicker, around the time I read the Pat Hobby stories and The Last Tycoon. Not too long ago I was reading about his relationship with Sheilah Graham, and I watched some of Beloved Infidel. I never had much of an interest in Zelda, but I knew about the long, troubled gestation and background of Tender is the Night, and I thought I had the basics of the Scott and Zelda story, her death in the fire, etc. A book I never read, though I’ve wanted to, is The Crack-Up, Edmund Wilson’s posthumous compilation of Fitzgerald’s writing about his own decay and crash. That might have helped my cause. And I guess I never read through a Fitzgerald biography, although I carried around a soiled paperback Mizener for years without opening it, and I had the Bruccoli book too that I never read–where did that go?

There’s a big question, at the moment at least in my mind, which is more interesting or pertinent: Schulberg’s 1950 novel The Disenchanted, which tells the story of his trip to Dartmouth with Fitzgerald, ostensibly to work on a Winter Carnival project; or the historical material of the actual trip itself. Schulberg transformed the events into a really good, even a great novel. It’s extremely well-written, and the story and its structure and fabricated denouement all work perfectly, we might say more than a half-century later; the quibbles are minor, and the novel is a solid, serious, and completely successful work of fiction. It was a #1 bestseller, it’s a critically important text in the genre of the Hollywood Novel, and it’s a powerful advance and antidote of sorts to the searing, striking, and even sickening What Makes Sammy Run (I assume–hope to get back to you on that). But there’s a predominant consideration as one reads this novel: it’s about F. Scott Fitzgerald. This shit happened. And it’s about Schulberg too, in his youth, at the beginning of his career, and the story is about Schulberg’s literary hero-worship and ambition as much as anything else. The novel itself is fascinating, while the circumstances surrounding it, including its writing and reception, are perhaps even more so.

Where to begin, because there’s so much going on? I’m tempted to look at Sammy and Disenchanted as conscious antecedents of This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, Schulberg taking the models of his hero and mentor and converting them to his own world and generation. It’s important to note that Fitzgerald himself cued this sequence, because Schulberg had read The Last Tycoon before he wrote Sammy, and Fitzgerald’s manuscript (or that of his alter ego, Manley Halliday) and its significance plays a crucial role in the conclusion of The Disenchanted. The genre itself was pioneered and validated by the Master. Lots of work to be done there.

But instead I’ll focus on the circumstances and setting of the writing and publication of this book, in broad strokes because I don’t know the details as yet (which means I’m going to make all of my usual mistakes, that I may or may not clean up afterwards). The main thing is that in 1950, when this novel climbed the charts, Fitzgerald wasn’t Fitzgerald, or he wasn’t just yet, not in the sense that we know. I say “we” meaning my own dazed and confused 70s generation, getting well on now, along with the early baby-boomers perceding “us,” who came of age and changed the world in the 60s–anybody born around the time the book appeared, the years just before or afterwards. We all grew up with the sense that Fitzgerald and Hemingway were touchstone American authors, indispensable giants even with their many flaws and limitations, and simple entry level literature, especially for males. I find the development of literary reputation and canonization as interesting as anything, and my guess here is that The Disenchanted played a major role in the rehabilitation and presentation of Fitzgerald as an important literary figure. And that’s what this novel is about! It’s amazing. The subject of the novel is Halliday/Fitzgerald’s accomplishment and talent, in its ruins and advanced decay, mere vestiges of grandeur, but epic nonetheless (Broccoli’s biography is titled “Some Sort of Epic Grandeur”.) Yes, it’s Fear and Loathing, but it’s also the Boswell and Johnson version–or maybe just Johnson and Savage. It’s a great text for students of biography, written just after John Hersey had expanded creative non-fiction and New Journalism in 1946, much like Johnson did in 1744.

The job, then, is to line up the dates and do some research, on Fitzgerald’s biography, on Schulberg, and on the specifics of the revival of Fitzgerald’s reputation. One very profitable way to read The Disenchanted it would seem, however (and leaving Sammy/Paradise aside), is as a rewriting of The Great Gatsby, with Nick/Gatsby transmuted into Shep/Halliday. Nick Carraway is considered Fitzgerald’s crucial creation (by FSF himself? I’m not sure; I don’t remember), the dispassionate observer who enabled Fitzgerald to capture his own romanticism and disllusionment in mythic terms. Schulberg, as Shep, was the observer, and he used a ruined icon, the man himself, to write out the same story–of disenchantment. Good stuff. I had a great time learning about and working through Richard Yates’ obsession with Fitzgerald, but Schulberg lived it, and wrote about it even more directly. It’s gonna be fun.

Posted by: zhiv | September 16, 2013

Esther, Henry Adams

This is a rather obscure, “underread” novel by one of the 19th century’s great American literary maestros, and one wishes it was just a slightly better and more powerful book. But there are all sorts of interesting elements and backgrounds to it, well worthy of consideration and analysis. And just maybe there’s something extraordinary here, slightly out of reach for me, but a better and deeper consideration by a qualified professional might make it more of a necessary text.

Henry Adams had a thing about authorship and publication and the reading public. I have a long way to go in my studies–and I’m still just getting started–but my vague impression is that he originally wanted attention to be focused on his history, and he wanted that attention to be serious. And whatever his intentions might have been about the shape of his career, they were broken in half by his wife Clover’s suicide in December 1885. This event was followed by years of silence (although the nine volumes of the History appeared from 1891 to 1896), marked by the well-known 20-year gap in The Education, and the polished, best-known works of his later years were privately printed and distributed. Mont Saint Michel and Chartres was published in 1913, and The Education was published after Adams’ death and won the Pulitzer in 1921.

I’m still trying to figure out why Adams and Clover lived in Washington D.C., rather than New York, although the move is probably explained in The Education–I can understand leaving Boston, similar to W.D. Howells departure in 1891, but Howells went to New York. Henry James was in England, of course, and as far as fiction goes it seems as if James, Howells and Adams might have made a tidy late-19th century triumvirate, with Adams as a sort of silent partner. At least that might have been the plan in 1883. In Esther Adams is trying to paint something like the same character posed by James in Portrait of a Lady, and elsewhere by Howells too, I assume. On a textual level, this is easy enough to see. But Adams made it, in practice, much more complicated.

Adams had already published an extremely popular and successful novel, Democracy–only no one really knew it. I haven’t read Democracy (though I want to now), but it was the Primary Colors of its day. Adams presumably moved to D.C. to have access to primary sources for his history and to continue his topical journalism (to begin to answer my earlier question), and in 1880 he published anonymously his novel about Washington society and political life, with thinly veiled portraits of well-known figures. It was a big hit and a bestseller, and the authorship was routinely ascribed to some one in Adams’ circle, but it never seemed to land on the historian himself. One more note: Adams had begun his writing career as an anonymous Washington correspondent while working as his father’s secretary, when C.F. Adams was a congressman. After C.F. Adams was appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be Ambassador to the UK, Henry Adams continued to post anonymous dispatches from London, now for the New York Times. He was mortified when his authorship was discovered and outed. “I am laughed at by all England,” he wrote (MacFarlane, xiii). This is all a little strange, and a weird sort of zhiv. It has been studied by Joanne Jacobson (1992) and elsewhere. Adams has received substantial amounts of scholarly attention, a combination of history, literary, and biographical. He’s a poster boy for American Studies.

As he worked away at his history, Adams followed up the success of Democracy–which no one knew that he had written–by writing Esther in the summer of 1883. Henry James had published The Portrait of a Lady in 1881, and Adams seems to be tackling “the woman question” (if that’s the correct term) from a different angle, perhaps using other shapes and shadows from James’ extensive gallery of female characters as well–Esther probably resembles Washington Square more than it does Portrait. Esther Dudley is a sophisticated free-thinker, whose world view has been shaped by the generous and urbane spirit of her father, along with her science-minded professor cousin George Strong, a paleontologist roughly modeled on Clarence King.

The novel’s story and conflict is developed through the romance of Esther with Stephen Hazard, the charismatic and high-minded new reverend at St. John’s Church, a close college friend of George Strong. Hazard is a modern day believer, gathering a substantial Fifth Avenue flock–he’s modeled on Adams’ cousin Phillips Brooks, who shaped the construction of Trinity Church in Boston, which was performed by Adams’ close friends Henry Hobson Richardson and John LaFarge (Richardson built the Adams-Hay mansions on Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, and Adams later traveled extensively in Asia with LaFarge.) In Esther Adams transposes Fifth Avenue for Copley Square, and he explores how a modern rationalist woman might respond to the romantic pressures of a charming, handsome and commanding celebrity preacher (it’s a good companion text to Theron Ware, too). LaFarge is also present in the artist character Wharton, a moody representative of American ambition in the fine arts during the period. Esther herself is an artist, and art and architecture and medievalism and its revival are all pervasive elements of the novel.

The main figure in this rich tapestry, Esther herself, is based on Adams’ wife Clover, and he is attempting to capture her vivacity, talent and intellect, as well as her wide-ranging emotions. The central thrust of the story is based on Clover’s attachment to her father, as Adams prophetically explores the damage that would be caused by the illness and death of his father-in-law Robert Hooper, which occurred in 1885, the year after the novel was published. Esther is the story of a dutiful, enlightened daughter cast adrift by bereavement, and in her profound grief she falls in love with the fascinated and consoling Hazard. Once engaged, she tries to come to terms with being the companion and helpmate of a spiritual leader, and she reads theology and questions Strong and others, searching for reconciliation of her doubts. This crisis is all well-told, and it raises the dilemma of the sophisticated and modern female consciousness of the era in a profound way. Adams’ solution is especially interesting, given the desperate straits and frequent demises of so many 19th and 20th century heroines. Esther flees with a whole group of supportive family to Niagara, the classic 19th century locale of the Sublime. She communes with the power of Nature and the Falls, and manages to resist Hazard’s last desperate plea and she sends him away. All the while the tension that she will jump is excruciating–Clarence King apparently suggested as much (MacFarlane, xx)–, but Adams steered away from the fate that would absorb Clover herself such a short time later.

A big part of what’s fascinating here is that as deeply felt and imagined as Esther was by Henry Adams, absolutely no one read it. Adams continued the game of masking his authorship, just as he had with Democracy and his early journalism. He went further and

…refused to allow Holt to promote the book, published as the third selection in Holt’s American Novel Series. Holt was simply to place the books on the market, where, Adams conjectured, they might find their way to discriminating readers by word of mouth and the power of what he hoped would be the novel’s intrinsic appeal. There were to be no complimentary copies to influential reviewers, no puff pieces in popular magazines, no bright advertisements with enticing graphics. Instead, Adams wanted “authorship without advertisement” (Letters, 2:568); he deplored the “mutual admiration business…there is always an air of fatuous self-satisfaction (Letters, 2:527). Adams would underwrite the experiment, guaranteeing Holt that he would not lose money. In arranging this arcane scenario, Adams wanted to sound the depths of the American reading public (MacFarlane, viii-ix).

There was a certain hubris in this approach, after the wild success and continuing anonyminity of Democracy. But there was reticence and diffidence as well, because of the personal nature of the novel, which not only contained a detailed portrait of his wife–in a book that deeply concerns itself with portraiture–, but also close characterization of friends and family. Adams needed absolute deniability, and it’s interesting to ponder how success and popularity for the novel might have changed the dynamic that played out. Presumably Adams didn’t count on tepid reviews at best. Without any sort of promotion, the novel disappeared with the slightest of whimpers, selling just a few hundred books; Adams later bought up the unsold stock (copies must be rare and quite expensive). Adams was prepared for his experiment to fail, and it’s even possible to guess that might have been a preferred outcome.

There’s one more extremely significant wrinkle in this study of absent authorship. Democracy was truly anonymous, with no name on its title page. But Henry Adams published Esther under a pseudonuym–a female pseudonym, Frances Compton Snow. We’re quite used to female authors in the 19th century adopting male pseudonyms, and the examples are part of the richest vein of the history of the novel. But do any examples of males adopting a female pseudonym come to mind? They must exist, but I believe they must be obscure, perhaps extremely so. This odd element of its publishing history makes Esther truly a rara avis, and it was certainly obscure enough in its time–and it was written by Henry Adams!

What does it all mean, and what was Adams about? The novel takes on a new meaning, one that deserves more careful consideration, if it is assumed that it was written by a woman. This was the intent. Esther Dudley and her free-thinking, her rejection of Reverend Hazard and religion and romance, her failure to jump into Niagara Falls, and her last sentence rejection of the suitable but detached George Strong are all highly progressive maneuvers and choices for a female novelist in 1884. Esther, seen as such, is a valuable companion text to The Story of an African Farm, Country of the Pointed Firs, and The Awakening, the story of an independent woman, written by one–except that it wasn’t.

1999 Penguin Edition, introduction by Lisa MacFarlane.

Posted by: zhiv | September 12, 2013

The Five of Hearts, Patricia O’Toole

The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends 1880-1918

Group Biography is an interesting, odd, out-of-the-way genre, but it makes a lot of sense. It leans towards History, and Biography and History are already close kin. It can become sketchy, perhaps a feathered fish, but if you let go of trying to gain the highest standard, reading about a group of loosely connected, notable figures, rather than focusing on a particular individual or a single topic or entity, can be quite enjoyable.

I had good luck with a well-done group biography Partisans, back when I started this blog. It was a really good introduction to the New York Intellectuals of the 30s and 40s, gave a strong sense of the goals, accomplishments, mileau and players of the Partisan Review, and served as a great introduction to Mary McCarthy, who was obscure to me prior to reading it. I went on to delve rather deeply into McCarthy, reading a fair amount of her fiction and memoirs, and a really good biography of her by Frances Kiernan, Seeing Mary Plain, highly recommended. McCarthy is a wonderful feminist nexus for mid-century literature, linked not only to the Review characters but then Edmund Wilson and later as the author of The Group and a public intellectual. It was all a good run for me, and it started with the group biography Partisans.

There are other group biographies, and I might gather them up and note them elsewhere, but I mention Partisans and McCarthy because I would be happy to go on a similar run prompted by this book, The Five of Hearts, introducing Henry Adams as a primary subject, but telling the story of his wife Clover and his closest friends, John Hay and Clarence King. Hay and King are very interesting characters themselves, and highlighting them here, showing how their lives and pursuits reflect on Adams, makes for a good story. The structure of the book and its narrative is such that we see the group come together and become an intimate circle for a relatively brief time, as it turns out. The next section tells the story of Adams writing Democracy and then Esther and his wife Clover’s suicide, which broke his life in two. Adams’ slow, partial reentry into the world is set against the later careers of Hay and King. One would say that King is the “Fifth Heart” in the group, the bachelor who led a double life posing as a Pullman porter with an African-American wife and family. With Adams and Clover as one and two, and Hay the third, the fourth “heart” would be Hay’s wife, Clara, a Cleveland heiress who was engaging in her early years and grew stout and conservative in her maturity, fading deeply into the background through most of the narrative’s second half.

Adams’ broken life and diffidence about society and literature is thus set against Hay’s intriguing, somewhat reluctant rise as a statesman. Both Adams and Hay are very much late-19th century, late-Victorian gentlemen, stepping most gingerly into the 20th century and the modern world. They’re easily identified as part of the generation that came of age and was defined by the Civil War–the 60s generation, we might call it–, that was still tottering around as the modern world careened into global conflict in 1914.

O’Toole’s book served me well as an introduction to the broad strokes of Adams’ life and his relationships with his closest friends. I’m doing things backwards, per usual, making halting efforts to read The Education, which is the traditional Adams entry point, and I don’t have Mont Saint Michel and Chartres around either. Instead O’Toole’s book prompted me to read the copy of Adams’ relatively unread novel Esther, which I’ll write about in a separate post. One creditable thing about O’Toole’s book is that it fills in the story of Clover and her suicide, and Adams’ response to it, all of which is a gaping blank in The Education.

I was drawn to the book after discovering the story of Clarence King, and Five of Hearts is the precursor and prompt for Martha Sandweiss’s book Passing Strange. O’Toole does a good job of sketching out King’s biography and his relationship to Adams and Hay, but it’s easy to see, especially in hindsight, that his bizarre double life deserved its own book. When he wrote Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada and was ranging the West as a geologist he was a hero to Adams and Hay, who were both convinced his accomplishments would eclipse their own meager efforts.

If the material on Adams and Clover and King is a given, both welcome and expected, then the big blank and pleasant surprise here is John Hay. Hay is a great example of a person you would never encounter as an English major, even as a specialist in American Lit, but he makes a big mark in History and perhaps even more so in American Studies. In the first place, at age 22, after coming out of Ohio and attending Brown (class poet) and working in his father’s law office, he became Abraham Lincoln’s secretary. He shared the northeast corner bedroom on the second floor of the White House with his slightly senior colleague John G. Nicolay–Joseph Cross plays Hay in the Spielberg movie. He was a somewhat reluctant diplomat, editor and statesman in the last quarter of the century, while spending a lot of time helping the mercurial King and grief-stricken Adams as well, but a big part of his work was on an exhaustive Lincoln biography, which he wrote with Nicolay and published in 1890. It’s something of a companion piece to Adams’ History, relatively unsuccessful. It would be interesting as a tangent to Adams studies, to explore where Hay stands in the sequence of Lincoln biographers. The fact that Hay wrote a significant biography, material of interest to this blog and its concerns, was overshadowed by his appointment as Secretary of State by William McKinley and later Teddy Roosevelt. Thus Hay, evolving from the Lincoln White House to pre-WWI international diplomacy, had an important role in late-19th century American History, with Adams at his side the entire time. Hay was secretary to Lincoln at the same time that Adams was secretary to his father Charles Francis, Ambassador to the UK (a job that Hay himself would have in 1897, at the beginning of McKinley’s presidency). Who else would be the best friend of Henry Adams? H.H. Richardson built matching mansions for them in Lafayette Square, now the site of the Hay-Adams Hotel (fancy!) Even more intriguing as a destination, however, is Camp John Hay in the Philippines–the Forest Lodge looks really nice. That’s where I want to go. Eventually we’ll get to Adams’ trip to the South Pacific with John LaFarge. He might have had a better time going now, but you never know with Henry Adams.

Posted by: zhiv | July 15, 2013

Henry Adams Looming; Clarence King Passing

I was pretty happy with culling Boston books the other day. The bookshops in Boston aren’t especially exciting (advantage, Berkeley: Go Bears!), but they’re not absolutely terrible. I have a modest list of Boston and New England-related books that I was on the lookout for, and at the end of my last visit a few things turned up. Just to go through the list: I began, rather oddly, with Matthew Pearl’s The Technologists, which I haven’t gotten around to writing up. I started John P. Marquand’s H.M. Pulham Esq., but then left it at home when I came back. That’s why I read the O’Hara, which I happened to have on hand. I found two key books: The Last Hurrah, by Edwin O’Connor, cited as something like the companion volume to Marquand’s study of Brahmins in The Late George Apley, this one dissecting the later Irish Catholic political world in careful detail. It looks good, and an initial glance tells me that O’Connor won the Pulitzer 5 years later for The Edge of Sadness (1961–never heard of it), so there’s more to know about him and his work. Second was a wartime copy (degrading paper) of Jean Stafford’s first novel, Boston Adventure, which was a nice little find. The first chapters of The Last Hurrah were accessible and engaging, and I was happy to have a new book I want to read, to add to my list, but a couple of paragraphs of Stafford reminded me that The Mountain Lion was great but no picnic, not an easy-read, and good form and some mental energy on my part would be necessary just to get into it, things I didn’t possess at the moment.

I was also gravitating at the same time towards Henry Adams. His famous book The Education was on the list, and had been on my radar for some time. I had been looking for the right copy to present itself, at the right moment. Learning recently that it is #1 on the Modern Library non-fiction list moved me closer. It’s a book I have known about for years, although my initial sense of it was extremely sketchy, and even later I knew only its most basic elements: that it is written in the third person; that he was the grandson and great-grandson of presidents; that he was an historian. I think I first started seeing Adams in a different light a few years ago, after learning about the Adams Memorial in a show at the Guggenheim called The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1969. The show told the story of Adams’ trips to the East, and it made an impression.

And one afternoon I went on a wikipedia run through 19th century Boston luminaries that started with Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., wandering rather far afield. This type of thing is fun. Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy and Henry’s father, is the type of second or third tier figure who has a rich and full career that’s more than worthy of review, and it’s not hard to link to a dozen such eminent Victorians in a single leisurely afternoon, along with side trips to places like Mt. Auburn cemetery, which has its own historical appeal. Eventually, going through people like Charles F. Eliot, Holmes Jr., Edward Everett Hale, Charles Eliot Norton and Henry Cabot Lodge, I made my way to Adams, all of it an easy historical stroll. Along the way I was thinking on occasion about Lewis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which I didn’t quite finish and never wrote about, but it was a great study of some of these characters–and I should review it and figure out a way to make it part of my Boston efforts.

But I found a rare nugget and got excited about it, just as I was winding things down. I was quite familiar with Clarence King’s name because of my interest in Alpinism, and his Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872) is a relatively familiar classic. It has never seemed especially readable, and I mainly think of it as a means to pitch Leslie Stephen and The Playground of Europe (1871), but it has long been a fairly important book and name for me. King’s name came up because he was a part of Adams’ and his wife Clover’s most intimate circle along with John Hay and his heiress wife, Clara Stone, a group that called themselves the Five of Hearts. A glance at King’s bio contains information that has been known for some time, but studied in detail recently in Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, by Martha A. Sandweiss. King was successful, daring, and charismatic. The fact that he was one of the earliest explorers and “conquerors” of the Sierras was somewhat incidental, as he went on from that adventure to found and organize the U.S. Geological Survey, which itself is a somewhat obscure, monumental 19th century accomplishment. Hay, who was Abraham Lincoln’s secretary at 22 and had a magnificent career, and Adams, who was Henry Adams, both looked up to King and thought he was the titan and cynosure and man of destiny in the group. But Clarence King never quite landed or achieved spectacular success, and instead the end of his bio reveals a shocking secret. He had a double life for 20 years, as he had an African-American common law wife in New York, with whom he had four children. The surprise is King’s alter ego, as his wife Ada Coleman knew him as James Todd, an African-American Pullman porter. Working on the railroad would explain the lengthy absences when he was out in the world being Clarence King, but it’s more strange that the fair, blue-eyed King passed as black.

Sandweiss foregrounds this story in her book. King revealed himself to Ada in a letter he sent to her from his deathbed in Arizona. She spent the next 30 years in a legal conundrum trying to get a part of his modest estate. Apparently Hay supported her with a small stipend. I saw a note somewhere that Sandweiss took the impetus for her study from The Five of Hearts, an earlier group biography of the Adams circle by Patricia O’Toole, which contained the information on King and Ada, but didn’t have it as its main focus. This was all quite intriguing, and then I found myself looking at the New England/Boston writers shelf at Brattle Book Shop, where I was having some luck, getting the O’Connor and the Stafford, and I went through a variety of editions of Adams’ Education before choosing one. O’Toole’s book was there and I bought that too, very happily. There was quite a bit of Henry Adams stuff, actually, but I knew that these two books would make a good start.

I started Last Hurrah and put aside Boston Adventure, as I mentioned. And I peeked into Five of Hearts, and found it quite compelling, and I began to race through it. But I didn’t let myself get too far, because I wanted to read Adams’ own original text, this masterwork. It was a bit ornate, however, something of a slow starter, and I was fatigued, as I mentioned, not sharp at all. But these are all good Boston books, and I’ll be working my way through them–and Henry Adams studies will be up towards the top of the list.

Posted by: zhiv | July 2, 2013

Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara

I had a bias, more against the writer than this book, even though I knew the book had to be pretty good. As I wrote about before, I managed to inhale a certain snobbery about O’Hara in my younger days, and it turns out that he was a major league grouch–right up there with his talent and accomplishment–, a classic lout, which didn’t win him any favors. But Samarra, as a text, won me over, and easily at that. It’s a stirring, satisfying read and something of a bellwether, and there are a number of things that one might say about it. There’s no doubt, really, that it belongs on a relatively short list of 20th century American classics. I’m not ready to become a big O’Hara fan, but it’s nice not to be ignorant about him finally, and it would be interesting for me to gauge my enthusiasm for his work next to that of the probably lesser and definitely more obscure John P. Marquand, but this was good stuff.

Its primary note, to a mature male reader 80 years later, is the frank sexuality in the story and the ennui that goes along with it. Somehow it seems right now like alienation is everywhere you look, in Jay Gatsby and Jake Barnes and here, Julian English. It was there in the 19th century masters I suppose, starting with Flaubert and you could quit with Chekhov, but they weren’t like us, not exactly. We don’t really think, at least I never did, that American Literature is all about ennui and doing nothing and alienation and racing towards death. We think it’s about class and social conflict and conquering the wilderness without and within, lighting out for the territory, race and women awakening. Maybe I was confused by all the symbolism, along with the ellipses of modernism, easily hoodwinked then by postmodernism reflecting things I never understood in the first place. Maybe I’m just kinda sorta dense, and I still am.

What’s funny–and I’m careening wildly off the track here, which might not be inappropriate in a post about a novel that’s all about drunkenness and the automobile–is that these days I’m working, or at least thinking about working, on A Moveable Feast, which is an intensely strong contrast to Gatsby in its own way. The topic should be its own post, but the short version is that Gatsby is a study of the clawback that occurs amidst the realization of the American Dream in all its excess. Sun Also Rises is a more direct statement of postwar trauma and alienation, the European charnel house transformed into bacchanalian ritualistic fiesta where nothing means anything. Those books are monstrous, overworked texts, now crawling through a century of academic trench warfare over their meanings. But my own perspective at the moment is the Hemingway memoir, which is about craft and romantic literary idealism, discipline and the search for truth, which may in fact be simply style. The betrayal of the self (and others) is there in the end, and the message might be that the authorial self must betray the integrated romantic self in order to create a masterwork, but the text is so deeply imbued with youth and romance and the simple good life, that you don’t focus on the ending. I guess that’s how I’ve always seen things, more or less, the naive version where Gatsby is about glamour and parties and Nick Carraway’s enchantment, his survival and manageable disillusionment (lighting out for the territory), never for a moment identifying with Gatsby’s violent end, because the heights of Gatsby’s dazzling social success and aplomb always seemed out of reach, just as they were for Nick. The alienation is a lot harder to miss in Sun Also Rises, but it’s muted there in its own ways. Less so, a bit later, in A Farewell to Arms, but I think I might work my way back to that book in just a minute.

What I like about Samarra in this context, and I like it a lot, is that it’s direct and spare and American, taking place on native ground. My guess, thinking this through, is that there’s a lot of Sinclair Lewis in this book, and that’s something I don’t know much about; yet another topic and sidetrack. But Samarra isn’t about success and the glamour of the American Dream: the poison–alcohol–is present from the very beginning. The world is dark and existential, with tough guys and all sorts of angles, and it’s a powerfully sustained exploration of the emptiness of affluence and the will towards self-destruction. Its world is real and perfectly recognizable, and the constant, gathering gloom keeps it from being quaint, which is impressive, 80 years later. It’s the world as it is, still.

Everything is direct. The sexual elements and the male-female relationships are remarkable. Like Sun Also Rises, what was originally sensational becomes, over time but quickly enough, good writing and good literature. O’Hara succeeds by writing what he knew was real, and the truth and power of it overwhelms the sensation. In his time, he gets it both ways, and lands on the map as popular, a bestseller, a young writer with a great career in front of him–except that the anger and loathing revealed in the book suggest his path won’t be easy or perfectly joyful.

While Sun Also Rises is a precursor in terms of sexual frankness, I’m reminded of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps as a work that might have taken some courage or energy from what O’Hara accomplishes here. Maybe, again, my sense of the late 20s/30s mileau has always been naive and ignorant, and I’m only fleshing it out slowly. Some sort of postwar Eisenhower Leave It to Beaver puritanism was deeply instilled in me, which only partially played itself out in the 70s and 80s. Funny how prudery manifests itself as snobbery and shuffles aside a writer like O’Hara, but that’s the way it’s always been in the good old USA I guess, same as it ever was.

A final note on the brilliance of the ending of this book. All of the great American novels have their sturdy symbolism, it seems. An aimless and disaffected child of privilege, a good guy who is part of the town smart set but who can’t quite figure things out, the fact that Julian English is a Cadillac dealer grows on the reader quietly as the story progresses. It’s Christmastime, a series of silent cold and joyless nights unless we choose to pretend otherwise and celebrate human fellowship. Julien is mostly unwound by the time he makes it to the office and starts to think about his business and its challenges, trying to sell Cadillacs as the nation slides deeper into the Great Depression. In his death, O’Hara captures layer upon layer of the poisoned heart of the American Dream in the 20th century. We can think about the automobile and what it has done to our country and our society over the last 80 years, along with its massive death toll, and O’Hara nailed every bit of it. Julian’s suicide by Cadillac and its poison is perfect and powerful, magnificent. It’s death by technology too, speaking to us directly today.

I was thinking about Richard Yates and Revolutionary Road a lot while reading this book, and Yates clearly got as much from O’Hara as McCarthy did, probably more. Maybe more on Yates and O’Hara another time. But the suicides of Julian English and April Wheeler invite comparison, and April’s death is what prompted my mention of A Farewell to Arms earlier. Not sure how I got there, and it’s probably just my current revisitation of Hemingway, but I hadn’t thought of the death of Catherine Barkley in childbirth in a long time, and what it meant for the hero Frederic Henry and his journey. Yates, it seems, updated the trope with the complex self-abortion/suicide of his climax. O’Hara’s ending here is as good and powerful as any of those. It’s stunning.

Posted by: zhiv | June 19, 2013

Literary Boston: A Campaign on Three Fronts

Wrote this out a couple of weeks ago, before hitting the road…

I have a few Boston litblogging notes and goals I want to get into. Part of this is an attempt to clarify the elements and sequence of my intentions for myself, as this effort began with some typical vague notions last month, but by now I’ve had a lot of time to putter and ruminate and put things together. So here goes.

The first might come as a bit of a surprise: I plan to head over to the Hemingway Collection at the JFK Library. Not too long ago, I wouldn’t have known it was there. This is work-related in a great and exciting way, but I won’t get into the specifics just yet, and work itself is busy. The post I wrote about Hemingway and Woody Allen in the wake of Midnight in Paris, which I’m rereading now, is very close to the bone. I can throw out a hearty morsel about what I’m after in the short run: A Moveable Feast was conceived at the end of 1956, when Hemingway was reminded that he had stored two small trunks in the basement of the Ritz Hotel in 1928. The trunks contained notebooks that EH used in writing his memoir. A recent new edition of the text focuses on the manuscripts for the posthumously published book, but I’m more interested in those original notebooks at the moment. Lots of Hemingway stuff going on for me, and it turns out that Boston is probably the best place to get started. Who knew? The timing of the violent deaths of Kennedy and Hemingway is an odd coincidence that led to placing the primary Hemingway archive in the landmark library. I’ve never been to a presidential library before, even though a couple of them are fairly close by at home I guess, and visiting the JFK library would have trouble making my basic list of destinations. But now I’m excited about going, and I expect to do some posts and a fair amount of writing on Hemingway in the coming months.

The second front is the surprising and more obscure topic of my last post, about John P. Marquand and Newburyport. I don’t know that my interest and effort will be extensive, but I want to read more Marquand, and I’m going to go and check out his stomping grounds. I need to find or order my next Marquand novel, and I want to make stops at a couple of bookstores and the UCLA library, but I already had one successful bookstore run. I picked up a clean paperback of Appointment at Samarra, along with a tidy volume of O’Hara’s collected stories, edited by Frank MacShane. Ironically enough, I sent out a thick unopened volume of O’Hara’s Gibbsville stories in a book purge last year. Oh well. But my happiest find was a copy of Millicent Bell’s 1980 biography of Marquand, a book that looks vaguely familar from years of staring at used bookstore shelves. Bell’s biography, nominated and winner of prizes, might supersede Marquand’s own works aside from Apley, but I’ll know more about that as I go along. It says something that the bookstore, an excellent one, had a copy of it but no books by Marquand. Bell is a noteworthy scholar and Bostonian, who wrote on Nathaniel Hawthorne before working on Marquand. This biography might be comparable to Blake Bailey’s work on Richard Yates, published 20 years later (I haven’t read Bailey’s Cheever biography.) When I was first glancing at Marquand’s wiki bio, I passed over Bell it seems and noticed that Stephen Birmingham, chronicler of old money and privilege–Our Crowd was a big, popular, interesting book when I was young–had written a Marquand book. This Bell volume must be much better, I expect, and it’s pulling me in, even though I’d like to read at least another Marquand novel, and preferably two, before diving down to its depths, but we’ll see.

The third item is the oldest and the original, and maybe the best, but it could be hard to muster the effort with these other distractions. When this summer’s trip to Boston first began taking shape I was excited about the prospect of returning to the Massachusetts Historical Society and reading much more deeply in Annie Fields’ diary there. Now that I have other projects this enterprise feels a little vague and sprawling. Maybe I’ll start by trying to gather Fields’ later published works, which aren’t at the library. These were culled from her diary to a great extent, I believe. But I’m still curious about the diary itself, and it’s slightly odd that it was never published back in the heyday of monumental academic literary projects, when stately volumes of letters and diaries were marching out regularly from university presses in the last half of the 20th century. But Fields was too marginal, and a woman, and there hasn’t been much work done on her. The question is whether the good bits of the diary were used up by Fields herself as she composed literary biographical essays towards the end of her life, and large chunks are presumably found in Memories of a Hostess: A Chronicle of Eminent Friendships, drawn chiefly from the diaries of Mrs. James T. Fields, by Mrs. A. DeWolfe Howe–so, probably, the answer is yes. Still, the Annie Fields story, married young to the Maxwell Perkins of 19th Century American Literature (just reading Bell on Perkins and Marquand–fascinating!) and then spending the second half of her life “married” to a crucial and classic feminist author, Sarah Orne Jewett, is pretty great, and could be examined and told in some sort of engaging way. Plus, she was hot, as we like to say these days (and maybe looking for images is a place to start), so maybe there’s a movie/tv/documentary person with literary tastes who could figure out how to bring her tale to a broader audience.

Posted by: zhiv | June 18, 2013

Literary Boston: John P. Marquand and Newburyport

I should start by saying, about my last two posts, that I really have no idea what I’m talking about, and I know next to nothing about John P. Marquand and his work. I could beat myself up and unpack a few of the untruths I’ve already tossed out, but instead I’ll keep moving forward, and probably do more damage. At any rate, Marquand is a good, interesting, and fairly neglected topic these days, it seems. There’s a lot to consider and look at, and probably some very good books. The problem, such as it is, with his reputation is that there may not be any great books, but again, what do I know. Maybe we’ll see.

I mentioned that Marquand’s contemporary Walter Edmonds made literary hay after attending Harvard by writing regional novels about the Mohawk Valley. Part of the problem with my blundering approach at the moment is that I’m starting with Marquand’s breakthrough book (not counting Your Turn, Mr. Moto, 1935) The Late George Apley, which is as Bostonian as it gets. There are, of course, worlds within worlds in the topic of Literary Boston, or Literary New England, if you begin to break things down into smaller sections–it’s easy enough to start with Salem and Concord, for instance.

This is the point where I’ll pick up my personal narrative. I started reviving the Literary Boston category because I’m going to be spending a significant chunk of time there this summer, and I wanted to get in the mood and find some fresh curiosities. Apley and Marquand proved to be a good starting point, I think, and my first wayward glance at Marquand’s wiki bio was a quick one, giving me just enough vague info to do a fair amount of sloppy, minor damage. Soon enough I was looking at the actual places where I will be landing and hanging out in Boston–and this is where it gets more interesting. Our gang will be spending a lot of time at a big, nondescript warehouse in Haverhill, as it turns out. So I spent an hour last week on Google maps, zooming in and out of the near environs, looking at Andover and Lowell (both of which at least sound very familiar), before heading east. In my last Boston trip I hung out in Essex and did Cape Ann, getting up to Ipswich (Updikeville, and this was not long after his death). But I was discovering now that I had left a large gap between Ipswich (which I didn’t really explore, although I managed to develop a decent sense of the layout of the “Gold Coast”) and South Berwick 50 miles north in Maine, the home place of Sarah Orne Jewett. It all seemed pretty standard New England semi-coastal stuff, nothing I had previously paid any attention to. Newburyport began to stand out, slowly at first. The gears in my brain did start grinding, but it was still a long time, possibly days, before I finally said, wait a second–isn’t Newburyport the Marquand place?

Yes. Marquand’s “first important book” is Lord Timothy Dexter (1925), “an exploration of the life and legend of eighteenth century Newburyport eccentric Timothy Dexter (1763-1806).” Point of No Return (1949) apparently satirizes W. Lloyd Warner’s anthropological study of Newburyport–and Marquand lands a solid punch in Warner’s wiki bio. Getting ahead of myself and starting up Millicent Bell’s John P. Marquand: An American Life, but at least correcting things rather than continuing to fire potshots, shows how deeply embedded Marquand was in the town, both physically and psychologically. More on this topic and book at a later date, but on page 16 Bell mentions “an early series of connected stories which were published together as Haven’s End,” where Marquand “mingled romantic invention with true history.” “The spectacle of Newburyport history in Joseph Marquand’s time (b. 1748) absorbed the twentieth-century novelist, who wrote and spoke of it throughout his life.” As I said, more on Bell’s book as I go along, but for now my note is that Bell’s biography will clearly serve as an excellent literary guide to John P. Marquand and Newburyport.

Posted by: zhiv | May 24, 2013

John P. Marquand and John O’Hara–and Others

Just as i was scribbling again and trying to revive this blog, high-value local LA Times bookman David Ulin wrote out a latter-day assessment of John O’Hara, occasioned by a reissue of Appointment at Samarra. And I thought it was interesting that I had just been reading and thinking about John P. Marquand, who seems to be a writer from (roughly) the same generation, with a (somewhat) similar reputation. So I’m going to work through some backgrounds and do a little comparison, throwing a few other 20th century novelists into the mix as well, perhaps.

O’Hara had at least been on my radar through all these decades, but he was just a faint blip on the outer reaches. As I started gulping down literature and styled myself as an English major at the end of the 70s, one of my principal cronies, part of the Poli Sci-to-Law School herd, who did posses a serious bent for political philosophy, was in a pitched battle with his colorful parents about the development of reading habits. His mother was a dynamic entrepreneur-producer contrarian, given to broad pronouncements such as saying that Picasso was a massive fraud, and modern art is all a waste of time. His father was a sober and concerned physician, a man of fastidious habits who was a voracious reader. He had started by trying to get his son, my friend, to read Darwin back in high school, and my friend’s forays into Hobbes and Rousseau were probably belated responses to this early, overly ambitious prompt.

As I read Shakespeare and Milton and Boswell and all or most of the rest, aside from diving into Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy all together my friends and I worked through Kerouac and Kesey and Barth and Hawkes and Pynchon, along with other sidemen (yes, so many men). Our realists were Updike and Cheever and Roth I suppose. As this was going on and evolving into the early 80s, when I began to explore 18th and 19th century waters more deeply, my friend’s father was ploughing through 20th century and contemporary fiction at a strong, steady pace, reading everything, basically, although he wasn’t much interested in the experimental and postmodern posturing that we were chasing. As I moved from George Eliot to the obscure recesses of Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf, my friend studied law and his patience for literary hijinx dissipated quickly–he began to adopt an amalgam of his parents’ attitude towards books and fiction, past and present. He became a good reader, with a well-developed nose for contemporary literature.

All of which is the long way around to John O’Hara. Perhaps it started with my friend’s father saying, if you guys are reading Updike, you should read John O’Hara. O’Hara became a touchstone between me and my friend for the divide between an important threshold in contemporary literature, even though O’Hara wasn’t contemporary. I thought of this divide when I was reading some initial background materials on Marquand, as it was mentioned that after Apley his critical reputation was always solid enough and his work was embraced by Hollywood (like O’Hara’s), but he was ignored by academics. Edmund Wilson gave him short shrift. It was shortly after this moment, when I was starting to write about Apley, that Ulin’s O’Hara article appeared.

Obviously there are dozens of worthy writers in any given period, and we pick and choose. Marquand and O’Hara were part of the firmament as my friend’s father (b. 1917) came of age just as books like Butterfield 8 (1935) and H.M. Pulham Esq. (1941) came out. Looking at the Pulitzer winners that bookend Apley (all of them major films), the ultimate pre-war blockbuster text Gone With The Wind (1936) is little read, if at all. It was sprawling enough that getting through the even more blockbusting movie seemed like a good bit of work to the next generation (my own, roughly), and the book was ignored. By now, going on 75 years, even the film has slipped markedly as a part of the culture, becoming the province of film history students. The Yearling is a dated kids book and film, something I vaguely remember seeing in my own 60s childhood, but it was passed over when I powered through kidlit and film with my children from 95 to 2010, approximately. Maybe The Yearling is something I should read, and there’s something there I should know about–and maybe not. The next one, The Grapes of Wrath, is more interesting and significant, and more lasting. I was never a Steinbeck man myself, but the combination of book and film in this case seems superb, and it’s easy to see that Steinbeck rose above the Marquands and O’Hara’s and made it to the next rung, elbowing his way into a seat on the bench with Hemingway and Faulkner and the other major leaguers.

Ulin guides us towards O’Hara’s curmudgeonly grandiosity and 60s conservatism, which marred his standing somewhat. Even more interesting is the chip on his shoulder that he carried around to the bitter end about not attending college. This is rather intensely reminiscent of Richard Yates, who might have had a more fundamental insecurity and less abrasive complex about it, although drunken Yates must have had plenty of hostile moments. And Yates made a precarious living, as he was much more obscure and unsuccessful, teaching on college campuses, while O’Hara had more financial security and spent his time trolling around for honorary degrees.

The difference here is that Marquand was a college man, and indeed a Harvard man, of a sort. As was Walter Edmonds, another writer I wanted to mention in this context. Marquand had Boston brahmin roots and connections, which very much come into play in George Apley, but his own family was poor. He was sent to live with his aunts in a crumbling Newburyport mansion, and went to Harvard on a scholarship. Marquand gravitated toward wealth and privilege, slowly making his way, while satirizing its old guard at the same time. I’m not sure what any of this really means, except that it serves as background to the maturity shown in Marquand’s relatively late run of novels, and it’s a strong contrast, I would imagine, to the early, youthful success of John O’Hara. It also points to a fundamental difference between Fitzgerald, the Princeton collegian, and Hemingway, who went to the Italian front.

Birth-years also play a role here. Marquand Nov 93 was able to finish Harvard in 1915 and join the army in 1916, going to Mexico with Pershing (as does John Apley in TLGP); FSF Sept 96 dropped out of Princeton in 1917 and went into the army in Alabama; EH July ’99 graduated high school in 1917 and worked in Kansas City before joining the Red Cross ambulance corps. John O’Hara was born in Jan 05, and published Appointment in 1934, when he was 29. With Edmonds July 03 we want to add another Harvard man, James Gould Cozzens Aug 03 (close!). Marquand, O’Hara, and James Gould Cozzens are lumped together fairly often. It seems like they were all popular novelists writing good books, but they were obscured by giants like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, along with Fitzgerald’s post WW2 recovery. So they were already aging second tier guys, a bit out of step in the 50s with Norman Mailer and other Young Turks on the rise, but the cultural change in the 60s was pretty much a complete wipeout for them. By the time my friends and I came around, in the late 70s, they were off the map, and their books looked dated and uninteresting. I do remember reading more recently–only 20 years ago, rather than almost 40–that Cozzens’ Guard of Honor should be in the running as one of the best WW2 books. But he was apparently just as big a grouch as O’Hara. His own surprise bestseller is By Love Possessed, which gave his career a significant boost in 1957.

Walter Edmonds is even more obscure than the O’Hara-Marquand-Cozzens trio, perhaps because he was a regionalist who returned to Central New York after his college years. Regionalist writings seem like a 19th century literary phenomenon, but it must have been a viable tradition and approach that carried over well into the 20th century, and probably up to today. Edmunds’ big book Drums Along the Mohawk (1936) was a strong and steady bestseller, a classic silver medalist that was completely overshadowed by runaway hit Gone With The Wind. I really liked Drums, and would happily read more Edmonds–and now this is a really beefy stack of books from this group, even if you’re selective and only read the best two or three or four by each of these authors.

Summing up, what’s interesting to me is the way that the 20th century is coming into sharper focus all the time now. Tolkein turns out to be one of the most important writers of the century (go look at his academic library shelf), perhaps even vying for a Dickens slot. It makes sense, of course, but it’s a bit jarring for a reader whose taste started forming in the 70s. Books come and go, and there’s still a significant amount of shoving and jockeying for position. These midcentury guys, grouchy or not, will try to hold their spots as well as they can, even as latecomers like John Williams and Richard Yates make a somewhat surprising grab for position.

Posted by: zhiv | May 14, 2013

The Late George Apley, John P. Marquand

A friend of mine asked if I had read Stoner, which caused me to look back at some John Williams lit rambles I took a few years ago. I remember Stoner fondly as the best neglected/recovered novel (thanks, NYRB) I had read since Revolutionary Road. Somehow the fates conspired for me to plunge into a very satisfying, similar book the next day, John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley. Apley and Marquand present some intriguing issues, many of them falling on the same ground where Williams and Yates were lying fallow through the end of the last century.

TLGA was a dark horse bestseller, I believe, and won the Pulitzer in 1938, sandwiched between Gone With The Wind and The Yearling, which was followed by The Grapes of Wrath. Marquand was a successful working writer in his mid-40s when he wrote the book–but he wasn’t yet exactly a novelist. He was the creator, we’ll call it, of the Mr. Moto series, a Charlie Chan knock-off that ultimately stretched to 6 books and spawned 8 serial B-movies starring Peter Lorre from 1937-39, just as Apley was composed and published. More significantly, Marquand was a steady practitioner of the glossy short story through the heyday of the Saturday Evening Post and its ilk. Many of us probably think of this genre, if that’s what it is, as the way that F. Scott Fitzgerald supported himself as he failed to write novels for so many years, but of course it was an entire literary industrial complex with formulas and nuances, widely varying degrees of ambition and quality, and a history of its own that would repay study. An understanding of that machine and its evolution a hundred years ago could be especially enlightening now, as publishing and reading habits go through another new century paradigm shift. Marquand was part of a relatively satisfied herd–if writers are ever satisfied–, and it would be useful to have a sense of his beginnings, standing, and accomplishments as he scribbled out a living through the jazz age and the depression, up to the publication of this book.

Apley serves lots of purposes as a literary creation, but it seems like it must have been hard to imagine it would be a bestseller and major prize-winner. Sometimes the best way to write something honest and unique is to focus on the thing itself, and not worry about its reception. But Marquand was deeply experienced with engaging an audience, and he must have trusted his honed instincts. A big part of the accomplishment of Apley is its mastery of form and easy style, the product of a rather brilliant conceit. One version of the bottom line in Apley is that it is a study of the older generation and its prejudices, blind spots, and failings, working from the same cues that prompted Eminent Victorians, To The Lighthouse, and the Modernist revolution against 19th century culture and assumptions. But Apley is a mature, measured work, covering the full lifespan of one of the last of the old guard, and conceived by the younger generation in its own middle age. This maturity is perhaps the ultimate source of its power and success.

The conceit in the novel, one that makes it especially appealing to this blog and its interests, is that it is a faux biography. It purports to be a piece of necessary yet welcome desk work in the later career of a fictional dean of New England letters, Will Willing, Apley’s contemporary who is asked by the family to pen his life story, and urged to go beyond the platitudes of the standard memorial of a pillar of the community. Willing–whose name is as heavy-handed as his approach–is an old, close friend of Apley’s from college days at Harvard, and he presents himself as an ideal biographer. And that’s the brilliance of the book: Willing is elderly, conservative, and close-minded, and he’s deeply invested in the proprieties that have stultified, frustrated, and ensnared George Apley his entire life. The satire here runs both extraordinarily deep, with layers upon layers, and quite smoothly at the same time. This placid-seeming text is actually a bold Late Modernist generational critique in its measured way, perhaps an important part of the progress from Orlando (1928) to Pale Fire (1962). I’m not sure about other novels in the faux biography genre–that could take some digging. But what’s striking here is the misguided, deeply prejudiced biographer, and the way that Marquand manages somehow to tell a touching and poignant story, with great subdued emotion, romance and sympathy, of the dark underside of the American experience. It’s the rotten growth from New England’s puritanical roots, in this case a snapshot from the late 30s, one that is worthy of Hawthorne’s original conception.

Biographer Willing (catchy, no?) is more determined than anyone to prevent the real life of George Apley from seeing the light. As he plugs Apley’s movements and attitudes into all the right boxes, beginning with respect for his Victorian parents and the family’s notable accomplishments–barely mentioning a sister Madwoman in the Attic–, the social substructure gets bigger and stronger and his subject, Apley, is slowly and steadily crushed by its weight. Willing unwittingly celebrates the individualism of Apley’s seafaring forebears and his capitalist, stern father, Thomas, who is quietly successful at virtual robber baron levels, creating vast Apley wealth while at the same time severely constricting his children’s sphere of endeavor. George Apley goes to Harvard and the Law School and joins a firm, but there seems to be nothing for him to do besides sit on charity boards, attend events, and be a club man, all of which add up to an exhausting and meaningless occupation and existence. He works extremely hard at doing nothing, his whole life long.

George Apley’s son John, a World War 1 vet and Jazz Age rebel of sorts (he lives and works in New York, until shortly before his father’s death) who is a member of Marquand’s own generation, having enlisted Willing to the task, insists that the biographer include “incidental” materials from his father’s life. Willing is most reluctant, and does so under a graceful but firm literary protest. And it’s in these materials that George Apley’s story of love and despair and the cost of familial duty is told, most oblquely. He has a college romance with a beautiful and thoroughly unsuitable Irish girl, Mary Monahan, and he’s sent away to Europe after graduation to forget and recover his severely damaged spirits. He becomes, briefly, a Jamesian disaffected flaneur, always surrounded by family and friends, who bring Boston to Europe wherever he goes. Biographer Willing makes it clear that he firmly believes that any mention of Apley’s romance and passion is a dark blot on his text, only included because of the (misguided) wishes of Apley’s children, who will be its only readers. The privacy of the text is reminscent of Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book (which contains no such romantic subtext, however), and this novel is thoroughly engaging for a student of Stephen and Woolf and Strachey and biography, like myself. Apley returns to Boston and marries his completely suitable childhood playmate Catherine, and his father writes that “You have shown the good sense, too, to realize that beauty is only skin deep and that there are more important elements in the holy bond ofmatrimony.” The stage is thus set for Apley to be properly cowed through an entire adult lifetime by a spouse concerned only by society and propriety. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book, althought a great many sneak through, is when George’s dictatorial, unbending father utters a single instance of reflection just before going up to lay down on his deathbed, saying “I wonder if it would have been better if George had married that little Irish girl.”

The scale of this squelched romance is amplified when Apley absurdly crusades against the corruption of the vice squad late in life, is ensnared and his reputation blotted–his bad faith towards himself means he can’t even succeed in his life’s work of exemplary propriety–, and Mary Monahan appears and persuades him to give up his quixotic campaign. The tender sense of completion Apley achieves in this most benighted sequence is effective, despite being veiled by Willing, who seems unable to suppress the truth that once again George Apley’s unbearably thin sustenance of love provides the only meaningful element of his life. In these spring days of Gatsby (big movie version; remarkable takedown of the novel by Kathryn Schulz), at the end of this novel we realize that Goerge Apley had his own Daisy, here a raven-haired, blue-eyed Irish Mary. Schulz’ insightful diatribe (“cranking up the symbol machine”) points to the restraint and magnificent subtlety of Marquand’s highly successful formal exercise and his unlikely bestselling text. Yes, this book is both a satisfying and accomplished aesthetic experiment and also a prescient extended portrait of American existentialist ennui and despair, one that put me very much in mind of the desiccated lifespan of William Stoner.

Did I mention that this book has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, as I was guided to it by my earlier literary Boston efforts, and I read it because I plan to spend a big chunk of the summer in Boston? Yes, this book is a Boston classic and there’s a lot to say about that aspect of things–another time.

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