Thursday, April 24, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Eben Holden, by Irving Bacheller

Eben Holden: A Tale of the North Country, by Irving Bacheller

A review by Rich Horton

Eben Holden is a novel from right at the turn of the 20th Century: it was published in 1900, and was (according to Wikipedia) the fourth best selling novel of 1900 and the fifth best selling novel of 1901. My copy, found as usual in an antique shop, was the 12th printing of the first edition, and was issued March 2, 1901. Lots of detail on that page -- apparently also there were 250,000 copies as of this printing. The publisher is Lothrop, out of Boston -- they also indicate what I assume is the printing shop, Norwood Press, Berwick and Smith, in Norwood, MA.

Irving Bacheller was born in 1859 in Pierrepont, NY, and lived to the age of 90, dying in 1950 in White Plains, NY. Pierrepont is in St. Lawrence County, in the far north of the state, and many of Bacheller's stories were set in the "North Country" of New York state.

Bacheller became a journalist and founded the Bacheller Syndicate, one of the first newspaper syndicates in the US. Through this syndicate he played a role in bringing work by writers like Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and Arthur Conan Doyle to the US. He also worked with Stephen Crane. He resigned as Sunday Editor of the New York World to concentrate on his fiction about the time of Eben Holden, and the rest of his life was spent writing and supporting his alma mater, St. Lawrence College, and a college in Florida, Rollins.

Eben Holden is subtitled A Tale of the North Country. The book is not terribly long -- perhaps 80,000 words. It's the story, told late in his life, of William Brower, an orphan from Vermont who ends up adopted by a couple in a small village, Faraway, in St. Lawrence County. (This, or the nearby town called Hillsborough, is presumably modelled on Pierrepont. The only city name I recognized in the North Country parts of the book is Ogdensburg, which is a port on the St. Lawrence Seaway, so in Northwestern St. Lawrence County.) The title character, Eben Holden, is a hired hand on William's parents' farm who kidnaps the boy after his parents drown, to save him from being taken in by a dissolute uncle. The book opens (in about 1845) with the story of Holden ("Uncle Eb") and young Willie trekking from Vermont and across Lake Champlain and much of the top of New York to the home, more or less randomly encountered, of David and Elizabeth Brower. The Browers have a daughter, Hope, just a bit older than Willie, and an infant son, as well as an older son who ran off to sea and was lost off the coast of Van Diemen's Land.

The rest of the book is the story of Willie's childhood, his falling in love with words thanks to a local poet, and also his falling in love with his adopted sister Hope, followed by a spell in college and then a move to New York City to get a job with Horace Greeley. The Civil War intervenes ... there are roadblocks, mostly self-inflicted, to his romance with Hope ... but for the most part it's a pretty straight path of triumph.

That bald description doesn't really do the book justice. It's true that there isn't much of a constructed plot (there are a couple of twisty little bits and a closing climactic revelation). And the book is a bit discursive and episodic. The infant brother is forgotten until he turns 11, when he apppears apparently just to get sick and die. And so on ... But, the book still holds the interest. The characters are presented quite well, if they are a bit romanticized. Indeed, one of the best things about the books is the occasional thumbnail descriptions, as it were, of local people. (There are a couple of famous people depicted as well, most notably and at greatest length Horace Greeley, but for example there is also a quick meeting with Abraham Lincoln.) Bacheller's writing is plain and straightforward, but in a good way. The conversations are in the local dialect, and for once I found it convincing and effective.

It is at heart a story of the forming of America, and the American character as it was seen in those days (or perhaps more precisely the Yankee character). Eben Holden, to the plot, is an important secondary character, but to the theme he is central: he is fond of homespun philosophizing, and his stories and morals are nicely told, often funny, sometimes sharp (and sometimes a bit trite). This isn't a great novel, and there is a definite strain of overidealization, of oversentimentalism, to some of it. But it is a decent novel, and those shortcomings are balanced by a bit of -- not cynicism but realism -- that takes his characters down a peg on occasion. Bacheller is also capable of gentle comedy that doesn't seem forced or corny. And the depiction of the landscape, the way of life, and the general run of people in rural northern New England (or New York) seems spot on.

It does not seem to be a novel much-remembered these days, but it has been reprinted fairly recently, 1998, by Wordsworth Editions in a line they call Classics Library. I've seen these trade paperback sized books at remainder stores. So it's not completely forgotten. I was interested in what the original dust jacket looked like, and I found one entry with a picture at Abebooks (the book is for sale for $225!). Eben Holden Dust Jacket

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos

A review by Rich Horton

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is certainly not forgotten, but I think it's fair to say that much of its fame nowadays rests on the 1953 movie version starring Marilyn Monroe, and perhaps on one song from that movie (and originally from the 1949 Broadway musical the movie was based on): "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend". The novel that the musical (and then the movie) was based on, by Anita Loos, is not out of print, but until a very recent (February 2014) new edition it had not been reprinted since 1998. Which to be sure is still not bad going for a 1925 book.

This was the bestselling (or perhaps second bestselling) American novel of 1925/1926 (the same year The Great Gatsby appeared). It was based on a series of sketches for Harper's Bazaar. The author, Anita Loos, was primarily a writer for films, and a very successful one. She was born in California in 1889, and grew up in a performing family -- she was on stage from an early age, but apparently always wanted to write instead. She began writing for the movies in 1911 -- her first scenario to be produced starred Mary Pickford and was directed by D. W. Griffith. She wrote the subtitles for Griffith's second most famous movie, Intolerance. Perhaps her most famous credit was for The Women, the 1938 George Cukor film starring Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Norma Shearer.

Her personal life was a bit fraught, mainly because of her second husband, John Emerson, who collaborated with her on many of her screenplays. It seems that he began as a full collaborator, but that in later years largely simply took credit for Loos' work. He was also constantly unfaithful, and mishandled their money. Eventually he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He died in 1956. Loos had more or less retired from film writing by then, and spent the last few decades or her life (she died aged 92 in 1981) writing for magazines, and producing a couple of memoirs, and serving as a conspicuous light of New York society.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is subtitled "The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady", though the dust jacket to the first edition reads "The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady". It is the story, told in diary form, of a girl from Little Rock, Arkansas, who calls herself Lorelei. (Her last name is given as Lee in the  movie -- I confess I don't recall seeing it specified in the novel but I may have missed it.) She left Little Rock, we learn later, partly because she killed a man (she was acquitted, either because the Judge and jury were smitten by her or because the guy deserved it, or more probably both). She has spent some time as an actress in films, but these days she mainly spends time with rich men such as Gus Eisman, "the Button King of Chicago". Sex is never directly mentioned in the novel, but the reader certainly assumes that that is her "profession".

She and a friend, Dorothy, who is a bit more intelligent (at least overtly) and conventionally moral than Lorelei, travel to Europe, where they meet a variety of men of weakish character but plenty of money. We see London, Paris, and Vienna (where she meets a certain "Dr. Froyd"). Eventually of course they return to the States, where the two women, after a certain amount of suspense, end up married, if not necessarily terribly romantically -- Lorelei's interest, anyway, remains as described in the famous quote: "Kissing your hand may make you feel very good but a diamond bracelet lasts forever".

The plot of course is not the point -- the point is Lorelei Lee's voice, at once naive and very knowing indeed -- it's hard to pin down whether she is as ignorant as she seems or whether some of that is an act. The novel is quite funny -- the voice really is intriguing, if perhaps wearing read at too much length. (Possibly the original magazine form was the best way to read it.) Lorelei, while not exactly an admirable character, is likable and often unexpectedly acute. The novel was very well received when it came out -- not just in terms of sales (supposedly the first edition sold out in a single day), but critically. Famously, Edith Wharton called it "The Great American Novel", though in context it's obvious that Wharton, though she doubtless admired the book, was not entirely serious in that comment. James Joyce was also apparently an admirer.

The copy I have is a very early edition: the Fourteenth Printing (from June 1926) of the First Edition, published by Boni and Liveright. (Liveright are still the publishers, at least of the latest edition.) The dust jacket is gone from my copy, but otherwise it's in very good condition. This edition is illustrated in a very 1920s fashion by Ralph Barton.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Sylvia Cary, by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Sylvia Cary (The Old Gray Homestead) by Frances Parkinson Keyes

by Rich Horton

Back to a novel of a certain age (first published in 1919), that if not a bestseller was certainly a good seller for a long time, by a writer who had bestsellers, and which is pretty much forgotten by now, as, increasingly, is its once popular author.

It seems to me that you can find novels by Frances Parkinson Keyes at just about any larger used book sale. I've noticed them for a long time, never really been much tempted by them. It seems her favorite subject was New Orleans. I had thought she wrote mainly romantic historical novels, but in fact she wrote a wider variety: contemporary novels, at least one murder mystery, novels of political dealing in Washington, D.C., and yes, romantic historical novels. I looked her up on Wikipedia, and she turns out to have a rather interesting biography.

She was born in 1885 in Virginia, and got married at the age of 18 to a 40 year old man, Henry W. Keyes (pronounced to rhyme with "skies"). Keyes was a farmer, banker and state legislator in New Hampshire -- I'm not sure how they met. Keyes later became Governor of New Hampshire and then a three-term U. S. Senator.

Before her marriage Frances Parkinson Wheeler had wanted to go to college and to write, but apparently her husband was not willing to countenance either ambition. (Apparently she did extract a promise that any daughters they had would be given the opportunity to attend college -- in the event, they had three sons but no daughters.) According to the introduction to my edition of Sylvia Cary, she stole time to write privately, but did nothing with her stories until their finances became a little pinched -- apparently at the same time Henry Keyes was Governor (which I suppose implies something good about him!). She decided to submit a novel to a publisher -- in person! -- and he rejected it, but liked it enough to ask for the next thing she wrote. That book was The Old Gray Homestead (which Keyes retitled Sylvia Cary much later), and it was accepted and published in 1919. Some 50 further books followed, mostly novels but some nonfiction including a couple of memoirs, a collection of columns she wrote for Good Housekeeping when her husband was first a Senator, called Letters from a Senator's Wife, and a book about writing called The Cost of a Best Seller.

I have to say I find the bald facts of that marriage interesting -- the age difference is unusual, the geographical separation seems odd, and phrases (from the introduction again) like: "the suggestion that I would like to go to college and major in English was sternly opposed, both by my mother and the man to whom I was already engaged; the further suggestion that I wanted to be a professional writer met with not only rebuke but derision" do not really seem to support the notion of a love match. Though who knows?

Not surprisingly, her husband predeceased her by many years, after which she moved to New Orleans, where she eventually lived in a house in the French Quarter formerly occupied by the great chess player Paul Morphy and also the Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard. That house is now a museum, called the Beauregard-Keyes House. At some time she became a Catholic, and some of her novels are on Catholic themes. (She grew up Congregationalist, and joked that it was the long Congregationalist sermons that started her on the road to Catholicism.)

So what about the book? As noted, Sylvia Cary was Keyes' first novel, originally called The Old Gray Homestead, and published in 1919. My edition is a Paperback Library mass market reprint from 1965 (the first Paperback Library edition was in 1962, which is presumably when it became Sylvia Cary and when Keyes wrote the introduction).

It is set in Vermont, on the New Hampshire border, presumably close to where Keyes and her husband had lived before moving to Washington, D. C. (also in 1919). (Henry Keyes was buried in North Haverhill, on the Connecticut River which forms the border with Vermont -- I suspect it (or actually Haverhill) is the original of Wallacetown, the "big city" for the characters in Sylvia Cary.) The Grays are a large family living on a once prosperous, now struggling, farm. There are nine children in the family, seven still at home, all high school age and up. We meet Sally and Austin, two of the eldest, and we learn that Sally, a schoolteacher engaged to a local man, is nice, but her brother is disaffected and terribly cynical, for example suggesting that Sally should have instead married her fiance's unpleasant and alcoholic cousin, on the grounds that he has more money.  They are on their way home when they encounter a somewhat desperate young woman who is looking for a place to stay in the country.

This woman, of course, is Sylvia Cary, a very young widow (about 22). Her husband has recently died, and she has miscarried, and her mental state has been fragile, so she wants to get away from New York. The Grays take her in, and before you know it she is helping them out -- she is both very rich, so pays a rather generous rent, but she also has ideas on improving the farm -- mainly she more or less shames Austin and his father into putting the work into it that is needed, and shortly later she is helping in more direct ways: paying for the younger children to go to school, sending Austin overseas for a sort of "finishing" trip, where he also gets some good ideas for farming improvements, and so on.

Indeed she seems quite the paragon, even if her emotional state is still a bit ragged. So, naturally, cynical Austin takes against her. It is quite clear to the reader, of course, that Austin is actually in love with her from the start, but unable to declare himself for shame at his family's poverty and concern over her widowed position, and the reasons she was widowed. But this all develops quickly -- we learn the story of Sylvia's rather unpleasant marriage (it is clear that she was raped by her husband, and also beaten, though of course the former crime would not have drawn notice at that time). Soon the two are secretly close -- though no hanky panky takes place! -- even as Thomas, a younger brother, is also infatuated.

And so it goes ... with no real surprise as to the conclusion of the central story. A lot more goes on, though, including a controversial episode involving the youngest daughter and premarital sex, and some interludes with the somewhat unpleasant but quite funny gossipy neighbor, and a general rapid upward trend in the Gray fortunes.

The story reads nicely enough -- Keyes was an effective writer. The two main characters are, it must be said, implausible paragons (Austin's early disaffection and cynicism is rapidly discarded). The attitudes about men and women are more or less what you expect in a popular novel from 1919. Wikipedia says that Keyes' portrayals of African-Americans in her other books is, er, "of its time", but there are no Black characters in this book, and the one major foreign character is sympathetically enough portrayed.

I was a bit puzzled by the time frame of the book. It was published in 1919, no doubt written a few years before that (Keyes says in her introduction that she had "unearthed" and retyped it when the publisher asked her for something else after rejecting her first submission). There is absolutely no hint of World War I, even when the characters travel to Europe. So I suppose it should be thought of as set perhaps around 1910-1912. And perhaps that's right, but I was struck that motor cars seem semi-common, though certainly not ubiquitous. Was that true in rural Vermont by then? I guess perhaps it was. Anyway, given all that, the shadow of the War seems necessarily to hang over the end of the novel, at least in the reader's mind -- and surely that would have applied in spades in 1919.

I have to say that while this was an enjoyable enough read, it didn't really make me want to go get any further Keyes novels. Her books seem mostly out of print now, though some are available from what seems a very small press in a series called "Louisiana Heritage".

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Not a Bestseller, not that Old, not really Forgotten: A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

This series of reviews is intended to cover books that were bestsellers back in roughly the first half of the 20th Century (let's say 1880 to just after 1950 maybe), but which are (usually) largely forgotten now. But this time I'm writing about the book I just finished, which is not all that old (it was published in 1967), which was presumably not a true bestseller (though it probably sold well enough, and has kept selling for decades), and which is surely not forgotten ... though at the same time it is in a sense not all that widely known. (I say that perhaps because I had not heard of it before a profile of the author appeared last year in the New Yorker.)

So, sorry. But what the heck. James Salter was born in 1925 into a wealthy family as James Arnold Horowitz. He attended West Point during the War and graduated more or less as it ended. He became a pilot and flew fighters in Korea, then wrote a successful novel, The Hunters, based on that experience. This became a well-received film starring Robert Mitchum. He published the novel under the pseudonym James Salter, and then another Air Force-based novel, The Arm of Flesh, in 1961. After the success of The Hunters, he left active duty and joined the Reserve, then resigned his commission entirely shortly after The Arm of Flesh came out. Not much later he legally changed his name to James Salter. All this seems a purposeful bifurcation of a life -- the first part as a reasonably successful Air Force pilot, then a reinvention as a writer. Later he even largely repudiated his first two novels, calling them products of youth and "not meriting much attention". (Or so says Wikipedia.)

Once he became a full-time writer he spent much of his time writing for films, and presumably that's how he made a regular living. (Perhaps most notable among his film work is the Robert Redford vehicle Downhill Racer.) But he has also written quite a number of short stories and four additional novels, the latest being All That Is, which appeared in 2013, when he turned 88. His work is in general very highly regarded, particularly for his prose. But it is his first novel published after leaving the Air Force that remains his masterpiece, the work upon which his reputation continues to rest (and apparently his own favorite).

A Sport and a Pastime is a fairly short novel, less than 60,000 words I would think. It is told by an unnamed narrator, an American in his mid-30s, who borrows a house in provincial France from a friend. The novel opens with the man's train journey from Paris to Autun, to take this house in this sleepy town. Notable from the beginning, I would think, is the "male gaze" ... his view is constantly of women -- on the train, waiting for the train, in the town. He is soon obsessed with a neighbor named Madame Picquet, clearly with no hope of progress on that front. Then a chance-met young man named Philip Dean, a dropout from Yale, shows up to share his house.

One had wondered when the real action of the book would start, and here it is: for the novel is primarily about Philip Dean's affair with a 19 year old girl, Anne Marie. Dean is a bit of a sponge, relying on the narrator for his lodging, and on his father and sister for what little money he has. He spends several months with Anne Marie, mostly driving from hotel to hotel in various provicial towns. The novel is frankly and quite explicitly erotic ... their lovemaking is described in detail, again and again. (The introduction, by Reynolds Price, points out that this is a product of the liberation writers felt after the Lady Chatterly's Lover suit, as a result of which Grove Press was allowed to sell their edition of that novel in the US.) Their relationship is curious and sad and unequal, but which is the weaker person is hard to discern. Its ultimate end seems clear from the start, though even so Salter allows us some ambiguity.

And yet ... and yet ... this is all told from the point of view of the narrator, who was obviously not present for much of the action. He warns us, as readers, that most of what he tells us is fantasy. So what does it really mean? Is he recounting his own fantasies of the relation of Philip and Anne Marie (and I don't think it would be wrong to say that the book hints that he is attracted to both of them)? Does he have access to some more explicit account from Philip (say) of what went on? Is he to be taken as a sort of metafictional representation of the "novelist"? Is the novel really about his own sterility, his own frustrations in love? Perhaps some of all of that ... I dare say you could find critical works by better readers than I looking into that question.

The basic story is itself involving enough, and the characters are quite perfectly portrayed. But what makes the novel is the prose -- what makes Salter special, really, is the prose. As Richard Ford is quoted on the cover of my edition (a Farrar, Straus and Giroux trade paperback currently in print): "Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master." Recently in the Guardian a blogger wondered about great sentences in genre fiction, then complained that most of the most famous seemed aphoristic, then quoted two counter-examples from "literary" fiction, of which one (from Samuel Beckett) was as aphoristic (perhaps more so) than any of the genre quotes, and the other, from James Joyce, was Joyce at his most annoyingly pretentious (but don't get me wrong, some of Joyce (just not the sentence quoted) is really really remarkable). Salter is different -- the sentences are mostly short (Hemingway is one cited model) -- sometimes they are fragments. The rhythm is exquisite. Cliche is almost non-existent. (Though he slips once or twice.) Rarely he tries for something grander, and when he does I think it works: "The lights grow fainter now, the sound, and finally all of France, invisible now, silent, the France of all seasons deep in the silence of night, is left behind." The observation is precise and surprising. Other examples: "Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit." "Canals, rich as jade, pass between us, canals in which wide barges lie. The water is green with scum. One could almost write on the surface." "Over France a great summer rain, battering the trees, making the foliage ring like tin." But in reality it all runs together -- the images, the rhythm, the music.

So -- not forgotten, but still worth being more widely known.