Jack London and Eugene O’Neill: Separated at Birth?

In reading Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb’s Possessed by Women: A Life of Eugene O’Neill, I’ve been struck by the parallels between Eugene O’Neill and Jack London.

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Eugene O’Neill (Wikimedia)

The Gelbs’ biography, as Barbara Gelb explains in the introduction, is the culmination of several books on Eugene O’Neill and decades of interviews, including some with Carlotta Monterey, O’Neill’s last wife and, as so often happens, the guardian and caretaker of his person and, after death, of his literary legacy (see also: Mary Hemingway, Charmian London, Valerie Eliot). This biography is based heavily not only on O’Neill’s work, about which the book is perceptive and fair in its evaluations, but also on his “Work Diary” (https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3581993), although O’Neill’s ample commentary on his work, as cited in the bio, isn’t present in the pages shown on the Beinecke site.

Where to begin with the parallels?

jacklondon

Jack London

Both were born to parents who had known poverty, and each man knew that he was the unwanted son of a mother who was distracted and, while not physically neglectful, seemingly paid little attention to her son’s needs. London’s mother Flora was a spiritualist and worked various schemes that didn’t pan out in order to help support their family. In a case that made the newspapers, her lover, whom she regarded as her husband (William Cheney) had advised her to get an abortion, after which she dramatically attempted to shoot herself in front of him.

Ella, O’Neill’s mother, was, as the posthumously produced Long Day’s Journey into Night makes clear, addicted to morphine for many of his formative years. Although she later “took the cure” and became sober, Ella, in O’Neill’s recollection, had vowed never to have another child after the death of her second son, Edmund, at age two (note that Edmund was the name Eugene gave to himself in LDGIT). In a fragment, he  “tells of the devastating death of her infant son, Edmund, and her guilty vow never to have another child, which led her—a pious Catholic woman—to submit to a “series of brought-on abortions.” And he asks, ‘Did this mark beginning of [her] break with religion, which was to leave her eventually entirely without solace?'”(325). As did London, who supported his mother all his life, O’Neill eventually came to terms with Ella and was devastated when she died.

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Jack London and second wife Charmian, aboard the Snark

Each went to sea at a young age, after quitting formal education (London from poverty, O’Neill from discontent) and developed an addiction to alcohol that would last for the rest of his life, with periods of sobriety.  Each went through a period of dissolution–London in his early days in Oakland, O’Neill at the bar Jimmy the Priest’s, which he later immortalized in The Iceman Cometh–and, to oversimplify this somewhat, decided that writing would be his salvation.

For London, according to his autobiographical novel Martin Eden and his memoir John Barleycorn, this occurred because he realized that brain-work rather than the brute physical labor he had experienced when working in a steam laundry, shoveling coal, and so on would enable him to live like a human being.  The Bergs’ By Women Possessed doesn’t deal with this part of O’Neill’s life as much, because it’s already been treated in a host of other biographies, including their earlier ones.

In their private lives, London and O’Neill shared similarities as well. Each thought he could write better if he lived apart from people, on land of his own.  London found this in his Beauty Ranch in the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma; O’Neill tried to find it in a number of places, from a place on the dunes in Cape Cod to Bermuda to (with Carlotta) a chateau in France, Sea Island, Georgia, and northern California. Both were more gregarious and needed people more than they thought, however. Each married  more than once and went through an acrimonious divorce proceeding once their marriages (London’s to Bess Maddern, with two children; and O’Neill’s to Agnes Boulton, with two children) had broken down and they decided to marry their lovers (Charmian Kittredge and Carlotta Monterey).

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Carlotta Monterey and O’Neill

Carlotta had stated that she would never learn to never darn socks because she planned to marry a rich man, and did, but that was not enough. She wanted a sense of purpose, and she found it in O’Neill. Although she’d been married three times by the time she met O’Neill at 27 (?), Carlotta had a secret trust fund not from a husband but from James Speyer, a man 40 years older than herself whose mistress she had been. This supported her throughout her life with O’Neill, who apparently believed Speyer took only a fond, familial interest in her. But like Charmian, an accomplished pianist who had supported herself as a secretary, Carlotta had an acting career that she gave up to devote herself to her husband’s career.

Jack_London_with_daughters_Bess_(left)_and_Joan_(right)

Jack London with Becky and Joan.

Neither O’Neill nor London had much use for their children when they were growing up, unfortunately. O’Neill took some pride in his oldest son by his first marriage, Eugene, Jr., at first, but later was disappointed and showed it.  He and Agnes, who already had a daughter, had agreed that they would have no children, yet they had two, Shane and Oona. He was apparently a distant father to Shane, his son with Agnes; his daughter, Oona, he saw once for tea in the space of seven years, although she eventually came to visit him, and he never spoke to her again after she married Charlie Chaplin.  London, although he loved his daughters as children, could judge them harshly as they grew older and his ill health increased his irritability. In the famous “ruined colt” letter of February 24, 1914, frustrated by Joan’s loyalty to her mother, London’s ex-wife Bess, London wrote:

When I grow tired or disinterested in anything, I experience a disgust which settles for me that thing forever. I turn the page down there and then. When a colt on the ranch, early in its training, shows that it is a kicker or a bucker or a bolter or a balker, I try patiently and for a long time [to cure it, but] suddenly there comes to me a disgust, and I say Let the colt go. . . . Years ago I warned your mother that if I were denied the opportunity of forming you, sooner or later I would grow disinterested in you. I would develop a disgust, and that I would turn down the page. . . . I have turned the page down, and I shall be no longer interested in the three of you. (Letters 1298-99)

Joan was 13 at the time.

Although I’m overgeneralizing to say it in this way, these last wives proved to be similar. Both were dressy, self-dramatizing (which London and O’Neill loved), sexually adventurous, and determined to encircle their man with a combination of romantic and maternal love, bravery in the face of chaos, intense housekeeping and organizational skills, and the ability to put up with neglect, major mood swings, and actual abuse (on O’Neill’s part) at times, although there was also the time when London hit Charmian in New York and not with boxing gloves.

Each woman kept a diary, with an eye toward future generations, and their tone of voice in their writing even sounds similar–recording the declarations of love that they received from London and O’Neill as well as some coy suggestions of sexual activities, records of visits, and moods, sometimes theirs and sometimes O’Neill’s and London’s. Each also served as her husband’s typist, despite Carlotta’s continuing eye problems. London gave Charmian his manuscripts as insurance, and he inscribed them to her; O’Neill did the same with Carlotta.

The most striking parallel between O’Neill and London in literary terms  is probably their outlook–presenting life as it is, as O’Neill and London both said. Their naturalistic perspective was marked by a perpetual return to their own lives for the subject matter of their art, as though to work through torments inflicted in the distant past through the poor family dynamics they had experienced.  Each wrote about race, sometimes perceptively and progressively for the time but often in ways reflective of the worst “scientific” attitudes of the time, which were bad enough then and horrifying now. Each wrestled with questions of faith, including O’Neill’s lapsed Catholicism. Oh, and not for nothing, each was a literary celebrity of the time, and handsome, too (which didn’t hurt). London was known for his socialism and popular fiction, especially The Call of the Wild, and O’Neill for being America’s most original dramatist, the winner of two (or three?) Pulitzer prizes and the Nobel prize.

I won’t weigh in here on their works other than to say that I’ve read a lot of both. London doesn’t get enough credit for his innovations, and some of O’Neill’s might seem dated now (Strange Interlude), but they were daring at the time.

[What I’m hoping to do in the new year is to post more of these pieces, which aren’t polished work, obviously, but rough drafts with maybe some thoughts to pursue at a future date.]

 

On visiting the Scribner Archives and being locked in a graveyard with Aaron Burr

houseofmirthThe Charles Scribner Archives at the Princeton University Library are a rich source for anyone doing research on Edith Wharton. They’re a rich source for research on other authors, too, for that matter, but I was there for Wharton and the edition of The House of Mirth I’m preparing for the Complete Works of Edith Wharton (CWEWh).

Charles Scribner’s Sons was Edith Wharton’s publisher at the start of her career, and she remained with the publishing house for many years until she moved to Appleton with The Reef, a break that was more like a breakup. As Hermione Lee describes it:

Charles Scribner never quite got over the divorce, and in 1921, still hoping to capture future novels,” he wrote sadly: “The loss of your books was the greatest blow ever given to my pride as publisher.”

Scribner’s published The Valley of Decision and The Joy of Living (1902),Wharton’s translation of Hermann Sudermann’s Es Lebe Das Leben, a 5-act drama.joyofliving, which sports a grayish-green cover unlike the familiar red binding used for most of her books.  Wharton supervised every aspect of the publishing process with great attention, and, when she finally moved to Appleton and they mimicked the familiar red Scribner’s binding for The Reef and Summer. 

 

Back to the archive: The correspondence between Wharton and various people at Scribner’s is voluminous, charming, witty, and businesslike. There are restrictions on photography in terms of number (no more than 10% of any folder, box, or collection) and use, however, and every image must be approved by a librarian before you take the picture, so I can’t reproduce anything here. Here’s a link to the finding aid, and you are sure to find something you need to see: https://rbsc.princeton.edu/collections/archives-charles-scribner%E2%80%99s-sons2018-07-27 18.37.48-1

How does Aaron Burr enter into this narrative? Well, Burr went to Princeton, which his father, Aaron Burr, Senior, had founded (as The College of New Jersey) and of which his maternal grandfather, the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards, had assumed the presidency when the senior Burr died when Aaron Burr was two years old.  I figured that Burr was probably buried in the Princeton cemetery, a short walk from the campus.

When my CWEWh colleague Carol Singley and I walked all around the cemetery after a day in the archives, however, we couldn’t find a way in. The graveyard is surrounded by a fence of iron spikes, and all the gates we saw were locked. We figured out which was Burr’s grave and left it at that.

2018-07-27 16.44.06-1The next day, I returned,  found an open gate, and went to the grave. It’s the white stone in front of the graves of his father (right) and grandfather (left).

A light rain had started to fall, along with some rumblings of distant thunder. I had stood there for a while, trying (with my rusty Latin) to read the lengthy inscription on his father’s grave.

When I went back to the open gate, it was locked, chained shut with a padlock. I wandered the perimeter a while longer, but all the gates were locked.

It would be a better story to imagine staying there as night fell and the thunder and rain intensified, and for a minute I imagined that was what was going to happen. Instead, I looked up the cemetery’s web site on my phone, called the emergency number, and was directed to an open gate that I hadn’t seen on either of the two trips. A prosaic rescue beats an exciting story any day, though, especially when the rain is really coming down.

I wondered after that why no one had put up a sign for clueless tourists like myself indicating either (1) that the gates were locked at a certain hour or (2) that there was an open gate to be found elsewhere. But Aaron Burr didn’t suffer fools gladly, and after teaching his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and other writings for so many years, I’m morally certain Jonathan Edwards didn’t, either.

 

 

Biography corner: What did a murder case that dominated the tabloids look like 112 years ago? Evelyn Nesbit and Grace Brown

What did a murder case that dominated the tabloids look like 112 years ago? Here’s a brief look at two such cases from the opening of Chapter 4 of Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women’s Writing. 

Evelyn Nesbit and Grace Brown: Visibility and Sexuality in the City, 1906

220px-Evelyn_Nesbit_12056uOn the evening of June 25, 1906, the play Mam’zelle Champagne opened at the Roof Garden Theater atop what was still the new Madison Square Garden. On this particular evening, its architect, Stanford White, sat in the audience enjoying the musical comedy, seemingly unaware of the intense stares of a young man who, unusually for the warm evening, was wearing an overcoat. As the tenor swung into “I Could Love a Million Girls,” the young man left his seat and walked directly in front of White. “You have ruined my life!” the young man shouted, pulling a revolver from his coat and shooting White three times in the head and chest.287px-Stanford_White_33_crop

White slumped to the floor, already dead and disfigured with powder burns, and the young man walked in a leisurely fashion toward the exit where, stopped by a uniformed fireman, he handed over his gun. The beautiful young woman who had accompanied him to the theater cried out, “Oh, Harry, what have you done? You’re in a terrible fix now.”  “It’s all right, dear,” the young man replied calmly. “I have probably saved your life.” He kept moving toward the elevators, later surrendering himself to police at the nearest precinct house and posing with supreme confidence for the waiting crowd of photographers.[i]

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 12.43.46 PMThe young man was Harry K. Thaw, a millionaire from Pittsburgh, and the beautiful young woman with him was his unhappy wife, Evelyn Nesbit, who even before the murder was as famous in her own sphere as White was in his. Supporting her mother and brother through her work as a child model, Nesbit had moved to New York as a teenager and became a well-known artists’ model widely sought out for her soulful looks and masses of dark hair. Nesbit posed for such noted figures as Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as the model for his iconic “Gibson Girl” portrait “The Eternal Question,” and by her late teens, she had appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies before marrying millionaire Harry Thaw.

What her testimony at Thaw’s trial revealed was another life lived between the stage and her marriage: her years as White’s teenage protégée and mistress. When she told the story to Thaw before their marriage in 1905, he became obsessed with the idea of innocence destroyed by White’s debauchery and forced her to recite the story repeatedly, brooding about it until he murdered White. On April 11, 1907, Thaw’s first trial ended in a hung jury; the second concluded in February 1908 with a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 12.45.43 PMIn a pattern that would become familiar in years to come, Nesbit’s story, first reproduced in the newspapers and later appearing in her two autobiographies, was reenacted by Nesbit herself in a series of a dozen movies beginning with The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Case (1907) and The Great Thaw Trial (1907) and concluding with a Hollywood version on which Nesbit served as technical advisor, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955).[ii]

gilletteThe Thaw case vied for attention with a later 1906 trial that dominated the New York press when Chester Gillette declared his innocence in the murder of Grace (Billy) Brown in upstate New York. The Thaw and Gillette trials contained the same irresistible elements, a combination of sex and violence in the unspooling narrative, breathlessly reported, of a young woman ruined by a man of higher social class. Chester Gillette’s victim, Grace Brown, had moved a few years earlier from her family’s small farm in upstate New York to the nearby city of Cortland. She found work in the Gillette Skirt Factory and later began a relationship with the owner’s nephew, Chester Gillette.

23-chester-gillette-ny-world-11-30-1906When Grace discovered that she was pregnant in the spring of 1906, Chester urged her to return to her family’s farm, promising to rescue her at a later date. By early July, when he had not done so, Grace threatened to return to Cortland and hold him accountable. Chester then took her on a trip to the nearby Adirondack Mountains from which she never returned.

 

americantragedyA few years later, Theodore Dreiser used the Gillette case as the basis for An American Tragedy (1925), and it had a second life as media fodder in its two film adaptations, Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy (1931), a production that caused both Dreiser and Grace Brown’s family to sue Paramount Pictures; and George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), which starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters in a contemporary adaptation of the story.

[i] The account of the killing appears in Mosette Glaser Broderick, Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age, 495; and Paula M. Uruburu, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century.

[ii] Thaw, too, would go on to have Hollywood connections after his release from Mattewan; he sponsored Anita Page, a popular film star of the 1920s, during her first trip to Hollywood.

____

Comments:

  1. Fun fact: Chester Gillette spent many of his formative years in Spokane, Washington, the subject of a future post.
  2. You can still see the rooming house where Grace Brown lived from the windows of the former Gillette Skirt Factory in Cortland, New York, where she and Chester worked.
  3. In addition to Nesbit’s accounts of the White murder, I read the actual Gillette trial transcripts in preparing this and the rest (which is in the book). They used to be online in the New York State archives but aren’t any more.
  4. The “Mead” of the famous architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White was the brother of Elinor Mead Howells, the wife of W. D. Howells. I’m still looking for Howells’s comments (if any) on the trial because of this connection.
  5. The “Biography Corner” label is expanding to include little pieces like this in addition to reviews.

Biography Corner: Here come the Brits (Jane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters; Selena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham; Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley)

Short takes on three more biographies, this time on British writers.

du_maurier_cover_2495239aJane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters 

The daughters of the theatrical manager and actor Gerald du Maurier (and granddaughters of George du Maurier, author of Trilby), Angela, Daphne, and Jeanne grew up in the shadow of his histrionic personality and a “thundering homophob[ia],” as Nicholas Shakespeare puts it in The Telegraph, which did not deter the sisters from preferring lesbian relationships.  Daphne, author of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and other novels, is the subject of the most compelling sections; it was difficult to keep track of the other sisters’ lives and pursuits (painting, travel) when the most interesting parts were about Daphne’s writing.

Back when I first read Rebecca, the most memorable scene was the one where the narrator, “I,” goes into the morning room and lists every kind of stationery possible all ready for writing. Rebecca is a story of love (for a house), of desire (for Rebecca, on the part of “I” and Mrs. Danvers), and of loss; Du Maurier beautifully captures all three.  Based on this biography, you might not want Du Maurier for a friend or family member, but you’re glad she wrote engaging fiction.

Who would be in your “Glad They Wrote but Happy Not to Have Met Them” Hall of Fame?

Here’s a dismissive review from The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/03/daphne-du-maurier-sisters-jane-dunn-review and a more positive one from The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9899554/Review-Daphne-du-Maurier-and-Her-Sisters-by-Jane-Dunn.html

maughamSelena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham

Full disclosure: I went through a serious Somerset Maugham period around my senior year in high school and read everything I could find: Of Human Bondage (read several times), Cakes and Ale (ditto, and I didn’t even know that Hardy was supposed to be the basis), The Moon and Sixpence (I did know about Paul Gauguin), The Painted Veil, The Razor’s Edge; much later, I read Liza of Lambeth. I didn’t know until later that Maugham is supposed to be “at the very front row of the second rate,” as he put it.

The “secret lives” part sounds like something the publisher put in to boost sales, but this is a deeply researched biography and an engaging one to read. Maugham’s bisexuality is apparently the “secret” but doesn’t seem to have been terribly secret back in the day, and it seems even less so now. What I hadn’t known about was his successful career as a playwright, his espionage activities, since I’d never read the Ashenden stories, his later travels in the South Seas, and his later life more generally. Along the way Hastings uncovers blackmail payments, possible sexual abuse, and some very frank letters. Maugham seems to have kept a compartmentalized and well-ordered life but then chosen partners that would blow it up with lots of drama–his wife, Syrie, the decorator; and his partner, Gerald Haxton. Here’s David Leavitt’s NYTimes review: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/books/review/Leavitt-t.html

To put it in Hollywood terms: if you’re picturing the urbane but kindly Maugham figure portrayed by Herbert Marshall in a couple of movies, you’d be disappointed. Clifton Webb in Laura and just about everything else is much nearer the mark.

outlawsCharlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

I had the good fortune to hear Charlotte Gordon’s presentation about this book at The Mount in August 2016. A dual biography would seem to be a natural fit for Wollstonecraft and Shelley, yet no one had done it, and the result is a much more satisfying reading of both their lives. Wherever there was trouble, Wollstonecraft traveled into the midst of it (Paris in the 1790s), wrote about it, and made her own way; her daughter, after a daring elopement with Shelley, seems instead to have been dragged all over Europe by him. Despite their (intermittent?) love for one another and her writing of Frankenstein and other novels, one senses her exhaustion by incessant childbearing and child deaths as well as by trying to get Shelley to focus on their family for more than a few minutes at a time.

Gordon’s method is to switch between the Marys in alternating chapters. While generally engaging, it has an effect something like this: “Oh, look at how happy Fanny Imlay seems to be as a child.” Next chapter: “Oh, no.” Do read it, though.

Here’s Christina Nehring’s NYTimes review (click on picture).

Biography Corner: Short Takes on Clancy Sigal’s Black Sunset and Jean Stein’s West of Eden

Now that I’ve consolidated all the CV material here https://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/news.htm, it’s time to post some updates on recent biographies. A lot of academics read mystery novels for fun, but biographies and history are my idea of a good escape read, so here are two that I read  last summer.

Clancy Sigal, Black Sunset 

sigalIt’s a commonplace (and a cliché) to say that Hollywood–and Los Angeles, for that matter–is not what it seems; isn’t that what Joan Didion’s writing has taught us? In Black Sunset, Clancy Sigal gives us a good idea of what it was really like to be an agent back in the 1950s. I was going to say “a brash agent,” but that’s an unnecessary adjective.  Sigal plays the Hollywood game well by day, with lots of lies and what might politely be called testicular fortitude, but he’s also an idealist, a radical, in a blacklist culture. He’s not afraid to tell stories on himself as well as about others, as when his considerable cadre of lady friends find out about one another and stage an ego-withering intervention.  Really, though, he’s a writer and not an agent, and that’s where this book leaves him: ready to write. Sigal died this past summer, but his voice is a living thing. Here’s a sample at LitHub: http://lithub.com/black-sunset-hollywood-sex-lies-glamour-betrayal-and-raging-egos/

westofeden

Jean Stein, West of Eden: An American Place

Jean Stein comes at the myth from a different position; she’s Hollywood royalty, the daughter of Jules Stein of MCA.  Like her book on Warhol muse and protégée Edie Sedgwick, Edie: American Girl (1982), of which I remember only its sense of hovering tragedy, West of Eden is an oral history, this time of places rather than persons. The book is divided into the addresses of five families: the Dohenys, the Warners, Jane Garland, Jennifer Jones, and the Steins. The first section, on the Dohenys, is the most sensational and will seem familiar to anyone who’s read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep or The High Window, seen There Will Be Blood, or read about the Greystone mansion.  A mysterious shooting (murder or suicide?), a police coverup, a corruption trial–you’ll have to read it for yourself. One fun fact: did you know that the well-known and highly regarded science fiction writer Larry Niven was Doheny’s great-grandson? I didn’t. The other stories range from strange (the Warners) to profoundly disturbing (Jane Garland and mental illness) to deeply sad  (Jennifer Jones and her family). Stein’s chapter is more about the house itself –the parties there, its secret barroom, its ruined pavilion–but also has excerpts from Jules Stein’s unpublished memoir.

Next up: here come the Brits (Jane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters; Selena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham; Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley)

Elaine Showalter, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Biography corner: Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader and the New Yorker revolt of 1987

gottlieb [Note: like all the “biography corners,” these are informal impressions, not real reviews, so caveat emptor.]

For lunch and breakfast reading this week, I’ve been reading Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader: A Life .   I’d been curious about Gottlieb ever since reading Michael Korda’s Another Life: A Memoir of Other People (2000) years ago, a book with great stories about publishing for those who enjoy relaxing by reading that sort of thing (that would be me) and who enjoy Korda’s stories about his life (also me).

anotherlifeIn Another Life, if I remember correctly, Gottlieb bursts on the scene at Simon & Schuster with immense talent, direction, and a love of books, and he (along with Korda) revitalizes the place. He’s a life force or maybe a publishing force, a Superman of books, until he leaves for Knopf in a whirlwind of energy some years later and The New Yorker in the distant future and I don’t know what after that because I haven’t finished Avid Reader yet.

In Avid Reader Gottlieb is much more modest and charming about his accomplishments than he has reason to be, and this is a generous memoir. Gottlieb doesn’t do the name-check-and-thank thing that a lot of memoirists do; he tells the stories of collaborations, things that worked, and a few things that didn’t. (Here’s Paris Review interview.)

Right now I’m in the section where he’s editing The New Yorker, which was a famous contretemps 30 years ago.

abouttown

Ben Yagoda’s About Town, New Yorker book that looks promising.

Editorial aside: There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to memorializing The New Yorker, which you could spend your life reading if you had endless time, which I don’t, so I haven’t. Some are devoted to an ubi sunt lamenting the demise of its excellence, which is sort of like the perennial clickbait about whether SNL is still funny or not, so if you’re interested, those books are out there for you.

Back to 1987. With apologies to Mr. Gottlieb, I’m going to retell this in a nutshell, so put on your padded shoulders sweater, pouf up your hair ’80s style, and follow along.

In 1987, William Shawn, at nearly 80, had been the legendary editor of The New Yorker for a looooong time, with both the magazine and his magic ways (and neuroses) having survived Thomas Wolfe’s infamous attack “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”  in April 1965.  This was the piece that drew the famously reclusive J. D. Salinger out of hiding to attack the attackers, but that’s another story.

The 1987 story, as reported in an innocent time and place apparently so bereft of news that an editorial shakeup could inspire multiple stories, was that the new owner, S. I. Newhouse, had rudely booted Shawn from his perch and installed a young upstart.

Gottlieb’s version makes more sense and has a more humorous aftermath. This is my version of his version, so any mistakes are mine. The link above gives a different version.

  1. Newhouse meets with Shawn over lunch. Shawn says, “You’d probably prefer that I leave sooner rather than later.” Newhouse, not knowing this is his cue to say, “Of course not! You’re irreplaceable!” gives a quiet fist pump and says “Yes.”
  2. Shawn leaves thinking this is the first step in a process that will leave him in place. Newhouse leaves thinking “we’re done here” and installs Gottlieb.
  3. All or most of the New Yorker writers sign a letter saying that Gottlieb is a cad and a bounder, and that he should not take the job. They send it to him.  Oops, they sent the wrong letter. Would he mind not reading that one but read this one instead? Gottlieb, don’t take the job, and also, you’re a cad and a bounder (paraphrasing).
  4. Gottlieb gets to work.
  5. Lillian Ross, famous New Yorker writer and skewer-er of Hemingway and others, who was also Shawn’s lover and the author of an unpleasant memoir about their affair, Here but Not Here, demands that Gottlieb re-install Shawn at The New Yorker in some capacity, and, when he doesn’t, quits.
  6. Gottlieb hires people like Adam Gopnik, which some old-liners think is a mistake but which I am here to tell you, as a New Yorker reader, was a great decision.
  7. According to Gottlieb:

    “To end the Lillian saga: Some time later someone passed along to me a movie script she had written about a great and noble magazine editor ousted by a coarse mogul and replaced by a clever but brash young book-publishing executive (not an editor, however; a public relations/marketing man.) The heroine–an intrepid young girl reporter–came to the rescue when this poor specimen failed at the job, by convincing the mogul to bring back the great man. And then–this was the beauty part–she married the young publishing guy, who had gone back to where he belonged: marketing.”

The moral of this post, and maybe of this book, could be that we all do this because we believe that reading and writing are at the center of who we are, and maybe a little bit that writing well is the best revenge.

Ten little-known facts about Frank Norris for his birthday

picture_of_f-_norrisHappy birthday to Frank Norris (March 5, 1870-October 25, 1902)!

Reading through the reminiscences in Frank Norris Remembered, edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. (University of Alabama Press, 2013) has given me a different perspective from the more formal portrait than McElrath and Crisler provide in their comprehensive biography (University of Illinois Press, 2006).  Some of these might be familiar to Norris fans, but seeing the original sources from Franklin Walker’s interviews (the source of his biography on Norris) makes them new again, especially the frivolous details that enlarge our perspective of him.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-11-15-03-am1. Norris was fascinated by medieval life, especially armaments and implements of war. His friend Ernest C. Peixotto, a professional illustrator who (six degrees of Edith Wharton alert!) also illustrated Wharton’s Italian Backgrounds, told Walker that Norris “started to paint a huge historical picture of the ‘Battle of Crécy'” (26).

2. Indeed, his first publication was Yvernelle (1892), “a long romantic poem à la Sir Walter Scott” (27). He was either proud of this effort or tried to gather all the copies and burn them, according to various accounts.

3. In Professor Joseph LeConte’s class at Berkeley, Norris wrote a “limerick on Geology” (82): 

There once was an ichthyosaurus,
Who live[d] when the earth was all porous
When he first heard his name,
He fainted from shame,
And departed a long time before us.

tf138nb1v5-fid24. Norris made jokes about his wife’s bad singing (which she shares with Travis Bessemer, the heroine of Blix):  “Marriage. Returned to apartment for the honeymoon. They sang with banjo. He let her sing. Said he would let her sing as often as he got married” (144).

5. Norris was not a paragon of organization: “One of the Phi Gamma boys told me–when we were no longer freshmen–that Frank was pretty terrible about keeping appointments–so utterly undependable that it took a lot of patience not to blame him; but nobody ever did blame him, or resent it at all. He had no capacity for keeping money, so they just looked out for him and loaned it when necessary . . . . “(77).

novelist_frank_norris6. Notoriously bad at mathematics, Norris had a friend rig up a game to teach him about the commodities market. As George D. Moulson remembers it, “I recall he came down to Wall street, met me and asked if I would be willing to assist him by coming up to his apartment while he was writing this book he intended to call The Pit dealing with a corner in wheat and help him get the details accurate. . . . We then rigged up a sort of thermometer arrangement on the steam heater, whereby the fluctuations, in cents, halves, quarters and eighths would be shown and we had the market fluctuating as it would during an active day in the pit” (186).

7. Norris was more intellectually than athletically inclined: “He was indisposed toward any violent exercise and not overly strong. [College friend Harry M. Wright] Remembers him in black tights in the gym; not much muscle on parallel bars, looked like a great spider. . . . Only sport was fencing and he was pretty good at it” (109).

8. As a writer, he was intense and focused, as his San Francisco friend Bruce Porter recalls: “He was a ‘tiger’ for names–a tiger crouched to spring. While he waited for an incident that, as he put it, ‘belonged to him.’ When you produced it, it set him on fire. He grasped the bone in his jaws, and retired with it into the lively solitude of his realistic imagination, built up the skeleton, clothed it with flesh, and the man walked, in that peculiar world of Frank’s brain, as a reality” (149).

9. He prized freshness over multiple revisions: [College roommate Seymour Waterhouse] “tried to advise him to revise his work a little more carefully but Frank maintained that that tended to kill the freshness of it” (101).

jnorrisfbk110. Norris’s early death resulted at least in part by his refusal to believe that he was seriously ill from appendicitis. His wife Jeannette had just had her appendix removed, and Norris, experiencing acute indigestion on October 20, apparently did not believe that lightning would strike twice in the same family, even though he knew that in cases of appendicitis, swift action is best.  According the San Francisco Chronicle as related in McElrath & Crisler’s biography, Norris “refused to believe his ailment of so serious a nature as to warrant . . . radical treatment.” Feeling slightly better, he ignored his surgeon’s advice and decided to wait, with the result that peritonitis set in, “with gangrene and perforation of the appendix” (428-29).  Norris died on Saturday morning, 25 October 1902, with his wife and his mother by his side. He was 32 years old.

 

 

What made Aaron Burr AARON BURR? Edmund Wilson and Harriet Beecher Stowe have some answers.

burrWhat made Aaron Burr become Aaron Burr?  Not just in 1804, but before and after?  I can think of no historical figure for whom Milton’s phrase “sense of injur’d merit” applies more strongly–and yet Milton, in Paradise Lost, was talking about the motivation of Satan.

The Burr that emerges in Gore Vidal’s novel (Burr, 1973) is supremely cynical, which sounds close to the mark, as does the outraged, haughty, secretive, and slippery Burr that Ron Chernow describes in Alexander Hamilton. I haven’t come to sections dealing with Burr in Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor  yet, or finished Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder.  Since I’m not a historian, Burr remains for me a fascinating literary character, and a tragic one.

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A. Burr and his Memoirs.

Matthew Davis’s  Memoirs of Aaron Burr (1836, 1855) (free at Archive.org) includes a raft of letters portraying Burr as the brave young officer, something of a martinet but a rational one. Among the interesting pieces there is a letter from Gen. Charles Lee, who confirms a Hamilton lyric by writing to Burr in October 1778, after he had been sentenced at his court-martial:

“As I have no idea that a proper reparation will be made to my injured reputation, it is my intent, whether the sentence is reversed or not reversed, to resign my commission, retire to Virginia, and learn to hoe tobacco, which I find is the best school to form a consummate general” (135).

As Thomas A. Foster writes in Common-Place, however, Davis was not a sympathetic biographer, at least where Burr’s relationships with women were concerned; that would wait for the later biographer James Parton, perhaps better known to most 19th-century Americanists as the husband of Sara Willis Parton (Fanny Fern).

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Burr as an older man, behind a tissue mask in the frontispiece of The Private Journal of Aaron Burr.

But The Private Journal of Aaron Burr (1903; free at HathiTrust) already gives a less elevated picture of Burr, and in his own words. It’s a book that could be subtitled Down and Out in Paris, London, New York, &c.  It’s difficult to reconcile the man of such intellectual gifts and bravery during the siege of Quebec and the Revolution, who (maybe, kind of, sort of–but acquitted!) thought about establishing a Western empire, with the man we see in his daily life drinking a little too much and seeking out some cream of tartar punch for the hangover, visiting his tailor, ordering a chess set, and so on. The reader can only think about the waste of talents that this represents.

Which brings me back to the original question: why did you do these things, Burr? Chernow makes a good case about why the duel with Hamilton occurred, but so much of the rest seems inexplicable.

hbstowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe explains it all, but she had a soft spot for bad boys like Burr, according to Wilson.

Fearless as always, Harriet Beecher Stowe enters the fray in The Minister’s Wooing  (1859) and Oldtown Folks, by presenting two fictional versions of Aaron Burr. In The Minister’s Wooing, Senator Burr is brought up short by the memory of his mother as his better nature struggles with his darker side:

Burr was practised in every act of gallantry; he had made womankind a study: he never saw a beautiful face and form without a sort of restless desire to experiment upon it, and try his power over the interior inhabitant. But just at this moment something streamed into his soul from those blue, earnest eyes, which brought back to his mind what pious people had so often told him of his mother—the beautiful and early-sainted Esther Burr.

In Oldtown Folks, Burr is “Ellery Davenport,” grandson, as Burr was, of Jonathan Edwards. Davenport challenges his grandfather’s doctrine of predestination and points to the sorry state of Christianity as it is practiced to support his point:

Taking the mass of human beings in the world at this hour, they are in such circumstances, that, so far from it ‘s being reasonable to expect the morals of Christianity of them, they are not within sight of ordinary human decencies. . . . That ‘s what I call visible election and reprobation, get rid of it as we may or can.”

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Edmund Wilson, who in person could be as terrifying as this picture.

As the critic Edmund Wilson sums up Stowe’s argument:

Her point is that Jonathan Edwards, in his overweening spiritual pride, had put the Calvinistic qualifications for Election and Salvation so high, at a level so unattainable by the ordinary man–this matter had been much on Harriet’s mind ever since her brother Charles had been driven to despair by reading the treatise by Jonathan Edwards–that Aaron Burr, also the son of a clergyman and brought up in his grandfather’s shadow, had from the start been discouraged with religion and led by a powerful intellect completely to discard morality in furthering his own career.  This picture of Aaron Burr is thus a part of Mrs. Stowe’s expose of the pernicious effects of Calvinism (Patriotic Gore 49).

Wilson adds, “The truth is that this sort of character–sophisticated, clever and fearless–rather piques and excites Mrs. Stowe” (49), as she was later to show in The True Story of Lady Byron (1869), where she shows sympathy for Lord Byron despite his misdeeds.

The complexities of human nature are such that no one thing can explain Burr. But Stowe’s (and Wilson’s explication of Stowe’s answer) give the reason for Burr’s behavior in logic that my students often point out when we study Edwards: if you’re already predestined not to be saved, why be good?

 

Did Jack London set fire to Wolf House?

Jack London Ranch 2010 033In this month’s Valley of the Moon Magazine, Jonah Raskin says, well, maybe he did.

http://www.vommag.com/january-2016/

Background for this excerpt: Wolf House, the ruins of which still stand in Jack London State Park, was London’s dream home, designed with his input and built from California materials. After citing a 1995 forensic investigation that found oily rags and spontaneous combustion to be the cause, Raskin continues:

Still, not everyone was convinced, including Greg Hayes [Jack London State Park Ranger and London expert]. Even Robert Anderson [forensic investigator] wasn’t entirely convinced of his own argument, especially when I pointed out to him that Jack had written in an essay published before the fire, “It will be a happy house–or else I’ll burn it down.” Just what did Jack mean when he made that provocative remark? Just how unhappy was he in 1913 when his doctors told him that if he didn’t stop drinking, alcohol would kill him.

There was no investigation of the fire that year, not by London’s insurance company, not by law enforcement and not by the fire department, since there was no fire department in Sonoma County in 1913. . . .

Whatever the cause, one thing seems clear. It wasn’t one big happy family on Beauty Ranch. Jack’s second wife, Charmian Kittridge, whom he had married in 1905, typed his manuscripts, followed him most everywhere he went and put up with his philandering. Often depressed, he drove her crazy, and she continued to love him.
According to a witness who overheard an argument in Wolf House shortly before it burned, Charmian told Jack, “You’ll never live here.”

Raskin goes on to discuss other suspects, including jealous neighbors.

What to make of this evidence? A few thoughts:

  1. London’s “or else I’ll burn it down” sounds a lot like London being London to me. That melodramatic note is a fairly characteristic pattern in some of his writing, and holding him to it as a threat, which may work in a police procedural drama, probably means less than you’d think.
  2. “How unhappy was he in 1913”–London’s legion of biographers can sort that one out. He was devastated when Wolf House burned down, as numerous witnesses attest. A brutal letter to his daughter Joan upbraids her for not writing to him to sympathize with its loss.
  3. “You’ll never live here”–Again, in the heat of an argument, the participants say things for effect rather than as actual threats. 1913 was a fraught year for the Londons (see The Little Lady of the Big House), but the two months spent in New York City in 1912 rather than the events of 1913 were a low point in their relationship. If Charmian had to “put up with” a lot from London and his depressions, would she be inclined to burn down a house, knowing that it would send him into a further depth of despair and that, since she’d be there, she’d have to bear the brunt of it?

You can read the article on pp. 46-47 of the issue, which is online at the link above.

Biography Corner: Unsensationalizing Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

Biography Corner: Unsensationalizing Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate
hughes
As a counterpoint to reading for work, my reading for pleasure tends to be nonfiction on either subjects (British literature), disciplines (history), or time periods close enough to be interesting but with enough distance to provide an escape. In practical terms, these tend to be biographies (John Hay, Jack Kerouac) or popular nonfiction (The Bully Pulpit, Stephen Crane Remembered).

Since these are reading for pleasure, I don’t pretend to have any special insight into the subjects they cover but thought that this blog might be a good place for thoughts about them.

The most recent book is Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life by Jonathan Bate. The press surrounding this book has tended to sensationalize its revelations (go read them if you want to) and has earned the condemnation of Janet Malcolm, whose The Silent Woman on Sylvia Plath and the perils of biography I’ve read several times and who condemns this work and what she calls its superficial readings. Bate has gone on record saying that the Hughes estate’s withdrawal of permission to quote from Hughes’s poetry forced him to cut out huge portions of the manuscript.

baskinWhat struck me about the book, even in this truncated form, isn’t the gossip but its its account of Hughes’s process of poetic creation. I knew something about this (Graves’s The White Goddess, etc.) from a grad class in which we read “The Jaguar” and Crow, but it’s not until the later chapters that Bate speaks powerfully to this. Bate clearly sees Lupercal and to a lesser extent Crow as the highlight of Hughes’s career, with occasional descents after that into vatic self-importance amid some genuinely good poems and a host of public performances (as Poet Laureate and public intellectual) that diluted his gifts.

Despite praise for Hughes’s translations, which were (I looked this up) his poetic reconstructions or renderings from a word-for-word translation created by a fluent speaker of the language (Hughes could speak French but not other languages), Bate sees these as an evasion, too.

Bate sees Hughes as roaring back to life with The Birthday Letters (1998), however. What the chapter on The Birthday Letters reveals is that they were written over the course of years but unpublished due to fears of feminist and other critical backlash. (Feminists and critics in this book are represented pretty much as shrieking harpies and vultures, respectively.)

birthdaylettersBate shows Hughes as constantly on the edge of a more confessional mode–in the early 1970s, for example–but held back by these fears. It’s as though Hughes teeters on the confessional versus vatic/safe imagistic poems precipice and goes with safety but then unleashes his powers in The Birthday Letters. The Birthday Letters frees him, but Hughes expresses the thought that it may be 30 years too late for the electric voltage of the early poet of “The Thought Fox” and “The Jaguar.”

Bate spends chapter 30, “The Sorrows of the Deer,” in explicating both a later volume, Howls and Whispers (509) and a Silvine notebook, likely composed before 1969 (511), called The Sorrows of the Deer. Containing 22 poems, the notebook could, claims Bate, have “expiated both [Hughes’s] grief and his guilt” if published in the 1970s. It’s a chapter about Hughes in elegaic mood, but the meta version is that Bate expresses some sorrow, too, for the poet that he thinks Hughes could have been.

Bate repeatedly compares Hughes to Wordsworth, right down to his use of his vivid journals being similar to the use that William made of his sister Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. Another notebook, a “Challenge Triplicate Book,” contains a 5,000 word draft of what could have become Hughes’s version of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Bate reads in detail a poem called “Black Coat: Opus 31,” linking it to Hughes’s life but also demonstrating how its Wordsworthian “spots of time” of grief, memory, and loss recall Wordsworth. Bate says that there are thousands of unpublished pages in the archives and that a whole book could be written on the composition of The Birthday Letters.  Knowing academics, I’m pretty sure there’s probably one in production right now.

I haven’t finished the book yet–two chapters left to go– and can’t say whether Bate has a grand summing-up on Hughes’s career. I’m also not up on the status of Hughes’s literary reputation.

What interests me primarily is this book’s achievement as a literary biography, even in its current form, and a question. Does Bate believe that Hughes has somehow failed the poet that he might have been by refusing to take (in a Frost quotation he uses often) the road less traveled? Is it the biographer’s place to judge the achievement of his or her subject, and, if so, to what extent?