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Beginning in Gladness, Ending in Madness

1900–1950 was a golden age of literary eccentricity.

· 14 min read
Beginning in Gladness, Ending in Madness
Wallace Stevens, Simone de Beauvoir, Vladmir Nabokov.

A review of World Authors: 1900–1950, Four-Volume Set edited by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens, 3,005 pages, H.W. Wilson Company, Inc. (December 1996).

“Trader” Horn, in the bestselling travel memoir he published in 1927 (Trader Horn: Being the Life and Works of Alfred Aloysius Horn, an Old Visitor), claimed to have lived with cannibals in Cameroon, to have hunted elephants and gorillas in Rhodesia, to have fought Indians in Utah, to have worked as a detective for Scotland Yard, and to have had his thumb bitten off in a fight to the death on the Ogowe River. The sole source for these claims was Trader Horn.

The Soviet novelist Fyodor Gladkov had the ill luck to write a novel (Cement, 1925) much admired by Josef Stalin and spent the bulk of his remaining literary career rewriting subsequent editions that conformed to the ever-narrowing dictates of socialist realism. In one of the last editions, published in 1950, the hero proclaims, in an ecstasy of proletarian fustian, “With the name of Lenin on our lips, with faith in unlimited happiness, let us double and treble our efforts for the conquest of the future!”

Sir John Watson, the foremost bad poet of his era, campaigned assiduously for the poet laureateship of Great Britain after the death of Tennyson and was confined briefly to a mental institution after that honor went to Alfred Austin. His “arrogant conceit of himself was painful,” a contemporary wrote, and he seemed to take any deviation from the Miltonic/Tennysonian tradition as a personal affront. The idiom he worked in had been exhausted for decades before his death, but he lived on until 1935, writing lines like these: “Poet who sleepest by this wandering wave! / When thou wast born, what birth-gift hadst thou?”

The above vignettes are taken from a four-volume 1996 reference work entitled World Authors 1900–1950. There’s no by-line for the articles on Horn, Gladkov, and Watson, which is a particular shame, since I wrote them. In fact, I wrote those and 322 others—none of them under a by-line—during my tenure as a full-time staff writer for the Wilson Company from 1990 to 1995. Known to readers of a certain age for the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature and other specialized reference publications in the dark ages before the Internet, the company has somehow hung on, although the age of reference books is over. It’s a pity it’s over. Where else but in a reference book like World Authors 1900–1950 could you find such an omnium-gatherum of major, minor, canonical, forgotten, and sometimes deliriously bad writers?

World Authors 1900–1950 is not exclusively a delightful romp through some of the more colourful precincts of twentieth-century literature. It also features sober and responsible assessments of figures like Wallace Stevens, Simone de Beauvoir, and Vladimir Nabokov. But if you want a brief overview of the career of Wallace Stevens, why read an anonymous contributor like me, when you can read the work of a renowned Stevens scholar like Helen Vendler? And, although I’m proud of my article on Stevens, if you are a Stevens aficionado, it won’t tell you much that you don’t already know. (If you know absolutely nothing about Stevens, I’m your man.) Whereas, if you haven’t read World Authors, you have probably never heard of Max Brand, author of more than two hundred pulp novels under a bewildering variety of pseudonyms, who aspired to be a great poet and hated himself for turning out trash. His death as a war correspondent for Harper’s in 1944, during the Allied invasion of Italy, sounds like the climax of a pulp novel itself. Reportedly, officers urged him to stay behind the lines, but he refused, saying, “All my life I’ve written fiction … But this is fact.”

World Authors 1900–1950 was a comprehensive revision and expansion of two earlier reference works—Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature (1942) and its First Supplement (1955)—both edited by the poet Stanley J. Kunitz and two others. Initially, I was told to salvage what I could from the earlier articles, but I quickly discovered that there wasn’t much worth salvaging, so I simply discarded the originals and wrote my articles from scratch, as did, I gather, most of my colleagues. Aside from one other staff writer, the other fifteen or sixteen contributors were all freelancers, whom I rarely met. For all of us, there was one exception to our method of ruthless expurgation. Previous to the original publications, Kunitz and the other editors had solicited their subjects for autobiographical statements. You might be surprised to learn who responded. Buried in those first two volumes, and carried over largely verbatim into the expanded revision, were significant, sometimes lengthy, credos and statements of intent by Ezra Pound, Christopher Isherwood, Zora Neale Hurston, Karl Jaspers, Norman Mailer, George Orwell, William Carlos Williams, Saul Bellow, and Mary McCarthy, among others. These, my editor told me, were to be considered “sacrosanct.” Maybe they shouldn’t have been. Anyone who has ever had any doubts about Ezra Pound’s insanity ought to read the statement he submitted to Twentieth Century Authors from Rapallo, Italy in 1939. At Pound’s request, the editors printed his hysterical screed about monetarism in full, including these prefatory remarks:

When a writer merits mention in a work of reference his work IS his autobiography, it is his first-person record. If you can’t print my one-page “Introductory Text-Book” enclosed (and to appear here) then your profession of wanting an authentic record is mere bunk, and fit only to stand with the infamies that have raged in America since [Andrew] Johnson was kicked out of the White House, and in especial throughout the degradation of the American state and system by [Woodrow] Wilson and [Franklin] Roosevelt.

There’s more, and worse, to that effect, including denunciations of “the great and dastardly betrayal of the American people and the American system, by the trick clause, and the Bank Act of February 25, 1863.”

Not all autobiographical statements are as tendentious. In Mary McCarthy’s, she muses on “the fact that cleverness is not a substitute for knowledge—a discovery which belatedly, sometimes happily, sometimes uncomfortably, is altering the course of my life.” And Norman Mailer’s autobiographical statement includes a humanistic affirmation of literature that, to me, doesn’t seem dated at all:

It is, I believe, the highest function a writer may serve, to see life (no matter by what means or form or experiment) as others do not see it, or only partially see it, and therefore open for the reader that literary experience which comes uniquely from the novel—the sense of having one’s experience enlarged, one’s perceptions deepened, and one’s illusions about oneself rendered even more untenable.

Equally striking is the depiction by the effortlessly urbane Saul Bellow of his eighteen-year-old self as a “terrified” freshman at the University of Chicago: “The dense atmosphere of learning, of cultural effort, heavily oppressed me; I felt that wisdom and culture were immense and that I was hopelessly small.” The statement by the philosopher and phenomenologist Karl Jaspers, one of the few non-Anglo-American respondents, is itself a brief specimen of philosophy: “Man can realize himself only through his relationship with others, never through knowledge alone. We become ourselves only to the extent our fellowmen do; we are free only as far as our fellowmen are.”

It's a gold mine of major writers in mid-career in mostly unguarded moments of stock-taking and self-reflection. But the lead mine is just as interesting. The most enthusiastic respondents tended to be American and overlooked by the critical establishment. The statements proffered by the many, many minor writers covered by the compendium reveal pervasive, often unconscious cultural assumptions and sometimes have the period flavour of a Warner Brothers movie from the 1940s. Hobbies, amusements, aversions, genealogical derivations, and club memberships were much on the minds of writers (and readers) in those years. It’s as if these cowboy novelists, light versifiers, society playwrights, and pop biographers were holding forth at the testimonial dinner of their dreams. I can’t recover the originals, which were edited out, but I remember one author mentioning her dislike of “Germans”—by which she meant Jews—and another author mentioning a casual fondness for “Negroes.” One male writer, whom I can’t track down, wrote about being happiest in the arms of a “Jewess.”

Many of the respondents adopted the tough-guy style of the forties and fifties. Thus, journalist and biographer Donald Barr Chidsey summarized his life in the idiom of a hard-boiled detective novel:

High school graduate, no college. Newsboy, soda jerker, golf caddy, bellhop, etc. etc. … Always a wanderer. Have knocked around Europe, Near East, Far East, South America, West Indies, etc. … Ran a copra plantation for five years at Punaauia, Tahiti. Once ran a tea room in Bermuda, a bridge club in Greenwich Village, a poker-game speakeasy in Honolulu.

By contrast, Will James, who was neither—despite the claims in his statement—born on the Montana range, nor orphaned at the age of four, nor raised by the wholly fictitious trapper Jean “Bopy” Beaupré (he was brought up by his shopkeeping parents in Montreal), favoured the folksy style of his dime Westerns:

I was married once, to a very fine girl, but being brought up as I was, so free, ignorant of conventional ways, I figured it best for both of us that I be the Lonesome Cowboy again.

This is at least entertaining. Unfortunately, a great many of the middlebrow writers who form the bulk of all three iterations of the compendium, submitted statements of numbing gentility. He’s vice-president of the Amateur Fencers’ Club of America. She was educated at Mrs. Dow’s in Briarcliff. He regards A World History of Art (1937) as his most useful contribution to the field of education. She divides her time between an old house in Hingham, just south of Boston, and a farm that lies on a promontory jutting out into Damariscotta Lake in Maine.

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Fortunately, every few pages, a furiously Calvinistic theologian, a tragically deluded journalist, or a romance novelist with pretensions to grandeur turns up to liven up the proceedings. Whatever the considerable literary merits of many writers of the period, World Authors 1900–1950 shows that it was also a golden age of eccentricity. A smaller but still weighty reference work could have been culled from the larger one—a Biographical Dictionary of Eccentric and Forgotten Authors, say, or perhaps a Reference Guide to Bad Writers 1900–1950. I had the pleasure of writing about many such eccentrics. There was the febrile and prolific poet Sister Mary Madeleva, whom a contemporary called “a sort of Edna St. Vincent Millay of the Catholic Church,” without the sex. There was Charles Fort, a critic of scientific methodology who assembled from clippings held in hundreds of shoe boxes in his apartment in the Bronx dubious compilations attesting to spontaneous human combustion, suspensions of gravity, stigmata, and showers of stones and insects. There was the sonneteer Merrill Moore, who was known to compose his poems while waiting at traffic lights and who would send his editors and publishers a few thousand sonnets and have them select a manageable number for publication. There was Edgar Saltus, a committed decadent and aesthete, who called one of his works “the gloomiest and worst book ever published” and said of his first book (a biography of Balzac), “being utterly detestable, it was widely praised”; and there was William Hornaday, a zoologist who wanted to exterminate wolves.

No less fascinating were the many authors who ended up on the wrong side of history. In an era that encompassed two world wars, the rise of totalitarianism, a global depression, and struggles against colonialism, there was no shortage of such writers. Some of them are very well known (Pound, Kipling, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and so on), but I wrote about some you’ve probably never heard of: Josephine Dodge Bacon, who wrote doctrinal novels affirming “traditional” family values and said that the only women’s cause that interested her “was the systematic education for duties and responsibilities inevitably assumed by the great majority of them”; the Harvard sinologist John K. Fairbank, who praised the fundamental benignity of the Mao regime; and the Boston Brahmin Robert Grant, a part-time novelist and full-time judge, whose essays express a pronounced aversion to Italian and Irish immigrants, and who upheld the controversial death sentences of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Then there was Maud Diver, who glorified the British Raj, and Harry A. Franck, who wrote a travel book about South America that evinces an Anglo-Saxon contempt for the “frailties” of the “Latin” races.

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The encyclopedia also thoroughly documents the unhappy fates of major literary figures like Isaac Babel, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and Simone Weil. Perhaps it is unsurprising that so many great writers met unhappy ends. What surprised me more was just how badly things turned out for so many of the minor writers, too. Is there something about a career in writing that exposes its aspirants to disproportionately high levels of frustration, betrayal, humiliation, self-abasement, envy, alcoholism, loneliness, mental illness, poverty, and despair?

The once-acclaimed novelist Robert Lowry was committed to a mental hospital by an ex-wife. On his release, he returned to his native Cincinnati, where he lived in a cheap hotel, worked sporadically as a cashier and cabdriver, and drank himself to death. The poet Marya Zaturenska spent her final years disparaging “Blab-it Deutsch” (Babette Deutsch), “La Bogan” (Louise Bogan), “Robert Pen Wiper” (Robert Penn Warren) and other rivals to anyone who would listen. The Greenwich Village bohemian Maxwell Bodenheim spent his later years selling his poems in Washington Square Park and cadging drinks off strangers in local bars. He was murdered by a former mental patient. The novelist Charles Jackson’s last years were (quoting myself) “marked by severe alcoholism, depression, writer’s block, and estrangement from his wife and daughters.”

I lost track of how many variations of that last sentence I ended up writing. If World Authors 1900–1950 had had an epigraph, it could have come from Wordsworth:

We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.

Thankfully, there were some counterexamples. Margaret Culkin was a thoroughly middlebrow novelist, but a formidable woman, who raised her two children alone and had the perspicacity to write (in 1947!), “Women should get over being afraid of being seen without men.” There was Shirley Graham, who became a field secretary for the NAACP and author of a series of biographies for young people about prominent African Americans after losing her position as director of a USO camp for being a “rabble-rouser” and “trouble maker”—which she was. And there was Norah Lofts, who averaged one or two novels a year for more than forty years and who modestly concluded her autobiographical statement with the words: “I fear my autobiography is quite the dullest ever known, and most unlikely to interest anyone.”

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The editors and executives had decided that the revised World Authors would include all the writers, however obscure, covered in the original two volumes, and add any significant figures who might have been overlooked the first time around. That decision kept me gainfully employed for five years. If the work had been titled Major World Authors 1900–1950, I would have been out of work in six months. A glance at the table of contents will yield strings of non-notables at any letter of the alphabet: “Ker, William Paton; Kerr, Sophie; Kersh, Gerald; Kesten, Hermann; Kester, Vaughan; Key, Ellen.” As editor Andrew Kimmens explained to me, World Authors was firstly a literary history but secondly—and maybe even more interestingly—a history of taste. There are more than enough literary histories; there aren’t many such works that (literally) situate Simone de Beauvoir next to English historical novelist Helen de Vere Beauclerk in what amounts to a sort of accidental 3,005-page sociology of modern writing. I know of no other work that grants approximately equal space to Will (not William) James and to Martin Heidegger. Furthermore, the book’s chronological parameters were observed very loosely. Late Victorians and postmodernists got in so long as they had a foot inside either end of the 1900–1950 boundaries. By my count, 2,568 authors made the cut. A number that large is bound to comprehend large quantities of writers of the second rank. Or third. Or fourth. Or fifth.

Although I wrote about many of the big guns and many intriguing minor masters, I soon discovered that finding something—anything—to say about all those other non-masters with little or no name recognition was going to be my biggest challenge. The concept was splendid; by including articles on once-popular, now forgotten authors, a richer, more contextualized understanding of literary reception and the marketplace might emerge. The trouble was, I had to write the damned things. Since the whole idea was to compose a balanced and objective overview of each writer’s critical reception, I couldn’t proffer my own opinions, and I wasn’t about to start reading reams of out-of-print books anyway. When Andrew Kimmens died halfway through the project and Martin Seymour-Smith took over, he used his editorial prerogative to interject his opinions all over the place. (Seymour-Smith’s own New Guide to Modern World Literature is a 1,396-page compendium of the author’s adamantine pronouncements.) But I had to follow the rules. Again and again, I was reduced to summarizing a handful of book reviews in defunct newspapers and, if I was lucky, a sketchy obituary in The New York Times. I ended up writing a great many sentences like the one that concluded my article on Elizabeth Page, yet another forgotten historical novelist: “After Wilderness Adventure [1946], Page passed into near-total obscurity, and virtually nothing has been written about her since the publication of that novel.”

It’s a very naïve author who believes that publishing a few (or even a great many) books will ensure lasting fame. Did Joseph Stanley Pennell harbor any hopes of literary immortality? “Although he has now disappeared from literary history, Joseph Stanley Pennell was the author of one of the most discussed novels of 1944,” my article on him begins. And Burton Rascoe, once an influential editor and the friend of Edmund Wilson and Theodore Dreiser—did he believe his major critical work, Titans of Literature (1932), which the New York Herald Tribune Books called “a book of enduring value, which stands alone in its combination of scholarship with zest, wit and humanness,” would survive into the era of New Criticism and beyond? It did not.

I hope that Joseph Stanley Pennell, Burton Rascoe, and most of their 2,566 peers in World Authors understood that their writing honourably served the needs of their time. The critic and essayist Cyril Connolly, one of the fascinating secondary lights I was lucky enough to profile, claimed “that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.” That’s setting the bar rather high. By that standard, Connolly might have disqualified himself. And yet his ephemeral magazine essays were a delight. Witty, learned, unpedantic, and insouciant as they were, his essays failed to survive their time. But who’s to say they should have? Book reviews, which were Connolly’s bread and butter, are not built to last. Yet from the forties through the sixties, Connolly consistently entertained and enlightened those readers curious and literary enough to want to read him. Much the same could be said of many hundreds of other writers who figure in World Authors 1900–1950. I suspect that a hypothetical World Authors 2000–2050 wouldn’t look too different. We’re still writing, still reading, and still trying to figure stuff out. Not everyone who writes a book is a genius. And not everyone needs to be.

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