another opening line from the pulps

Harold Q. Masur, You Can’t Live Forever

It started with a summons, a brunette, and a Turk.

The summons was in my pocket, the brunette was in trouble, and the Turk was dead.

Jennifer Egan: “In recommending the mystery novels of Harold Q. Masur—all, sadly, out of print—I can do no better than quote the first two paragraphs of You Can’t Live Forever . . . In his savvy, stylish novels of the ’40s and ’50s, Masur manages to wink continuously at the detective genre even as he revels in it.” 

—from The Village Voice, “Our Favorite Writers Pick Their Favorite Obscure Books”


morley callaghan: the turgenev of toronto? the chekhov of canada?


The great American critic Edmund Wilson observed that “The Canadian Morley Callaghan, at one time well known in the United States, is today perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world. . .”

 And: “The reviewer, at the end of this article, after trying to give an account of these books, is now wondering whether the primary reason for the current underestimation of Morley Callaghan may not be simply a general incapacity—apparently shared by his compatriots—for believing that a writer whose work may be mentioned without absurdity in association with Chekhov’s and Turgenev’s can possibly be functioning in Toronto.”  

—from Edmund Wilson, O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture (1960)  

Some comments on Callaghan, recently found online:


Book Lover July 10, 2009, 8:05 P.M. ET

 Why Do Some Writers Disappear?

 By Cynthia Crossen

Morley Callaghan is my favorite 20th-century novelist. His “That Summer in Paris” is among the best of memoirs. His writing is splendid, but he is forgotten. Every book lover can list authors who were wonderful and maybe even great (John Marquand, John Dos Passos, Erico Verissimo) but who are gone. Why do exceptional writers disappear?

—John Adams, Mobile, Ala.


For those (like me) who had never heard of him, Morley Callaghan was a prolific, commercially successful Canadian author who died in 1990 at the age of 87. Among his friends were F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, whom he is said to have flattened once in a boxing match.

Yet even in the 1960s, Mr. Callaghan was “perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world,” wrote Edmund Wilson, who hypothesized that Mr. Callaghan might have been the victim of geographical snobbery. Critics seemed to doubt that even a literary genius comparable to Chekhov or Turgenev “could possibly be functioning in Toronto.”

Margaret Atwood (another great Canadian author) also tried to make sense of Mr. Callaghan’s literary oblivion. He was “a literary misfit,” she wrote; “people never knew what to make of him.” He was also something of a prodigy—he published three novels before the age of 30—which can start a dangerous trajectory of expectations.

While Mr. Callaghan may seem invisible now, paradoxically he may never have been so accessible. Many of his novels can be sampled on Google Books, and many online book dealers have used copies for sale. So Mr. Callaghan isn’t gone. It’s just that he was once one of a few thousand published authors, and now he’s one of millions. He’s invisible the way Waldo is in the pages of “Where’s Waldo?” — lost in a crowd.

For other examples of lost treasures, see “100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read” by Karl Bridges. I was happy Mr. Bridges’ list included “The Wrong Case” by James Crumley; “Professor Romeo” by Anne Bernays; and “Stones for Ibarra” by Harriet Doerr, but most of his suggestions were new to me. “What America Read” by Gordon Hutner also offers an interesting analysis of how the literary academy decides which books will be remembered.

A very fine Web site,, has many links to lists of lost classics as well as its own ruminations on the subject. But a site search showed not a trace of Morley Callaghan.

—from The Wall Street Journal



the time of man: the forgotten masterpiece by elizabeth madox roberts

There is so much more to a woman than there is to a man. More complication. A woman is more closely identified with the earth, more real because deeper gifted with pain, danger, and a briefer life. More intense, richer in memory and feeling. A man’s machinery is all outside himself. A woman’s deeply and dangerously inside. Amen.


—from Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ preparatory notes for The Time of Man (in the introduction to the novel’s 1982 University Press of Kentucky edition)


Bookseller Photo


The novel’s opening lines:


Ellen wrote her name in the air with her finger, Ellen Chesser, leaning forward and writing on the horizontal plane. Beside her in the wagon her mother huddled under an old shawl to keep herself from the damp, complaining, We ought to be a-goen on. If I had all the money there is in the world, Ellen said, slowly, I’d go along in a big red wagon and I wouldn’t care if it taken twenty horses to pull it along. Such a wagon as would never break down. She wrote her name again in the horizontal of the air.



The novel’s protagonist, Ellen, is alert to the beauty and detail of the life around her:


great show stallion which only the trainer was let to ride. They looked at his sleek brown flesh that so throbbed with life that every morsel of it seemed a separate living thing. A stable man was leading him before the door, letting him drink at the smooth concrete watering trough where a jet of water fell, cool and leisured. Jasper stood before the great beast with pride and joy in his eyes . . . . (329)


At fourteen, Ellen is disgusted by the adult world of sex and childbirth:


This woman was carrying a child and Ellen praised her coldly, listening to her speech with the knowledge in her mind.. ..Why did she let herself be like that? Ellen would ask herself with an inner contempt, for she knew all the externals of child-getting. She had pitied her father and mother for their futile effort toward secrecy… .Night, dark, filth, sweat, great bodies, what for? She pitied them with a great pity, the pity of a child for adults. (40)


Then, as an adult, and after her fourth pregnancy, Ellen feels trapped by her body, sensing yet more unwanted children will be born:


One day she saw the children, the three born and the one unborn, as men and women, as they would be, and more beside them, all standing about the cabin door until they darkened the path with their shadows, all asking beyond what she had to give, always demanding, always wanting more of her and more of them always wanting to be.. ."Out of me come people forever, forever . . . . (333)


A recent essay on Roberts:


The ‘Time’ of Elizabeth Madox Roberts


By Katherine Dalton


In 1926 Elizabeth Madox Roberts, a 45-year-old former schoolteacher from Springfield, Kentucky, published her first novel. The Time of Man came out to great acclaim; it was reviewed widely, admired here and abroad by writers such as Ford Madox Ford, Glenway Wescott, and Sherwood Anderson, and became a bestseller. Her second novel was also a success, and as Robert Penn Warren wrote in a 1963 appreciation of her, “By 1930, with the appearance of The Great Meadow, her fourth novel, it was impossible to discuss American fiction without referring to Elizabeth Madox Roberts.”


At the time of her death eleven years later, however, she had lived “past her reputation and her popularity,” he adds, and she remains little read today. She has fallen into the slough of Regional Writer, a term generally used for someone of ability but not genius, someone most appreciated by the people whose region and history he depicts. With rare exceptions it is only in Kentucky that Roberts is still remembered and still read, but here at least we are preserving the memory of a novelist and poet who is no less extraordinary for being obscure.


The Time of Man is the story of Ellen Chesser, the daughter of itinerant white sharecroppers, whom we first meet as a girl of 14. She works hard, has little education, owns almost nothing and knows very few people. “Things to put in drawers and drawers to put things in, she would like, and people to say things to,” Roberts writes.


What Ellen possesses lies within her. She has a strong sense of herself, and a strengthening conviction that she is alive and vital in this world. It is this innate assurance of her own value, however small that value may be or narrow in scope, that sustains her through heartbreaks of one kind and another. This is a novel with a plot, but the book is chiefly the story of the soul of this one good woman. Its focus is narrow. The secondary characters are memorable but are not portrayed at any length; with some telling details we get a line drawing of them, uncolored. Ellen’s world is small, because it is the world of a poor woman whose transportation is generally her own two feet. But we are given all the expanse of Ellen’s mind and spirit, as she grows up and matures in understanding, and all in a book written in a beautiful style, studded here and there with the vivid speech of rural Kentucky from the turn of the twentieth century.


While far-reaching books can have their own genius, the best portrayals of character often come from writers saturated with the knowledge and love of a specific place and its people-—Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri; Wendell Berry’s Port Royal, Kentucky; William Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi (now there are some regional writers for you). Rooted books, if they are any good, contain a record of a place’s speech and folkways that is valuable in and of itself. They are the fictional counterpart to heirloom seeds, because they contain a historically important record of a people whose lives and language might otherwise be lost to memory. If The Time of Man were less beautiful than it is, it would still be valuable as one of these records, being full of the rhythm of farmwork as it was once done without gasoline, and of the social mores of its characters, who look so much more than they speak. And when they do talk, Roberts has distilled and preserved some of their iambic, natively poetic speech.


Locally rooted as the book is, like all first-class pieces of fiction it transcends its character and setting with the universality of its appeal. We can understand Ellen because we recognize part of ourselves in her, whether or not we have ever been poor, ever farmed, or ever been female. To give one example: Roberts understands (or remembers) very well the ebb and flow of mood in a young person’s mind and recalls beautifully the ages-old loneliness that only the very young feel. Other stages of life have their own depressions, but no one ever again feels as ancient as he did as a teenager.


Roberts writes beautifully, too, of the quick expansions of spirit Ellen feels from time to time, moments of gratitude for a bird’s song, a neighbor’s friendship, even the conviction she could draw her own strength from the hard rocks she is resting upon. Ellen never permanently loses her capacity for joy, and this is part of her attractiveness both to her fellow characters and to the reader. This quality in her makes this often tragic story an essentially happy one.


So, if this is such a good book, why have you never heard of it? I can only guess. Except for her college years in Chicago, Roberts never lived in a big city or taught at a well-known university. She was not part of any literary circle; though the Southern Agrarians admiredher, she preceded them (I’ll Take My Stand appeared in 1930, and most of its contributors were a good bit younger than she).


Penn Warren believed Roberts fell out of fashion so soon after her success because she wasn’t political in the thirties’ fashion. In The Time of Man she writes about a sharecropper in as un-Marxian or un-Rooseveltean a manner as possible. The struggle in this book is between Ellen and Life (as Roberts described it elsewhere), not Ellen and The Man, or Ellen and The Company. Roberts is not interested here in the wider world of political or economic injustice, or even social injustice, though the book has its moments of social cruelty. That men and women will treat each other unjustly is something she takes for granted. She occupies herself instead with what Ellen makes of the life she is dealt—the kind of life she can wrest from the stones she is sometimes given for bread.


I would guess that for similar reasons Roberts was not rediscovered by the woman’s movement in the 1970s (or later). Ellen is too true to her traditional life and her flawed husband, and while she is victimized she is too assuredly loyal and self-sufficient ever to be a victim. She is instead one of the great Everymen of fiction, like Ulysses or Kim or Huckleberry Finn, and while I would not compare any writer to Homer, Roberts stands up very well to Twain. If she had written nothing else—and despite a lifetime of illness and an early death, she published 12 volumes of poetry and fiction—for this book alone she deserves to be read and remembered.




the all-but-forgotten booth tarkington: the rightful owner of dreiser’s mantle?


“We are just entering the period when most of what we have regarded as permanently crystalline will become shockingly fluid—that is to say, we are already in the transition period between two epochs. . . . Restfulness will have entirely disappeared from your lives; the quiet of the world is ending forever.”

—Booth Tarkington


What About Booth?

Newton Booth Tarkington, Neglected Hoosier

By Jeremy Beer


During a recent lecture, the eminent and usually trustworthy literary critic Joseph Epstein befuddled at least one audience member (me) by referring to Theodore Dreiser as the “greatest American author of the twentieth century.” Huh? Dreiser was not even the greatest twentieth-century author from Indiana. In fact, in Beer’s Genuinely Objective Rankings of Indiana Authors, Twentieth Century Division, Dreiser ranks third, just a smidgen ahead of Ross Lockridge Jr. (who wrote Raintree County and nothing else) and considerably behind runner-up Kurt Vonnegut.


The champion, several lengths ahead of the field, is Newton Booth Tarkington. In fact, Tarkington stands, if not among the first rank of American writers, squarely and securely among the second. His obscurity is unjustified and unjustifiable.


This might seem a difficult case to make, for there is a good deal of evidence to the contrary. In a land in which about 200,000 new books are published each year, no biography of Tarkington has been published since 1955. The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) remains rather well known—but not so much the book as the 1942 Orson Welles film. Tarkington is almost never anthologized or read in the schools, unlike his contemporaries Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, even Upton Sinclair. He is not remembered as the progenitor or exemplar of an influential genre or school, nor as the literary conscience of an important social movement. No Tarkington panels are organized at academic conferences. No journal is dedicated to Tarkingtoniana. No Tarkington revival is on the horizon.


But consider: The Magnificent Ambersons made many lists ofthe top 100 novels of the twentieth century and has remained continuously in print since it was first released. Both it and Alice Adams (1921) won Pulitzer Prizes (in 1919 and 1922, respectively), and Tarkington is the only writer to have two novels win Pulitzers. In a 1921 Publisher’s Weekly poll of booksellers, Tarkington was named the most “significant” contemporary author (Wharton came in 2nd, Dreiser 14th). In 1922, Literary Digest named him the greatest living American author, and in the same year he was the only native writer to appear on the New York Times’s list of the ten greatest living Americans. In 1933, he became just the third person to receive a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Twelve years later he received from the American Academy of Arts and Letters the William Dean Howells award, given just once every five years. On top of all that, he moved product. From 1902 to 1932, nine Tarkington titles appeared in the top ten of Publisher’s Weekly’s year-end bestseller lists.


Dreiser never won a Pulitzer and never had a bestseller. Tarkington’s books—still rewarding and enjoyable—have aged as gracefully as Sophia Loren; Dreiser’s—clunky, verbose, and often ridiculous—more like Bea Arthur. Yet so capricious is fame, so random is earthly reward, that between the two scribblers Dreiser has received for 50-plus years all the critical attention. In the major biographies competition, it’s 3–1 Dreiser (the most recent was published in 2005). Number of entries under “criticism and interpretation” in the Library of Congress catalog? 37–1, Dreiser. Number of books with a separate entry in that catalog? 4–0, Dreiser. Dreiser has two Library of America volumes. Tarkington, amazingly, has none. A journal called Dreiser Studies was published from 1970 to 2006. Dreiser is recognized as a leading exponent of American “naturalism.” Critically, it’s no contest.


* * *


From both a chronological and geographical perspective, the comparison is apt. The lives of Tarkington and Dreiser overlapped almost precisely; Tarkington was born in 1869 and died in 1946. Dreiser entered this world two years later than Tarkington and exited one year earlier. Tarkington was born to a comfortably situated professional family in Indianapolis and was named after his grandfather Newton Booth, governor of California from 1871 to 1875. Dreiser was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Sullivan, Indiana, to a fractious and peripatetic household. Warsaw, the northern Indiana town where he spent his formative teenage years, was once quite embarrassed by the fact of the Dreisers’ residence—the family was considered white trash—and now seems to be completely unaware of it. Dreiser is so completely without honor in his homeland that he naturally has been regarded as a prophet everywhere else.


In truth, Dreiser was consistently wrongheaded in just the right ways to endear him to the critical and opinion-shaping communities. He challenged “Victorian” morals—Sister Carrie (1900) had the good luck effectively to be banned for seven years after its initial publication—and thereby obtained the imprimatur of H. L. Mencken, among many others. He was concerned with social justice, yet refused to offer any grounds for hope to his socially marginalized characters, for whom he simultaneously had both pity and contempt. He held politically advanced views: Indeed, he was a fellow traveler who with stout intrepidity joined the Communist Party—in 1945! He reduced men and women to little more than beasts and presented the universe as intrinsically meaningless. Free will, human dignity, and transcendence were shams. Power relations were all that mattered. And he left Indiana, for good, as soon as possible; Dreiser’s report of his automobile tour back to his home state is recorded with the eye of a bemused and caustic anthropologist, not a loving son, in A Hoosier Holiday (1916).


In other words, the appeal to modern critics is obvious.


Tarkington, however, seems too sensible, too down-to-earth, to be a great literary figure, a Writer. He was genially aristocratic, not a prima donna. And he loved his region without minimizing its foibles, crudeness, and ridiculous bombast. He never decamped permanently from Indiana but lived there for at least six months a year virtually his entire life. Worse, he was a Republican, a man of moderately conservative political opinions, which he did not try to conceal, and a surprisingly profound yet good-humored cultural reactionary.


To get a sense of the perspective he brought to bear as one of America’s great “realist” novelists, the Tarkington tyro ought to begin with the “Growth” trilogy—which consists of The Turmoil (1915), The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Midlander (1924)—before moving on to his autobiographical work of nonfiction, The World Does Move (1928). (Like nearly all of Tarkington’s ouevre, all of these except Ambersons are out of print, but they are easily obtainable online.) Along with Alice Adams, these four works provide a moving, fully realized portrayal of the price of a frenetic commercial-industrial society, of the rise of mass culture (including mass immigration), and of the ideology of American Progress. Tarkington arguably performs this task better than any other American novelist.


Just four pages in length, the special introduction Tarkington wrote to the Growth trilogy in 1928 provides a concentrated dose of his acid assessment of industrial modernity—a term he does not use, but which applies with precision. Titled “The God,” it begins by recalling Indianapolis before it became “a dirty . . . city nesting dingily in the fog of its own smoke.” Just a generation earlier, “No one was very rich; few were very poor; the air was clean, and there was time to live.” But an obsession with size, growth, “Bigness”—“the god of all good American hearts”—had transformed the city without mercy. Its civic leaders corrupted by greed, it now sprawled unpredictably and uncontrollably, belching factories befouled the air, and immigrants poured in by the thousands. Indianapolis had become hurried, hard, unsafe, inhuman. It was the spirit of Bigness, its worship, and its works that Tarkington successfully chronicled in the Growth books.


John Lukacs’s judgment that there was more profound social and technological change in the period between the Civil War and World War I than there has been since is amply attested to by Tarkington in The World Does Move, the dominant theme of which is the radical alteration in society’s mores since the fin de siècle. Thanks to Tarkington’s innate modesty, the book is more social history than it is memoir. It is engrossing, and often prophetic. Take Tarkington’s reportage on the changes wrought by the arrival of the “horseless carriage.” Recalling a dinner in Paris in 1903, he puts into the mouth of an unidentified companion a remarkable prophecy. The automobile, said this “elderly American,”


will obliterate the accepted distances that are part of our daily lives. It will alter our daily relations to time, and that is to say it will alter our lives. Perhaps everybody doesn’t comprehend how profoundly we are affected by such a change; but what alters our lives alters our thoughts; what alters our thoughts alters our characters; what alters our characters alters our ideals; and what alters our ideals alters our morals. . . . We are just entering the period when most of what we have regarded as permanently crystalline will become shockingly fluid—that is to say, we are already in the transition period between two epochs. . . . Restfulness will have entirely disappeared from your lives; the quiet of the world is ending forever.


Strange that Russell Kirk, to my knowledge, never wrote about this writer whose views on the “metal demon” and so much else he must have found congenial.


* * *


Joseph Epstein is an intelligent man. Theodore Dreiser’s adulation of power, modish leftism, and crackpot theories surely must not impress him. So why the admiration? In his talk, he mentioned that Dreiser wrote as the “ultimate outsider,” which gave him a comparative advantage in illuminating the American scene. Maybe. But I’m inclined to think that Epstein’s judgment is colored by the fact that Dreiser both began his career and set his best work, Sister Carrie (1900), in Epstein’s native Chicago. This must be a case of rank hometown prejudice. As such, I honor and respect it. But Tarkington was by far the wiser man. And as any reader may judge for himself—having read, say, The World Does Move and A Hoosier Holiday back to back, or Ambersons followed by An American Tragedy (1925)—Tarkington was a vastly better writer and keener social observer. Being an insider also has its advantages.


As we head once again into a new American epoch, perhaps we’re finally ready to appreciate Tarkington’s portraits of the cultural costs of progressive modernity. This time, if we’re lucky, it’s the foolish Dreiserian notions about man that will get tossed into history’s dustbin.