Please note the date on this issue and don't put too much faith in the links, some of which are centuries old in Internet time.
At The Margin
Vol. 2, Issue 1 (Whole Issue #15)
Wednesday January 31, 2001
Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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This issue of At The Margin is sponsored by Catbird Press, publishers of humor for grownups, Czech literature in translation, and contemporary fiction, including the novels of At The Margin's editor, Floyd Kemske. Come to our website to read first chapters from any book in our catalog. For a limited time, readers of At The Margin can take a discount of 20% on any direct, e-mail, or phone order of Catbird books (including titles from our legendary backlist). All transactions are secure, because we don't take credit cards; instead, we enclose an invoice with the order or, if it's a gift, mail it separately. Use this discount code in your order: ATM20%. http://www.catbirdpress.com/
Editor's Note: Readers should be aware that sponsorship of At The Margin does not imply endorsement of (or even agreement with!) anything you read in this issue. The editor, in fact, hardly considers an issue successful if he hasn't offended the sponsor a little bit.
1. Word Up, Beowulf
2. The Story, Backward
3. A New (Honest to Goodness) Mark Twain Story
4. Special Bylined Article: "Swordswoman" by Tom Owen
5. Messages to the Editor
6. Production Notes
7. Do You Know Me?
8. Blue Underlined Words
1. Word Up, Beowulf
"Try not to let the fact that you have to write an essay about this book ruin your enjoyment in reading it," says webmaster Syd Allan, addressing student visitors to the Alternative Beowulf Translations page (http://www.jagular.com/beowulf). Allan's website presents 21 different translations of five short passages from key moments in the Beowulf story. It also offers panels from two Beowulf comic books, images from the original Beowulf manuscript, a genealogy of the characters, and a bibliography of translations and reference books. As Allan explains, it is a good place to start for anyone who gets an assignment to write about the greatest piece of literature in Old English.
Beowulf comes down to us in a single manuscript dating from about the year 1000 and dealing with events from 500 years before. It may have been composed in the early 700s. In the first part of the poem, the hero Beowulf arrives at the court of King Hrothgar in Denmark. Hrothgar's domain has been terrorized for 12 years by a monster named Grendel, who arrives nightly and carries off some of the king's warriors to eat them. When Grendel shows up that night, however, Beowulf and his small band of retainers are waiting. Grendel kills one of Beowulf's men, but Beowulf engages the monster in a fight so fierce that the monster loses an arm and flees.
Grendel goes to the cave of his mother to die, and the next night, Grendel's mother comes and dampens the Danes' celebration by killing another of Hrothgar's men. The next morning, Beowulf seeks out Grendel's mother in her cave and kills her. There are more celebrations. Beowulf goes home. Sometime later, King Hrothgar and his son are killed in battle, and Beowulf succeeds him as king, ushering in an age of peace and prosperity. But after 50 years, a fire-breathing dragon shows up, and the aging Beowulf must fight again. His men (except for one kinsman) abandon him, and the fight is both long and terrible. Beowulf kills the dragon but dies doing it.
Note the sub-theme of motherly revenge. For another (equally grisly) story using this theme, see Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (recently made into a film called Titus). This is not a common theme in English literature; the only modern story of motherly revenge that comes readily to mind is the second (or is it the third?) installment of the film Alien. But eighth-century Saxons and sixteenth-century English apparently saw nothing inconsistent between motherhood and blood feud. Of course Saxon and Elizabethan publishing did try to not force writers into a procrustean bed of sentimental Romanticism.
Beowulf is about 25,000 words, or half the length of a short novel. The manuscript survived the destruction of religious artifacts during the dissolution of the monasteries in the English Reformation, but a 1731 fire took out about a thousand letters. Its curators preserved what was left by pasting each leaf of it into a frame, which had the unfortunate effect of hiding many letters at the margins. In 1993, the British Library assembled a team of scholars to digitize images of the pages. They employed fiber-optic backlighting to expose the letters hidden by the frames as well as ultraviolet light to reveal erasures.
If you can read Old English (as well as the occasional Runic letterform), the digitized manuscript is available on a $150 CD-ROM set (University of Michigan Press). The CD-ROM's Help facility is online: http://www.uky.edu/AS/English/Beowulf/eBeowulf/main.htm.
Many versions of Beowulf are in the public domain. The Francis Gummere translation (published in 1910) is available for download from Project Gutenberg (http://promo.net/pg/ -- search for "Beowulf"). But it's a little archaic and tiresome to read: "Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings..." I recommend you use your word processor's search and replace function to change all the occurrences of "lo" to "word up." It changes the meter a little, but it's easier to understand.
2. The Story, Backward
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was an influential preacher and lecturer, active in denouncing slavery before the Civil War and supporting a moderate policy of Reconstruction after it. He also supported women's suffrage, evolutionary theory, and scientific biblical criticism. In the 1870s, rumors arose about his sexual affairs, and in 1874 he was sued by his literary protege, Theodore Tilton, who alleged Beecher'd had an affair with his wife. Tilton's civil suit ended with a jury unable to make a decision. In 1878, Elizabeth Tilton admitted that she had indeed had an affair with Beecher, but the circumstances of the claim left ample reason to distrust it.
In the end, the question of whether Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton had been sexually intimate became one of history's enduring unanswered questions. The jury in the civil case found no preponderance of evidence one way or another, and historians have found the same thing.
One historian, Richard Wightman Fox, hit a "brick wall" in trying to figure it out. "My research had persuaded me," he writes, "that there was no way to know whether Henry Ward Beecher had indeed, as his former best friend and disciple Theodore Tilton charged, committed adultery with Tilton's wife, Elizabeth." Each of the principals had a story, but none of the stories was better than the others in terms of establishing the facts. After some soul- searching, Fox decided his research would still be useful if he used it to tell the story of their stories.
He was then faced with the problem of telling an ambiguous story. The "default position" of history-writing, he says, is that "the historian's job is to come up with 'the' story of what occurred." And he knew that readers would approach anything he wrote about the scandal with just that expectation. So, in preparing his book, Trials of Intimacy, he hit upon the strategy of telling the stories backwards. He began with the deaths of the principals and for each one worked back through the scandal's aftermath, the trial, the rumors, and the three-way friendship that started the whole thing. Fox feels he was able to tell the multiplicity of stories without the readers demanding "the" story. Quoting Henry James ("these hours of backward clearness..."), he offers backward storytelling as a strategy to other historians, especially biographers, who may want to adopt it from time to time. Fox gives his account in an article in the web-based magazine, Common-Place (http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-02/author/).
But backward storytelling happens more often than you might think, and not just in works of history. I used it in a novel (Coolidge College), in which the story of one character proceeds backward while the rest of the story goes forward. I believed when I wrote the story that I could achieve narrative movement by working from aftermath back through motive. Fiction readers, however, are focused on cause and effect and really don't care that much about chronology. I don't think anyone who has read that novel ever noticed independently that one of the characters lives the story backwards. Nevertheless, I felt the technique was successful, even though I never sold the damned book (you can find it, however, on my website -- http://www.thirdlion.com). This "success" inspired me to persuade a colleague, Barbara Shapiro, to use the backward technique in her psychological thriller, See No Evil (Avon, 1996) which had a historical storyline I thought was eminently suitable. It had been relatively easy to do in my book, because I don't pay a lot of attention to plot. Barbara, however, is a precise plotter, and she found herself having to establish a causal sequence for a bunch of events she had not yet revealed. It was a nightmare. She made it work beautifully, but she had a heroic struggle with it. She forgave me for my advice sometime after the publication of the novel.
I'd be interested (and I am sure the ATM readership is interested) in getting references from readers on other backward stories, both fiction and nonfiction.
3. A New (Honest to Goodness) Mark Twain Story
In 1876, after the publication of Tom Sawyer and before the publication of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wrote an 8,000-word story called "A Murder, A Mystery and a Marriage." He intended the story as a model to provoke a sort of contest in which a number of writers would write stories based on the same concept. He sent it off to his editor at The Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, with the names of eight other writers, including Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who should submit versions.
I don't know if the idea originally came from Howells or Mark Twain. Certainly, the latter had the brass to write a story and more or less dare Henry James to match its quality. But Mark Twain was also troubled throughout his successful adult life by the thought of being considered a buffoon because his success was largely based on humor. And when late in life he gained the recognition of an honorary degree from Oxford University, he cherished it so much that he is said to have worn the gown and mortarboard to other formal occasions afterward. It would be interesting to know where Mark Twain placed himself in relation to Henry James.
At any rate, the 1876 story got no takers, the project came to nothing, and the story never appeared. In 1995, a manuscript of it was discovered by a lawyer who represents the Buffalo and Erie County Library. When Michael Kelly, who became editor of The Atlantic Monthly last year, learned of the existence of the manuscript, he found himself in a bidding contest against The New Yorker for it. The Atlantic Monthly won the bid for an undisclosed amount, but it was surely more than what was specified in the original contract. But nobody at The Atlantic Monthly could find the original contract.
The story will be published in the July issue of the magazine and then as a book in September by W. W. Norton & Company. There is a news story on it in the January 22 issue of The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/22/business/22TWAI.html). If the story has been archived on the site before you read this, you will have to pay a fee to read it. There are more details I haven't put in here, but I don't know how to advise you on whether it's worth the charge to learn them.
4. Special Bylined Article
by Tom Owen, Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop
The chicks in chain mail probably have their own conventions. They've certainly filled the bookshelves and all have names like Frostfire, Ravenwing, Iceheart, and that's just the Fantasy department. But as they swagger down the hotel corridors in their lionskins and swinging broadswords, they might give a thought to the fact that there was a first one, a founding mother so to speak, and I don't mean Joan of Arc.
You have to go back to the 1930s and a writer named C.L. Moore who burst upon the scene in November, 1933 with a story called "Shambleau." Understand that science fiction in the first half of the 20th century, especially in the magazines, was very much a guy thing. The authors were guys, the editors were guys, the stories were about guy things: rocket ships, death rays, and the like. Many of the fans were also guys of a particular type: adolescent, socially awkward, and a bit backward about sex. Then came "Shambleau."
The story has your typical action hero, Northwest Smith, who saves a little feminine fugitive from a pack of howling, torch carrying villagers on Mars. Turns out the villagers have cause. Shambleau is one of those life energy sucking medusas who takes her victims to unbelieveable heights of orgasmic ecstasy. With its steamy eroticism, its dark undercurrents of unspeakable desire, the story hit science fiction like a raving Henry Miller bursting into a boy scout pack meeting. And Moore had a few more punches to deliver as well.
Less than a year later with "The Black God's Kiss," Jirel of Joiry arrived. Jirel was the first woman warrior character who was central to the story, and not some sidekick or plaything as had appeared in a few other stories of the time. For the next several years, Jirel wandered across Medieval France battling the natural and supernatural with her sword and brains. She quickly became a favorite of readers even as Moore produced additional highly praised stories of other times and places.
What Moore brought to her writing was a concern for characterization and characters who were motivated and acted on account of deep feelings. They lived and sometimes died for their feelings. This put her far out ahead of much of the standard fantasy and SF of the time where the major concerns were often the next big invention and the oncoming cataclysm.
By now you've noticed that pronoun. It was not realized by many readers for several years, but C.L. was Catherine Lucille.
In 1940 she married the writer Henry Kuttner. Like her, Kuttner had made a big impression with his first story, "The Graveyard Rats," but his reputation then slipped after he produced some stinkers. With marriage, to a great extent, C.L. disappeared, taking Jirel with her. She and Kuttner carried the the idea of collaboration to unheard-of heights. Under at least a dozen pennames, she and her husband spewed out all kinds of stories. They rewrote each other's drafts; one would finish a story that another had started. In some cases they'd change hands several times in writing a story till neither could remember who had done what. Some material ascribed to Moore still appeared, but even then it was often a collaboration and some of the best stories by her were still issued under pseudonyms. It's now a pasttime of feminist academics to dissect many of those works, trying to analyze how much is Moore and how much is Kuttner, and then reascribing the authorship, much to bibliographers' and collectors' horror.
When Kuttner died in '58, Moore moved into doing teleplays for such shows as Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip (which will make me look more closely at the credits when those shows pop up at 2:00 a.m.), and then with her second marriage gave up writing completely.
There never were more Jirels after those of the 30s, but they remained in memories and hearts of readers, appearing now and then in anthologies. Finally in the 60s and 70s there were paperback and hardback collections of nearly all the stories. At the current time, nothing at all by Moore seems to be in print, so readers will have to haunt old bookshops or go on line to find any copies. One small oddity did pop up while I was researching this piece. It seems quite a bit of her stuff was translated and published in France. For that I can almost forgive the Jerry Lewis craze.
Long may Jirel wave, the first and still one of the best women in armor.
5. Messages to the Editor
How The Gear-minded Feel About E-Books
In regards to the Blue Underlined Words section of the most recent ATM ("The E-Book Appliance as Tinker Bell"), I found the results of this unofficial poll interesting and vindicating (the poll was taken in a System Administrator's online magazine). Keep in mind that these are very gear-minded folks, the folks who get the latest technology just to see it.
* INSTANT POLL
The voting has closed in Windows 2000 Magazine's nonscientific Instant Poll for the question, "When do you expect to use an e-book reader?"
Here are the results (+/-2 percent) from the 307 votes:
- 23% I use one now
- 4% Within the next 6 months
- 9% Within the next year
- 62% Not in the foreseeable future
Hooray for the bound!
Delightful Note from a Happy Reader
I enjoy reading ATM whenever I receive it! It was a surprise to receive it the first time from my brother John Simpson, and has kept surprising and delighting me every time. There aren't many of us, it seems, who delight in the printed page as well as talking about those pages.
If you keep writing, I will keep reading...
Cynthia S. Page
How the Man-About-Town Deals with Thick Books
My wife showed me this travel tip. She likes to read as much as I do. I travel a bit and always lug whatever I'm reading with me. Now, though, I buy paperbacks and tear off as much as I think I'll read and take that part. Example: I'm reading Keagan's The First World War -- 468 pages. Tore off murder of Archduke Ferdinand through Gallipoli for four-day Phoenix trip. Leaving for an overnight to Minneapolis on Superbowl Sunday and will tear off through the Somme. Don't haveta worry about ruinin' your Levis. There's nothing more depressing than a house with bookshelves fulla old paperbacks. Looks like a thrift shop, in my opinion. Tear as you go!
At The Margin has 821 readers, most of whom are interested in what you have to say about books or items you have read in ATM. Send a message to the editor and get those thoughts out to 820 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (email@example.com).
6. Production Notes
"Do You Know Me?" is going to use nonfiction books as well as novels. I started out with novels because they tend to have the most intriguing first sentences. But many of you have favorite or beloved authors who never wrote any fiction, and it occurred to me that the purpose of the department is to bring interesting books to your attention for your entertainment or enlightenment and not just to promote obscure novels. So please note that any time now, the mystery sentence in "Do You Know Me?" is as likely to come from a nonfiction book as from a novel. If you want to recommend a book for this department, please do. There are two criteria for selection: the book has to be out of print in the U.S., and it has to have an intriguing first sentence. Send recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You will notice a new sponsor for ATM this month. We are opening up sponsorship to other organizations besides Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop. My plan is to continue as before, with one commercial message near the beginning of the issue and one near the end. If a sponsorship message gets your attention, please don't be shy about contacting ATM sponsors. They would love to hear from you.
Work has proceeded apace on the archiving of the back issues, and the archives now extend up through issue #11. Feel free to drop by the website and read any issues you may have missed. I hope to get to a schedule of archiving them there as they are e-mailed. I'll keep you posted on my progress. The archives are at my personal website: http://www.thirdlion.com/ATM.html
7. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a book, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to email@example.com.
Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.
This Issue's Sentence:
Twice in his life a woman asked Lancelot for his love.
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence:
"Nothing ever happens to me."
There was one guess this time: "I can't locate my copy of the book to verify, but is this line from Edisto by Padgett Powell?"
An inspired guess, but the first line of Edisto is "I'm in Bluffton on a truancy spree, cutting, as we call it, but all you do is walk off the unfenced yard during recess, where three hundred hunched- over kids are shooting marbles."
The answer is My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart:
"Nothing ever happens to me."
I wrote the words slowly, looked at them for a moment with a little sigh, then put my ballpoint pen down on the cafe table and rummaged in my handbag for a cigarette.
The publisher did pretty well with the flap copy on this one: "Only a moment before Camilla Haven had been sitting quietly in a crowded Athens cafe writing to a friend, 'Nothing ever happens to me...' Then, without warning, a stranger approached, thrust a set of car keys at her and pointed to a huge black touring car parked at the curb. 'The car for Delphi, mademoiselle. ...A matter of life and death,' he whispered and disappeared. From that moment Camilla embarked on a nightmare of intrigue and terror beyond her wildest daydreams."
My Brother Michael was first published in 1959 by M.S. Mill. The copy I am looking at is a mass-market paperback published by Fawcett Crest in 1960. Lady Mary Stewart was born in the U.K. in 1916. I don't know if she was awarded or born to the title. There is surprisingly little information available on her on the web. In some references I found, the name Florence Elinor appears, but it is unclear to me whether she was born Florence Elinor or her full name is Mary Florence Elinor Stewart. I am sure ATM must have some Mary Stewart fans who can set us straight on these details, as well as correct anything I say about her subsequently.
She has written at least 20 books, beginning in 1955 with Madam, Will You Talk? Most of her books are suspense novels like My Brother Michael, including Nine Coaches Waiting (1958), The Moon- Spinners (1962), This Rough Magic (1964), Airs Above the Ground (1965), and Thornyhold (1988). Many of these books have been best- sellers. Some are still available as mass-market paperbacks.
Mary Stewart could have had a perfectly satisfactory (even impressive) career as a major suspense writer with about a dozen books to her credit. But in the late 1960s, she convinced her publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, to stand by her in her desire to retell the Arthurian legend. The result was The Crystal Cave, published in 1970. The book tells the Arthurian story from the point of view of the wizard Merlin. She did not originally intend to write beyond the story of The Crystal Cave, which ends with Arthur's conception, because she did not want to tread the territory of T. H. White (The Once and Future King), whose book she admired. But readers loved The Crystal Cave, and her publisher loved the success of it. She followed it with a second installment, The Hollow Hills (1973), then The Last Enchantment (1979).
By the time the trilogy was complete, it had accomplished something of a revolution in fantasy fiction. It is said to be scrupulously accurate in its use of 5th century British history (Stewart didn't even include Sir Lancelot in the story because she said her research yielded no reliable evidence of his existence). Yet, even while the story is accurate historically, it doesn't back off from using magic. Merlin was, after all, a magician. But the story is also said to show how real activity lays the basis for magical interpretations later. She also wrote another Arthurian book, The Wicked Day (1983), but most commentators don't include it as part of her trilogy, since it is told from Mordred's point of view.
Here's a 1989 interview with her: http://www.ub.rug.nl/camelot/intrvws/stewart.htm
Here's a well-informed review of the Merlin trilogy: http://www.greenmanreview.com/stewart.html
Here's an extensive article that places her in the development of the category of fantasy: http://dc.smu.edu/arthuriana/biblio-project/doherty/partii.html
7. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.
A Precedent for Supreme Court Perfidy
From time to time, circumstance visits on the American citizenry a Supreme Court dominated by scoundrels. Such was the case in 1857, when the Court heard the argument of Dred Scott, a man who was held as a slave for four years in free territory. The Court sided with the bad guys and handed down a decision saying slavery was not only legal but also transportable to areas that had outlawed it. Scott's case began in 1846 in the St. Louis Circuit Court. The Missouri State Archives arranged and described 85 documents about the case, and Washington Universities Libraries put them on the web.
Commentary Presented as a Comic Strip
Riddle: "What's the difference between a comic book writer and a large pizza?" Scott McCloud does a regular essay presented as a comic strip called "I Can't Stop Thinking!" Installment #5, "Coins of the Realm," is all about copyright and what it means for comics on the web. The answer to the riddle is "A large pizza can feed a family of four." It's not funny, and neither is the essay. But they are both informative.
The Financial Times on Science Fiction
"Almost nothing turned out the way that the science fiction writers of the 1950s and 1960s expected." The article explains that these science fiction writers were wrong because they were recycling ideas from the 18th century. The writer, Michael Prowse, is in the grip of the boneheaded idea that science fiction writers are actually in the business of predicting the future. What can you expect from an article about fiction in The Financial Times?
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Typos
In the earliest printings of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling made an error. A couple of ghosts were supposed to be summoned in the order in which they'd been killed in one of the previous novels. But they appeared in the reverse order. It was an understandable mistake, but it drove a large number of fans into a fever of speculation as to its meaning. The error has been quietly corrected in subsequent printings, leaving the fans somewhat chagrined and confirming the widespread belief that major publishers are no longer bothering to edit books before they publish them.
The Literary Detective
Don Foster, author of Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, is the man who "outed" Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors. He has also been in the news for identifying the true author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" ("Twas the night before Christmas..."), traditionally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. The FBI consults with him on the authorship of items like the Unabomber's manifesto. This is an interesting profile.
If you liked this issue of At The Margin, forward it to a friend, and encourage him or her to subscribe.
A Commercial Message from Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop
Dust Bunnies, cat hair, and mildew are not all you will miss with ebooks. How about the friendly camaraderie and helpful advice of our highly trained professional staff (and those still in training). You'll miss the feel of original editions, and the choice of different editions and bindings. You'll also miss more than a few bucks because a good used book almost always costs far less than an e-book.
Avenue Victor Hugo is your bricks and mortar alternative. Let us know what you're looking for. You can even give us a price range! You'll find us at http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com
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(c) Copyright 2001 Floyd Kemske
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