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At The Margin
Vol. 2, Issue 9 (Whole Issue #23)
September 26, 2001
Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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1. A Short History of the Word "Normalcy"
2. The Bulgari Dustup
3. Another Angle on Literary Patronage
4. The Community Book-Reading Project
5. E-Mail to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words
1. A Short History Of The Word "Normalcy"
[Note: This item is more about our language than it is about books. Those who don't take an expansive view of our mission ("details, often bizarre and obscure, from the world of books") may want to skip it.]
You hear a lot right now, particularly on television, about the "return of normalcy" after the horrendous events of September 11 and their aftermath. Wondering why nobody talks about a "return of normality," I did a little review of the history of the word "normalcy."
Its first recorded use (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) was in 1857, in a dictionary of mathematics by Davies and Peck: "If we denote the co-ordinates of the point of contact, and normalcy, by ..." Its rival, "normality," had been in use at least since 1849. There's not a lot of precision in these things, so it's safe to assume that "normalcy" and "normality" appeared in the language at about the same time.
But "normality" quickly won out as the correct term, and "normalcy" dropped out of general usage until 1920. That was a presidential election year in the U.S., and the Republicans (after several unsuccessful ballots at their national convention), nominated a dark horse candidate: a handsome, affable fool named Warren Gamaliel Harding. The first World War had just ended, and Harding's campaign pandered to a war-weary, disillusioned electorate by promising to withdraw the U.S. from international responsibilities and to restore daily life to the kind of pleasantness that many people imagined they had enjoyed before the war.
One of Harding's speeches called for a return to "normality," but he mispronounced the word. There is some question as to whether he said "normalty" or "normalcy." But the media reported he had used the word "normalcy." Seeing it played back in the papers, he liked it (See http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/specials/elections/ 1920/harding.html.
Although the word "normalcy" existed before Harding said it, it must have been obvious, even to him, that there are no grounds for crediting him with a correct usage. His was, in fact, an independent coinage of the word. Nevertheless, he used it throughout the rest of the campaign, and by the time he used it in his inaugural address, his boorish coinage had become part of the American language.
William McAdoo, an unsuccessful contender for the Democratic nomination that same year, said of Harding: "His speeches left the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea." (I found this in a dictionary of political insults: http://www.insultmonger.com/political_insults_gl.htm.)
But McAdoo might have been kind. H. L. Mencken said, "He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash." (http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/0,,sid9_gci214336,00.html). Mencken was, in fact, so fascinated by Harding's towering illiteracy that he insisted it was itself a special language, called "Gamalielese."
Harding went on to become one of the worst presidents this country ever had. He was the first President ever to appoint a man (Bernard Fall, Secretary of the Interior) who had to leave a cabinet post to go to jail. There are credible rumors that Harding's White House poker parties featured abundant liquor, although Prohibition was adopted by Constitutional amendment in January of the year he became President. It did not become apparent until much later, but even the stuff he did legitimately was bad. The regressive taxation policy formed in his presidency (and subsequently followed by Calvin Coolidge) probably had a major role in causing the Great Depression (for the simple reason that when you reallocate wealth from poor people to rich people, you undermine overall demand, at least in the "productive" sectors).
Harding died suddenly during his third year in office after developing symptoms that looked like food poisoning. His wife refused to permit an autopsy, and there are of course rumors about her role in his death. She had a right to be upset with him, since he kept two mistresses, one of whom bore his illegitimate daughter. But if she did poison him, she may have had his best interests at heart. His death spared him the brunt of a political scandal unequaled until the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
The best thing Harding did as President was to order the release of Eugene V. Debs from jail in 1921. Debs had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for sedition, having been prosecuted for criticizing the sedition laws (sedition laws are remarkably self- maintaining that way). Debs had, in fact, run against Harding in the 1920 election as a candidate of the American Socialist Party, and had won nearly a million votes (from jail!). It was a small vote compared to Harding's 16 million, but it was about five times the vote for Aaron S. Watkins, candidate of the Prohibition Party. The country, by the way, never did return to normality, although it may have achieved something like normalcy in the 1950s.
2. The Bulgari Dustup
Perhaps you've seen the headlines or heard the sound bites about novelist Fay Weldon selling a product placement in her latest novel. Comment on it has leaned toward the self-righteous. Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House, said, "For a novelist to celebrate a corporation for a fee is a revolting idea." (See http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2001/09/05/bulgari/print.html)
Even if we put aside precedent (literature, like the other arts, has a history of patronage; there was a time when a book's dedication was more or less up for sale), the situation is more complicated than revolting.
The upscale jeweler Bulgari hired Weldon to write a story for an in-house corporate publication. I can tell you from personal experience that novelists get hired to write corporate materials all the time. Some of us do it to meet the mortgage payment and some of us do it for other reasons. In Weldon's case, the reason seems to have been the fun of it, because she got carried away and instead of writing a story, she began turning the thing into a novel. By the time her agent finished negotiating with Bulgari, the company had agreed to pay her an unreported sum for a novel over which she would have complete control provided she mentioned Bulgari at least a dozen times. Bulgari intended to distribute the book to customers and friends of the corporation, more like a private printing than publication.
How could the author of The Life and Loves of a She-devil avoid irony in meeting the terms of this contract? In writing the book, she didn't stop at a dozen mentions of Bulgari. She mentioned the company, says Dennis Loy Johnson (Moby Lives, a site on books and writers, http://www.mobylives.com/Fay_Weldon.html), "too many times to count." And then she went on to set scenes in Bulgari's London store, provide detailed descriptions of Bulgari jewelry, and put the sponsor in the book's title, The Bulgari Connection. When it was finished, however, she and her agent thought it was a first-rate book, so the agent submitted it to publishers.
There seem to be two general responses to the news that a book by a literary novelist was written under corporate sponsorship: either it was inevitable or it is the end of literature as we know it. Let the writers and commentators rant about it as much as they want. Just remember that if we are troubled by this incident as readers, it means we are concerned about being influenced in our choice of jewelry by a novelist. For anyone with so little discernment, reading itself is probably too dangerous for everyday indulgence.
Fay Weldon once worked in the London office of Ogilvy and Mather writing ad copy. Salon.com's reporter, M. J. Rose (see the URL above), asked her if that experience made her more comfortable writing a novel with corporate sponsorship. She said, "That might be. It always seemed to me that in advertising you were making up little stories and using language to sell products. And with novels you were making up little stories and using language to sell ideas. So for a while I sold products and then I moved on and sold ideas -- like feminism. And now I've done a book that is mostly one but a little bit of the other."
Keep in mind that one of the fastest growing categories of books is "Christian Fiction." The truth is, every good novel you read is trying to sell you something, even if it's something that's entirely spiritual. Novelists who have never examined their own assumptions and beliefs don't understand this. They are a lot more frightening than Fay Weldon, who does.
3. Another Angle on Literary Patronage
Have you ever heard of Sarah Orne Jewett? She lived in South Berwick, Maine, and between 1877 and 1901, she wrote nearly 20 books, including A White Heron and Other Stories and The Country of the Pointed Firs (a novella). She is much admired by a small group of people, and her work is said to have influenced, among others, H. P. Lovecraft. But even her most ardent admirers would probably be willing to admit that she is today rather obscure. Her work is still in print: a one-volume collection of novels and stories published by the New York-based Library of America.
Thanks to art collector Donald Oresman and his wife, Patricia, this book will remain in print forever. The Oresmans made a $50,000 grant to Library of America to ensure Jewett's print immortality. The Library of America, which is a nonprofit publishing house, sponsors a program called Guardians of American Letters, whereby concerned citizens and lovers of literature can underwrite the works of serious, mostly dead, writers. Library of America has published 124 books since 1982 and for the past three years has been quietly offering them for adoption to people who want to see them remain in print. So far, 39 books have found patrons. But there are still volumes of Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Dreiser, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Steinbeck, and many others waiting.
Most people don't realize how easy it is for a literary giant's work to go out of print. Moby Dick may always be available, but White-Jacket? Redburn? Those are both still available for adoption if you have 50 grand to spare and want to make a contribution to civilization. If you do, you will have your name inscribed on a special acknowledgments page of your book's next printing.
Library of America specializes in publishing the work of writers who are mileposts in American literary history, but another nonprofit publisher, the Dalkey Archive, performs a similar role for writers who push the boundaries of art or challenge conventions. Their catalog includes John Barth, Louis-Ferdinand Celine (France), Flann O'Brien (Ireland), and Severo Sarduy (Cuba). And they will let you adopt one of their 225 books for just $25,000.
Both publishers, incidentally, have programs under which a more modest contribution of $1,000 (Dalkey Archive) or $3,100 (Library of America) can underwrite the cost of providing all of their books to a school or library of your choice.
So if Fay Weldon has found a way for a serious writer to secure patronage, the Dalkey Archive and Library of America have found ways to organize the patronage of books by serious writers, which may be just as important.
There's a news story about these two publishers here: http://www.bergen.com:80/bookclub/patrons1620010916.htm.
By the way, much of Sarah Orne Jewett's work is up on the web: http://www.public.coe.edu/~theller/soj/sj-index.htm.
Library of America has a website here: http://www.loa.org/. The Dalkey Archive is here: http://www.centerforbookculture.org/.
4. The Community Book-Reading Project
Chicago has asked every adult and adolescent in the city to read the same book at the same time.
The book, chosen by a committee of city librarians, is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Chicago libraries have laid in 4,000 extra copies of the book, and bookstores reported a rush on sales of the book before the project began on August 25. The city has distributed 25,000 lapel ribbons with the mockingbird logo. Librarians are running Internet chats about the book, and study guides have been distributed. City officials (the novel is Mayor Daley's favorite book) have voiced support for the program, and September has seen a number of promotional activities put on by libraries, bookstores, Starbucks, and the city's Bar Association. The idea isn't just to get everybody to read the book, but to get people to read it as a community. If readers identify each other by the lapel ribbons, it could even encourage strangers to engage in literary discussions. The project runs until October 14.
Chicago isn't the first city to run such a community book- reading project. The first one, the brainchild of librarian Nancy Pearl, inspired the city of Seattle to read A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. There have also been projects in Rochester and Buffalo. At least two other cities have similar projects in the planning stages. Seattle's book-reading project is now an annual event.
To Kill a Mockingbird has sold about 30 million copies since its original publication in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. It was made into a film in 1962, and Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his role in it.
Chicago was unable to induce the novel's reclusive author, who never published another novel, to visit for the event. But the 75-year-old Harper Lee sent a letter saying, "there is no greater honor the novel could receive."
Here's a New York Times story on the Chicago project: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/28/books/28MOCK.html.
Tom Owen, at Avenue Victor Hugo, says he remembers a newspaper item soliciting suggestions for a book to be read by Boston. At The Margin is edited about 50 miles outside of the city, and we don't always get such news out here. But we would be interested in hearing from ATM subscribers in Chicago (or any city with a book-reading project). Did the people in the community seem aware the project was going on? Was there much enthusiasm in the general public for it? Did it affect conversation? Send a message to the editor and let us know.
5. E-Mail to the Editor
Novelized in our Memories
As always, I enjoyed ATM [issue #22]. One little correction, though, this one concerning your piece on novelizations. Pierre Boulle's novel was called The Bridge *over* the River Kwai, not "on." They changed it for the movie. One syllable too many, perhaps, for the movie posters. So, even in our memories we get "novelized," huh?
Hope this finds you and yours well and happy. I'm busy writing as always.
[Note: Randi is Randall Beth Platt, a prolific novelist. The Four Arrows Fe-Ask-O is both hilarious and heart-warming, and I'm giving away only the first joke by telling you that the story starts with a rancher being accidentally shot by his horse. There are two more Fe-Ask-O books: one explores early movie-making and one involves baseball at the turn of the century. Platt has also written an animal fantasy and three young adult books, the most recent (The Likes of Me) has a string of commendations: chosen a 2001 Best Book by the American Library Association, chosen a 2001 Best Book by the New York Public Library, and a finalist for a 2001 Willa Literary Award. At her website, you can find information about her books, her workshops, her tips and tricks for writers, and her devotion to handball: http://www.plattbooks.com/.]
Mirrored by Art
The first piece in the newsletter [ATM #22] about the Cheers bar reminds me of an only partly tongue-in-cheek piece by Oscar Wilde about how Life imitates Art. It's from Intentions and talks about the inadequacies of copying, among other things.
If you're not familiar with it I've just found a version on the web at http://eserver.org/books/intentions/the-decay-of-lying.html. There's another version on-line of the same that is a little easier to read at http://cogweb.english.ucsb.edu/Abstracts/Wilde_1889.html.
Also from Oscar Wilde, the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors." the full text and other jewels at http://www.utm.edu/~geverett/dgpref.htm.
[Jeff is Jeff Sauer, proprietor of This Is Harry, a website about his infant son that was mentioned in ATM #22. Thanks for the web references, Jeff.]
At The Margin has 1,132 subscribers, 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 1,131 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (firstname.lastname@example.org).
6. 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:
George Hare (of Hare, Briggs, Burton, and Kurtnitz) met Carey Arundel for the first time at the annual Critics's Dinner at Verino's.
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence:
Once my mother phoned me and said, "Oh, why did the mother in your story have to be so slangy?"
There was one guess. One reader thought it might be from something by John O'Hara or J. P. Marquand -- inspired guesses, but not correct. The sentence is from The Life I Really Lived by Jessamyn West. It was originally published in 1979 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The copy I am looking at right now is a paperback published in 1981 by Penguin Books, and chewed vigorously on one corner by our dog, Cyril, in 1985.
Here's the flap copy: "This is a powerful portrait of Orpha Chase, a writer whose blissfully sentimental books contrast acutely with her own difficult life. She views the corruption surrounding her and the hardships she has to endure with a wry sense of humor and a fierce determination not to be destroyed. In her evolution from a dreamy child in Kentucky around the turn of the century to a successful writer in glittering, turbulent Hollywood, Orpha experiences two disastrous marriages and a stormy love affair. She lavishes love on her adopted daughter -- and then becomes her rival. She follows her faith-healer brother to California -- and supports him through his sensational murder trial. Gradually, she develops her own definitions of real love, faith, and inner peace."
The flavor of episodic soap opera that emerges from this description is misleading. Jessamyn West is best known for her short story collection, The Friendly Persuasion (1945), set in a Quaker farming community in the nineteenth century. It was made into a movie with Gary Cooper, for which she wrote the screenplay. Pat Boone had a hit song from the title. She wrote short stories, novels, articles, nonfiction books, poetry, plays, screenplays, and an opera libretto called A Mirror for the Sky.
Mary Jessamyn West was born in 1902 in Jennings County, Indiana. Her family moved to California when she was young, and she went to Whittier College, a Quaker institution. After graduation, she became a schoolteacher at a rural school, and she did that for five years until she decided she should continue her education. She studied at Oxford University for a summer. When she returned to the U.S., she enrolled in a doctoral program at University of California Berkeley. Before taking her Ph.D. exams, she was diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis and spent two depressing years in a hospital ward. Her mother, to entertain her during her illness, began to tell her stories of her Quaker forebears in Indiana. She didn't die, and when she recovered, she decided to begin writing stories based on her mother's. She later said it was her struggle with a disease expected to kill her that caused her to become a writer. It was, she said, her "response to extinction."
There are 21 books attributed to her: The Friendly Persuasion; A Mirror for the Sky; The Witch Diggers; Cress Delhanty; Love, Death and The Ladies Drill Team; To See the Dream; Love Is not What You Think; South of the Angels; A Matter of Time; Leafy Rivers; Except for Me and Thee; Crimson Ramblers of the World, Farewell; Hide and Seek; The Secret Look; The Massacre at Fall Creek; The Woman Said Yes; The Life I Really Lived; Double Discovery; The State of Stony Lonesome; Collected Stories of Jessamyn West; The Chilekings (previously released as Little Men). I got these titles from a website (see below). Tom Owen at Avenue Victor Hugo tells me he has never seen most of them and cannot find copies listed for sale on the Internet. So it seems West is becoming a collector's item.
In addition to producing a substantial body of commercially successful work, she received a number of honorary degrees and taught writing in a dozen venues as well. She died of a stroke in 1984. Here are some interesting facts about her. She was related to Richard M. Nixon through her mother's family, and she was a lifelong friend of Nixon and sometimes traveled with his entourage. One of the best websites about her, jessamyn.com, was created by Jessamyn West (no relation), who describes herself as a "bicoastal librarian," and is a major web personality (if you do a Google search on "Jessamyn West," nearly all the entries in the first two pages refer to the bicoastal librarian rather than the writer). Here's the URL: http://www.jessamyn.com/jessamyn/jess.html. A short bio: http://www.britannica.com/women/articles/West_Jessamyn.html. An in-depth bio: http://www.jessamyn.com/jessamyn/jessbio.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.
The Baen Free Library
Baen Books, a science fiction publisher, has made a number of its books available online for free. It is actually a whole program, and a policy direction. Baen Books authors are given the opportunity (without pressure, according to the site) to volunteer books for the library, and if they accept the books are posted. Baen Books says this will actually increase hardcopy sales. We betray our bias toward free information by rooting for them.
Legislation of Surpassing Ugliness
The "Security Systems Standards and Certification Act" (SSSCA) is draft legislation requiring that all future digital technologies include federally-mandated "digital rights management" (DRM). This would include all software, PCs, hard drives, CD-Rs, cellular phones, TiVos, set-top boxes, video game consoles, digital watches, CD players, MP3 players, GPS receivers, ATM machines, digital cameras, digital photocopiers, and fax machines. The Electronic Frontier Foundation claims the bill was mostly written by the Walt Disney corporation. It would pretty much eliminate fair use wherever it involved electronic technology, with the single exception of videotaping shows from nonpremium television channels for personal time-shifting. The DRM system is to be chosen by the government and industry groups WITHOUT public consultation. The law would cover e-books. It's not clear to your editor (who finds draft legislation generally impenetrable) whether it would even permit free distribution of online books if the owner was unwilling to give up copyright. It stinks, and like so many things that smell bad, it's on its way to becoming law. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has information.
Where Does the Internet Go from Here?
The Telecom Act of 1996 and the Copyright Act of 1998 were intended to remove market restrictions and promote competition in both content and "conduit." Instead, they have together succeeded in stifling competition and kneecapping fair use, causing the Internet itself to stagnate in terms of economic growth. Andy Oram reviews the sorry history and suggests three types of content (teleconferencing, computer-mediated education, and low-budget entertainment) that could ultimately provide the engine of new growth, bypassing the stranglehold of large corporations. Thoughtful essay.
Somebody Has to Stand up for Prescriptive
The Vocabula Review is a web-based magazine that takes as its motto, "A society is generally as lax as its language." It often features interesting essays on grammar, and it is always opinionated. One of its major opinions is that linguists (apologists for descriptive, as opposed to prescriptive, grammar) have goals at odds with the preservation of civilized communication. You can read it free, but if you like it and want to make a contribution to the fight against linguistics, the site offers you opportunities for donations. You can sign up for an e-mail notice to be sent whenever a new issue is published.
The War of the Baskervilles
A story in The Independent (UK) chronicles the mysteries surrounding the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles: whether the book actually had a co-author and was named for the coachman who drove Conan Doyle around Dartmoor.
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A Commercial Message from Avenue Victor Hugo
You can do better than sponsor a book. You can buy one! We have a varied stock of rare and not-so-rare books (we didn't want to say "common," because when you think about it, there's very little that's common about the effort -- physical, spiritual, and artistic -- that goes into the making of a book). We are real people, selling real books. We have a real cat.
Of course we sell out of print titles and will help you find any we don't have in our 150,000 book stock or among our 250,000 magazines. Inquiries and searches cost nothing. Just make your request on our "Feedback" page: http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com/feedback.php3
In the lower 48 states of the U.S., we ship via UPS at $5.00 for the first book and $1 for each additional book (UPS ships to street addresses only; no P.O. boxes). Overseas shipping is postage plus $1 per 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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