Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Salmagundi

This irregular paper burst into New York from nowhere in 1807, and it was immediately obvious that the young United States had never seen anything like it. “The sensation produced by this whimsical miscellany,” wrote Rufus Wilmot Griswold, “is described by the ‘old inhabitants’ as exceeding any thing of the kind ever known in New York. Its amusing ridicule of the ignorance and vulgarity of British tourists, and of all sorts of foreign adventurers and home pretenders, with its occasional dashes of graceful sentiment, captivated the town and decided the fortunes of its authors.”

The first number set the tone for the rest—a tone of winking overconfidence, pointed sarcasm, and occasionally ju­venile humor (would anyone much over college age give his characters names like Launcelot Langstaff and Pindar Cockloft?).

As for the authors, they were three young men of distinct talent. One of them, Washington Irving, would go on to be America’s first writer of international repute. James Kirke Paulding would never equal Washington Irving’s success; but he was funnier than Irving, and his style is perhaps more distinctively American. (Ten years later, he attempted a revival of Salmagundi on his own, which was not as successful as the original.) The third was Washington Irving’s older brother William, who did not pursue a literary life, and died fairly young a little more than a decade later. His memory lived on in the name of James K. Paulding’s son, William Irving Paulding—an indication of what close friends the Irvings and Pauldings were.

If this paper had accomplished nothing else, it would have earned its place in history by attaching the name “Gotham” to New York City. But the fact that the name stuck shows us that the paper had influence. It gave us Americans a glimpse of limitless possibilities; at a time when the United States had no native literary culture to speak of, Salmagundi suggested a future in which American writers had no need to bow down before English models.

Salmagundi; or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and others. By William Irving, James Kirke Paulding, and Washington Irving. Printed from the original edition, with a preface and notes by Evert A. Duyckinck. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1860. —This was not included in the “Author’s Revised Edition” of Irving’s works; it had already been included in James K. Paulding’s collected works, and Irving, whose literary reputation stood far above his good friend Paulding’s, may have wished to let Paulding keep whatever advantage he could reap from Salmagundi.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Robert Benchley on Vicente Blasco Ibáñez

We regard Benchley’s assessment of the merits of Ibáñez as sound, and his prediction in the last paragraph as remarkably prescient.

ANTI-IBÁÑEZ

While on the subject of books which we read because we think we ought to, and while Vicente Blasco Ibáñez is on the ocean and can’t hear what is being said, let’s form a secret society.

I will be one of any three to meet behind a barn and admit that I would not give a good gosh darn if a fortune-teller were to tell me tomorrow that I should never, never have a chance to read another book by the great Spanish novelist.

Any of the American reading public who desire to join this secret society may do so without fear of publicity, as the names will not be given out. The only means of distinguishing a fellow-member will be a tiny gold emblem, to be worn in the lapel, representing the figure (couchant) of Spain’s most touted animal. The motto will be “Nimmermehr,” which is a German translation of the Spanish phrase “Not even once again.”

Simply because I myself am not impressed by a book, I have no authority to brand anyone who does like it as a poseur and say that he is only making believe that he likes it. And there must be a great many highly literary people who really and sincerely do think that Señor Blasco’s books are the finest novels of the epoch.

It would therefore be presumptuous of me to say that Spain is now, for the first time since before 1898, in a position to kid the United States and, vicariously through watching her famous son count his royalties and gate receipts, to feel avenged for the loss of her islands. If America has found something superfine in Ibáñez that his countrymen have missed, then America is of course to be congratulated and not kidded.

But probably no one was more surprised than Blasco when he suddenly found himself a lion in our literary arena instead of in his accustomed rôle of bull in his home ring. And those who know say that you could have knocked his compatriots over with a feather when the news came that old man Ibáñez’s son had made good in the United States to the extent of something like five hundred million pesetas.

For, like the prophet whom some one was telling about, Ibáñez was not known at home as a particularly hot tamale. But, then, he never had such a persistent publisher in Spain, and book-advertising is not the art there that it is in America. When the final accounting of the great success of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in this country is taken, honorable mention must be made of the man at the E.P. Dutton & Co. store who had charge of the advertising.

The great Spanish novelist was in the French propaganda service during the war. It was his job to make Germany unpopular in Spanish. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is obviously propaganda, and not particularly subtle propaganda either. Certain chapters might have come direct from our own Creel committee, and one may still be true to the Allied cause and yet maintain that propaganda and literature do not mix with any degree of illusion.

There is no question, of course, that those chapters in the book which are descriptive of the advance and subsequent retreat of the German troops under the eye of Don Marcelo are masterpieces of descriptive reporting. But Philip Gibbs has given us a whole book of masterpieces of descriptive reporting which do not bear the stamp of approval of the official propaganda bureau. And, furthermore, Philip Gibbs does not wear a sport shirt open at the neck. At least, he never had his picture taken that way.

As for the rest of the books that were dragged out from the Spanish for “storehouse” when The Four Horsemen romped in winners, I can speak only as I would speak of “The World’s Most Famous Battles” or “Heroines in Shakespeare.” I have looked them over. I gave Mare Nostrum a great deal of my very valuable time because the advertisements spoke so highly of it. Woman Triumphant took less time because I decided to stop earlier in the book. Blood and Sand I passed up, having once seen a Madrid bull-fight for myself, which may account for this nasty attitude I have toward any Spanish product. I am told, however, that this is the best of them all.

It is remarkable that for a writer who seems to have left such an indelible imprint in the minds of the American people, whose works have been ranked with the greatest of all time and who received more publicity during one day of his visit here than Charles Dickens received during his whole sojourn in America, Señor Blasco and his works form a remarkably small part of the spontaneous literary conversation of the day. The characters which he has created have not taken any appreciable hold in the public imagination. Their names are never used as examples of anything. Who were some of his chief characters, by the way? What did they say that was worth remembering? What did they do that characters have not been doing for many generations? Did you ever hear anyone say, “He talks like a character in Ibáñez,” or “This might have happened in one of Ibáñez’s books”?

Of course it is possible for a man to write a great book from which no one would quote. That is probably happening all the time. But it is because no one has read it. Here we have an author whose vogue in this country, according to statistics, is equal to that of any writer of novels in the world. And as soon as his publicity department stops functioning, I should like to lay a little bet that he will not be heard of again.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

An Early American Review of Constant’s ‘Adolphe’


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From the Analectic Magazine, September, 1817.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Contemporary Review of Hawthorne’s ‘Blithedale Romance’


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From Graham’s Magazine, September, 1852.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fenimore Cooper: The Monikins

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Fenimore Cooper made his reputation with tales of high adventure on the sea or on the American frontier. He was not satisfied, however, with being classed in the same league as Sir Walter Scott. He had opinions. And what is a man with opinions to do except write a satire after the manner of Swift?

When The Monikins was published in 1835, the American critics were savage. It was not at all what they expected from Cooper (and they had begun to grow tired of Cooper anyway).

What the work is about, passes our comprehension. It is said to be a Satire; but the eyes of an Argus, were they twice the fabled number, could not discern it. The volumes have neither consistency of plot, nor grace of execution. Every thing is cloudy, distorted, and unnatural. Man is degraded to a monkey, and made to play such antics as could scarcely be conceived of, except by one of the race. The author has become a convert, we should fancy, to the theory of Buffon; at least he has furnished, in the production of this work, the most plausible and practical illustration of the Frenchman’s hypothesis, that we have ever met with.

So wrote a critic in the Knickerbocker, the most influential American literary magazine of the time. He was not alone. In fact, the American critics began to pile on Cooper—even as the European critics were calling him America’s greatest contribution to literature. “While the author of The Spy receives the applause of Europe,” wrote Rufus Wilmot Griswold; “while the critics of Germany and France debate the claims of Scott to be ranked before him or even with him, his own countrymen deride his pretensions, and Monikin critics affect contempt of him, or make the appearance of his works occasions of puerile personal abuse.”

Griswold’s explanation was that the critics were annoyed by Cooper’s independent mind. “I shall not discuss the causes of this feeling, further than by remarking that Mr. Cooper is a man of independence; that he is aware of the dignity of his position; that he thinks for himself in his capacity of citizen; and that he has written above the popular taste, in avoiding the sickly sentimentalism which commends to shop-boys and chamber-maids one half the transatlantic novels of this age.”

Nevertheless, it must at least be confessed that The Monikins is a strange book. The outline of the story is this: an English aristocrat and a Stonington sea captain travel to the regions around the South Pole, where they find civilized monkeys—the monikins—living in a warm climate produced by steam escaping from the earth’s core. No more needs to be said to establish the strangeness of the tale.

Of course the intent of the story is satirical. Our heroes visit the monikin kingdom of Leaphigh, which bears more than a passing resemblance to England, and the republic of Leaplow, which will remind the observant reader of the United States of America. Whole chapters are devoted to the absurd political institutions of the two nations of monikins. Sometimes these institutions are explained by Brigadier Downright, a wiser-than-average monikin from Leaplow, who often punctuates his explanations with an apology: “But this is the way with us monikins; no doubt, men manage better.” And we, the readers, are expected to admit to ourselves that men do not manage any better at all.

Cooper seems to have made the assumption that satire gives him the license to be less scrupulous about the plausibility of his characters, and this is probably the single mistake that was fatal to the book. (It was a mistake Swift never made.) His narrator, Sir John Goldencalf, is simply too unpredictable to be much of a character at all. He is carried along on the tide of his latest enthusiasm, whatever it may be—and yet even this tendency does not seem like a characteristic, but only a convenience for the author. Most of the monikins are likewise feebly drawn, although Brigadier Downright stands out as a plausible personality.

But there is one character who almost redeems the whole book. Captain Noah Poke of Stonington, an old seal-hunter drawn into the voyage to the South Pole by Sir John’s money, is a superb character looking for a better book to inhabit. He is drawn with such colorful strokes that one is tempted to think Cooper might actually have made a humorist of himself if he had put his mind to it. In his first encounter with the titular monikins, he responds to the news that, in deference to the delicate sensibilities of the monikin ladies, he will be required to strip naked, with a Rabelaisian torrent of arguments, oaths, and pleas. This shows keen observation. It is exactly the response of a man who has been attacked at his most vulnerable intellectual spot: the unexamined assumptions that lie at the base of all social intercourse. Because he can think of no reason for not wishing to leave his clothes behind, he is obliged to think of every reason.

Mr. Poke listened to my account of all that had passed, with a very sedate gravity. He informed me that he had witnessed so much ingenuity among the seals, and had known so many brutes that seemed to have the sagacity of men, and so many men who appeared to have the stupidity of brutes, that he had no difficulty whatever in believing every word I told him. He expressed his satisfaction, too, at the prospect of hearing a lecture on natural philosophy and political economy from the lips of a monkey; although he took occasion to intimate that no desire to learn anything lay at the bottom of his compliance; for, in his country, these matters were pretty generally studied in the district schools, the very children who ran about the streets of ‘Stunin’tun’ usually knowing more than most of the old people in foreign parts. “Still a monkey might have some new ideas; and for his part, he was willing to hear what every one had to say; for, if a man didn’t put in a word for himself in this world, he might be certain no one else would take the pains to speak for him.” But when I came to mention the details of the programme of the forthcoming interview, and stated that it was expected the audience would wear their own skins, out of respect to the ladies, I greatly feared that my friend would have so far excited himself as to go into fits. The rough old sealer swore some terrible oaths, protesting “that he would not make a monkey of himself, by appearing in this garb, for all the monikin philosophers, or high-born females, that could be stowed in a ship’s hold; that he was very liable to take cold; that he once knew a man who undertook to play beast in this manner, and the first thing the poor devil knew, he had great claws and a tail sprouting out of him; a circumstance that he had always attributed to a just judgment for striving to make himself more than Providence had intended him for; that, provided a man’s ears were naked, he could hear just as well as if his whole body was naked; that he did not complain of the monkeys going in their skins, and that they ought, in reason, not to meddle with his clothes; that he should be scratching himself the whole time, and thinking what a miserable figure he cut; that he would have no place to keep his tobacco; that he was apt to be deaf when he was cold; that he would be d——d if he did any such thing; that human natur’ and monkey natur’ were not the same, and it was not to be expected that men and monkeys should follow exactly the same fashions; that the meeting would have the appearance of a boxing match, instead of a philosophical lecture; that he never heard of such a thing at Stunin’tun; that he should feel sneaking at seeing his own shins in the presence of ladies; that a ship always made better weather under some canvas than under bare poles; that he might possibly be brought to his shirt and pantaloons, but as for giving up these, he would as soon think of cutting the sheet-anchor off his bows, with the vessel driving on a lee-shore; that flesh and blood were flesh and blood, and they liked their comfort; that he should think the whole time he was about to go in a-swimming, and should be looking about for a good place to dive”; together with a great many more similar objections, that have escaped me in the multitude of things of greater interest which have since occupied my time.

This is splendid: it gets funnier and funnier as it goes on, and at the same time it is exactly true to nature. Unfortunately, Cooper seems to have realized himself just how splendid it was. He attempts the same thing several more times in the book, but never equals the effect of this first instance.

Captain Poke takes control of the story briefly during the voyage toward the South Pole, and he is magnificent, a study drawn from life of an instinctive navigator and born commander. The passage through the ice barrier is intensely exciting, the kind of rip-roaring sea story that made Cooper’s reputation.

Much of the rest of the book is more satire than story, which is to say that the events seem nothing more than contrivances to make some satirical point about life in England or America. And one of Cooper’s problems is that he has entirely too many targets. He might have been much more successful if he had limited his satire to the differences between the English and American constitutions, but he must also satirize the English love of property, and the American emulation of European standards, and anything else that pops into his head. There is no care taken to make the incidents seem to arise naturally from what has come before; over and over again, our narrator tells us “I ought to have mentioned” or “I omitted to say,” which a reader cannot help interpreting as “something just occurred to me, but I am too lazy to revise the earlier part of my manuscript to make way for it.”

So is it worth reading The Monikins? It is if you have the right expectations. Expect hit-or-miss satire, and know that some of the misses will go on for whole chapters—but some of the hits will be spot on. Expect characters that are more vehicles for satire than developed personalities—except for Captain Poke, of course, who has nearly enough personality to carry everyone else. Expect a story that seems to have been improvised as the author sat furiously scribbling, with no attempt to revise the earlier chapters to set up the later ones more effectively.

There is a curious epilogue to the story of this curious book, which is that—after having been largely neglected since it was brought out, and republished mostly in sets of Cooper’s complete works—it has gained a reputation as an early work of science-fiction. The idea of a warm climate at the South Pole is actually rendered quite plausible, and Cooper’s description of the city of Bivouac, the New York of Leaplow, shows considerable imagination.What would a city built by monkeys look like?

In the first place, I remarked that all sorts of quadrupeds are just as much at home in the promenades of the town, as the inhabitants themselves, a fact that I make no doubt has some very proper connection with that principle of equal rights on which the institutions of the country are established. In the second place, I could not but see that their dwellings are constructed on the very minimum of base, propping each other, as emblematic of the mutual support obtained by the republican system, and seeking their development in height for the want of breadth; a singularity of customs that I did not hesitate at once to refer to a usage of living in trees, at an epoch not very remote. In the third place, I noted, instead of entering their dwellings near the ground like men, and indeed like most other unfledged animals, that they ascend by means of external steps to an aperture about half-way between the roof and the earth, where, having obtained admission, they go up or down within the building, as occasion requires. This usage, I made no question, was preserved from the period (and that, too, no distant one), when the savage condition of the country induced them to seek protection against the ravages of wild beasts, by having recourse to ladders, which were drawn up after the family into the top of the tree, as the sun sank beneath the horizon. These steps or ladders are generally of some white material, in order that they may, even now, be found in the dark, should the danger be urgent; although I do not know that Bivouac is a more disorderly or unsafe town than another, in the present day. But habits linger in the usages of a people, and are often found to exist as fashions, long after the motive of their origin has ceased and been forgotten. As a proof of this, many of the dwellings of Bivouac have still enormous iron chevaux-de-frise before the doors, and near the base of the stone-ladders; a practice unquestionably taken from the original, unsophisticated, domestic defences of this wary and enterprising race. Among a great many of these chevaux-de-frise, I remarked certain iron images, that resemble the kings of chess-men, and which I took, at first, to be symbols of the calculating qualities of the owners of the mansions—a species of republican heraldry—but which the brigadier told me, on inquiry, were no more than a fashion that had descended from the custom of having stuffed images before the doors, in the early days of the settlement, to frighten away the beasts at night, precisely as we station scarecrows in a corn-field.

The Monikins can be found at Project Gutenberg.

The first edition, in a very good scan, is at archive.org.

A fine edition with strikingly good illustrations (from which the monikin at the head of this article is taken) can be found on Google Books.