Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"Asking art to express ideas is like asking a Sumo wrestler to play charades."

It’s game time again at Rare Book Cafe!

This weekend you can stump the team by picking a favorite book- fiction or nonfiction- and half a dozen leading characters from it, for us to cast as a movie from among living actors and public figures.

Just post your nominations at the Rare Book Cafe Facebook page (while you are there, can Like & Follow the page, it will you feel so cool).

The winning book, or books, will be chosen Friday night in a completely secretive process from the rule book for Calvinball:



We’ll be on the air at 2:30 pm EDT Saturday, July 22 with our guest, Delaware State University history professor and novelist Steve Newton, who will also get The Third Degree. What could possibly go wrong?



Tune in and see! As usual, we'll be on the Cafe Facebook page, praying to the BeLive.tv gods to give us a glitch-free show.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bicentennial Book: The collected Jane Austen, in a fine edition.


Jane Austen, Seven Novels (Barnes & Noble Collectible Editions, 2007, 10th printing, ISBN 978-1-4351-0319-1. Hardcover, 9.48(w) x 6.18(h) x 2.30(d). Bonded leather covers with elaborate embossed front and back covers as well as hubbed spine. Gilt top, bottom, and fore-edges. Inscribed at the bottom of the title page in gold ink, “To my beautiful wife, my wonderful friend. I wish should many joyful hours with this book!” Christmas 2011, Your T.” 1232 pp., very good condition. Not an investment-grade collectible, just a fine edition of an author whose insight and style remains vibrant and alive two hundred years after she died this day in 1817. This is a book that may spark the urge to read *and* collect in a young person. HBB price: $25.


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Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at www.henrybemisbookseller.blogspot.com. Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory; for pricing on this or others items, kindly private message us. Shipping is always free to US locations; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like.

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We regret that until California Assembly Bill 1570 (2016) is struck down by court order or amended to relieve out of state booksellers from its recordkeeping and liability burdens, we are unable to do business with California residents.

We offer 25% off to fellow dealers.

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You can also see Henry’s alter ego, Lindsay Thompson, on a three weekly Facebook Live programs: Rare Book Cafe, a 2:30-3:30 pm EDT Saturday panel show about books; Book Week- Rare Book Cafe’s weekly Thursday noon news program (both on Rare Book Cafe’s Facebook page); and Gallimaufry, an occasional program about literary history on Henry Bemis Books’ Facebook page.

#JaneAusten #CollectedWorks #HenryBemisBooks #Charlotte

Birthday: “For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled.”

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Dr. Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937-2005)
Journalist, author, activist


Today would have been Hunter Thompson’s 80th birthday, had the bastard not offed himself. Matt Taibbi carries the National Affairs beat for Rolling Stone now, but with only occasional flashes of the original: it’s heat lightning in the distance, vaguely menacing, but never actually showing up to cut the power, strip the shingles, and crash trees into bedrooms.


On his worst days, which were more often than not, Thompson’s articles had the acrid smell of a hotel hangover, but a strange energy surged in the room, always coiled, ready to unleash some comment- some whip-smart metaphor- that had been trapped down in his amygdala, liberated only by the exact mix of alcohol and drugs that held the key to the cell in which that thought languished.


We can only mourn the dispatches we could have have had from Thompson today, installed in a suite at the Trump International DC, trashing the rooms daily and claiming the damages as a tax deduction.


Hunter Thompson had seven really good years in journalism, from 1967 to 1974. A stringer for a variety of papers and magazines after he managed, improbably, an honorable discharge from the Air Force (which he got into to straighten up after a fraught high school career cut short after he shot all the boats in a marina below the waterline; he had a thing for boats, about which more anon).


His time in the service suggested he had learned everything and nothing: “In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy. Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen and staff members.”


He spent a year riding with the Hells Angels; he got tight with them- both ways. When they found out he was writing a book, like the sailors in John Collier’s “Bottle Party”- who bought a bottle that didn’t hold a genie, just a schlub called Franklin Fletcher, “their disappointment knew no bounds, and they used him with the utmost barbarity.”


They demanded a cut of the royalties, too. They also beat him within an inch of his life, after he told a wife-beater, “Only a punk beats his wife.”


The Hells Angels book- they don’ need no f***ing apostrophes, man- put Thompson on the map as the inventor of gonzo journalism, a reporter who put himself, often disastrously, at the center of the action he was covering.


The Writer’s Almanac described Thompson’s next big break as purely accidental:


In 1970, he found himself back in Kentucky to write an article about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly magazine, but he was too high to focus on writing. He later said; “I’d blown my mind, couldn’t work. So finally I just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody.” The resulting article, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” was a huge success, even though it never mentioned the race or the winner. Thompson’s use of the first person, and his manic reportage, a blend of fact and fantasy, inspired an editor at the Boston Globe to write: “This is it, this is pure. Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.” Thompson loved the term “Gonzo” to describe his style of reporting and in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he wrote: “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now. Pure Gonzo journalism.”


He followed it with 1971’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, and then 1972’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a counterculture counterpoint to Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President” series.


By then Thompson was The National Affairs Desk at Rolling Stone, serializing his books and raising hell with both deadlines and publisher Jann Wenner’s blood pressure. He’d also become such a celebrity it was harder to get inside his subjects’ circles the way true gonzo required, and had an expense account so epic it was possible to stay high as a satellite pretty much 24/7. His work suffered; in 1974 he not only missed his deadline for Ali’s Africa fight but the fight itself.


He ran for sheriff of Pitkin County Colorado, in 1970, on the Freak Power ticket.  A frantic Aspen establishment cut a deal: the Republican candidate for sheriff withdrew; so did a Democrat running for county commissioner. Votes were stacked, honor was satisfied, the anti-freak vote coalesced. Thompson lost with 44% of the vote.


Thompson spent the next quarter century as a character, freelancing for publications that found places for his increasingly dated view of the world. Garry Trudeau satirized for years as Uncle Duke in Doonesbury; Thompson said if he ever met Trudeau, he’d set him on fire.


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Early on, during his breakthrough years at a short lived magazine called Scanlan’s, he was sent, with artist-collaborator Ralph Steadman, to cover the America’s Cup Race in Newport. He published a hilarious account that was less about the race and more about what he considered the hubris of the Australian team, and how he and Steadman stole a rubber dinghy to row out and paint “F*** the Pope” just above the waterline.


The shaking ball in the paint can gave them away; a chaotic escape followed; and it was days before Thompson found Steadman, barefoot, cursing under his breath, pacing in the lobby of a New York hotel. Now 81, Steadman has enjoyed a distinguished, if still occasionally subversive career as an author and illustrate (“He also designed the labels for Flying Dog beer and Cardinal "Spiced" Zin' wine, which was banned in Ohio for Steadman's "disturbing" interpretation of a Catholic cardinal on its label,” Wikipedia reports). After Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner talked Steadman into selling his Fear and Loathing illustrations for $75, he swore never to sell any more, and says to this day that anyone claiming to own an original Steadman stole it.


Thompson ended his career as a sports columnist for ESPN. Frustrated by chronic health problems and who knows what the hell else, Thompson committed suicide in 2005. He was 67.


His funeral was staged by his friend, the actor Johnny Depp; the mourners of this ultimate anti establishment character included a raft of celebrities; two past presidential nominees, and two correspondents from Sixty Minutes. His ashes were packed into a cannon atop a tower designed by Steadman (when HST was shown designs showing one thumb on a peyote bud at the tower’s peak, he demanded two thumbs, “Right now!”), and blown into a very, very low earth orbit. Depp, who appeared in the 1998 Fear and Loathing movie as Thompson, spent $3 million on the tower, scaled down to 43 feet- from 150- but with a two-thumbed fist as per specs).


“When the going gets weird,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “the weird turn pro.” Another time, he said, “I hate to advocate for drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone … but they’ve always worked for me.”


Thompson’s other great loathing in life was Richard Nixon, and when the disgraced ex-president died in 1994, Thompson published a savagely cathartic obituary that began,


"And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird."
---Revelation 18:2

Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing -- a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that "I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."

I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you."

It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he's gone, I feel lonely. He was a giant in his way. As long as Nixon was politically alive -- and he was, all the way to the end -- we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.

That was Nixon's style -- and if you forgot, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don't fight fair, bubba. That's why God made dachshunds.

In a birthday coincidence, Public Policy Polling issued survey results today showing,
Trump does win on one question in our poll- asked whether they think he or Richard Nixon is more corrupt, Trump wins out 42/35. 

Related sites:

Rolling Stone, The Hunter S. Thompson Archive
HST obituary of Richard Nixon, “He was a crook,” The Atlantic, July, 1994
Matthew Hahn, “Writing on the Wall: An Interview With Hunter S. Thompson,” The Atlantic, August 26, 1997
“The Art of Journalism, No. 1”, Paris Review, No. 156, Fall, 2000

Monday, July 17, 2017

Birthday: “Just because people are liars is no reason for us to be fools.”

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Asked why his heroes always defeated villains with the last bullet in their guns, Gardner answered, "At three cents a word, every time I say ‘Bang’ in the story I get three cents. If you think I’m going to finish the gun battle while my hero still has fifteen cents worth of unexploded ammunition in his gun, you’re nuts".

Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970)
Novelist, short story writer
Recipient, Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, 1952

The English novelist Anthony Trollope has come in for heavy weather from critics for his “writing machine” quota of 2,500 words  put on paper before he went to work each day, but Trollope had nothing on Erle Stanley Gardner.

Bored practicing law in small-town Southern California (he showed up for his swearing-in after a boxing match, with two black eyes), Gardner looked at the infinitely-expanding range of pulp fiction magazines and determined he could make a better, easier living feeding them with pulp fiction. 

He published his first story in 1923, and over the next decade cranked out 4-5,000 words a day; 100,000 per month; as many as 1.2 million a year. 

On the side, he started producing detective novels under half a dozen pseudonyms. In 1933 he introduced LA criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason. 81 more novels followed over the next four decades.

As his fortune grew- he made $20,000 in 1932, the equivalent of $320,000 today- Gardner went from two-fingered typing to dictation to a pool of secretaries. 

He had nine “plot wheels” whose dials he spun to create his stories. The University of Texas has four: “Wheel of Complicating Circumstances,” “Wheel of Minor Characters Who Function in Making Complications for Hero”, “Wheel of Blind Trails By Which Hero is Misled or Confused,” and “Solutions.” 


Gardner expanded the Mason franchise into a string of 1930s films and a 1943-55 radio serial; when CBS proposed a Perry Mason soap opera in 1954, Gardner drew the line. Peeved, CBS rolled out The Edge of Night as a thinly-veiled Mason vehicle; it ran from 1956 to 1984. Gardner and CBS kissed and made up, and the prime time drama Perry Mason debuted in 1957. Actor Raymond Burr auditioned to  play DA Hamilton Burger, but Gardner proclaimed the wooden Burr the embodiment of his plotwheeled hero. “That’s Perry Mason!” he exclaimed, and made Burr’s career.

In the 1950s, as the pulps died off, Gardner shifted to historical and travel pieces for the higher-end glossy magazines. His book, The Court of Last Resort, documented scores of cases of miscarriages of justice in which the criminal justice system failed to do its job; the nonfiction work won the author his only Edgar. 

Though he separated from his wife in the 1930s, Gardner waited until she died to marry one of his secretaries- who had worked for him thirty years,- in 1968. (Perry Mason’s Della Street is a composite of the second wife and her two sisters, who also worked for Gardner's word factory.)

Evelyn Waugh, who admired tight plotting and volume production, called Gardner the best American writer of the day; he said the same of P.G. Wodehouse in the UK. Nero Wolfe creator Rex Stout meowed that Gardner books could barely be called novels at all. Gardner simply wanted to make give people maximum entertainment for a maximum fee. To one editor, he wrote, “It’s a damn good story. Place any comments on the back of the check.”

Because of the odd spelling of the first name, Erle Stanley Gardner is one of the most common clues in The New York Times crossword puzzle. He appeared as the judge in the final 1966, episode of Perry Mason. He died four years later.

The Perry Mason books have sold over three hundred million copies.


Related sites:


Erle Stanley Gardner’s Plot Wheel, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bonus Birthday: my favorite writer

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Jean Iris Murdoch, DBE (1919-1999)
Author, philosopher
James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1973
Whitbread Prize, 1974
Man Booker Prize, 1978
Golden PEN award, 1997
Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1987

A rarity among writers- growing up in a happy family- Iris Murdoch studied at Oxford from 1938 to 1942; worked for The Treasury in the war, and for the UN’s European relief efforts afterward.

From 1947 to 1948 she did graduate work at Cambridge, then returned to Oxford. She was elected a Fellow of St. Anne’s College in 1948 and taught there for fifteen years; after four more years at the Royal College of Art, she spent the rest of her career as a full-time writer.

Fascinated by Platonism and Existentialism, Murdoch’s friends included Sartre, Weill and Wittgenstein; Elias Canetti was one of her lovers. She married another Oxford don, John Bailey, in 1956; they enjoyed a happy, if unconventional, 43-year union in a famously disheveled house in North Oxford.

A famously inventive and disciplined writer, Murdoch published a new novel roughly every two years for four decades. She hewed to certain themes: the comedic nature of relationships between the sexes; the infinite capacity of humors for self-deception; the workings of good and evil in the modern world; the power of dreams and the unconscious.

Characters who repeat disastrous patterns of behavior while denying they are doing so recur; a notable example, is A Word Child (1975) in which Hilary Burde, a civil servant who accidentally causes the death of his superior’s wife; years later, when the superior returns as head of Burde’s agency, and with a new wife, Burde embarks on a relationship with her as well, with equally disastrous results.

Murdoch was one of the first English writers to portray gay characters as something more than miserable psychopaths. In A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), Murdoch reworks the Shakespearean theme of a casual bet on the lives of others, unfolding a man’s attempts to undo the stable, happy relationship of two men in his circle.

In her tragicomic Booker Prize winner, The Sea, The Sea (1978), Murdoch recast Prospero as a famously self-absorbed London theatrical director trying to win back his first love.

Murdoch frequently develops the theme, advanced by Simone Weil, that evil expresses itself in the world as suffering that humans pass along, one to another, forever; or until someone is willing to accept it, keep it, and prevent its further advance. She often built plots around mysterious, charismatic men- enchanters- whose aura affects the lives of others for decades, not always for the good.

Miranda Popkey, reviewing Murdoch’s letters after their publication in 2016, found the author’s preoccupation with people’s capacities for self-deception and lack of self-awareness all of a piece with her personal life:

Take for instance Murdoch’s 13th novel, A Fairly Honorable Defeat, which opens on a scene of wedded bourgeois bliss. Hilda and Rupert Foster are drinking “a bottle of rather dry champagne,” celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary. They are discussing Julius King, an academic and biochemist; Julius has recently abandoned Hilda’s sister, Morgan, who had earlier abandoned her husband, Tallis, in favor of Julius. The devastated Morgan is about to visit the contented couple.

Over the course of the novel, Julius—who is, fairly explicitly, a stand-in for Satan—will deliberately and successfully break up Hilda and Rupert’s marriage by making Rupert and Morgan believe, with the aide of some pilfered love letters, that each is in love with the other. He nearly succeeds in doing the same to Rupert’s brother Simon’s relationship with his partner, Axel.

To the reader, the ways in which each character is—thanks to self-regard and a combination of improbable but somehow convincing coincidences—made to believe that another character, previously no more than a platonic friend, is suddenly passionately in love with him or her, is almost wholly ridiculous. Yet, as the letters show, these sorts of easily acquired, passionately felt, and yet transitory romantic obsessions were hardly foreign to Murdoch.

In a letter written in 1945, Murdoch recounts to David Hicks, an Oxford contemporary to whom she would later briefly be engaged, the details of a romantic quadrangle in which she had lately found herself involved. Murdoch had been living with Michael Foot, a man whom she did not love but “was sorry for because he was in love with me, and because he has a complex about women (because of a homosexual past) and because he was likely to be sent abroad at any moment.” A school friend, Philippa Bosanquet, came to visit. Bosanquet was then in the midst of “breaking off her relations” with Thomas Balogh, an economics professor at Balliol College, Oxford, to whom Murdoch was immediately attracted, thus involving Foot in “some rather hideous sufferings—in the course of which,” she nevertheless admits, “I somehow managed to avert my eyes and be, most of the time, insanely happy with Thomas.” Bosanquet then fell in love with Foot, whom she subsequently married (and later divorced; Murdoch and Bosanquet would go on to have a “brief physical affair,” in 1968, from which a “deep and lasting bond” of friendship would ultimately be salvaged). Meanwhile Murdoch tried to “tear” herself away from Balogh, whom she had realized “was the devil incarnate.”

The story is—not just in this retelling, but also in Murdoch’s own account—something akin to farce. And yet, knowing that she lived such destructive passion, and its failure, lends the mess of romantic relationships in her novels a kind of dignity. If comedy is tragedy plus time, then perhaps tragedy is comedy plus compassion. How foolishly we behave, Murdoch seems to say, when we believe ourselves to be in love! And yet this foolishness is no defense against—or excuse for—the actual harm that careless emotional entanglements may cause. The frantic sexual roundelay of A Fairly Honorable Defeat ends, for one character, in death.

(Murdoch’s biographer, Peter Conradi, marks A Fairly Honourable Defeat in another way: the first novel in English to depict a gay couple as normal, happy, and functioning. I remember to this day- reading it in 1991, being dumbstruck by the novel possibility she envisioned in 1975, when I was a fairly miserable, closeted, undergraduate).

Some critics chided Murdoch for pretension, citing her comfortable, Oxbridge-educated characters’ endless talk fests about Higher Themes; the philosophically-inclined found fault with her for dumbing down those same Higher Themes as popular fiction.

Famously indifferent to reviews, Murdoch pressed on and produced twenty-six novels snapped up by an eager reading public.

In 1995, Murdoch told an interviewer she had been experiencing terrible writer’s block; when her last book, Jackson’s Dilemma, came out that year, New York Times reviewer Brad Leithauser praised the story but declared, “The writing is a mess.”

Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1997 and, after a swift decline, died in early 1999. In a famously self-appraisal, Murdoch once said, “I see myself as Rhoda, not as Mary Tyler Moore.”

Related sites:

Richard Nicholls, “Iris Murdoch, Novelist and Philosopher, Is Dead,” The New York Times, February 9, 1999
Iris Murdoch interview, “The Art of Fiction,” No. 117, The Paris Review, Summer 1990

Birthday: Forgotten as the author of what he did write, Clement Moore lives on in the Christmas poem he probably didn't.

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Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863)
Author, educator, and Manhattan real estate speculator

Near-universally remembered today as the author of a poem he most likely didn’t write, Clement Clarke Moore still deserves remembrance an exemplar of his time and place, a forerunner of the modern Manhattan striver.

In a Henry James novel, the Moores would have been “new money” in New York society. Clement, son of the Anglican Bishop of New York and the daughter of an English officer who owned a large Manhattan Island estate, straddled in his life the divisions and contradictions between the British class system’s colonial upper echelons and the rising class of post-independence entrepreneurs and speculators.

Moore took his B.A. and M.A. from Columbia College (now the University, and where his father served two tours as president), in 1798 and 1801. Marrying in 1803, he fathered nine children.

Moore dabbled in politics, publishing an 1804 pamphlet attacking President Jefferson’s fitness for re-election because of his heterodox religious views (Notes on the State of Virginia, Moore wrote, was "an instrument of infidelity").

In 1809 Moore published his two-volume Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, and he contributed poems to New York newspapers for years. Savoring the role of country gentleman-scholar, Moore translated a French text, A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep, in 1811.

But then, after City Hall published a plan to convert New York to its present street grid that year, Moore discovered the new Ninth Avenue was slated to cut through the middle of the estate he inherited from his grandfather Clarke.

Summoning all his property and privilege (he owned slaves, and opposed abolition until New York law set the last of them free in 1827), Moore wrote and published a pamphlet calling on other "Proprietors of Real Estate" to fight the continued development of the city, which then ended at Houston Street. He thought it a conspiracy to increase political patronage and appease the city's lower classes.

He also decried having to pay taxes for public works such as creating new streets, which he called "a tyranny no monarch in Europe would dare to exercise."

His fulminations and summons to class war were, of course, in vain. Moore did the only thing for it: he figured out how to make money from the change he so abhorred.

Moore subdivided his estate into lots, creating a planned community for the wealthy at the edge of New York City. His deeds restricted the presence of certain types of businesses and imposed requirements for building design and materials. Two hundred years later, Chelsea- named after Moore’s estate- remains one of the toniest Manhattan neighbors, its once-ubiquitous gay clubs and art galleries forced out by the latest waves of re-gentrification.

In the process, Moore pioneered another aspect of Manhattan life that continues to this day- buying extra layers of gentility with his new cash. He gave 66 lots- his estate’s apple orchard- for the creation of the General Theological Seminary, another for the building of a parish church, St. Luke's in the Field.

Between his seminary land grant and the donation of royalties from his Hebrew-English dictionary, reason was found to create a chair in Biblical Teaching for Moore, which he held from 1823 to 1850. The Seminary sits on the Moore land to this day.

Clement Moore died, five days shy of his 84th birthday, at his home in the fashionable summer colony of Newport, Rhode Island. The large wooden house, typical of the day but dwarfed by the marble mansions of the next generation, still stands.

Moore’s body was returned to New York, and he was buried at St. Luke’s in the Fields. By 1899, when his poem had become the most famous verse by an American, his remains were reinterred in the decidedly more upscale cemetery of Trinity Church on Broadway, amid Vanderbilts and Astors.

That poem: Moore, according to legend, thought it up on a pre-Christmas sleigh ride, then dashed off a copy to read to his kids for Christmas 1822. A friend steered Moore- and a copy- to the Troy Sentinel, an upstate newspaper, which ran it anonymously on December 23, 1823.

Drawing partly from old Dutch St. Nicholas tales, Moore invented many of the poem’s Christmas features out of whole cloth; he and Washington Irving share credit for cementing a distinctly American observation of the holiday into the nation’ mythology. One commentator has noted,

At the time that Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year's Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants viewed Christmas as the result of "Catholic ignorance and deception" and still had reservations. By having St. Nicholas arrive the night before, Moore "deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations." As a result, "New Yorkers embraced Moore's child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives."

Victorian sensibilities and later politicovangelicalism have worked changes on the poem over two centuries:

Modern printings frequently incorporate alterations that reflect changing linguistic and cultural sensibilities. For example, breast in "The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow" is frequently bowdlerized to crest; the archaic ‘ere’ in "But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight" is frequently replaced with ‘as’. Note that this change implies that Santa Claus made his exclamation during the moment that he disappeared from view, while the exclamation came before his disappearance in the original. "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night" is frequently rendered with the traditional English locution "'Merry Christmas'" and with "goodnight" as a single word.

Four copies of the work exist in Moore’s hand: three rest in museums; the fourth, signed by Moore in 1860, was purchased by an anonymous New York collector for $280,000 in 2006.

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” caught on, borrowed by other papers and endlessly republished as the years passed. Vain about his rep as a scholar- his partisans say- Moore denied authorship until 1837, when a friend identified him in print as the author.

By 1844, when the 65-year-old published a valedictory collection of his poetry, he included the Christmas work on the insistence of his grown children, who realized it had become so popular, being its author was a social plus.

In recent decades, however, the poem has been the subject of controversy. Donald Foster, a forensic literary conspiracist who cut his teeth in  “who really wrote Shakespeare?” circles, has long championed a long-forgotten claim by the Livingston family that a cousin of Moore’s mother, Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828), was the poem’s real author (Foster is also famous for applying computer analysis and what can best be described as Fawn Brodie-style pathology to not only identify Time writer Joe Klein as the author of the Clinton-era novel Primary Colors but to argue that his analysis of the text prove Klein had unresolved issues with blacks and women).

Though the dispute continues, as such things do, the generality of scholarly opinion has shifted the laurel to Livingston, who was safely dead before Moore started claiming the work and, Foster argues, creating the paper trail that led his pen.

Moore is also not remembered as the author of a biography, George Castriot, Surnamed Scanderbeg, King of Albania (1850), though he did, in fact, write it beyond any doubt.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Birthday Books of the Day: Irving Stone was right- “There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.”

Irving Stone (1903-1989)
Author, historian


If not the inventor of the biographical novel, Irving Stone was surely its perfector. After graduating UC Berkeley in the 1920s, he and his wife did the whole Lost Generation Thing and moved to Paris, where he churned out 17 unperformable plays.

His life changed when he saw an exhibition of Van Gogh; he became obsessed by the artist’s life, and by 1931 had produced a gigantic novelization- Lust for Life.

A dozen and a half publishers rejected the doorstop until he found a sympathetic editor who helped him trim it down; when published in 1934, Stone found himself set for a career.  

Nearly 30 books followed. Stone was fascinated by figures he considered misunderstood by history, and by the role their wives played in their public careers. Thus came biographies of Jack London; Jessie Benton Fremont; Eugene V. Debs and his spouse; the Andrews Jacksons, John Adamses and Abraham Lincolns; Freud; Heinrich Schliemann- who draped his Turkish bride in what he considered to be the treasures of ancient Troy- Darwin and Pissaro.

Stone was an indefatigable researcher; his pattern was to choose a subject, move to where the subject had lived, and ransack the archives. For The Agony & The Ecstasy- his best- remembered work today- four years’ work was needed, including two in Italy (reading it at 13, I can recall thinking there really was more information on the painting of tondos than anyone could need). Yet such was his skill in bringing musty fact to vivid life that the Italian government honored him for services to the nation.

Authoritative, and long, Stone’s novels were perfect vehicles for the post-World War II Technicolor extravaganza age in movies; Heston played Andrew Jackson and Michelangelo. Kirk Douglas chewed the scenery in Lust for Life.

In addition to his bio novels, Stone wrote well-regarded biographies of Chief Justice Earl Warren and attorney Clarence Darrow; a history of the opening of the West; and an engaging survey of men who ran for President and lost. His last book came out when he was 82; he died, surrounded by family and full of honors, four years later.

Henry Bemis Books has two of Stone’s works in stock:


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Stone, Irving, The Origin: A Biographic Novel of Charles Darwin (Doubleday, 1st ed., 1980). ISBN 0-385-12064-8). The famed biographical novelist (Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Schliemann), takes on the father of evolution. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket, sunning on the spine, very good condition. Octavo, 743 pp. Autographed on the half-title. HBB price $65 obo.

Stone, Irving, The Agony and the Ecstasy (Doubleday, 1961; Illustrated Edition, 1st ed., 1963). Stone’s string of biographies of artists and intellectuals extended back to 1934 when The Agony and the Ecstasy came out, but this time he hit Michelangelo’s life story out of the ballpark. By 1965 the book had been produced as a lavish Hollywood film with Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison. To extend the sales of the book, Doubleday put out this slipcased deluxe illustrated edition. Our copy is in very good condition; the slipcase shows dirt and wear and the clear plastic dust jacket has a small tear at the upper right corner of the cover. A book worth having. HBB price: $35 obo.

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