Friday, April 25, 2008

From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf

At first glance, Robert Manson Myers', From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf (Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), would appear to be a light survey of English literature for the period indicated in the title--a slim volume for such a lengthy range of years and a cartoonish illustration on the cover. But a second glance picks up on the subtitle (astounding and wholly unauthorized), which seems odd right away. Then you read the caption under the cover illustration, William the Conqueror. Light survey gives way to light-hearted and later to downright humorous survey. But just thumb through the pages to find out what kind of humor you are in for. Pretty wacked out and wickedly funny. And that back cover of the jacket... Take a look at the author and his write-up.

The author photo looks like some Dutch Masters painting, the photo credit goes to the unlikely name of Fabius Blackrock. A google search confirms unlikely. The author's bestselling The Case of the Missing Umlaut is referenced as having swept the nation as both a book and a movie. Googling that produces nothing. Further, his distinguished lineage includes a great-uncle Professor Dewberry Oldberry of the Newberry Library. There's more, but the write-up ends with the author's current occupation-- teaching Creative Listening at Pamunkey State College for Women. By now, I'm smiling at the humor revealed from peeling back pretentious, dry layers of my own making because of a title. And at how I was a bit duped. Time to thumb though the book and investigate the extent of the intended humor.

Facing the title page is a Literary Map of England, which includes Scotland and Ireland as well. Here you'll find Northanger Abbey as well as Rin-Tin-Tin's Abbey. You'll find Pepys' Dairy (not Diary), Drake's Bowling Alley, Sussex, Middlesx and Nossex, Wed Loch, Yale Loch and Rape Loch. And more nonsense like that.

The copyright page (does anyone ever read these?) indicates First Edition and has a long paragraph, titled Note that explains how the book was previously published in a literary journal and thanks are expressed for permission to reprint. More thanks are given to Viking for using material from their series of Boners books (very recently augmented by Bigger and Better Boners). What?!?! Back to google... Yes, Viking did publish a couple of books called Boners and More Boners in 1931. Guess who illustrated them? Theodor Geisel (his first illustrated books), better known years later as Dr. Seuss. And in 1952 there really was a Viking Press volume of Bigger and Better Boners, apparently lacking in the sexual connotation of today and the ubiquitous male enhancement ads. But Myers has me questioning everything now as he has deftly spliced the factual with fictional humor.

The first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book, assuming the jacket write-up and frontispiece map didn't already do it for you. Here's the first paragraph from that chapter:
At the door of English literature stands Beowulf, the great Dane, who once upon a time inhabited the forest primeval with Ethelwulf, his wife, and is therefore known as The Noble Savage. It would, of course, be absurd to dwell on Beowulf's particulars in a brief survey such as this, especially since those details are recorded in Beowulf's autobiographical beast epic, first published in 1066 as The Doomsday Book. This famous first edition was printed on a cotton manuscript, destroyed by fire in 1731 and later purchased from descendants of the Beowulf family by Andrew Carnegie. The original duodecimo is totally ineligible. With the persistent efforts of scholars, however, it has emerged that Beowulf sailed forth boldly into the filth and froth of the Firth of Forth in the spring of 596. Following his slaughter of Grendel (a task as odious as Oedipus' cleansing of the Aegean stables), the epic hero retraced his footsteps across the sea. His spritely narrative abounds with sketches of such Cro-Magnon dignitaries as Half-Dane, High Shellac, and Wroth Child.
The illustrations are just as ludicrous with their meaningless captions. To wit:

First, this is just a strange looking scene to illustrate. What the heck is going on here? I know it has nothing to do with Myers' description of a Sunday in the country with Sir Roger de Coverlet, an old Anguische tradition (whatever that is), and chocolate being served afterward! It's so crazy, it's funny. I wanted to find out more about the illustration and put some kind of meaning to such a weird-looking scene. It is attributed to a print hanging in the Will Coffin House. There is no such place that I can find. I don't doubt there is such a print because Myers expresses gratitude, back on the copyright page, to Houghton Mifflin for their permission to reproduce illustrations from The History of the Novel in England, by Robert Morss Lovett and Helen Sard Hughes. And I can verify that this book is for real, published in 1932. But that's about all in this book anyone could vouch for.

But in researching Robert Manson Myers, I found a former student of his who wrote about him in one of her blog entries. From the sounds of it, he was no joke in the classroom. What a wonderful teacher he must have been.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Samuel Chamberlain's journal and illustrations of the Mexican War

Digging around in a book this morning about a young soldier's adventures in the American Southwest and Mexico during the Mexican War of the 1840s, I discovered some fascinating fragments of history, long-forgotten, which ultimately led to a place practically in my backyard.

From humble beginnings in Center Harbor, New Hampshire to battles in Mexico, Samuel Chamberlain left a legacy of his dramatic experiences in the form of an illustrated journal. Written accounts of the United States' War with Mexico are numerous, but first-hand artistic renderings are rare. Private Chamberlain of the First Regiment of the United States Dragoons carried a sketchbook with him throughout the war and made drawings of the people, places, events, and battles he witnessed. In later years, settled down in Boston, he recounted his experiences in a manuscript and enhanced his sketchbook drawings with watercolors to illustrate his journal.

The finished manuscript remained in the family for decades, brought occasionally for showing friends and family, but mostly kept hidden. After Chamberlain's death in 1908, his widow saw that it stayed in the family. But in the 1940s, nearly 100 years after Chamberlain's adventure, his manuscript had fallen out of family hands and was discovered in a Connecticut antique shop. A Baltimore collector purchased it and, recognizing the significance of his find, contacted Life Magazine about it. The manuscript was subsequently sold to Life Magazine, which published a condensed version of the story in three parts during 1955. Included were some of Chamberlain's paintings of his remembrance or the war.

The book I've been reading and researching, My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, Written and Illustrated by Samuel E. Chamberlain, Harper & Brothers, (1956), includes five times the text from the original manuscript and 55 of Chamberlain's paintings.

Laid in at the front of the book was a small brochure from the San Jacinto Museum of History, near Houston.This led to another interesting fact about Chamberlain's art work: One hundred forty-four of his paintings were purchased by the San Jacinto Museum in 1957, the first significant purchase of history by the museum. This brochure appears to be for the first exhibition of Chamberlain's watercolors anywhere. The brochure, limited to a print run of 5,000 copies, offers eight pages of information about Chamberlain, his exploits and his art, along with information about the museum and exhibit.

Now, more than 50 years later, as the San Jacinto museum and park prepare for their annual observance of the Battle of San Jacinto (April 21st, 1836), in which the fledgling Republic of Texas won its independence from Mexico, I'll have to wander over there and see if I can find any of the original watercolors I've been so engaged with this morning.

I am particularly drawn to Chamberlain's painting of an event he witnessed--the mass execution by hanging of U.S. Army deserters, mostly Irish who sympathized with the plight of their fellow Catholics in Mexico. They came mostly from deplorable conditions in the Northeast after immigrating from equally deplorable conditions in Ireland (Potato Famine). Seeking new opportunity in a new land, these immigrants did not find it in the Notheastern U.S. and likely joined the Army as a means of escape. In Texas, they came to know the Mexican culture and the similarities of the Catholic people in their struggles. Further, the Mexican government enticed sympathizers with free land in exchange for allegiance to Mexico in their war with the U.S. For some Irishmen, this proved too much temptation, as Army life had not been any better than civilian life. They came to be known in Mexico as the San Patricios (St. Patrick's Battalion), fought valiantly against their former comrades, and have been revered in Mexico as heroes to this day.

Ultimately, they were defeated and most executed for treason. Sam Chamberlain witnessed one of the mass executions and illustrated and wrote about what he witnessed.

As my research jumped over to the San Patricios in Mexico, I discovered a film made about them and their leader, John Riley, of County Galway. Tom Berenger stars in One Man's Hero (1999) and, by a few accounts I've read, this film is a cult classic in the making. It didn't get the theatrical release or promotion it needed to show how good it was. Nor has it gotten any promotion in the DVD market.

It's now next up in my Netflix queue and I can't wait to see a dramatic representation of what I've been reading about. And then I'll definitely have to go searching for that painting at the site of the 1836 battle, without which, Sam Chamberlain likely would not have ventured into Texas, nor would the San Patricios.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Poultry and poetry

What do poultry and poetry have in common? Seemingly nothing; I've never come across a chicken farmer who wrote and collected poetry. Until I learned of Wilbur Chapman Goodson, the author of a collection of poems titled, Dark Music (Falmouth Publishing House, Portland, Maine, 1940).

From the Preface, written by fellow New Englander, poet, and Goodson's former professor at Wesleyan, Wilbert Snow, I learned about an interesting bibliophile who collected autographed editions of books from all the leading American and English poets writing at that time (1930s). Not only that, but he also obtained from them holograph copies of his favorite lyrics and framed them. All while raising prize-winning roosters and pullets.

Snow infers scholastic ability at Wesleyan and a desire on Goodson's part to follow his muse. But the country was steeped in the Great Depression and apparently Goodson was motivated to try his hand at a vocation that could actually support him. A career choice between poetry and poultry at least invoked the poetic devices of alliteration and rhyme. And so Goodson started a poultry farm in Tamworth, New Hampshire and became successful at it. But he never abandoned, it appears, his love for poetry. He became quite an accomplished collector and wrote and published his own verse.

I've only been able to find a copy of the Dark Music title, one of only 300 printed. If Goodson published subsequent volumes, I haven't found them yet. But I have found part of his collection. I recently purchased, from a bookseller in Massachusetts, two volumes of poetry that had belonged to Goodson: An April Song: New Poems, by Charles Hanson Towne (Farrar and Rinehart, NY 1937) and This Unquenched Thirst, by Minnie Markham Kerr (Dorrance & Company, Philadelphia, 1938). Each is autographed from the poet to W.C. Goodson and both copies have Goodson's bookplate (full name) affixed to the front pastedown endpaper.

While I feel fortunate to have made this connection and to have obtained pieces of what I presume to have been a remarkable collection, I am puzzled that any part of such a collection would have been lost, sold, or otherwise culled from the whole. The entire collection deserved to have been kept intact to give a full measure of the bibliophile's intent for such a collection in the first place.

But that's too idealistic, I'm afraid. There are many reasons why pieces of a collection might find their way elsewhere through the years. They could have been gifts to others by the collector. The collection's theme may have evolved into something quite different from its beginnings and these titles no longer fit in.

Those poets whom Goodson collected and that have now found their way into my collection are not household names. Nor do they have much literary significance or value in the history or second-hand markets for literature. But they now comprise 100 percent of another of my quirky little collections. And I'd love to see a list of poets that comprised Goodson's collection over the years. Some of the titans of American and English poetry were writing during Goodson's collecting years. If he was able to secure signed copies of their books and handwritten passages, his collection would have become one of the more enviable libraries on either side of the pond.

And to round out this little collection, I was able to locate and purchase a few copies of Pine Top Poultry Tales, a newsletter Goodson wrote about his poultry farming operation. Looks like a pretty nice marketing and promotional piece. His writing skills are put to good use here for his business.

I end this with a poem from Wilbur Chapman Goodson. It's the last poem in Dark Music and appears to be the poem from which the title of the book emerged. I hope it was not the last poem he wrote or published.


Here in the quiet woods the night creeps in--
Between the slowly falling flakes of snow--
And burrows down to soft and silent sleep.

Here in the quiet woods, the topmost boughs
Of tamarack reach up against the clouds
Too thick to let the light of stars shine through.

Here in a deep and never-ending peace
There is a silence thick and velvet black
That settles over hills and leafless trees
And brings dark music to my tired ears.

Here in the early hours of dawn the stars
Break though the clouds, and wrinkled moonlight smiles
Across the frozen pond and snow-filled fields.

It must have been like this once long ago.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

National Poetry Month - April 2008

Today, April 1st, kicks off National Poetry Month, and that’s no April Fool’s joke. Wouldn't be much of a joke anyway. has all the scoop on National Poetry Month. I'll just use this space to share a few of my favorite poets and a poem from an old volume titled Book Lovers Verse, by Howard S. Ruddy (Bowen-Merrill Co., Indianapolis, 1899), an interesting volume of old poetry for the bibliophile (see Biblioverse).

First, links to several contemporary poets whose work I admire (in no particular order):

Ted Kooser
Donald Hall
Jane Hirshfield
Nan Cohen
Larry D. Thomas (I'd be remiss in my blogging duties today not to include the Poet Laureate of my home state of Texas)

There are many more, but these are poets whose work I have collected and read in recent years. Old favorites from another time are led by Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Edward Arlington Robinson, William Butler Yeats, Dorothy Parker, Emily Dickinson, and way too many others to get into here. Maybe there are one or two I've listed for new readers out there to get acquainted with.

And now for a poem from Ruddy's, Book Lovers Verse, mentioned above. Appropriately, it is from one of America's most celebrated poets (and from my list above), Emily Dickinson, whose work I'm sure will find a place or two in this month's observances of poetry.

The Book, by Emily Dickinson

There is no frigate like a book
      To take us leagues away,
Nor any coursers like a page
      Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
      Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
      That bears a human soul!