Sunday, September 10, 2017

Library Days: The Hardy Boys

This is one of a series of posts on my childhood reading and origins of my relationship with books, prompted by Larry McMurtry's reflections in his book, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.  Previous installments are Library Days and My Book House.

I was a little too old for The Mickey Mouse Club television program. All that singing and dancing was girl stuff anyway. But my younger sisters watched it on our only TV set, in the living room. So one afternoon I chanced to see something that caught my eye: a filmed story about two young detectives, small town brothers investigating a mystery, the Hardy Boys.

 It was the fall of 1956. The story was told in a series of fifteen minute segments every day. I got involved enough to learn (and remember) the names of the actors: Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk (both of whom would show up in a number of Disney TV and film stories.)

I was 10, and had begun going to the Greensburg public library on my own. Browsing books in the children's room I came upon this now familiar name: the Hardy Boys. Soon I learned to look for the light brown volumes with dark brown titles, and the silhouette of two figures--one with a hat and a scarf--against a jagged background. They must have been among the first books from the library I read all the way through.

 In the novels, Frank and Joe Hardy were in their mid to late teens--not early teens as in the Disney series. They rode motorcycles, drove cars and boats and occasionally carried revolvers. They got into fights with adult men, and didn't always win them. But they mostly used their heads, and were old enough to act on their lines of inquiry. They were in some ways the perfect age for me to read about--older boys at the barely imaginable threshold of adulthood, so old enough to be models but not too old to identify with.

 Their father, Fenton Hardy, was a highly respected private detective, which also added to the appeal. Their relationship to him and his work, and the way he treated them, were fascinating to boys whose fathers disappeared all day at their unromantic jobs and behind the newspaper in the evening.

The first three Hardy Boys novels were originally published in 1927. The first ten books had been published by 1929, and they then were released at the rate of one a year--for the next 50 years. The author's name emblazoned on all these books was Franklin W. Dixon, though the first 16 and several more later were written by Leslie McFarlane, with other writers between and afterwards. They were writers for hire, with the premise and stories outlined by publisher Edward Stratemeyer, who also came up with Nancy Drew and Tom Swift. He probably also did some rewriting before publication.

 There would be new versions of the Hardy Boys over the years since, just as there have been other Hardy Boys on television. There are more than 500 Hardy Boys stories now. But the first 59 volumes are considered the classic series.

 Some 36 titles had been published by the time I discovered them. In fact, the first Disney series I saw that adapted the first novel (The Tower Treasure) seems to have borrowed an element from the 36th (The Secret of Pirate Hill.)

I'm not sure how many volumes the Greensburg Library had. I just know I read several, and would eagerly search through what was in the library when I visited. But there was competition--other boys were reading them (and perhaps girls, too, though I didn't know of any) and I knew only one school friend who claimed his older brother actually owned a number of these books. They were only in hardback.

 I don't remember which Hardy Boys books I read. I do remember, however, which Hardy Boys book I started writing.

 It was "The Creaking Stairs Mystery." I wrote a couple of pages, and was working on them at school in fifth grade. Our regular teacher wasn't there, and a parish priest, Father M., was more or less babysitting. We were supposed to be "working silently" on our own at our desks. He walked up and down the aisles. I was startled when he stopped at my desk and picked up my notebook. He read some of it to himself and then announced the title to the class (getting it wrong.)

 He also read out loud a sentence about someone driving a "roadster." He mocked being impressed. I was more than a little sensitive about that word, because in fact I did not know what "roadster" meant. Not knowing precisely what a word meant was not uncommon, either in my reading or in listening to television, or to adults talking, etc. I would know roughly what it meant from context. In this case I knew it meant a kind of car. To me it was a mysterious, romantic word, part of the mysterious world I entered in these books. But to have this ignorance possibly exposed and mocked was embarrassing.

 Anyway, as a result of this exposure, I became too self-conscious to continue writing my Hardy Boys story. But I did keep on reading them. I had followed stories told in serial form on television, and loosely so in our school readers, but the Hardy Boys were among the first books I read with a single story developed over its length. These books were deliciously different because I was in charge of reading the story--I could stop at any point, or read chapter after chapter, and just stay in that world.

 The books contained funny dialogue and characters, simple descriptions of a party or an afternoon at the beach, but mostly they were exciting, one event or clue, one question, leading to another. I could linger over a scene and ponder it, or go back to something that happened earlier, or re-read something I didn't understand. But as I absorbed the book's world, I read fervently, eager to know what happened next, and to test my impressions and guesses.  Though I didn't always manage it,  I sustained attention enough to learn the particular delights of doing so.

In 1959, the publishers started revising and shortening the earlier titles, and these versions are the more easily available now. In those books, the roadsters have become jalopies (though more technically roadsters were early two-door convertibles), the "touring cars" are sedans. The revisions were made partly to update such references (and eliminate offensive racial and ethnic stereotypes) so new readers could recognize their world and identify with the young characters.
 Later novels with entirely new stories would continue this updating, so in the more recent paperbacks, the Hardy Boys say things like "As if."

 The irony of course is that by now a 1959 revision is almost as arcane and unfamiliar as the 1929 original. The later versions in turn will become obsolete. Personally I wouldn't give up the magic that still adheres to the word "roadster."

 In fact, I'm glad I read the unrevised originals for a number of reasons. For one thing, in later books the Boys got increasingly sophisticated and unreal, acting more like combinations of Tom Swift and James Bond. This trend started in the 1959 revisions.

 According to the indispensable The Hardy Boys unofficial home page, these revisions to the originals are disappointing. "Although the stories were given the same titles and some of the plots remained basically the same, many books were given new plots and are unrecognizable from the originals. Unfortunately, the quality of the writing was nowhere near as high as in the unrevised versions and the resulting stories lost much of their original charm."

 A little later, the opinion is more strongly stated: "The quality of the revised stories is generally so far below that of the originals that it can only be considered as an act of literary vandalism."

Harsh words, so I compared a few volumes to their originals. The originals were revised over 15 years beginning in 1959. The HBUHP categorizes them as "slightly altered" (generally the later books, which often had been written by the same people doing the revisions) "altered," "drastically altered" and "completely different." I read both versions of The Tower Treasure (#1, marked Altered), The House on the Cliff (#2, Altered),The Shore Road Mystery (#6, Completely Different) and What Happened At Midnight (#10, Drastically Altered.)

Leslie McFarland, the first Hardy Boy
I'll make some general remarks and conclusions here, and follow with more about each book for those who might be interested. All four of these were written by the first Franklin W. Dixon: a newspaper reporter who later became a filmmaker, Leslie McFarlane. He is generally considered the best writer who contributed to the series.

 The literary quality of these books is not high, but McFarlane has a way with dialogue in several of these books, and a humorous and satirical Dickensian flair here and there. The revisions get into action quicker, though those action sequences are often absurd. Even given arcane language, cliches and some awkwardness, there is more life and interest in the originals. The stories are generally more realistic, and better paced.

 One notable difference (so others have noticed it, too) is that in the originals, the Hardys relationship to authority, particular to the official police, is strained and even hostile. In the revisions they are much more respectful and the police are much more efficient and cooperative. Maybe it was all that "juvenile delinquency" stuff in the 1950s, plus J. Edgar Hoover and commie subversion that scared the revisers.

The revisions vary in quality from not terrible (The Tower Treasure) to so carelessly written as to be insulting (What Happened At Midnight.) Though I picked up a bunch of the revised novels in a picture cover format at a thrift store, my future reading wherever possible is going to be the originals, especially the McFarlane originals.

In that regard, I've found some used originals with something I never would have seen at the library: dust jackets. (The above photo is not of my collection. I have only two with dust jackets. Needless to say, there are serious collectors.) So here are my observations on the originals versus the revised:

 The Tower Treasure (#1)

The original version of this first novel in the series begins with exposition, while the revised starts with an action scene. This appears to be one item of the brief for the revisions--hook the reader with action. This time it works, in others I read the action is absurd by the standards set in the original series--of realism, especially of the Hardy Boys as normal or at least believable boys.

 Another item in the brief was to shorten the books to the same length of 180 pages. So what took two chapters and 17 pages in the original is reduced to one chapter and 8 pages in the revised.

 Some arcane language in the original is a bit disruptive, though funny, cf. "I'm going to ask these chaps if they saw him pass." But the revision goes further than updating words and eliding the story--it unaccountably adds incidents and characters, to no better effect than the originals. Plus it doesn't actually eliminate all ethnic stereotypes--just the ones people were more sensitive to in 1959.

 It isn't long before the losses become obvious. The original has a comic set piece involving a group of farmers; the human comedy is entirely lost in the revision. Similarly a scene involving the small town police chief and his detective is derisively funny. That such scenes reminded me of Dickens is reinforced a few pages later by a reference to a character habitually carrying Dickens' novels (naming three.) (The original also throws in a sly Hamlet reference.)

 But the loss of a certain literary quality is more telling in a line Fenton Hardy says to his sons on page 76 of the original, when he tells them they can help "by keeping your eyes and ears open, and by using your wits. That's all there is to detective work."

Later, when the boys accidentally find themselves in a location no one had considered and realize it may be the key to the mystery that has puzzled everyone (including their father), they solve it by finding the treasure. Afterwards they conclude that "The main thing is that we've proved to dad that we know how to keep our eyes and ears open." (209)

 The symmetry of these lines more than anything else starts off this series of books. They are entirely absent from the revision.

The revision has the good sense to keep the subplot of the father of one of the Hardy Boys' school friends who is unjustly accused of a crime (a similar situation will be repeated in a subsequent book), even keeping most of the dialogue. But for every arcane line the revision eliminates ("Brace up, old chap," he advised; p67) it seems to lose one of delicate feeling or meaning: "Frank and Joe, their hearts too full for utterance, withdrew softly from the room." (68)

 This being the first novel, it has the first instances of official police incompetence, and Fenton Hardy's disdain for the local police. In the revision this is gone, though the comic futility of the chief and his detective Snuff is replaced by a comic Snuff, now an aspiring private detective, and his self-importance, ambition and incompetence.

 The climactic scene in the revision suddenly adds a character to increase threat and action (the Disney teleplay has its own version of this character though he appears early, and interestingly represents a seeming friendly but ultimately untrustworthy and violent adult) but it adds little to the scene. The ending of the original is longer and more satisfying.

The House on the Cliff #2

The original story begins with the Hardy Boys and their pals (or "chums") exploring a haunted house (which is also the beginning of the second and final Hardy Boys adventure on Mickey Mouse Club, though that story quickly diverged. It notably took place in mostly one location.) Frank and Joe Hardy discover tools were stolen from their motorcycles, and then witness an attempted murder and rescue the victim from drowning.

 The revised version begins with Fenton Hardy letting the boys in on a case in progress. This is another odd trend in the revisions: the boys are less independent.

The original story involves Fenton Hardy kidnapped by drug smugglers, the boys putting together the pieces of the puzzle involving the "haunted" house on the cliff and hidden tunnels. They rescue their father, though they are almost immediately captured. There's a lot of action, including fist fights but they are believable. Some believe this is the best written novel in the series. The revision has some sloppy writing and makes inexplicable changes in scenes but basically follows the same story.




The Shore Road Mystery #6

The HBUHP calls the revision "completely different" but it basically reassembles elements of the original plot in a less coherent way.

 The original is more vivid in its scene-setting, and is pretty good at the effect on the town as a series of car thefts continue without a clue. There a nice school scene that's a kind of interlude. Scenes of the Boys in the caves where the thieves have hidden the cars are exciting, even if their handling of "revolvers" comes out of nowhere. The revision again starts with a big action scene--the Hardys have more technology now, like police radios on their motorcycles--but the plot seems more contrived.

In both stories, it's a school friend who is unjustly arrested for the thefts, but the revision adds a buried treasure mystery for some reason. Also the thieves aren't just stealing cars but smuggling in "foreign" arms for "subversives" in the US. Hello, 1950s!

 In the original, the Hardy Boys solve the mystery, and catch the bad guys in the act. But in the revision, they gets their butts saved by Dad, who incidentally has "an iron fist." What's up with that? as the Hardys wouldn't say. Also the revision suggests that the Boys' hometown of Bayport is in New England. Which, as we will now see, contradicts one of the originals.



What Happened At Midnight #10


This is my favorite of the originals I've read as an adult, but I don't think that's entirely why I'm contemptuous of the revision, which HBUHP calls "drastically altered."

 The original is well-paced and balanced, as each increment of the mystery is pursued with activity, such as the Boys trip to New York City. But most of all, it has a real sense of high school boys doing the investigating, their normal life integrated with the mystery.

 It's also a great 1930s story, starting with the opening scene at Bayport's newest innovation, the Automat. Joe is kidnapped, Frank and his chums find him, but that's just the beginning. The brothers impulsively follow a suspect on the train to New York, lose their money to a pickpocket, sleep on park benches safely, prepare to hitchhike back to Bayport and earn a meal by washing dishes at a diner. (The diner owner is right out of a movie by Frank Capra or Preston Sturges.) They get a key clue overhearing a hotel switchboard operator, and learn of the existence of the collect call!

 As obsolete and therefore nostalgic as all this seems now, none of it was so arcane in the 1950s when I might have first read this book. The telephone system was basically the same, and I remember going to an automat restaurant in Manhattan in the 1960s.

 But the revision dumps pretty much all of it anyway. (Though I thought for sure the revision would drop a key scene of the boys in a biplane that loses power- they have parachutes and go out on a wing to bail out. But the revision makes the plane an antique reconstruction, and the scene happens in a different part of the story.) 

Bayport, by the way, in this novel is about 200 miles south of New York City, which suggests New Jersey.

 The mystery is solved through a combination of legwork, deduction, serendipity and coincidence. (Which fulfills Fenton Hardy's definition of a detective as someone who basically pays attention.) Some may object to the coincidences, such as the clues supplied by the clueless Aunt Gertrude. But it sure makes for a good story that keeps moving forward.

A coincidence puts the Boys in touch with a couple of FBI agents, and so the big finish is more believable with the adult agents doing the shooting and fighting during the capture, though Frank manages to chase and wrestle down the ringleader of the diamond thieves gang. (The Boys relationship with the local police is also better than in previous originals.)

 Other elements of the story are kept, but there are inexplicable changes. This time the gang is stealing diamonds and "electronics." (What kind of electronics? Why are they valuable? It doesn't say.) Again another needless and basically useless if not confusing plot element is added, a secret invention.

 The revision begins with a completely outlandish fight between the brothers and adult thieves. In general, the revision is haphazard and careless--literally in the sense that it seems to be written by someone who doesn't care. For dialogue that sounds somewhat formal, it substitutes dialogue that sounds entirely wooden. As for updating arcane expressions etc., the revision actually has one of the boys say "Gadzooks!"--a word from the 17th century that barely made it into the 19th.

 Finally, let me point out something else that's apparently obsolete. Especially in the originals, I did not find a typo or a grammatical error. These boys books, written quickly and expected to be read by teenagers or younger and then to disappear, are immaculately edited, copyedited and proofread. So 20th century, right?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Library Days

The former Greensburg Public Library on South Main St.
I was probably nine, maybe ten when I got my first library card. It was a momentous act. I doubt that I had ever read a complete book yet. But apart from the stories in the Book House books, or in Boy's Life magazine, which I started getting by subscription when I joined a Cub Scouts den in fourth grade, the only place that had reading I might be interested in was the public library.

 I remember talking it over with my mother, and she accompanied me to the library and they signed me up. After that, I went to the library on my own--a few times with friends (especially after Saturday afternoon movies) but mostly on my own. It was the beginning of my life of independent reading.

 It may be difficult for readers today to believe it, but I walked to town unsupervised before I was ten. It was just under a mile, a straight shot down and up hills, down West Newton Road and across to continue as Pittsburgh Street, finally, steeply up to the business district on the crest of a hill.

 The first public library in Greensburg opened in June 1936, ten years before I was born. Before that, libraries were associated with schools but mostly the private property of wealthy families. One such library was featured in the palatial home of Major William Stokes, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, built in 1846 and situated on a high hill where the Seton Hill University campus is now. (The building itself survived as St. Joseph's Academy, later renamed St. Mary's Hall. As the original building of the college, I believe at least part of it is still there. It was visible from the window of my very first home on College Avenue.)

That library is intriguing because it may have inspired a young visitor to the house in 1852, a telegraph operator named Andrew Carnegie. It was apparently the first library he'd seen and it impressed him. Ironically perhaps, though Carnegie built some 1700 public libraries across America, there was never a Carnegie library in Greensburg. He did offer to build one in 1896, but he always insisted that the host municipality pay for upkeep, and Greensburg demurred.

The first attempt at a public library quickly outgrew its space, and General Richard Coulter, who commanded troops in World War I and belonged to a prominent Greensburg family wealthy from banking and coal, donated his old home on South Main Street. (Built in 1881, this may have also been the home of his father, the first Richard Coulter, who was a member of Congress and a state supreme court judge.) It opened as the Greensburg Public Library on June 26, 1940, almost precisely six years before my birth.

This is the building where I got that first library card, and which I frequented until I left for college. On that first day I learned the terms: I could borrow as many as three books from the children's room (but only from there), for two weeks, with the opportunity to renew for another two weeks. Fines for overdue books were on the order of a penny to three cents a day.

 I was probably asked what kind of books I was interested in, and I mentioned science fiction, or at least spaceships. I was steeped in Saturday morning shows like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett and Rocky Jones: Space Ranger, and even before that, I'd watched Captain Video every evening. By then the exciting Man in Space episode of Tomorrowland on the Disneyland hour may have aired. I'd seen a few science fiction movies, and may have read a Robert Heinlein story in Boy's Life.

So I went home that day with The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin. It looked like this, although I remember the cover as red.

 So many times--up the steps, into the front door, with the circulation desk dead ahead. A sharp left turn and down a few polished wooden steps to the children's room. In a few years, I would be sneaking behind the bulletin board at the far right corner of the room, which hid the dimly lit adult stacks in the rooms next to it, books from ceiling to floor.

 It was a bit spooky in there at first. But by junior high years, having learned the rudiments of the Dewy Decimal System and how to use the card catalog, I searched and browsed back there.

 I also checked the shelves of new books on the wall just opposite the circulation desk, to the left of the entrance. To the right were a couple of smaller rooms, one of which was the reference library, with a big globe. I remember reading chapters in the Catholic Encyclopedia in there on a high school evening, shocked by what some of the Popes had gotten up to.

In the early '60s I discovered that I was allowed to take the stairs to the second floor that began just behind and a little to the right of the circulation desk. On the second floor was a room of recordings, and a record player. Amazing! Classical, jazz and most importantly just then, folk music albums.


I also was introduced to recorded humor--the albums of the new comedians I saw on TV like Bob Newhart, but especially to the satiric Stan Freberg. I loved those albums! Freberg (among others) inspired me to write satirical scripts and record them with three friends (The Four Frauds) and later I learned songs and even stole funny bits from those folk albums, as three of us morphed into a folk group, the Crosscurrents.

 The public library provided access to records I didn't know about and couldn't afford to buy anyway. But it mostly put books into my hands--books I had no other way of even touching, let alone reading. Going to the library, selecting the books, were among my first independent acts.

Being conscientious about getting the books back on time was among my first independent responsibilities...And of course I remember fondly several of the library ladies who were always there--friendly, sometimes scary, but who knew me and talked to me as a reader.

Several years after I'd left for college, in 1969, the library moved to a much bigger building, the massive old Post Office a block away on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Post Office moved into a new and smaller building across the street.

 This building, now called the Greensburg-Hempfield Area Library, itself has a complicated history I haven't entirely put together yet. It opened in 1911--old enough to offer a prospect for watching one of the last Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows parade into town.

One Greensburg history says it was built according to the plan for the Charlotteville, Virginia post office (1905), and indeed they look all but identical. (That's Greensburg above, Charlottesville left.)

That provenance may help account for the prominent columns and portico--though a popular style at the time (variously called colonial revival, neo-colonial and Beaux Arts) it especially echoes a lot of Charlottesville (and University of Virginia) buildings, which themselves echo Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home outside that city.

 The Greensburg building's interior was extensively renovated and probably expanded (I'm thinking perhaps at the back of the building) in 1934-5.  According to the Filson Historical Society in Kentucky, this project was designed and carried out by Samuel Plato, the first African American to receive commissions to build US Post Office buildings. He was also a builder who insisted on integrated work forces.

The 30s and 40s were busy in Greensburg and Westmoreland County, so this was not just the post office but the county Federal Building, housing offices of the Agriculture Department, U.S. Navy, IRS, Civil Service Commission, Census Bureau and the congressional district office.

 It seems likely that the renovation was at least in part a New Deal project, but I can't find documentation of that. I'm still looking into the history of this building and this 1930s project, so if anybody in Greensburg could find and photograph a cornerstone dedication or a plaque inside the building, I'd love to have it. It's puzzling to me that Greensburg seems to ignore this building and its history, even though it seems to be within its official historic district.

When I returned to town for a couple of hitches in the 70s and 80s I dropped by the library in its new building. The entrance area was huge, the circulation desk impressively big, and the ceilings very high. The first time I visited there was even one of the same library ladies there. I asked her if she remembered me. "Yes," she said, not approving of my beard, however. "You look like an old sailor." I immediately thought of all the books I'd borrowed that featured ships and the sea.

At this point they were getting rid of old books and had them on sale in the lobby or just outside. I bought my cherished two volume set of William Manchester's history of the 20th century, The Glory and the Dream, for twenty cents. And a first edition of Wallace Stevens' first book of poems, for a dime.

 A final anecdote suggests a different aspect of this story. Sometime in the late 70s or early 80s I was suddenly inspired to look for a book I'd taken out in high school. I found it in the stacks. It was obviously the very same copy (dark blue, gold lettering.) The old card system was still being used, with a card in a pocket just inside the book to indicate the due date. Often this card traveled with the book, and had its title and number on it, as well as the signature of the person borrowing, so you could actually see how many times it had been taken out, and by whom. Homeland Security would have loved it.

 As I took the book to the circulation desk, I glanced at the card. The first and last time it had been taken out was 1963, and the first and last person to take it out was me. The book was by Richard Hofstader: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

It's a small town library, serving small town people. But among those people is somebody like me; in fact, for those years, exactly me. This book, clearly of minority interest, was here. They bought it and kept it, and it waited for me.

 The public library is open to all, but serves individuals within the all. Even a minority of one. And we all get to borrow these books, on the same easy terms. The public library is a miracle. It's the most democratic of institutions, and therefore, a democratic miracle.

 As for the first book I borrowed, The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree, it's a somewhat witty tale that today would remind people of E.T. But after my two weeks were up I took it back without completing it. (I have however read it since, and have acquired my own copy.)

  Reading a whole book is a skill, and in my case it took more time to acquire it. I would soon find on those shelves just the books to really get me started. But that's for next time.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Hero of His Own Life? Notes on Dickens' David Copperfield

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” It's one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and after reading Charles Dickens' David Copperfield again, I'm struck by the ambiguous answer I might give.

 For in key moments, it isn't David Copperfield who is heroic, but other characters. The novel has the usual thoroughly evil Dickens' villains: David's cruel stepfather Murdstone and Murdstone's echoing sister Jane, the craven and cruel schoolmaster Creakle (a brief appearance but so meaty that Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellan both made a ham sandwich of him in film versions) and the unforgettable Uriah Heep.

 There are the usual slyly satiric portraits of institutions of law and order, and the men who make their livings from them, more than hinting at Dickens' underlying outrage and disdain. There is also a hero (at least in David's eyes) who commits acts of villainy that Copperfield condemns, yet he persists in remembering him "at his best."

 There is a kind of angel or goddess, a child woman, a girl who yearns too much, a wayward girl, and an old woman servant with a heart of gold. There are the stalwart and large-hearted men of the sea, Mr. Peggotty and Ham.

 And there are the somewhat comic characters that populate a Dickens novel: his Aunt Betsey and her friend Mr. Dick, the eternal complainer Mrs. Gummidge, Copperfield's school friend and later companion the hapless Traddles, and the most famous of all, the scoundrel with a heart of gold, Mr. Micawber, and his long-suffering wife.

 As he does in other novels, Dickens' pegs several of these "minor" characters with their repeated turns of phrase and small repeated behaviors. But notably and in some respects unexpectedly, several of them do the heroic deeds. It's Micawber and Traddles who bring Uriah Heep to heel. It's Aunt Betsy who rescues young David, Mr. Peggotty who with the help of the wayward girl rescues the girl who yearns too much, Emily. And it's Ham who dies attempting to rescue a survivor of a storm at sea. Even Mrs. Gummidge becomes heroic.

 It's true of course that classical heroes often have decisive help, and couldn't accomplish their goal without aid. And David does have his moments, particularly when he suddenly becomes the financial support of others and applies himself with discipline and hard work. But it took the special interest and attention of others, as well as their good-heartedness and generosity, responding to David's good-heartedness and generosity, for him to succeed.

I read this Signet edition, which was the
first to publish Dickens' entire text.
Since I knew the story, both from having read the book before and from seeing a couple of film versions, the emotional response to key happenings was muted, and I was better able to appreciate how Dickens created his effects, and generally to savor the details. So while it didn't have the emotional resonance of reading W.G. Sebald's enigmatic The Emigrants, which I also recently finished, it provided other pleasures.

 But it's probably more than that. When I was younger I was more than impatient with the pace and language of 19th century novels--it took great effort to sit still for them. I craved faster prose and faster styles of storytelling that I found especially in some contemporary authors. I was young, it was the 1960s, my metabolism was set to rock music. I eventually could become immersed in the images of foreign films but I found these books difficult to sink into.

 That's not a problem now. My old metabolism is happy to read those long sentences and long books, though I take my time, and read not much more than a chapter at a sitting. For both reasons, I read with delight, savoring the language and narrative skill.

 For example, he gives us the murderous-hearted Mr. Murdstone (need it be said for a character in Dickens that he's aptly named? J.K. Rowling must have known her Dickens) and his sister, Miss Murdstone, as the tyrants of David's young life. Then after leaving them behind in David's boyhood, he inexplicably and a bit awkwardly makes Miss Murdstone the paid companion of David's employer's daughter who he loves and intends to marry. But it pays off in a confrontation scene.

 After Miss Murdstone has informed on David, the father opposes the marriage. As the scene begins with formalities, Dickens reminds us of Miss Murdstone's character with a memorable expression. He doesn't say that David takes her cold hand in greeting, but that "Miss Murdstone gave me her chilly finger-nails, and sat severely rigid." What a sentence!

But the resonance is given additional power at the end of the conference, as David observes: "Miss Murdstone's heavy eyebrows followed me to the door...and she looked so exactly as she used to look, at about that hour of the morning..." when she glowered at him over his lessons.

 It's true that David doesn't exhibit much psychological acuity, apparently not sensing that his first choice for a wife replicated qualities of his mother. But on more general matters he shows some insight. “I had considered how the things that never happen are often as much realities to us, in their effects, as those that are accomplished.” 


Originally serialized in a periodical, each
installment ended in a "cliffhanger."
This was a popular work of fiction, serialized in a periodical. So the philosophical observations in the writing may not be earthshaking but remain essential--and especially essential to Dickens, as in the ruminations of a very minor character near the end of the novel:

 “Dear me,” said Mr. Omer, “when a man is drawing on to a time of life, when the two ends of life meet...he should be over-rejoiced to do a kindness if he can... And I don’t speak of myself particular, because, sir, the way I look at it is that we are all drawing on to the bottom of the hill, whatever age we are, on account of time never standing still for a single moment. So let us always do a kindness, and be over-rejoiced.” 

 As for the film versions, they may guide the reader through main events and give visual references to the characters, but they are far too short to suggest the richness and riches of the book. It's good to have a guide through the story, though, and fun to see good portrayals of the characters.

 Probably the best version is the 1999 BBC/PBS miniseries, mostly because it is the longest. But even this one is not full enough--after lavishing attention on the earlier parts of the novel, it rushes through climactic scenes and invents others. One notable change is the fate of Uriah Heep. In the movie he is arrested and is seen as a prisoner to be transported to a penal colony in Australia. But in the novel, Micawber and Traddles force Heep to make restitution and return funds he had stolen, under threat of exposure. Dickens clearly doesn't trust the justice system of his day. (The film's solution also muddles the positive meaning of a new life in Australia for other characters in this book.)

But this film version features a fine performance by Daniel Radcliffe as the very young David, shortly before he became Harry Potter. Other performances are definitive: Maggie Smith is Aunt Betsey, Nicholas Lyndhurst is Uriah Heep and so on down the line--in particular, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Micawber (and that's saying something, since the role was also played in movie versions by Ralph Richardson and W.C. Fields.)

 The one questionable role was the adult David Copperfield, and that seemed to be the case in all other film versions. Probably it is not the fault of the actors--in this case, perfectly serviceable--but in the role. He is the center of the action, but he mostly reacts. Still, it's notable that well-known actors played the "minor" roles, and not this one. 

Which suggests again but doesn't answer the first question posed. David is the narrator of the story, and he becomes a writer in the course of the book. (Which could be one reason why Dickens named this as the favorite of his novels.) But is he is the hero of his own life? Well, we might say of him as of ourselves: if not, who is?

My Bleak House Experience

Perhaps it was my selection of classes, or a reflection on the times (the 1960s, though the lit department was still enthralled with the New Criticism of earlier decades) but I got a bad impression of Charles Dickens as an English literature and composition major in college.

It didn't help that my only experiences with Dickens were an interminable term in high school forced through Great Expectations, and the annual television viewing of one or another version of the melodramatic romp of A Christmas Carol.

But things are different now, and so am I.  I'm not in the academic grip of modernism, nor postmodernism for that matter.  I'm in no academic grip at all. Nor do I read for money much anymore.  I can read what I like.

These days I'm liking Charles Dickens, perhaps because I've become acquainted with his work through Bleak House, one of his later big novels which some consider his best.  Some call it the best English novel of the 19th century.

I was startled by the freedom and virtuosity of Dickens in Bleak House as well as his powers of description. In the immense space of that novel he could be satirical and naturalistic, transparently heartfelt and slyly ironic. Some of it bordered on surrealism. The moderns must have stolen a lot from Dickens, perhaps even while denouncing him.

But after 881 pages of the Signet paperback edition, I read the short afterword by Geoffrey Tillotson and learned that Dickens not only riffed on some of his contemporaries like Carlyle and Tennyson but learned his satiric technique from 18th century poet Alexander Pope. This is the difference between working writers, who beg, borrow and steal from the best no matter their current standing, and the critics and teachers of literature, who decide who is fashionable and legitimate to read.

I also watched the 2005 miniseries of Bleak House on DVD.  It was decently faithful to the book's characters and plot, and especially useful to me fairly early in my reading.  I watched all the episodes on the first of three disks, which coincidentally ended at about where I'd last left off reading.  It helped in clarifying some plot points.  After that, I enjoyed it less as accompaniment as for itself, with its uniformly fine acting.

Having the plot clarified and seeing the characters portrayed did not disturb my reading at all, partly because I was reading in considerable degree for other elements.

I recently saw the Richard Curtis movie About Time. It concerns a contemporary young man who learns from his father that the men in their family can travel through time, though only the past times of their own lives. When his father (played by Bill Nighy) reveals this and the son asks him how he's used this gift, the Nighy character says he's used this infinite time to read books. He's read everything he's wanted to twice, and Dickens three times.

 At my age I read for the experience of it, while I'm reading. I don't worry about how much I retain. Well, I do notice the loss, but it doesn't stop me from reading as much as I can. One thing has remained true, and perhaps become more true: I read not so much for story or even characters but for the diction, the vocabulary, the rhythms. The words, the sentences, and so on. I guess you can say I read for a good time, but what constitutes a good time for me would probably mystify most people.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My Book House

These days I live in a house of books. There are book shelves in nearly every room, and in the two rooms where I spend the most time alone, overflowing bookcases line several walls in each, from floor to nearly the ceiling.

 Growing up most of a continent away, there were always some books in our house (though none in most other homes I visited), and I always had books to hold and look at. I had Golden Books of the 1950s, and other child-size books like Little Toot and The Little Red Caboose. But I also had a library of particular book-size books. My first house of books was My Book House.

Officially called The Book House For Children, they were illustrated anthologies of verse and prose edited by Olive Beaupre Miller and published under its own imprint in Chicago. The first set came out in a series beginning in 1920, and some version would continue to be published until 1971.

 The set that I grew up with was published in 1943. The prior 1920s editions were six thick volumes but by the 40s the same basic material was in twelve volumes of more than 200 pages each. They were deep blue, thinner but larger in size to better accommodate illustrations.

We had fifteen books in all, for the set included a Parents' Guide Book and two extra volumes, the orange Tales Told in Holland and the lighter blue Nursery Friends From France, both unchanged from 1927, when they accompanied the original sets as "My Travelship." There was a third Travelship volume called Little Pictures of Japan, but I don't recall we had it, possibly because it wasn't offered in 1943 since the US was at war with Japan.

Our set must have been acquired at my birth in 1946. I believe my mother's sister Antoinette, who was a teacher, either gave us the set or advised my mother to buy it. It became central to my childhood and that of my sisters, Kathy and Debbie. I have the set now, and evidence of each of us survives in the books themselves: my scrawls of the alphabet and attempts to print my name in pencil and crayon, a number of blank endpapers in the Parents' Guide volume decorated with Kathy's drawings, and a clutch of napkins stuck in one volume upon which Debbie wrote and drew--and signed, when she was seven.

We were not the only ones who grew up with these books, of course. In recent years they've become a favorite of home schoolers. Writers remember them. Novelist Jim Harrison mentioned the Book House set several times in his fiction and nonfiction. Larry McMurtry writes a few words about it in his autobiographical Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, which I've recently read and which prompted these musings on my early experience with books.

 For me now, the color, slight shine and heft of these volumes, the very touch of their cool surfaces, still define "books." As I view their contents, browsing by the light of the floor lamp that had once been in my grandparents' living room, now nearest to the shelves where these books repose, I can be taken back to earliest impressions, especially by the relationship of these evocative, colorful and now singular illustrations to the text.

The content is comprised of verse and prose, often by (or adapted from) classic authors from many countries. The twelve volumes were arranged in a graduated sequence of readings for children from babydom to early adolescence. This approach is codified in a general way by the Parents Guide Book titled In Your Hands. It provides advice and information in a direct and informal tone, like the then wildly popular books by Doctor Spock.

 Once I'd learned to read I don't recall my mother offering any guidance as suggested, but she seems to have heeded some of the suggestions on reading to babies. (I have the advantage of having my own very real memories confirmed by watching her with my younger sisters, particularly Debbie, who was born when I was 8.)

 For example, the book suggests how to hold a baby's arms and clap while mother recites "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man" (which sounded more like "patty-cake" to me) and how to play with the babies toes for "This little piggy went to market." It's exactly how my mother did it, although she sometimes added a rhythmic bouncing as she held me on her knee, which I believe was important in showing me that whatever else words in such arrangements were about, they were first of all about rhythm and music.

Since my mother's own babyhood was in Italy and the Italian language, and I was the eldest child of two eldest children in the vanguard of my generation, I believe she was following this book's instruction, including gradually getting me to chant along, and to anticipate the words and rhymes. The rhythmic bouncing, however, was probably homegrown. Since I remember my grandmother doing that with us, she probably had done so with my mother.

But other instruction she ignored, just as we ignored many of the other selections in that first volume, In the Nursery. I know that we used this book even for these common nursery rhymes because I remember poring over the illustrations. Many of the illustrations were comical, many quite literal, many romantic in a 19th century style.

When I look at them now, I feel the resonance of their magic then. Like the animals around a music stand under the verses about the sounds they make ( Bow-wow," says the dog; "Mew, Mew," says the cat; "Grunt, grunt," goes the hog; And "Squeak!" goes the rat.) Or the cow flying over the moon accompanying "Hey diddle diddle," the subject as well--as my mother once pointed out to me--of our cookie jar.

 After fifty pages of common nursery rhymes, there are successive sections of short rhymes from Scotland, Wales and Ireland; Norse, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, South American, Mexican, Polish, Swedish, Chinese and East Indian nursery rhymes, and one Japanese lullaby, before national and regional rhymes from America, including American Indian Songs.

Then another set of short sections of German, French, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, Canadian, Russian, and Hungarian rhymes, and a Roumanian lullaby. Rhymes from Finland, Africa; rhymes from Shakespeare, verse from Keats, Robert Burns, Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Robert Lewis Stevenson.

 Some of the verses get longer before the book turns to prose, and explores childhood experience in a neighborhood, on a farm, in a big city and so on, sometimes in stories similar to those found in an early grade reader, sometimes adapted from authors like Hans Christian Andersen. Ending up with tales from Greece, Rome and the Bible. All in this first volume.

 This resolute international inclusiveness, the combination of folk stories, myths and work of classic authors, set one pattern for further volumes. Olive Beaupre Miller would change the mix over the years, but this edition seems to preserve some authentic cultural fragments, perhaps otherwise lost, with no apology for how puzzling many selections were and are.

Volume 2 is appropriately named Story Time because it introduces stories rather than anecdotes and descriptive narratives, including fables (Aesop and otherwise), folk tales from many cultures (one retold by Tolstoy), Bible stories ("Noah's Ark") and classic tales (Peter Rabbit, the Nutcracker) interspersed with verses, including two by William Blake, one ("Owl and the Pussycat") by Edward Lear, and one by the Indian poet Tagore.

 Some stories have morals and messages, but they aren't all "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Little Engine That Could" (which are included.) The one that stayed with me is "The Gingerbread Man" (who in the story is called the Gingerbread Boy.) The Gingerbread Boy comes to life, leaps out of the oven and over 8 madcap pages inset with illustrations, he laughs and outruns everybody. Until the last page when he reaches the river, still being pursued, and accepts the fox's offer to carry him across on his back. As the water gets deeper the fox counsels him to jump up on his shoulder and then his nose, until the fox eats him.

Not exactly a strive and succeed sort of story, but the impact of it hit me with the final illustration. Most of the figures had been cartoonish, except the fox in the final one, which is rendered with startling realism. I'm surprised now to see how small this illustration is, down at the bottom of the page, because it made a big impression on me, when my mother read me the story.

 The illustration in this book I most loved however was of the Sandman holding his wondrous umbrella over a sleeping child. The umbrella reminded me of a similarly shaped and decorated lampshade on a table lamp at my grandparents. (I believe my sister Kathy has it now.)

Volume 3, Up One Pair of Stairs was transitional--I remember reading parts of it myself. I learned to recognize words on my own, but didn't really read until taught to do so in first grade, where I was in the Rosebuds reading group, the most advanced one. We started with the classic Dick and Jane readers, though possibly a Catholic edition.

This volume of My Book House has more and longer prose stories, and the illustrations have changed. In the first two volumes the colors were bright and varied, with variations of reds. Though I believe they all were done with a four-color process (illustrations using similar colors appeared together), the palate mostly became restricted in this and subsequent volumes to shades of blue and orange as well as black and white, and more like art deco. They were less prominent usually, deferring to the text, but not always.

Both my sister Kathy and I especially remember the final selection, "Water Babies," with verses based on the story by Charles Kingsley. A kind of fairy tale that I can now see is touching upon issues of innocence, socialization and nascent sexuality, its illustrations probably seemed daring to us, as they modestly portray the nudity implied in the text.

By volume 3, the books in my set are also in better shape, showing less handling than the first two. Now I seem them as treasuries, but at the time they competed with schoolbooks and later with comics and library books. But I did read selections in all of the volumes, often in bed and especially when restricted to bed by my many childhood illnesses (mumps, chicken pox, measles twice as well as colds, flus, etc.)

In volume 4 (Through the Gate) I'm sure I read about Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed and the Fisherman and His Wife, a cautionary tale about greed.





Volume 5 (Over the Hills) wove in more history, with several pieces about Abraham Lincoln (and the Gettysburg Address verbatim), along with Jack and the Beanstalk, a poem by Emerson, and William Dean Howell's "The Pony Engine and the Pacific Express" (I especially loved stories about trains, like those I could see a few blocks from my grandmother's house.)


Volume 6 (Through Fairy Halls) emphasizes magical worlds, though hewing close to impressive classical sources, such as libretto for operas, a tone poem by Debussy, Shakespeare (prose telling of A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Dickens, and stories about Leonardo da Vinci and composer Felix Mendelssohn. The versions of stories we would know in more popularized form like Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty are closer to original sources. Again, a mix of international tales, including Alaskan, Hawaiian, Northwest and Winnebago Native tales, and poems by Basho and Eugene Field.

 Now when I browse subsequent volumes I see poems, excerpts and rewritten tales from authors and works I've since read. If I read these as a child, their influence was subconscious, but then much of education is. There are bookmarks left in them (one indicating 1962) by one or another of us.

The one volume I remember best is the eighth: Flying Sails. At some age--perhaps 11 or so--I became passionately interested in tales of ships and the sea, and voyages. And of all the stories in this volume, the one I recall definitely reading first there is "Gulliver's Travels to Lilliput."

 Comparison to Jonathan Swift's text shows this to be only lightly edited and condensed, so Swift's voice is preserved as well as the now classic story. Again I remember reading it here because I recall the illustrations. But these illustrations are not so numerous, and the story lasts for some forty pages. The point being that while I was transported by the wonder of the story, I was given the opportunity to absorb its literary merits as well.

Volume 12 (Halls of Fame) is devoted largely to biographical sketches of authors, including authors of famous fairy tales with suggestions of their hidden historical references. It notably includes a long, illustrated retelling of Goethe's Faust. This final volume ends with an index to the entire set, plus a child development index that sends the parent or reader to appropriate pages for views on bravery, courtesy, imagination, shyness etc.


These books existed in my life within a context that prominently included movies (especially Disney), radio (early on) and television, as well as phonograph records. (I still have my battered 78 version of Tubby the Tuba.) But the point is that books were represented, and not just picture books or school books (which barely registered as books.) My Book House provided living examples of what books are, and the template for my further and continuing explorations of these nurturing, magical objects.