Monday, October 16, 2017

Library Days: The Boy of Summers

I recall the summers of my 11th and 12th year as both my actual initiation into the joys of reading books, and in some ways, the purest and most perfect experiences of them, due largely to the revelations of discovery, the awakening, shimmering clarity of the first time.

 Between baseball, bike trips, paper routes and Saturday afternoons at the movies in those hot golden months in western Pennsylvania, my visits to the Greensburg Public Library on Main Street became more frequent and regular. There I searched and settled on my three allotted volumes, which most times I would easily finish within my two-week limit.

 I read outside, including with my back against a huge rock that I discovered in a nearby hillside vacant lot of scattered trees and bushes, my fortress of solitude. I read sprawled on the sofa in the living room, the curtains drawn against the afternoon heat, Italian style. I read in my bedroom, on my double bed or in it, within the umbra of my bedside lamp.

 I read sipping Kool-Aid, munching an apple or pear, or with a stack of saltines nearby, with butter or peanut butter between two crackers. I read restlessly and with total absorption, until I got restless again, forcing me reluctantly out of my reading dream.

My choice of reading wasn't at all precocious. I've noted the Hardy Boys novels. I also read sports books, both fiction and biographies. I was beginning to notice the author's name on a book I liked, and to look for other books they wrote. I read The Kid Comes Back, a baseball story by John R. Tunis, and I remembered his name and found other sports fictions he wrote, like Young Razzle and Go, Team, Go!

 Sports books were a staple of fiction for boys--a cache of my uncle's books I discovered in my grandmother's attic had several from his childhood. John R. Tunis was perhaps a more serious writer than most. The Kid Comes Back was a sequel to The Kid From Tomkinsville, about a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Published in 1946, it begins with the hero, Roy Tucker, in France during World War II. Like a number of Major League players, his career was interrupted by service overseas. There are thoughtful reflections on regrets for not taking better advantage of school for knowledge that would be an advantage to their survival.

Tucker is injured, and once the novel returns to baseball, it is about his struggle to overcome his injury and war experiences, and find a role as an older player, which is to support the team first. The baseball sections are detailed, with managerial strategy and game descriptions--just what we wanted at that age, as we were learning the game from radio broadcasts and--if we were lucky enough to run into knowledgeable adults--from coaches and baseball dads.

 Tunis is considered the father of modern sports books, and Roy Tucker is an obvious forerunner for Roy Hobbs in Malamud's The Natural. His young football hero in All American battles anti-Semitism and racial discrimination. Tunis also wrote on other subjects in his books for young readers. His last book in the 1960s, His Enemy, His Friend, is a poignant and eloquent novel exposing the brutalization of war, centered on the retreat from Dunkirk. In the adult world Tunis was a sports commentator and writer who could be a harsh critic of, for example, the role of money in college football.

Joe Archibald is another author's name I remembered, though I'm not sure which of his scores of sports books I read--probably novels about football and baseball. Archibald wrote fiction and sport biographies, and I also read those. One of the bios I remember (not Archibald's work, I don't think) was about Jackie Robinson (the first African American player in the majors and one of baseball's great all-time star), which opened with him at a young age trying to scratch his black skin off his arm, because of the prejudice he experienced. It was a powerful image and message. 

I read adventure stories about sailing ships and pirates, possibly under the influence of TV's "The Buccaneers" (another syndicated series imported from England and largely written by blacklisted American writers) as well as the Disney movie of Treasure Island, at least as excerpted on the Disneyland TV show.

 Though I don't remember any specifically, I may have actually read some Robert Louis Stevenson, but all I recall is that I came up against my limit in reading one of these books about seafaring--it was too long and too hard to follow. (It might have been one I secreted from the adult stacks.) But eventually I would return to such tales: a paperback of Conrad's Lord Jim was one of the books I took with me to college.

I was actually much more interested in modern stories about ships and the Navy. I particularly liked Midshipman Lee of the Naval Academy by Annapolis grad Robb White. I'm pretty sure I'd already read it when I first saw a TV series called "Men of Annapolis" (it began in 1957 and ran for only one season)-- Robb White was one of its writers. There was also a West Point Story TV series at the time, which I watched, and I found novels about West Point, too.

 I got so enthusiastic I decided that when I was college age I would try to get into the Naval Academy. I would need to be appointed by our congressman, but my father used to see him at Democratic gatherings, and I'd already corresponded with him, so I thought I had a good chance. I held onto that dream until one day, descending from my house to the road, I suddenly realized that being deaf in one ear would disqualify me.

But before that terminal thought, I actually did go to the Naval Academy. During my 11th summer I spent several weeks at my cousins on the eastern shore of Maryland, and when my parents drove down to pick me up, we detoured to Annapolis for a quick drive through the Academy grounds, pausing long enough for me to hop out and have my picture taken.

 Something else happened on that trip. As we were piling into the Ford to leave Federalsburg, my Aunt Toni produced a tin of her homemade cookies and a cardboard box of old science fiction magazines which I assume had belonged to my Uncle Bill. These were the classic s/f pulps with boldly colored art on the covers, containing mostly short stories. It was a long drive, and I spent it in the back seat, reading story after story while munching chocolate chip cookies, nut rolls and jumbalones in the speeding summer light.

American science fiction was largely that--short stories published in the pulps, and it had been that way since the 1920s. The relatively few science fiction novels were usually cheap paperbacks. This was still a pulp genre.

 But in the 1950s, several publishers started a science fiction novel series for young readers--especially baby boomers like me, because there were a lot of us. Alice May Norton (under the name "Andre Norton") wrote them for Ace books--I don't remember seeing these.  However, I do remember the other two.

Beginning in 1947, Robert Heinlein wrote a series of a dozen "juveniles" for Scribners. For some reason--possibly because he published short stories in Boys Life--I recognized Heinlein's name early, probably the first science fiction writer's name I knew. Or maybe I learned to recognize his name from this series.

They were published in hardback, expressly for libraries, and their success helped jumpstart hardback science fiction novels for adults. Among the differences between his adult and juvenile fiction, Heinlein said, was that "the books for boys are somewhat harder to read because younger readers relish tough ideas they have to chew and don't mind big words..." In fact, these novels track well with the universe Heinlein created in his work for adults.

The most famous of his series was Space Cadet, a major influence on Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek, as well as inspiring the early TV series "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" and several other such TV shows that featured variations on the Space Patrol.

 The last in the Heinlein series in 1958 (Have Space Suit--Will Travel) has a lot of technical detail on space suits which didn't yet exist, partly because as a Navy engineer in World War II Heinlein had been tasked to design a space suit (or more specifically a high altitude pressure suit), a job he passed on to another officer who would also become a prominent science fiction writer. The whole idea of the space suit began in science fiction, as did so much of early space technology.

The titles I was most likely to have seen in these years were Citizen of the Galaxy and Time for the Stars, though I have a feeling I read Starman Jones.   Tunnel in the Sky (1955) depicted a group of young people marooned on a hostile wilderness planet who split into rival groups but ultimately realize they need to all cooperate to survive.  Science fiction historian H. Bruce Franklin believes it was Heinlein's reply to William Golding's famous Lord of the Flies, published the year before.

But I don't really remember which of this series I read back then, and probably never will, because about four years ago I tracked them all down (some I had, some were actually in the university library's children's room in their original editions, and some were available to buy in quality paperback collections) and read them in order of composition. They are all excellent. I wrote about them individually here.

 Apart from the quality of storytelling and sophisticated scientific detail, they engage moral and ethical questions, and expose various forms of racism and prejudice, as well as authoritarian (and big business) excesses.

The juveniles I remember mostly vividly and even reverently were in the Winston Science Fiction series. These were written by different authors including Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova, Raymond F. Jones, and several (as many as 9 of the 35) by Lester Del Rey. This series (and the other two) "seem to have started a whole generation toward becoming science fiction fans," Del Rey wrote in 1979. "People still come up to me to declare that one of my juveniles was the first science fiction book they ever read."

 Again, I don't remember which I read, though I'm fairly sure they included Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse, Rocket to Luna by Robert Marsten (one of crime novelist Ed McBain's several pseudonyms) and Son of the Stars by Raymond F. Jones (who authored This Island Earth, which was freely adapted into the script for one of the better 50s sci-fi films.)

A number of these novels were reprinted in paperback editions by Thunderchild Publishing. These have the virtue of the original cover illustrations but lack the wraparound endpages and the heft of the original. One (The Secret of the Ninth Planet by Donald Wollheim) includes a marginally informative but ultimately unsatisfying essay on the history of the series. Original editions with pristine dust jackets are collector's items, but some old hardback library copies are around, and carry more resonance for me.

The Winston series was unified by a distinctive logo and especially the eerie endpapers which were the same for every book. The cover art was distinctive, too, but I never saw it on my public library copies. But those endpaper illustrations inside the front and back were in every volume, and more than any single book, I remember poring over this art, trying to imagine a tale that would unite them into a single story.

I wouldn't have seen or read these books but for the public library. (Some cheap editions of Robb White's work were available through schools, though I don't believe they were in mine. Also, I'm not aware that any of my schools had libraries until high school, and that was a small one I hardly ever used.)

 None of these are classic authors or books, though I suspect many baby boomers remember them fondly. Their techniques and rhythms prepared me for other literature, I believe, but I still find value in them on their own. I have copies of many of them today, and have read them in recent years.

 That they reawaken and renew the boy that remains an integral part of me is only one of their functions. For I read them again with calm pleasure and active delight, as well as the thrill of re-discovery.

This is one of a series of posts on childhood reading and the origins of my relationships with books, inspired by Larry McMurtry's reflections in his autobiographical Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Earlier posts are on the Book House books, Library Days and the Hardy Boys.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Dollar Diving

Searching out the hidden gems or just indulging in guilty pleasures at a bargain--those are the delights of shopping for books at The Dollar Store (or in my case the Dollar Tree.)

Guilty pleasures that the $ store indulges for me are "celebrity" memoirs.  But not celebrities actually--people whose work in film, theatre, music, TV I respect.  My first such purchase was actor John Lithgow's autobio Drama: An Actor's Education (Harper Perennial), which was interesting beyond the personal (that he had an affair with Liv Ullmann was a surprise.)  The "education" aspect applies his own experiences to the attempt to get the kind of work that leads to a fulfilling creative career.  He's clear that his affable and pliable personality helped and occasionally hurt him, that luck as well as determination, work and talent played a significant part.  Not a new combination but unique in each case, and the way it all happens is its own story, and we love stories.

Plus for me his book revealed that we have a friend in common (David Ansen, his Harvard roommate, who I knew as a film reviewer in Boston) and, in its opening pages, he put me onto a book I've since acquired and am enjoying, a 1939 anthology of short stories edited by Somerset Maugham, Teller Of Tales.

Next was Billy Crystal's autobio Still Foolin' Em (Holt)  I could have done with fewer aging jokes, but once it became about his amazing life, pretty absorbing.  His ties to his early life and family informed every step of his career, and he made some astonishing friendships (Muhammad Ali for one) that lasted.  He lived in this particular strata of powerful people, but within it, they were (in his telling) kind to each other, or at least to him. That was intriguing.

Most recently I've read Play On, the memoir by Fleetwood Mac co-founder and drummer Mick Fleetwood with journalist Anthony Bozza (Little, Brown.) Fleetwood's book is well-organized and told in a consistent voice. It deals with his personal relationships as well as musical accomplishments.  Accounts of both benefit from interviews with others, and in the case of his first ex-wife, her own memoir (Jenny Boyd, sister of Patti Boyd, who met George Harrison on the set of A Hard Day's Night, married him, and left him for Eric Clapton. The pop world of that era was decidedly inbred.)  The book also is by a 65 year old man who was still performing when it was published in 2014, and so benefits from maturity while it makes an effort to communicate the feeling of the time.

We know these artists from their works, and especially in the case of music, our memories adhere to moments in our own lives, often fraught with emotion.  Fleetwood Mac represented something particular to me in the 1970s, which had nothing to do with the band itself, only with their music when and how I received it.

But I've got at least a dollar's worth of curiosity about their reality.  I knew a little about the complicated personal relationships within the band  from occasional press accounts and a bit of personal experience (I stayed with a friend in Santa Monica who was also occasionally hosting secret liaisons of Stevie Nicks with the Beach Boy's Dennis Wilson; so Stevie and I apparently shared a bathroom.)  But as this book demonstrates, I really had no idea.

Similarly I was on the fringes of the rock music culture in the 70s but wasn't aware of the apotheosis of excess represented by Fleetwood Mac on the road at the height of its fame.  Mick Fleetwood emerges as basically good-hearted and trying to make sense of it all, but let's say he wasn't a fast learner.  What's amazing to contemplate is that all this emotional chaos and all this excess went into creating what I hear as possibly the cleanest, most efficient and yet emotional sound any pop music of the period produced.  Clearly the songs expressed emotions from these relationships, but how did all that excess lead to such economical music? Was it all really necessary?  That's the question it leaves with me, unanswerable.

Then there are the hidden gems--the discoveries, or the books by authors you know and admire.  I've read a half dozen of Jonathan Lethem's books of fiction, including Chronic City, a novel I especially liked.  So as soon as I saw it, I grabbed Lucky Alan and Other Stories (Doubleday 2015.)

You wouldn't call Lethem a realistic and naturalistic writer, but sometimes he comes close.  The title story and the first in the collection, "Lucky Alan" reminded me of the askew realism of Chronic City.  The subject of the collection's last and longest story ("Pending Vegan"), a young father with his family at Sea World, is something the young John Updike would have written about, although with different effect.

But other stories are more tilted towards the transparently surreal.  Some are riffs on newer forms, like the graphic novel ("Their Back Pages") or the blog: "The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Ear" is told in the blog form, with the most recent (the end) at the top, or the beginning. "Procedure in Plain Air," on the other hand, seems to be in the style of Kafka, including something like his length.

As a reading experience, the stylistic changes are a bit jarring, but then it's a story collection.  One or two seem like exercises but most have qualities of old fashioned stories, including sudden revelations at the end.

It occurred to me after finishing this volume that, though I took out a few of Lethem's books from the library, his books that I acquired were the result of accident, in the sense that I did not seek them out, order them, etc.  That's worked out pretty well so far and it seems a good procedure for me in the future.

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.