Wednesday, June 29, 2022

1919 by John Dos Passos



The U.S.A. trilogy goes to war in Europe
The novel entitled 1919, published in 1932, is the second book in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, following the The 42nd Parallel. Like its predecessor, 1919 is written in a modernist experimental format combining narratives of its characters’ lives with verbal collages (called “Newsreels”) of headlines and snippets from news stories, stream-of-consciousness vignettes (“The Camera Eye”), and biographical sketches of historical figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, John Reed, and J. P. Morgan. With these components Dos Passos constructs a sweeping yet intimate vision of American society, with this particular novel focusing on the World War I era.

The second book in the U.S.A. Trilogy is not quite as impressive as the first. The 42nd Parallel felt like it was building up to something big, but 1919 feels like the saga has taken a step backward, sometimes literally. In this novel, the major players of The 42nd Parallel are relegated to supporting roles while the background extras from the first book—Janey Williams’s brother Joe, Eleanor Stoddard’s roommate Eveline Hutchins—are elevated to starring roles. This involves going back in time not only to tell these new characters’ back stories but also to offer different perspectives of the events and relationships depicted in the first novel.

Though this may be the U.S.A. trilogy, 1919 takes place almost entirely in Europe as it chronicles its ensemble cast’s experiences during World War I. The roles they play in that conflict are hardly typical, however. None of the main characters is a soldier in the traditional sense. Almost everyone in the book finds jobs with the Red Cross or the ambulance service, and little if any combat factors into the plot of the novel. Everyone just seems to drift through France from town to town, dining and drinking. Of the latter activity, Dos Passos seems obsessed. Hardly a paragraph goes by that doesn’t include a reference to a specific beverage, alcoholic or not, as if citing the name of a liquid were enough to create instant atmosphere. Despite the fact that Dos Passos is quite skilled at sketching realistic lives and relationships, the endless imbibing gets annoying and monotonous after a while. The story also gets bogged down in its romances at the expense of history and politics. Towards the end of the book, the chapter on Ben Compton, a Jewish radical activist, is a step in the right direction. Too bad more ink wasn’t devoted to that character’s compelling story. Dos Passos closes the novel with a prose poem about an unknown soldier killed in the war. This brief piece is a bit pretentious in execution, but it does bring up aspects of the wartime experience that one wishes would have been covered more explicitly in the rest of the novel.

Dos Passos was a radical leftist when he wrote the trilogy, and he definitely takes a “people’s history” approach to the war, but he deliberately stops short of penning an overtly political screed like Upton Sinclair might have written. The book could have benefited, however, from more of Ben Compton’s experiences with socialism and the I.W.W. and less of the wine-sipping romance of PR man J. Ward Moorehouse and his employees. The most vivid historical impressions in the novel are those of the rampant jingoism and xenophobia of the World War I era. Anyone who expressed pacifist, socialist, or vaguely “un-American” views was in danger of being persecuted, imprisoned, or killed—a valuable cautionary tale for these divisive times in which we live.

1919 isn’t perfect but it certainly isn’t boring. If you’ve already read The 42nd Parallel then by all means proceed through the trilogy. It’s all just really one big novel anyway. As a whole, the three books comprise one great work of American literature. I look forward to following the story back to America in the third and final installment, The Big Money.
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Friday, June 24, 2022

A Honeymoon in Space by George Griffith



Underwhelming Victorian pleasure trip through the solar system
George Griffith was a popular and prolific British science fiction writer, active from the 1890s up to World War I, who never really cemented his place in literary history like H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. Although his books were imaginative and pioneering works of science fiction for their time, Griffith didn’t really have the literary talent of either of his more famous contemporaries. Nevertheless, his works had a notable influence on their genre. Griffith’s best-known novel is his 1893 debut The Angel of the Revolution. His novel A Honeymoon in Space, comprised of a series of short stories first appearing in Pearson’s Magazine, was published in 1901.

A Honeymoon in Space does not take place in a future when spaceflight is common. Rather, it is the story of the first-ever spaceflight. In fact, since it was written before the Wright Brothers’ first flight, it tells the story of the first non-inflatable powered aircraft. This aircraft, the Astronef, causes quite a stir when it appears in the skies over the Atlantic. Lord Redgrave, a British earl, is the financier of the project and its daring pilot, but the brains behind the operation is a recently deceased scientist, Professor Rennick. Redgrave is in love with Rennick’s daughter, Zaidie, so he basically kidnaps her from an ocean liner (with a spinster chaperone, of course), even though she is betrothed to another. Zaidie welcomes the abduction, however, and agrees to marry Redgrave. Throwing caution to the wind as no groom has ever done before, Redgrave decides to take his bride on a perilous tour of the unexplored solar system.


In typical Victorian fashion, it takes a while to get the adventure started. Several chapters go by in which Griffith reveals his political inclinations, including his views on the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, which was so much more overtly trumpeted in The Angel of the Revolution. Supposedly Griffith was a Socialist, but he really seems to idolize the British nobility in the Prince Charming character of Redgrave, and of course the earl couldn’t make the trip without a faithful servant, Murgatroyd. Zaidie is depicted as a spunky American woman, perhaps a stronger heroine than one will find in most Victorian genre fiction, but still her most pressing duty is to make coffee for her man.


Before the age of spaceflight little was known about the celestial bodies in our solar system. Scientists could speculate on their gravity, climate, and terrain, and from this Griffith bases his fictional visions of the various worlds. The happy couple visits all the planets from Venus to Saturn, as well as a few moons and asteroids. Not surprisingly, many are inhabited by life, in some cases intelligent life, otherwise it wouldn’t make much of a story. Griffith is a believer in Darwin’s theory of evolution, so he uses the planets as illustrations of what life on Earth might have been like millions of years ago, or what it might be like millions of years from now. Some lapses in scientific realism can be attributed to the antiquity of the novel, while others are just silly. The story opens with a bunch of sailors staring directly into the sun through binoculars. Redgrave’s method of testing the atmosphere on the various worlds he visits is to crack his helmet open and take a whiff, heedless of whatever poisonous vapors might be present.


Such absurdities would be forgivable if the novel were more fun, but this journey through space is actually rather underwhelming. I can only recall one instance of danger that was moderately exciting. This book will appeal mostly to aficionados of vintage science fiction who can appreciate Griffith’s place in the history of the genre and admire his speculations as precocious for their time.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Bookplates by Frank Brangwyn



Small wonders from a master illustrator
Bookplates are largely a thing of the past but were once very popular among the literate and well-to-do who took pride in their personal libraries. A bookplate is a printed label that book owners would affix inside the front cover of all the volumes they owned. Since each bookplate had a unique design, often commissioned by a professional illustrator, the bookplate served essentially the same function as a cattle brand. Bookplate designs often incorporate the Latin phrase “ex libris” (from the library of) and the name of the book’s owner. Centuries ago bookplates were often designed with the armorial bearings of the books’ owner, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrators and printmakers turned the bookplate into an unbounded medium of artistic expression. The bookplate design served as a symbol—sort of a logo—of the owner, ideally representing his or her values and personality.

No doubt any book lover would have been honored to have a bookplate designed by Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956). This master painter and printmaker was renowned for his book illustrations and mural paintings, which he executed in a bold, romantic, and decorative style falling somewhere between William Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau. The book simply entitled Bookplates, published in 1920, reproduces 69 of Brangwyn’s bookplates. The volume opens with nine pages of text that comment briefly Brangwyn’s work and the history of the bookplate. The remainder of the book is filled with Brangwyn’s beautiful artwork, with one bookplate featured per page. At least half of the designs incorporate color and are reproduced in color. A full-color digital copy of this book can be downloaded for free from HathiTrust or the Internet Archive.

The bookplates pictured in this book appear to be about half pen and ink drawings and half wood engravings, plus a few etchings. The subject matter depicted covers a wide variety of figures, animals, trees, architecture, and ships. A family of birds sits in a nest atop a gargoyle overlooking a Spanish galleon sailing into the sunset. A monk shepherds a boar through a copse of trees. A laborer gazes out at a cityscape of factory chimneys spewing clouds of smoke. Two naked nymphs play flutes in a flowery wood. Brangwyn’s illustrations have a more aggressive, gestural quality than the more finicky line work of America’s great illustrator Rockwell Kent (also a designer of bookplates). While Kent’s work looks as if it were drawn with a fine calligrapher’s nib, Brangwyn’s art more overtly displays the feverish marks of brush and chisel.

I first became aware of Frank Brangwyn from his murals in the rotunda of the Missouri State Capitol and have since come to admire his work as an illustrator and printmaker. Those who appreciate classic book illustration of the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries will find much to enjoy in this showcase of Brangwyn’s estimable talent. Any artist who enjoys working in pen and ink, woodcut, or linocut will find this book a source of interesting ideas for small prints and drawings. It’s a shame bookplates are no longer commonplace, but this portfolio of Brangwyn’s work offers a nice nostalgic look back at the height of the art form.

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Monday, June 20, 2022

The Story of My Boyhood and Youth by John Muir



A budding naturalist in frontier Wisconsin
John Muir is best known as the naturalist who explored the Sierras of California and the glaciers of Alaska, but he was born in Scotland and spent his adolescence and early adulthood in Wisconsin. Muir discusses these years of his life, from his birth in 1838 to his departure from college in 1864, in his partial autobiography The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. This memoir was published in 1913, a year before Muir’s death.


The first chapter tells of Muir’s life in Scotland, where he and his brothers developed a love of the outdoors at an early age. His boyhood adventures aren’t remarkably different from those of a child growing up in rural America, but Muir’s exceptional storytelling renders even familiar childhood experiences into captivating anecdotes. At the age of 11, Muir emigrated to America with his father and two of his siblings to establish a farm in Portage, Wisconsin, before sending for his mother and the rest of the family to cross the Atlantic. Unlike many frontier memoirs, this book is not a lovingly nostalgic and picturesque portrait of nineteenth-century farm life. Rather, Muir paints a realistic picture of the hard work and ceaseless toil involved in clearing land and working a farm on the American frontier, especially under the stern supervision of a strict and rigidly pious father who valued hard labor over education.

Nevertheless, Muir and his brother David found time to enjoy the outdoors, whether hunting game or merely exploring and observing nature. Muir spends a large portion of the narrative discussing Wisconsin’s birds. As a birder myself, I enjoyed these portions of the book very much. Muir describes the behavior of birds with the precision of a scientist yet also manages to convey the thrill experienced by a young boy who simply enjoys the beauty of birds. Particularly valuable is Muir’s description of the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that would darken the sky for scores of miles and break trees with their collected weight. He also details some of the barbaric hunting practices that had rendered the bird extinct by the time Muir wrote this memoir. In many instances The Story of My Boyhood and Youth provides a vivid first-person record of Wisconsin’s natural history in the 1850s and ‘60s. Muir also recounts a few encounters with Native Americans and briefly laments the robbing of their lands and rights.

Muir’s narrative takes a surprising turn when he reveals himself to be an inventor. As a teenager he created clocks, thermometers, and other instruments from materials that happened to be lying around the family farm. He fondly relates how his creations caused a big stir when he displayed them at the Wisconsin State Fair. The way Muir describes some of the other mechanical devices he created calls to mind the ingenuity of Thomas Jefferson and the absurdity of Rube Goldberg. Muir originally left home with the intention of working as a machinist, engineer, or physical scientist before attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he enjoyed studying chemistry and botany. The book ends with Muir’s departure from the university and his turning towards what he calls “the University of the Wilderness.”

Those interested in Muir as a naturalist may not be enthralled by the schoolboy anecdotes of his early youth, but this book does contain plenty of passages of scientific discovery and descriptive beauty indicative of his better-known nature writings. Those who enjoy reading the autobiographies of scientists and naturalists will find this a very well-written one. The Story of My Boyhood and Youth is a pleasure to read and provides a candid inside look at how Muir became one of America’s great environmental philosophers.
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Friday, June 17, 2022

ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter and Nicolas Barker



The arcane terminology of bibliophilia
ABC for Book Collectors is an alphabetical guide to all the arcane terminology used by bibliophiles engaged in the hunting and gathering of antiquarian books and documents, a discipline in which many of the terms employed originated in the printing, publishing, and bookselling industries of centuries past. The ABC is published by Oak Knoll Press, a publisher that specializes in books about book collecting and the history of books and printing. The first edition was written by John Carter (1905-1975) and published in 1952, and it has since been updated by Nicolas Barker. Both are English, so there is a slight Britcentric tilt to the text, but they clarify when American terminology differs from that used in the bookshops of London. I read the eighth edition of this book, which was published in 2006. A ninth edition, illustrated with photographs and diagrams, was published by Oak Knoll in 2016. The eighth edition has no illustrations.

The entries in this ABC include names for different parts of books, different stages in a book’s production, printing and typesetting terminology, and many different binding materials (types of animal skins, cloth, paper, etc.). The main purpose of this book is to serve as a glossary for reading descriptions in booksellers’ and auction catalogues, so frequently used adjectives of condition, rarity, and provenance are also included. Also valuable are references to authoritative texts and bibliographies that collectors and sellers tend to refer to only by the last name of the author (e.g. McKerrow, Greg, Sadleir), or by acronym (e.g. ESTC [English Short Title Catalogue]). The average entry in the ABC is more extensive than a dictionary definition yet smaller than an encyclopedia item. Enough information is provided to not only define the terms but also impart some interesting nuggets of book history.


The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) provides a free pdf of the eighth edition on its website. Presumably this is to encourage more people to take up the avocation of book collecting, which of course would be a positive thing for the members of this organization. The way this book is written, however, is not very user-friendly nor very inviting to the prospective collector. I am not a book collector, but I have worked my whole life in publishing, printing, book design, libraries, and archives, and I still found many of these convoluted definitions difficult to decipher. The authors have made more of an effort to be stylish and sound erudite than to be clear and educate the reader. The ABC doesn’t read as if it were written for beginners who actually need the information but rather for experienced aficionados who are sure to chuckle at the inside jokes, roll their eyes at examples of book collecting faux pas, and nod knowingly at statements beginning with, “Of course, everyone knows that . . .” The entries are not just insufficiently clear in their explanation of arcane terminology but also often rather off-putting in tone. This book gives one the impression that book collectors are not a welcoming community but rather a coven of snooty and insecure elitists scornful of novices. Not having seen the earlier editions of the ABC, I can’t say whether this is the fault of Carter or Barker.


Despite its annoying and obscure passages, book lovers can learn a lot from ABC for Book Collectors. Someone seriously interested in embarking in book collecting, however, would probably be better off starting with a non-alphabetic introduction to bibliography, such as those by Ronald B. McKerrow (1927), Fredson Bowers (1947), or Philip Gaskell (1972).

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Why Call Them Back from Heaven? by Clifford D. Simak



Immortality bites
Why Call Them Back from Heaven?
, the eleventh novel by prolific Grand Master of Science Fiction Clifford D. Simak, was first published in 1967. Though this novel has been translated into several languages, it is a relatively lesser-known book by Simak standards. The last printed edition in English was published in 1988, and no ebook is currently offered on Amazon. The quality of the work belies its obscurity, however, and Simak fans should hunt down a used copy.


In the year 2148, scientists are on the verge of cracking the secret to immortality. Over the past two centuries, billions of people have chosen to have their bodies frozen after death, waiting for a future “revival day” when they will embark on their “second life.” Humanity has become so invested in this idea, literally, that the corporation researching the process, Forever Center, has become the most powerful entity on Earth, holding much of the world’s wealth and influencing the governments of nations worldwide. The promise of immortality has had profound changes on human society and culture as well. People live squalid, eventless lives, scrimping and saving to shore up financial security for their second life. With the promise of immortal life on Earth, the idea of eternal salvation in the afterlife no longer holds as much appeal, causing a precipitous drop in religious belief and practice. The world is already overpopulated, with billions packed into overcrowded cities. How will humanity cope when the billions of dead are revived? Solutions for mankind’s expansion are sought in outer space and even through time travel.

Why Call Them Back from Heaven? is at its best when Simak is exploring these philosophical and logistical implications of revival and immortality. Less successful is the quasi-spy story that runs through the book, in which ostracized Forever Center executive Daniel Frost is persecuted by his former employers. As a fugitive, Frost encounters an underground movement looking to take down Forever Center and return to the values of an earlier time when immortality was an impossibility. This adventure plot concludes with a less than satisfying ending, one that relies on too many coincidences. Nevertheless, the dystopian future in which the story takes place is innovative and thought-provoking.


Simak has been described by some critics as science fiction’s pastoralist for his repeated advocacy of rural life, Midwestern values, and the spiritual value of nature. These are themes that continually recur in his works, and here, once again, Simak takes the reader back to Southwestern Wisconsin, the land of his youth. In Simak’s dystopian future, wild nature and nostalgia for the past provide relief and salvation from the dehumanizing effects of technology and the ever-expanding cities engulfing the globe. Why Call Them Back from Heaven? is a warning cry to appreciate the simpler pleasures of life before it is too late. Our endless technological search for comfort, security, and a longer life span might just make us Icarus flying too close to the sun. In today’s world, with overpopulation contributing to climate change and environmental destruction, this important message is needed now more than ever.

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Monday, June 13, 2022

The Mystery of the Locks by E. W. Howe



Annoying romance in a dismal town
Edgar Watson Howe (1853-1937) was a newspaper and magazine editor who also published several books of fiction and nonfiction. He lived and worked in Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, and finally Kansas, where he settled in Atchison to publish the Atchison Daily Globe newspaper and E. W. Howe’s Monthly magazine. Similar to such figures as William Allen White, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, and J. A. Wayland, Howe was one of a number of small-town Kansas newspaper editors of his generation that were able to rise to a level of national notoriety and influence as publishers, pundits, and literary figures. His novel The Mystery of the Locks was published in 1885.


If you are looking for a book that celebrates America’s small towns, however, this isn’t it. Howe sets his story in the fictional town of Davy’s Bend (state unknown), an example of everything wrong with small towns. This stagnant, dying community is inhabited by pathetic people with worthless lives who nevertheless often entertain lofty opinions of themselves. It is difficult for the reader to care about these characters when Howe obviously despises them. A physician named Allan Dorris, for reasons unknown, has decided to take up residence in Davy’s Bend. The arrival of a stranger in town is the source of much excitement and gossip. Dorris buys a creepy old house that is called The Locks because . . . well, because it has a lot of locks.

Dorris, who is extolled as the perfect man’s man, predictably stumbles upon the one attractive maiden in town. Annie Benton is an angelic church organist trapped in this insular and abysmal community. The couple’s meeting initiates one of the most godawful romances in popular literature. It is annoying enough that these two are portrayed as flawless paragons of male and female perfection, but their conversations are absolutely cringeworthy. Apparently in the era when holding someone’s hand meant you were engaged to them, lovers had nothing to do but exchange endless recitations of self-psychoanalysis. While Dorris proclaims his love for Annie in lofty, idyllic terms, he simultaneously pushes her away. He says he’s no good for her, but doesn’t explain why.

When Dorris and Annie aren’t wooing each other ad nauseam, they and all the other characters in the book are busy denouncing the institution of marriage. The gist of the novel is that Dorris and Annie’s perfect union is the rare exception to the rule that marriage makes for loveless, miserable lives. I don’t know the details of Howe’s personal life, but this whole story wreaks of the fantasies of a middle-aged man dissatisfied with his own marriage. Dorris is in his thirties romancing a woman of 19. She happens to be as beautiful as a goddess and as talented on the piano as a Paderewski, yet with no self-esteem. This unplucked flower lies undiscovered in a small country town, just waiting for some sophisticated older man to come along and pluck her so she can devote herself to making his life heaven. Annie actually says to Dorris, “I am your slave.”

Despite a brief subplot about a ghost story, the only real mystery in the book is why Dorris moved to Davy’s Bend. He obviously has a hidden past, but Howe offers no clues. Nothing much of import really happens in the book until chapter 20 (out of 23). When Dorris’s back story is finally revealed, it is utterly predictable and calculated to allow Howe to make yet another statement on the misery of marriage. Even readers who agree with his view of matrimony, however, will likely find this story tedious, annoying, and unpleasant.
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