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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Friday, June 10, 2022

The Wisconsin Frontier by Mark Wyman

When Wisconsin was the Wild West
Published in 1998 as part of the Indiana University Press series A History of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier, The Wisconsin Frontier is a comprehensive history of the Badger State from the early 17th century, when White explorers first arrived, to 1900, when Western expansion had progressed to the point where Wisconsin could no longer be considered the American frontier. During this time span, the events that shaped the state were largely driven by interactions between Native Americans and Whites. Author Mark Wyman delivers a detailed and balanced history that gives both sides equal consideration and emphasizes the cooperations and conflicts between the two parties in the settling of the state’s lands and the exploitation of its resources.

I was born and raised in the Green Bay area, the history of which Wyman covers extensively because it was the first point of European contact and integral to the fur trade. This book refreshed my memory and taught me more about all the hallowed names that passed through that region—Jean Nicolet, Claude Allouez, Louis André, Louis Jolliet, Jacques Marquette, etc.—as well as the area’s Native inhabitants—the Winnebagos, Foxes, Sacs, Potawotamis, Kickapoos, Ottawas, Oneidas, and more. It was surprising to learn of the prevalence of slavery, of both Blacks and Indians, in Green Bay in the late 18th century. The northern Lake Superior coast, in the area of Ashland and Bayfield, is also much discussed for its importance to the French fur trade. The other major center of activity in early Wisconsin was the Prairie du Chien area, for its access to the Mississippi River and the lead mines of Southwestern Wisconsin. Milwaukee doesn’t really take off until the flood of European immigrants in the 19th century. Roughly the first third of the book focuses largely on the fur trade, Wisconsin’s initial reason for being. Wyman then goes on to examine the mining boom, settlement and agriculture, the waves of immigration from various nations and faiths of Europe, and finally the timber industry.

Through each stage of development discussed in The Wisconsin Frontier, Native Americans are present and accounted for. Wyman rightly portrays them as active agents in the historical events, business dealings, and intercultural transactions that took place rather than merely as passive victims to be pushed aside. Wisconsin does not have quite as brutal a history as some other states, but it does have its fair share of shameful episodes in Indian affairs—broken treaties, forced migrations, violent altercations—which Wyman discusses in frank and sober terms. His writing is neither judgmentally preachy nor romantically flashy but very matter-of-fact, articulate, and loaded with fascinating detail. Wyman concludes the book on a depressing note with the Indians either driven from the state or confined to reservations and much of Wisconsin’s rich natural resources having been destroyed by rapacious hunters, miners, and loggers.

The intended audience for this book seems to be undergraduate college students and general readers interested in the history of the state. For such nonacademic (without PhDs in history) audiences, there has been a trend among publishers to eliminate notes (foot-, chapter-, or endnotes) for fear that tiny numbers in the text may intimidate readers and hinder book sales. In keeping with this intelligence-insulting practice, this book only provides a few notes per chapter. It really should have had complete notes citing the sources for all the information, quotes, and statistics presented. Instead, it provides a bibliographic essay that is harder to read and less useful than a traditional alphabetical bibliography would have been. If you find an interesting nugget of information in the text and really want to learn more, the lack of detailed citations makes it difficult if not impossible to track down the source.

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Monday, June 6, 2022

The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos

Kaleidoscope of the American experience, 1900-1917
The first book in the U.S.A. trilogy by American author John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel, was published in 1930. The trilogy continues in the novel entitled 1919 and concludes with The Big Money. If this first volume is an accurate indication of the series as a whole, the U.S.A. trilogy is one of the best written and most important works in American literature of the early 20th century, on a par with great American novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

The 42nd Parallel is a modern Balzacian overview and critique of American society in the first two decades of the 20th century, with a special focus on the class struggle between capital and labor. Stylistically, it combines the muckraking naturalism of works by Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser with the cinematic modernism of Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. Although, like Steinbeck, Dos Passos clearly has leftist leanings, this is not a propaganda novel but rather a kaleidoscopic rendering of socioeconomic reality at a crucial time in the history of American labor. Dos Passos writes of Socialism not with the stridently hopeful enthusiasm of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but rather with the nostalgic melancholy of a lost cause.

Dos Passos constructs the book in a collage-like format. The bulk of the text consists of chapters that chart the individual lives of a handful of characters from childhood through education (or lack thereof) to their entry into the workforce and their subsequent struggle or rise. As the title indicates, the characters gravitate towards cities along the 42nd parallel of latitude—New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh—though the narrative occasionally wanders as far afield as Mexico. Each protagonist navigates the sociopolitical landscape to pursue the American Dream in his or her own way, whether that means striking it rich in big business, living independently as a single woman, or working to promote the cause of Socialism. The unflinching, nothing-is-sacred realism with which Dos Passos writes these lives is remarkable. The intricate narratives vividly illuminate the time period in question, yet readers of today will still find much to identify with in these characters’ experiences, making for a very compelling read.

Interspersed between these meaty chapters are shorter vignettes, including “Newsreels” that combine snippets of newspaper headlines, popular song lyrics, and radio journalism to offer glimpses into the historical events and general atmosphere of the time. The sections entitled “The Camera Eye” are free-form stream-of-consciousness prose poems that resemble personal reflections or dialogues between unnamed characters. Dos Passos also periodically inserts a brief biographical sketch of an important historical figure from the world of industry, labor, politics, or finance, such as Eugene V. Debs, Thomas Edison, Bob La Follette, and Andrew Carnegie. The “Camera Eye” sections often get overly self-indulgent in their surrealist beat-poetry aesthetic, but the “Newsreels” and biographies really do enlarge the reader’s understanding of the times.

Judging by this first book, it would seem the U.S.A. trilogy is not so much a trilogy at all but rather one big novel divided into three volumes. The 42nd Parallel can’t really stand on its own as a complete work of literature. There is no ending to the book nor endings to any of the narrative threads within. Instead, it’s a book comprised of beginnings. Nevertheless, I don’t fault Dos Passos for that because after having read The 42nd Parallel I certainly want to read the next two books to find out what happens to these characters and experience more of the author’s innovative re-creation of this pivotal period in American history.
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Friday, May 27, 2022

The Prairie Print Makers by Karal Ann Marling, Elizabeth G. Seaton, and Bill North

Just the gift prints
The 2001 book entitled The Prairie Print Makers was published in association with a traveling exhibition of prints curated by ExhibitsUSA, a program managed by the Mid-America Arts Alliance, headquartered in Kansas City. The Prairie Print Makers was an organization founded by ten Kansas artists in 1930 for the purpose of staging exhibitions of prints and promoting graphic arts in the media of lithography, etching, and relief prints. The group eventually grew to include over 100 artists from all over the United States and Canada, including some of North America’s finest printmakers. The majority of its members produced art in a realist or regionalist style, with landscapes, nature studies, and images of rural life being common subjects.

The text of this book consists of three short essays by cultural historian Karal Ann Marling and art historians Elizabeth G. Seaton and Bill North. The latter two are both curators at the Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University. In addition to providing a very brief overview of the group’s formation and its activities, the essays provide some insightful context on how the Prairie Print Makers fit into the American art scene of their time, growing out of a need for inexpensive art during the Great Depression, and how they eventually disbanded as abstract expressionism rose to prominence.

In addition to active members (the artists invited to join the group), the Prairie Print Makers had associate members. These were not artists but rather patrons and supporters of the arts, print collectors, and so on. In exchange for a modest annual membership fee, these associate members would receive a gift print each year. The Prairie Print Makers produced 34 of these gift prints from 1931 to 1965 (they skipped 1963), usually printed in editions of 200. The exhibition by ExhibitsUSA consisted of these 34 gift prints, and that is what is illustrated in the book. Each gets a full-page reproduction. Four are color prints, the rest black and white. Seeing all the gift prints assembled in one location is nice, but it’s kind of a lazy way to put together an exhibition on the Prairie Print Makers. A few of the gift prints were made by artists who clearly were not among the organization’s best. There are also examples of great artists turning in merely good work, sometimes not in their medium of expertise. One matter I’ve never found explained, in any source on the group, is how these gift prints, and the artists who made them, were chosen. Other than a concerted effort at variety in subject and style, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the selection. Was it a competition, or did the board just delegate an artist to do the job each year? If the latter, on what basis were they chosen?

Each gift print is accompanied by a short write-up, mostly consisting of biographical information about the artist. One of the most valuable aspects of this book is that it lists bibliographical references for most of the artists whose work is included in the volume, which brings the reader’s attention to some sources that are more informative than this one. Though Seaton’s and North’s essays are pretty good, the brief text of the book provides only the barest-bones overview of the Prairie Print Makers. A more thorough and attractive introduction to the Prairie Print Makers is the 1984 book of the same title by Barbara Thompson O’Neill, George C. Foreman, and Howard W. Ellington. It goes into much more detail on the formation of the group and the careers of its founding members, and the images chosen for reproduction are among the best works of some of the more important artists in the group.
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Prints reproduced in the book

Birger Sandzén, A Kansas Creek, lithograph, 1931

Norma Bassett Hall, La Gaude – France, color woodcut1943

Luigi Lucioni, Theme in White, etching, 1955

Monday, May 23, 2022

An African Millionaire: Episodes in the Life of the Illustrious Colonel Clay by Grant Allen

Scam after scam from an expert flimflam man
Grant Allen (1848-1899) was a prolific Canadian-born British writer of both science books and fiction. His book An African Millionaire: Episodes in the Life of the Illustrious Colonel Clay was published in 1897. The table of contents would lead one to believe this is a collection of short stories, since all the chapter titles begin with “The Episode of the . . .”, but really this is a novel. The chapters don’t really make much sense unless read together in sequence, and they all add up to one unified narrative. The story is narrated by Seymour Wilbraham Wentworth, who works as secretary to his wife’s brother Sir Charles Vandrift, the “African Millionaire,” an Englishman who has struck it rich in South African diamond mines. Vandrift has an estate in Scotland but spends most of his time in London. He and Wentworth’s adventures take place primarily in Europe, not in Africa, with a sojourn in America.

The first chapter gives the impression that the reader is in for yet another Sherlock Holmes pastiche, with Wentworth playing the part of Vandrift’s Dr. Watson. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the plot is not so much a mystery as it is a series of what might be called capers. The “illustrious” Colonel Clay is a con artist who sets his sights on Vandrift. In each chapter he comes up with a new ingenious scheme to bilk the millionaire out of thousands of pounds sterling. Colonel Clay (not his real name) is a master of disguise and various accents, as is his attractive female accomplice. The larcenous pair repeatedly fool Vandrift and Wentworth with their assumed personalities and ever-changing appearances. Thus, An African Millionaire does not emulate the Sherlock Holmes stories but rather presages the adventures of the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin created by French writer Maurice Leblanc in 1905.

The premise soon becomes formulaic, as the reader always recognizes that every new character the millionaire and his secretary encounter in each chapter will likely turn out to be Clay or his woman friend in disguise. This is very similar to the structure of another book by Allen, Miss Cayley’s Adventures, in which the heroine travels around Europe repeatedly encountering a rogue who serves as her nemesis. Vandrift and Wentworth get a little wiser in each chapter, employing various methods in an attempt to thwart the master con man, but Clay remains one step ahead of them. Allen’s clever and witty writing keeps all this from becoming monotonous, and the way he wraps things up in the final two chapters is delightfully smart.

Also adding to the fun is that the right-and-wrong, good-vs.-evil setup of the crime story plot becomes less cut-and-dried as the story moves along. Allen was a writer known for advocating radical ideas like evolution, socialism, atheism, and feminism. At first his leftist agenda is not readily apparent in An African Millionaire. The novel reads as if Allen aimed for an audience of the smart set, who would identify with Vandrift’s lavish lifestyle and expensive vacation destinations. After Clay’s first few scams, however, Allen starts working in digs at the British class system. The con man is fashioned into a quasi-socialist Robin Hood while Vandrift is painted as a greedy capitalist. Though Vandrift and Wentworth are supposedly the heroes of the book, Allen takes pleasure in satirizing the upper classes by frequently depicting the pair as buffoons.

An African Millionaire is a bit too familiar, predictable, and repetitive to get excited about, but it is a moderately entertaining read. I think I prefer Allen’s nonfiction writings, but his fiction is dependably good for those who appreciate Victorian pulp fiction along the lines of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
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Friday, May 20, 2022

Essential Marvel Team-Up, Volume 3 by Chris Claremont, et al.

Short stories, simple pleasures with Spider-Man and friends
When I was a kid and used to stop at the local drug store after school and pick up the odd comic book, one of my favorite titles was Marvel Team-Up. I liked Spider-Man at the time, and it was always interesting to see who he would be matched up with. The stories usually lasted only one, sometimes two issues, and you didn’t need to know the entire ongoing saga of the Marvel universe to understand what was going on. The paperback volume Essential Marvel Team-Up, Volume 3 reproduces issues 52 to 75 of Marvel Team-Up (with one exception, see below), as well as Marvel Team-Up Annual #1. These issues, originally published from December 1976 to November 1978, are reprinted in black and white on newsprint paper.

The main purpose of the Marvel Team-Up series was to capitalize on Spider-Man’s popularity, not only by allowing him to star in another monthly title but also by using Marvel’s star character to draw readers’ interest to other characters’ titles, sometimes through crossovers. Sometimes Spidey would team up with Marvel heavy hitters like Thor, Iron-Man, the Hulk, and Daredevil. As often as not, however, Marvel used the title to reinforce up-and-comers like, in this case, Ghost Rider, Power Man, and Iron Fist, or showcase minor characters who didn’t have their own book, like the Falcon, Havok, Tigra, and the Black Widow. All of the aforementioned guest stars are included in Volume 3.

No monumental events ever occurred in Marvel Team-Up that would shake the foundations of the Marvel Universe. The most important occurrence of note in this run of issues is the American debut of Captain Britain in issue #65. Chris Claremont, one of Marvel’s hottest writers of this era, wrote 16 of the 24 issues included here. This is not his best work, however, since the short story arcs and guest-star format don’t allow much room for character building. Bill Mantlo writes another half dozen issues. The creative highlight of this collection is the art by John Byrne, who draws 15 issues. His work always looks great even when the story is lackluster. The best overall story is probably Claremont and Byrne’s work in issues 59 & 60, in which Spider-Man teams up with Yellowjacket and the Wasp to fight Equinox, “the thermodynamic man.” When Claremont and Byrne are not at the helm, the issues included here seem almost childlike in their narrative simplicity, just a meet-and-greet in the beginning followed by an extended fight scene.

The most disappointing thing about Essential Marvel Team-Up, Volume 3 is that it doesn’t include issue number 74. That’s when Spidey teamed up with the Not Ready for Prime Time Players of Saturday Night Live—the late ‘70s cast with John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, etc. The Silver Samurai attacks the SNL studio, briefly confronting Belushi’s samurai character. Unfortunately, this bizarre story was omitted from the collection, not because Marvel didn’t consider it “Essential” but because they no longer had the rights to reference NBC’s properties.

Reading Essential Marvel Team-Up, Volume 3 was a nice trip down memory lane for me. This is not a landmark or groundbreaking run of issues in Marvel history, but that’s part of the charm. These adventures of Spider-Man and his colleagues are not overly ponderous, dark, or violent like so many of today’s Marvel products but rather a pleasant reminder of when comics used to be fun.

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Thursday, May 19, 2022

In the Middle of America, Printmaking and Print Exhibitions: C. A. Seward and Friends, Wichita, Kansas, 1916-1946 by Barbara Thompson

Kansas’s impressive legacy of graphic art
When you think of important and influential art centers in America, chances are Kansas doesn’t pop into your head. In her 2013 book In the Middle of America, however, author Barbara Thompson reminds us that the city of Wichita was a thriving center of printmaking in the early 20th century. Thompson, an independent art historian, is also the granddaughter of C. A. Seward, an accomplished printmaker who was the driving force behind the Wichita arts scene and its particular interest in printmaking. Seward, a founder of the Prairie Print Makers and its most active member, organized many print exhibitions in Kansas and facilitated the exchange of prints and printing knowledge between Kansas printmakers and artists elsewhere in the United States and Canada. In the Middle of America, Printmaking and Print Exhibitions is the joint exhibition catalog for four concurrent printmaking exhibitions held in Wichita in 2013. In this book Thompson provides a wealth of detail on the history of the Wichita arts community and Seward’s activities to advance and promote art in the media of lithography, etching, and block prints.

In conjunction with his involvement in the Prairie Printmakers and the Wichita Art Association, Seward assembled a series of print exhibitions in Wichita from 1921 until his death in 1939. Thompson catalogs the prints that appeared in these exhibitions and discusses the artists, inside and outside of Kansas, who made them, including some of the most highly regarded printmakers in America and Canada at the time. In addition to an overall history of the regional printmaking movement in Kansas, Thompson provides biographical sketches of 79 printmakers and examples of their work. These biographies are not comprehensive but rather emphasize the artists’ connections to the Wichita arts scene. Thompson also looks into the impact made on American printmaking by the Western Lithograph Company, a commercial printer that, under Seward’s direction, diversified into producing prints by fine art lithographers.

Thompson’s writing is very informative and her research extremely thorough. The design of the book, however, is not great. It looks like it was typeset in Microsoft Word, and the long lines of Times Roman are not easy on the eyes. Instead of full-page photos, this book opts for many smaller images, around 1.5 x 2.5 inches each. I’m fine with that decision, because it provides more prints to view, but the way all the images are shoved into the gutter of the book does not make for comfortable browsing.

If you are looking for an introduction to the Prairie Print Makers, filled with big beautiful pictures, this is probably not the book for you. You would be better off reading Thompson’s 1984 book with George C. Foreman and Howard Ellington entitled The Prairie Print Makers, or the 2001 book of the same title authored by Bill North, Karal Ann Marling, and Elizabeth Seaton. In the Middle of America is a book for those who already have some prior knowledge of Kansas’s great printmaking history and are looking for more intricate and arcane details, of which Thompson amply delivers. This book will appeal to a very particular audience of readers: artists and collectors who appreciate realistic early modern printmaking and Kansans and Wichitans interested in the history of their state and/or city. Readers like me who fit into the specific intersection point of that Venn diagram will enjoy this book very much and find it loaded with valuable information.

Prints reproduced in the book

Lloyd C. Foltz, Among the Mines, block print, 1931

Birger Sandzén, Utah Poplars, lithograph1930

Gustave Baumann, Mountain Pool, block print, 1922

Monday, May 16, 2022

Jean-Christophe, Volume 3: Love and Friendship, The Burning Bush, The New Dawn by Romain Rolland

Lost among the supporting cast
French author Romain Rolland won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature shortly after publishing what is considered his magnum opus, a series of ten novels under the collective title of Jean-Christophe. This saga chronicles the life and career of fictional composer Jean-Christophe Krafft, who was born and raised in Germany but spends much of his life in France. When these ten novels were published in English translation, they were released in three volumes. The third of these volumes, sometimes appearing under the title of Jean-Christophe: Journey’s End, consists of novels eight, nine, and ten of Rolland’s series, respectively titled Love and Friendship, The Burning Bush, and The New Dawn.

The most surprising and disappointing aspect of this third volume of Jean-Christophe is just how small a part the title character actually plays in these last three volumes. Rolland seems to have become bored with his composer protagonist and feels the need to veer off into the life story of every supporting character in the series. Christophe barely appears in Love and Friendship. Instead, that novel focuses largely on his best friend and former roommate Olivier. The main plot concerns Olivier’s troubled marriage, but the reader is also treated to the back stories of Olivier’s friends and neighbors, his wife Jacqueline, and her family.

Olivier is still prominent in the first half of The Burning Bush, but the plot moves in a different direction when Christophe gets halfheartedly involved with the Socialist movement in Paris. In the second half of the ninth volume, a new woman enters Christophe’s life. One can clearly see the predictable direction where this is going and can only reluctantly ride out Christophe’s poor judgment and the impending certain disaster of that relationship. Much emotional angst ensues, and the reader’s eye rolls continue when the previously independent and freethinking Christophe finds God.

The final novel, The New Dawn, is a bit of an improvement over the previous two. At least it contains a trace of optimism in a new romance for Christophe, and he finally starts to show some maturity. Christophe moves around quite a bit over the course of these novels, from Germany to France to Switzerland and to Italy. This gives Rolland the opportunity to comment upon the national spirit of these different countries and cultures. In the early novels this felt more like stereotyping, but here at the end one can see Rolland sketching the mindset of Europe leading up to World War I. This historical commentary is probably the Jean-Christophe saga’s saving grace. Rolland also includes much commentary on the arts, but Christophe’s music career really gets lost in these last three novels. Christophe’s old age, however, allows Rolland to illustrate the cyclical process by which each generation of artists starts out as revolutionary youths and then matures and mellows with age.

Rolland was primarily known as a Romantic writer, but here in Jean-Christophe he ventures somewhat unsuccessfully into Naturalism, trying to illustrate how lives are molded by heredity and social forces. Unlike the naturalist masterworks of Emile Zola, however, there is no apparent master plan to Jean-Christophe. The narrative just seems to meander haphazardly, veering off into spontaneous digressions. The first few novels in Volume 1 of Jean-Christophe are quite captivating, but the series only loses steam as it moves forward and fails to live up to the promise of Christophe’s youth. This last and weakest of the three volumes is a struggle to get through.

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