Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Luck of the Lynns (1952).

One of the perks of being a bookworm is that it can sometimes allow you to discover the unexplored corners of life.  I'm not talking about anything esoteric, so much as the avenues that got overlooked by time.  It doesn't happen often, however my own experience is that if you dig around the forgotten corners of the great library known as the world, you can come upon a text, or a name that can sometimes be so worth your time it's a wonder (and almost something of a crime) that there was never at least some kind of recognition.  That said, it's also possible enough to uncover a bunch of junk that probably should have stay in the trunk.  I'm not sure where the subject of today's post fits into this scheme.  I've talked about him once before.  From what I've been able to uncover about him, he never seems to have been one of the Big Names.  However, that didn't stop him from knowing at least some of them, and of making a few artistic contributions of his own.

Talking about someone like Roger Lancelyn Green can be a challenge.  It's one I've discussed before, here and there, on this blog.  One of the hazards of being an author is that even the the promise of publication can't guarantee any kind of Brand Name recognition or longevity in and of itself.  That's all up to how much the reading public decides whether it likes you or not.  Some of these scribbling types are able to garner a small handful of the audience.  This minor sort of fame might give off a brief sense of satisfaction.  At least there's someone out there who likes what you do.  The trouble with that type of circumstance is that there's no real assurance that even the best word of mouth reputation will grow from there.  Many of them never get beyond that initial step.  An author like H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, got lucky in that sense.  He started out as a sensation among a small circle of fans and friends, only to gain worldwide fame after his death.  A lot of the others who followed in his train are barely on the tip of the tongue anymore.  Who, for further instance, has ever heard of a moniker like Clark Ashton Smith?  That's got to be too fanciful to be real.  Right

Then of course, you have authors so obscure that part of the problem is being able to find any reliable background information on them.  The best example of this latter type is H.F. Arnold.  If the name sounds unfamiliar, that's no real surprise.  He's remembered today for publishing a short story called The Night Wire, and his reputation is kept alive mainly by fans of the Weird Circle of Cosmic Horror authors that center in and around the works of HPL.  The trick is a lot of folks know what Arnold wrote, and it's almost impossible to find any reliable info on his life.  The man himself remains a total enigma.  It's almost as if the story itself appeared out of thin air, complete with byline, and nothing else.  As a result, Arnold could be thought of as one of the most famous authors who wasn't there.

Roger Green seems to have escaped that level of literary fate.  It's possible to dig up some information on him, though what little there is remains patchy and scarce in places.  His date of birth can be traced to somewhere right around the end of the First World War, on Nov. 2nd, 1918.  This all happened in Norwich, to a couple listed as Helena Mary Phyllis and Maj. Gilbert Arthur Lancelyn Green.  The Green family itself is, or was part of the landed gentry of the English Upper Class.  It's lineage is reported to trace back all the way to the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First (web).  As is the typical case with most families of the nobility, there was a deeded and titled estate on which generations of the family grew up.  Roger appears to have been no exception.  His childhood was spent living in Poulton Hall.  It's was and remains one of those old English manor houses that can sometimes contain a storied history.  

It's nowhere near as vast or impressive as any of the old royal households, such as Hampton Court, and to be fair, that's kind of in its favor.  Unlike the grand, forbidding presences attached to an estate such as Beverston Castle, Poultan Hall's compact appearance tells of a more expansive and generous nature.  It's atmosphere is less that of the genuine Nobility, and more in the line of the Old County Squires.  It is just possible (once you've scaled the whole thing down to an appropriate size) to imagine a family of Hobbits emerging from its doors, maybe one of the Tooks or Brandybucks.  Perhaps that's why it seems fitting to discover that the old place has become the kind of setting that various artists like to arrange their projects in.  The house and grounds even served as a backdrop for a children's series known as The Owl Service.  This happened back in 1969, when its last owner was still alive.  It's somewhat telling about Green himself that he was willing to allow or open his own home to such a production.  It's also the dwelling that served as his first great window onto the world.  

Being the scion and heir of an old, established, military family was often viewed as being born into a fairly conservative milieu.  In England, that same framework still appears to be in operation today, at least among the ruing classes.  It is just possible to expect that Green would have experienced the same difficulties as those faced by a writer like E.A. Wyke-Smith.  The opening setting is almost so prototypical that it won't be too much of a surprise to learn that Roger grew up in the shadow of a strict, and authoritarian father figure.  Instead, the truth itself seems to amount to a more or less complete subversion of the trope.  Far from being a strict disciplinarian,  Arthur Green comes off as unconventional by the usual standards of the gentry.  His own son is able to provide the best possible snapshot of his upbringing in Poultan Hall through a brief snippet of memoir found in the opening pages of his later critical survey, Tellers of Tales.

"Being myself a rather bookish child, more often at home than at school owing to ill health, my reading played a very important part in my life.  It had always done so, as I was fortunate in having a father who delighted in reading aloud, began to do so long before I could read, and continued the custom, when occasion permitted, right up to the last year of his life when I was nearly thirty.  My own reading of children's book went on longer perhaps than is usual, and was succeeded by a delight in the story-tellers of the Nineties that I never lost; but it did not exclude other tastes, and I remember when I was fifteen or so reading Shakespeare plays and Tarzan stories alternately, and my reading lists of the time show an amazing variation between Stevenson or Haggard and Thackeray or Greek drama (8)".

If the interactions with his father were his first big influences, the second most important element in Green's introduction to Literature was the library housed on the estate.  This is one of the salient facts that marks Green's trajectory out as yet another type.  One of the commonalities to be found in the public statements of a lot of famous writers is how they all tend to go on, sometimes at a length which must seem absurd to casual reader, about the importance of libraries, or any kind of booksellers in their lives.  It seems to be one of the few, constant, real-life tropes that is able to unite an ongoing series of lives that are different in most every other respect.  Stephen King, for instance, noted that his education in books got started from at least two places.  One was the Stratford Library, in downtown Connecticut.  The other were the occasional bookmobiles that would drive through his hometown neighborhood of Durham, Maine.  For Ray Bradbury, meanwhile, it seems to have been the public library of Los Angeles that initiated him into the broader arena of world literature (Weller, 9).

Green's own experience of this same process appears to be a Victorian - Edwardian spin on the same process as that undergone by the other two mentioned above.  If his father wasn't there to read for him, the young Roger could often be found browsing through the volumes contained in the house.  From the sound of it, that library appears to have been an example of one of those old, private collections that some of the higher nobility could afford to compile for their own amusement, leisure, and in some cases, a genuine interest in literacy and learning.  The results could sometimes amount to several whole rooms given over to the shelving and stocking of various assorted tomes.  It is from this age old enterprise that we owe the by now still somewhat familiar image of the classical library; a vast and echoing hall lined with shelves of various leather-bound volumes of forgotten lore; most of which tend to alternate in color from red, to green, to brown, and always with the titles highlighted and bordered in gilt-edged gold.  Green seems to have been lucky enough to have inherited a variation of this image.  As first Bradbury, and then King would later do, once the young lad was let loose in that living image, he seems to have taken to it with the natural skill of a salmon running in its main stream.

It is from this experience both of parental bedtime reading, combined with the discovery of the library that shaped the contours of Roger's mental architecture.  This is where his story conforms to type, as it fits in with an established pattern that may have begun as far back as the Renaissance.  It would often be the custom for middle and upper class families in England, before the advent of public education, to pass on their learning to both heirs and descendants by introducing them to the contents of these private libraries.  The practice probably isn't as widespread now.  However, at least before the beginning of the 20th century, this household practice of educating through the library remained more or less the sole means of giving a future to one's children.  In addition to Green, other names like John Ruskin, William Morris, Prime-minister Arthur Balfour, and Oxford scholars like R.G. Collingwood were able to achieve as much as they did because of their exposure to this tradition.

Just like Morris and Ruskin, Green's introduction to the library (just as a type, or thing in itself) fostered a love of the written word.  The passion grew enough to the point where it determined his future career.  The rest of it is surprisingly available in the public record.  That said, the record itself is scant, almost constipated.  If that counts as a fault, then it's mainly down to the lack of curiosity shown to the writer's own output.  The fact that he's remembered enough at all is something of a small miracle.  The relevant data is here laid out in full, as it provides a decent enough beginner's summary of all the salient points of Green's life and his once and future career.  The following is taken verbatim from the back of the book promotional material of the Puffin Books edition of Myths of the Norsemen.

"Roger was a man who loved storytelling and was fascinated by traditional fairy tales, myths, and legends from around the world...Roger was often ill, though, and couldn't go to school - so he spent lots of time at the family's manor house in the country of Cheshire.  His family had been wealthy, and there was a huge library in their house.  He spent many hours reading the old books in there, and this is probably where his love of myths and legends started...

"...Roger loved reading adventure stories and fairy tales, and as he grew up he became fascinated by the myths of ancient Greece and Egypt, and the legends of the Norse countries of Scandinavia.  He went on to retell their ancient stories in his books Tales of Ancient Greece, The Tale of Troy, Tales from Ancient Egypt and Myths of the Norsemen - a continuous story gathered from the ancient Norse folktales, ballads and poems...He was well known for his retellings of traditional stories.  Including those mentioned above, he wrote The Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, all published as Puffin Classics.  He also wrote many books for adults, including a biography of...J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan (262-3)".

That is the extent to which the public knows him.  In all, Green was responsible for six of these compilations from world mythology.  They comprise the sole number of his books that remain in print to this very day.  The result is an author who exists as sort of like an anomaly.  Very few people seem to know he even existed at some point in time, and so his books are never taken off the shelves.  The result is that they continue to make a steady enough profit to keep restocking their places in the racks.  The whole thing sounds like a series of impossibilities that keep happening with a persistent regularity.  The whole or complete truth, meanwhile, remains in obscurity.  It's like what the Puffin blurb observes above.  Green's life as an author encompassed a lot more than just a series of folklore collections.  He wrote material of his very own, for a start.  The fact that all of it has vanished from memory is what accounts for the length of this opening.  When you're dealing with an unknown quantity, first introductions tend to take a bit more time.  That's what this entire article amounts to, in a way.  

If Roger Lancelyn Green is an unfamiliar name on the lists of published authors, then it just leaves one question.  Where do you start?  Perhaps the best way to begin is to take things slow, and not all at once.  It's with this in mind that I think the best place to start is by looking at one of the first entries in his career as a writer.  He'd published just one other book before this one.  The Luck of the Lynns appeared on the shelves two years later.  The tale goes as follows.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

A Book that Inspired Tolkien?

It's got to be the most fundamental question in the entire field of the creative arts.  "Where do you get your ideas?"  A variation of it goes as follows: "Where do the stories come from?"  Most artists tend to answer that a lot of it just popped into their imaginations out of the clear blue.  For instance, here's how the creator of Middle Earth said it all got started, at least when it came to writing the book that first placed him on the map.  "All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting school certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children.  On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'  I did not and do not know why (Collected Letters, 125)".

To be fair, perhaps it is just possible to understand why it happened when it did with a little bit of psychology and hindsight.  Tolkien seems to be conforming to a pattern when those words occurred to him.  He was placing his signature on a number of "red tape" papers.  This was a process his job required him to complete, over, time, and again, ad infinitum.  In another interview, Tolkien described the job as "laborious, and unfortunately, also boring (web)".  In other words, it was just one big, make-work detail,  The task itself might have been a dull, dry run.  However, it seems to have been the very repetitive nature of the task, its inherent monotony, that allowed the surface level of the writer's mind to not so much fall asleep, as go into a kind of holding pattern necessary for the lower levels of his mental activity to stir and awaken.  Once this happened, his imagination took the opportunity to send up a flare.  The result was a character with a funny name in a peculiar dwelling.  

It's a pattern that a lot of other writers have fallen into.  More than that, some authors out there are self-conscious enough to realize they rely on such processes to bring out their best work.  I can remember hearing second hand about a correspondence from a young author who claimed she had difficulty getting stuck on a work while cooped up in a hotel room.  She wished more than anything that she had her vacuum cleaner.  If she had just a bit of cleaning around the house to do, then the ideas just began to flow naturally for some reason.  That reason appears to be the same one at work in Tolkien's case.  Both writers needed to lull their minds into a sort of passive state in order for the imagination to do its thing.

This examination may have given us some insight, however it doesn't answer the full question.  What's been explained to us is just the process of having an idea, rather than the actual art of the craft.  We're no closer to learning about the actual content, or creative idea that makes The Hobbit the kind of story it is, and why the book remains such a perennial favorite down the years.  That's a more involved form of the question, one that takes a longer format than can be provided in just the span of a single article.  What makes a book line The Hobbit so rewarding from the perspective of the average bookworm is that it's the sort of text where several lifetimes have to be spent unpacking all of its narrative and thematic riches.  It's a strange enthusiasm to have for blots of ink on a page.  It's also one a lot of us can offer no apologies for.  It's just happens to be the kind of hobby that can have its own importance on occasion.

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are perhaps best thought of as a giant cauldron of story.  Each book tells its own self-contained narrative.  However both stories are a feast made up of several differing, yet often interrelated ingredients.  Discovering and tracing down the roots of these inspiration elements has been a pastime in Tolkien fandom for a while now.  It's one particular ingredient that I'm interested in for the moment.  If places like Middle Earth are made up from the various strands of folktale and legend, then another legitimate, yet oft-neglected source of inspiration sometimes came to Tolkien from the popular literature of his own timeline.  We like to picture Tolkien as this semi-reclusive old hermit who liked to shut himself away from the world.  If that was the case, then it's a wonder LOTR even exists.  Books like that are never the work of shut-ins.  It takes a great deal of life experience to conjure up the the level of humanism contained within its pages.  Looked at from that perspective, there is a sense in which Tolkien can be described as a Renaissance man.

His tastes were not confined to the medieval or its preceding ages.  It's a basic enough fact that the Professor also liked to dabble in the fantastic scribblings of both the Victorians and the more mythical oriented Modernists of the early 20th century.  Some of the modern authors that Tolkien admired hinted that his tastes were often more eclectic than even the most fervent admirers will allow. The best name that signals this out might have to belong to Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck.  Indeed, the latter raises interesting possibilities about how Tolkien might have viewed his most famous creation.  Another one of these modern names was called Edward Augustine (E.A.) Wyke-Smith, and its his work that  concerns us here.  Perhaps the best way to describe him is to say that he is one of (though by no means the sole) inspiration for the name that cropped into Tolkien's mind one day.  

Wyke-Smith had never heard of Hobbits in his whole life however, and the book we are looking at today doesn't even bother to mention them.  At the same time, it's almost like neither author could avoid creating the subject.  Wyke-Smith and Tolkien shared at least two things in common.  Both were writers who discovered they were pretty good at it.  The second was that they are the creators of a certain type of secondary world character with a remarkable number of physical similarities.  Perhaps that's not all that each of their books share in common.  It's a story that's well worth telling, so there's no better time to start.  

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Disney TV (2004).

The problem with success is that it gives everyone the perfect excuse to ignore you.  That's the one catch of pop-culture that nobody ever bothers to tell you about.  If an artist comes along and is able to leave the kind of impact that seeps rights into the social mainstream, then a kind of curious metamorphosis takes place.  The kind of impact I'm thinking of doesn't happen often.  However, on the few historical occasions when they do occur, the result tends to be a slow burn form of change in the atmosphere of a culture.  The new phenomenon is able to gain such a wide cultural acceptance in a way that is so vast that it's almost hard to notice it when it happens.  There have been just a handful of artists who have left that huge a level of impact on the world's stage.  Shakespeare might have been one of them.  Walter Elias Disney is definitely another.  Walt, or at least the brand and company that he left behind, has got to be one of the current constants in our modern aesthetic landscape.  For better or worse, both the man and the studio remain as benchmarks of pop-culture.  

The tricksy part, however, is what happens when the artist and the art is able to attain a certain high level of cultural ubiquity.  My own experience is that once that happens, there is a real threat that the artist is in danger of achieving what I've heard described as "Mainstream Obscurity".  It's what happens when an artist's fame ironically becomes the very means for his or her partial occlusion in everyday social awareness.  This can have a deleterious effect on their work.  In Walt's case, most people know the Seven Dwarves theme from Snow White ("it's off to work we go").  All well and good.  Now what's the movie about?  I mean can you give, name, or know specific elements about the flick?  Can you name and discuss specific plot points.  Do you even know whether or not the film is based on any kind of source material?  If you haven't got a choice except to answer no, well then I'm afraid that makes you living proof of just how it's possible for Disney to remain a pervasive known unknown.  His efforts have succeeded to such an extent that it's easy to fool ourselves into forgetting there was a time when things were otherwise, or else might not have been at all, if certain things hadn't gone right.    

Stop and think about it for a minute.  The guy writing these words can best be described as an 80s Kid.  I was born the year Orwell made famous.  That means I was just in time for Amadeus, Ghostbusters, and the breakout performances of Eddie Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The trick, however, is that I was in no position to even realize they existed until much later.  This would have been during the 90s for me.  That's when I first saw posters and standup billboard cut outs for something called Terminator 2: Judgement Day.  There was a brief span when I couldn't set foot into a local Blockbusters without having to walk past that same damn thing, time in and out.  Pretty soon, Arnold left, and in his place one day was a black background with the image of a T-Rex skeleton on, painted in shades of black and red.  The irony is I missed Jurassic Park on its initial theatrical run.  The key point about this memory is that one of those touchstones had been around long before I even knew T2 was a sequel.  It had achieved complete and total ubiquity.  The case of Spielberg's film was different.  By that time, I was of an age where I got to observe it starting to leave its impact everywhere I went.  The latter movie had this sense of a fresh, new discovery, while the former one already had this sense that it had always been here from the start.  My experiences with Walt's legacy ran pretty much the same way.

I don't how many others went through the same experience as me.  I think the way it all happened was my parents discovered the Disney Company somehow got its own cable channel.  They showed a lot of the old Mickey and Donald cartoons, as well as some other stuff that looked harmless.  So they plopped me down in front of the idiot box and that channel became my first real experience of both media and the world.  The one person I have to thank for it all is Uncle Walt.  I got to know him through that channel.  What I took a long time catching up with was the realization neither Disney, or his channel were ever "from the beginning".  Heck, Walt didn't even create the cable incarnation of his brand.  That was the work of his successors.  And yet here it is again.  Once more we see the process of an artist whose impact is so big that it's able to keep that ripple effect going long after the originator is shuffled out the door.  This can be good and bad.  On the one hand, we still know who Walt is.  The downside is that both the man, and the history behind him tends to get obscured.  In his case, its not so much due to the passage of time, as it is down to the way the Company has chosen to market its own legacy.

I'm sort of left to wonder how many of the post-2000 Disney fans out there really know just how vast and varied the creative history of their favorite company really is?  It goes back a lot further than just an ear worm like "Let It Go".  That's just a fact of history.  However, these days it seems to be the kind of fact that too many are willing to overlook or deliberately forget.  For some reason, that kind of mindset just comes off as a mistake to me.  It's the kind of social amnesia that sooner or later comes with a heavy price-tag.  I don't know how that must sound, it just seems to be the way history works.  It has a nasty habit of being unkind to any age or person who forgets all the lessons it has to teach.  The good news is that sometimes being a fan of the Mouse House tends to mean you get guys like Joseph L. Telotte.  

He fits into a very interesting category of the fandom.  Guys like don't like to take a copy of Zootopia off the shelf every now and then, just for a few moments of enjoyment.  That's about as far as most of it goes for us, but not for some of the fans, not by a long shot.  They believe it's important to try and dig down into the history of all their favorite films from that studio.  They want to know what were the creative decisions that went into them.  Where did the inspiration come from.  How did they manage to create all the most iconic scenes from the studio's history.  These are the questions that make a particular slice of the fandom tick.  I have no idea how wide or numerous their numbers are.  I'm also not going to lie.  I'm mighty glad they're around.  It's efforts like that which help to keep a good legacy alive.

Telotte's book, is interesting for the nature of the territory it covers.  Rather than focusing in on the making of any one entry in the Disney catalogue, or another re-telling of the history of the studio, Tellote instead decides to train his lens on an oft-forgotten aspect of Walt's career.  His study is called Disney TV, and it chronicles the first time Walt decided to bring his studio into the television age. I said at the beginning that this aspect of Walt's legacy is one of those elements that has gotten overlooked because of how ubiquitous it has grown in the years since its creator's passing.  I also pointed out that wasn't always the case.  It's one of those facts of history that are so damn easy to forget.  The good news is that Tellote's book might be able to help remind us of where some our favorite childhood memories come from.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit (2019).

They can't all be easy.  One of the major tasks of the critic is to figure out just how much the author knows about their chosen subject.  That's the big rule of thumb when it comes to reviewing a biography.  Once you enter that territory the job isn't just about trying figure out what a metaphor in a work of fiction means.  Now all of sudden, you've got to find out how all those metaphors relate to the life.  I don't suppose it's too much of a stretch to believe this basic rule applies not just to the critic, but also to any biographer who hopes to present an accurate and successful picture of the life they've devoted their book to.  This goes double in those cases when the biography's subject happens to be an accomplished artist.  Perhaps the worst gig in the non-fiction section falls to those historians who are able to discover an unsung talent, and then find themselves saddled with the conviction that their subject deserves to gain a voice at the popular level.  Good luck to them is all I can say.  It's not an impossible goal.  It's just the the task is a lot harder than if you devote a book to a well-known personality (however long that's supposed to last).

I guess that's what makes talking about Edith Nesbit something like a real challenge.  She seems to occupy one of those strange, liminal places in the great pantheon of Fantasy fiction.  She doesn't appear to be an unknown name.  On the other hand, I've never seen or heard of her being mentioned as high up there with the big names as she perhaps deserves.  She was a very popular children's author in her day.  That's the basic fact of her claim to fame.  She seems to have done a more than decent enough job of it, all things considered.  Her accomplishment lies in the way she helped set up a lot of the images, themes, settings, and plot points that sort of define the way we think about certain fantasy novels.  She's been described as a pioneer more than once, and the label seems to fit.  That becomes pretty obvious once you decide to leaf through the pages of even one of her short story collections.  Her secondary worlds can sound familiar, until you stop and realize that the reality is you're encountering a lot of familiar faces for the first time.  Here is how Eleanor Fitzsimmons opens her study of the author.

"When I was a little girl who borrowed weekly adventures from my local library, my favorite stories were by E. Nesbit.  Best of all were her tales of magic, and of these the book I loved most was The Story of the Amulet.  I accompanied her fictional children to ancient Egypt, Babylon, and the lost city of Atlantis.  I met Emperor Julius Caesar as he stood on the shores of Gaul looking across toward England.  I was filled with hope on reading her account of a utopian London where everyone is happy and wise.  In "Praise and Punishment," chapter nine of Wings and the Child, her manual for a successful childhood, Nesbit herself explained: 'There is only one way of understanding children; they cannot be understood by imagination, by observation, nor even by love.  They can only be understood by memory.  Only by remembering how you felt and thought when you yourself were a child can you arrive at any understanding of the thoughts and feelings of children'.

"Confirming that the children in The Story of the Amulet were the "second cousins once removed" of her beloved Bastables from earlier books, she confided: 'The reason why those children are like real children is that I was a child once myself, and by some fortunate magic I  remembered exactly how I used to feel and think about things'.

"The key to her brilliance was that she was one of us, and her magical adventures felt as if they could easily happen to you or to me.  Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography explains this: 'Her characters were neither heroes nor moral dummies, but real young human beings behaving naturally.  This gift of character drawing, aided by the ease and humor of her style, place her in the highest rank among writers of books for children'.

"A profile published in September 1905 in The Strand Magazine, where Nesbit's most popular stories were serialized, praised her "astonishing versatility" and her "almost uncanny insight into the psychology of childhood."  A review in John O'London's Weekly noted: "Take a book by E. Nesbit into any family of boys and girls and they fall upon it like wolves."  Of her own style, she wrote: "I make it a point of honour never to write down to a child."  In an interview with the Dundee Evening Telegraph, she insisted: "It's quite natural that a child should believe in fairies."

In Treasure Seekers and Borrowers, Marcus Crouch suggested of E. Nesbit: "No writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman."  He believed that she "managed to create the prototypes of many of the basic patterns of modern children's fiction."  Nesbit came of age in the Victorian era, but she did not leave us more of the stiff, moralizing tales that characterized the nineteenth century.  Instead, as Crouch explained, she "threw away their strong, sober, essentially literary style and replaced it with the miraculously colloquial, flexible and revealing prose which was her unique contribution to the children's novel."  She wove her whimsy and magic into the everyday lives of children, and they would not easily let this go (ix-x)".

Before we get to the biography itself, there's just one or two details of the passages above that stick out like thorn branches in an otherwise smooth looking field of green.  Maybe it's just the pedant who took up residence in my head sometime after learning to read, however it seems like the two authors might have missed something.  To start with, Crouch and Fitzsimmons claim that Nesbit replaced a so-called literate, Victorian style with her own modernized form of prose language.  Perhaps I made a mistake?  I'd always thought since high-school that it was guys like Charles Dickens who were responsible for creating what a new "sober...colloquial, flexible" prose style with novels like Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.  In books like those and others, Dickens was able to take the stylistic flourishes honed during his years as a journalist and then applied it to to his artistic imaginings.  What he did was take the local dialects, accents, and ways of speaking, and give them a voice that had never been seen on the page before.  In doing so, Dickens was able to create a kind of stylistic space that allowed pretty much all the best authors who came after him (Nesbit included) to find their own voices.

As for the claim of Nesbit's creative work being a "breakaway from all "the stiff, moralizing tales that characterized the nineteenth century", I have just one question.  Are you talking about books like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn?  If so, then the choice is odd, to say the least.  I don't think I've run across a nineteenth century text which was more irreverent and disrespectful of all the social idols of its day, a lot of which are still with us.  If such a book is the epitome of stiff moralization, then its a wonder that it still remains the most controversial and banned text in existence.  It really does seem as if Twain had managed an artistic feat that I don't think he intended.  He has managed to create a text which has gone on to become both totem and taboo at the same time.  Different things to different people, in other words.

I mention both of these literary lights because of the way Nesbit's own efforts might be seen as both mirrors or continuations of, and divergences from the same type of story.  What unites all three writers boils down to just a number of things.  All three of their lives encompassed the entire Victorian Era.  Each of them was a master of satire.  Nesbit's fantasies sometimes contain an element of humorous self-knowing that allows her to poke fun at her own pretensions.  This may account for one reviewer calling her the British Mark Twain.  Like Nesbit, the real Twain and Dickens were good at delivering barbs at a lot of well chosen targets.  I think the most important link between them all however comes down to the way in which each of them managed to discover they had an affinity to the fantastic.  The word I use for this is Victorian Romanticism.  It's a phrase I've used here and there, and I don't know how it must sound to others.  It also doesn't change the fact its the best term I've got for the kind of rubric under which each of the three authors listed fall under, no matter how different their chosen subject matter.      

It's because of this, that I've got to maintain that any critic or reader who gets the crazy idea of trying wrap their head around an artist like E. Nesbit has to understand how both her life and art were shaped by the aesthetics of the culture she was raised in.  This in turn can help the critic get at a better understanding of who she was, and what she did.  The way Nesbit put all her fantastical landscapes down on paper, the events, ideas, and literature that inspired her, the various ways she discovered new uses for dragons and flying carpets, and how it all led her to become a literary pioneer is a story that's well worth telling.  I'm just left wondering if the biographer did a good job in this case.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Thus I Lived with Words: Robert Louis Stevenson and the Writer's Craft.

One of the questions I've been concerned with for a while now is just what is the nature of a lasting artistic reputation.  I think it's telling that the question is not one that a great majority would ever think to ask.  One of the hard facts of a bookworm's life is that when you sign on for such a gig, you've more or less joined a very small and informal fraternity.  There has never been a time, so far as I can tell, when a reading audience was ever able to make up a sizable, or influential majority of the world's population.  My own response to this slow growing realization has been complex.  On the one hand, there's nothing to wonder about in the strictest sense.  History shows a world in which the vast majority of its peoples have never bothered to pick up a book, much less take in a movie.  The whole thing is a continuous and recurring pattern that doesn't look to change anytime soon.  As far as anyone can tell, that has always been the norm.  On the other hand, if that's the norm, then I guess I can't help but find the whole thing disconcerting.  It just seems wrong to me that entire world cultures would neglect the various aesthetic artifacts that make up the best and brightest of their respective intellectual histories.  It all kind of makes me wonder how come certain authors are able to maintain their popular reputations over such a long span of time.  Robert Louis Stevenson is a good case in point.

He's one of those names on the tip of the tongue.  He's famous for something, and it's possible to just barely recall what that is.  His heyday was during the Victorian Era.  If any lingering historical memory of that period exists at all, then it's most likely to found in old, battered copies of Dickens and Jane Austen.  They seem to be the ones who have cemented the popular image of that decade the in the minds of audiences.  To be fair, part of the reason for that is because they really were just that good at capturing the atmosphere of their times and giving them the proper dramatic spin that would fashion it all into an indelible image.  When we hear someone described as a Scrooge, we have this near-instant idea of the kind of personality we are dealing with.  If someone encounters a quarreling couple who can't bare to leave each other, then so long as its not that serious, we might remember the main characters from Pride and Prejudice.  It's rare for even the most talented artists to leave that kind of a lasting impact.  That's what makes the survival of Stevenson so remarkable.  His legacy can be found in sentiments regarding the fate of fifteen men on a dead man's chest.  If you can complete at least the words that describe the second half of that old sea-chantey, then you may be familiar with Stevenson's works, even if the author himself remains a complete mystery.

That's a shame, because the man in question helped form a vital link in a chain of creative talents.  Together they more or less created a minor, yet notable renaissance in both English and American letters during the 19th century.  They were never anything like a formal group.  Each writer who can be listed as a contributor to this collective effort occupied a place in which their major efforts were done in the privacy of their own, individual studies.  Yet they also shared and critiqued their efforts among one another as peers.  If it is possible to give an academic label to this group, then perhaps the title that fits it all best is to describe them as the Victorian Romantics.  The phrase may have a certain apt ring to it.  There's a nicety about it that perhaps makes it easy to remember.  However, I'm convinced there's nothing facetious about it.  I really am willing to contend that all the best known children's authors of the Victorian Era were and remain the closest thing to a series of literary inheritors of an artistic tradition that in many ways helped to form and set the parameters of their differing, yet interrelated literary endeavors.  

It's the goal of this article to show that the work of Robert Louise Stevenson fits in well with this same tradition.  In order to do that, a close look at the writer's life and craftsmanship and will be a bit more than necessary.  So far as I can tell, there's never really been any other way of finding out what makes a good work of writing tick.  In Stevenson's case, the  task is not impossible, though it's a lot more laborious than it has to be.  The trouble with examining the art of Stevenson isn't that his life plays no part in it.  It's just that for the longest time I've had to struggle against a major obstacle when it comes to getting at all the relevant facts.  There's shared tendency among all of his biographers to become so fascinated with the life of the author.  This has happened time and again in all the major biographies that are still available.  The tendency is so widespread, in fact, that it can be traced all the way back to the slew of critical work that emerged in the wake of the death of the author.  To be fair, there is at least a certain kind of excuse to be offered here.  One of the marvels of Stevenson's life was his determination to live it to its fullest.  In his case, this meant embarking on a life that really did seem to match the old epic romances that populated his favorite storybooks as a young boy.  

As soon as Stevenson was old enough, he embarked on a series of excursions to lands old and (for him, at least) new.  It took him from the charm of Old Europe, the new blank canvas of the American West, and somehow it all ended up on the Samoan Coast.  It really was quite a life, and I think the key about it is that so few of us will ever be able to dare even half of what Stevenson accomplished.  This leaves the writer as something of a freak of nature.  He has found a way to make his own daily existence so remarkable that it's left all the various academics and enthusiasts in a kind of intellectual stupor.  There's just no way most people can pull that kind of thing off today.  As a result, it seems all too easy for them to get lost in the grandeur of the life at the expense of the art.  I can't recall many RLS biographies where the writer ever stopped much to ask how Stevenson's adventures on the high seas might have impacted a work like Treasure Island.  It's a real shame the way the buck keeps getting passed on like that.  The fault is all the more noticeable when you realize Stevenson is one of those obliging authors who are considerate enough to wear their influences on their sleeve, or else telegraph where and how they get their ideas by simply talking about how his day went.  I think it's time critics began to focus on how the life made up the art, rather than just focusing in on what happened to the author for its own sake.

The good news is I was able to find at least something that gets to the core of Stevenson's art.  I just had to agree to take my sweet time in getting there.  That's where today's book under discussion comes in.  It is just possible Annette R. Federico has done Stevenson scholars a kindness.  Whether it counts as a favor remains to be seen.  She has composed a book on Stevenson that zeroes in on his craft and inspiration as a writer first and proper.  This creates an ideal situation for the critic, because it allows something to talk about other than the contents of what the artist had for breakfast.  The basic purpose of Federico's book is laid out neat enough on the book's back cover.

"Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) loved more than anything to talk about the craft of writing and the pleasure of reading good books. His dedication to the creative impulse manifests itself in the extraordinary amount of work he produced in virtually every literary genre—fiction, poetry, travel writing, and essays—in a short and peripatetic life. His letters, especially, confess his elation at the richness of words and the companionship of books, often projected against ill health and the shadow of his own mortality.

Stevenson belonged to a newly commercial literary world, an era of mass readership, marketing, and celebrity. He had plenty of practical advice for writers who wanted to enter the profession: study the best authors, aim for simplicity, strike a keynote, work on your style. He also held that a writer should adhere to the truth and utter only what seems sincere to his or her heart and experience of the world. Writers have messages to deliver, whether the work is a tale of Highland adventure, a collection of children’s verse, or an essay on umbrellas. Stevenson believed that an author could do no better than to find the appetite for joy, the secret place of delight that is the hidden nucleus of most people’s lives. His remarks on how to write, on style and method, and on pleasure and moral purpose contain everything in literature and life that he cared most about—adventuring, persisting, finding out who you are, and learning to embrace “the romance of destiny (web)”.

Books like this present something of a challenge.  On the one hand, there are folks out there who just eat this stuff up.  Then there's the other half of the equation.  The simple truth is that most people tend to view works of fiction as mere indulgences, nothing more.  This second group often has a hard time understanding why anyone would want to devote their whole life to the scribblings of a guy like Shakespeare.  It really is a simple question of finding out just who is the right audience for a text like this.  It's a work of literary criticism which studies the words of an old, canonical author.  It devotes an entire book to this topic, and all for the sake of trying to attain a better grasp on the nature of creative writing.  In that sense, the book has a very definite goal.  I'm just wondering how many out there can find any value in it it.  For what it's worth, I'm willing to go far enough out on a limb to say that such a topic does have some kind of applicable value to real life.  The question is whether or not Federico and Stevenson are able to prove that value, and fulfill that book's stated goal?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

An Inspiration for Stephen King's The Mist?

"It's best to be as clear about this as I can - I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.  The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).  If you can see things this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably.  If, on the other hand, you decide I'm crazy, that's fine.  You won't be the first (163)".  That's how Stephen King describes the way in which he gets his ideas.  It can all be found in his autobiographical instruction manual, On Writing.  Whatever else can or should be said about him, its obvious enough that King was dead serious when he both thought up and wrote down that statement.  I haven't seen him say or do anything else in all the years since that would lead me to believe he's changed his mind on the subject.  His is a career of soaring heights, mixed in the the occasional embarrassment.  Throughout it all, though, that idea of a work of fiction as an art that makes itself, or emerges from the depths of imagination as something fully formed, yet perhaps always seen through a dark glass, appears to have remained constant.

King has never been what you'd call a Rhodes Scholar, though he may have something in the way of a philosophy.  It's no real surprise, given his chosen profession, that a lot of it centers on what he calls "The Art of the Craft".  The real question is whether there is enough experience to bear his main idea out?  The good news, so far as I can see, is that I have heard other artists, not just book writers, but also playwrights, screenplayers, painters, and poets express the same conviction.  The best testimony of this same process at work has to come from the pen of J.R.R.Tolkien.  In the midst of his Collected Letters, Tolkien makes several repeated statements that he often had no idea that his most famous work was going to take the narrative twists and turns that wound up in the finished product.  "I have long ceased to invent", he says at one point, "(though even patronizing or sneering critics on the side praise my 'invention'): I wait till I seem to know what really happened.  Or till it writes itself.  Thus, though I knew for years that Frodo would run into a tree-adventure somewhere far down the Great River, I have no recollection of inventing Ents.  I came at last to the point, and wrote the 'Treebeard' chapter without any recollection of any previous thought; just as it now is.  And then I saw that, of course, it had not happened to Frodo at all (italics mine, sic) (212)".

Likewise, Neil Gaiman once described his writing method in the opening preface to a screenplay of his called Mirrormask. "...I'll talk about it to the point where I'm ready to start writing, and then I start writing and find out the rest of it as I go along (12)".  Rudyard Kipling, meanwhile, maintained a lot earlier than either of the three authors mentioned above that all of his best work was done not by him, but rather under the influence of what he referred to as his daemon.  In other words, all he meant is that he couldn't fulfill his proper function as a writer unless the muse in his mind spoke up.  He claimed that all his best work was done under the influence of this same muse.  In fact, it is possible that Kipling's short narrative, "The Greatest Story in the World" is about how the creative work is lacking without the necessary inspiration in place.  It's main lead is a very shallow, modern young lad who wants to be a writer.  Most of what he writes is pure drivel.  Then there will come moments when something his mind speaks up, and an epic tale about the exploits of a Grecian galley slave start to form on the page.  When this influence withdraws, however, nothing comes out right.  The whole thing is an allegory that anticipates King's argument by at least a whole century.

The preponderance of written evidence all attests to the same conclusion.  In order to do their job, all the best writers have to get out of the way and let the imagination start talking of its own accord.  They seem to rely on it as something that has to be done even when the final results may be less than flattering to their own selves.  The point is that the story is always the boss.  To try an make it anything less is to tell a lie with no thematic truth anywhere in it, and hence, a complete and total failure.  What King and the rest of the cavalcade seem to have described is a method of composition that, in essence, is the closest any of them will ever get to something like a standard operating procedure.  It is what it is.  Like Mt. Everest, the human mind is something that is just there, and so is the peculiar function known as the imagination, which appears to be a part of it.  Some of us have found ways to tap into that function.  The results can be known by many names like The Odyssey, 221 B Baker Street, or Middle Earth.  These things have all happened, once upon a by.  And after all these years, the question of where do the stories come from is still hanging around.

I'm inclined to believe King, for what it's worth.  I've run across too much evidence (some of it cited above) of the kind of phenomenon he talks about to believe he's just making up some kind of excuse.  The interesting part is how it's an explanation that still leaves a sense of mystery behind, not because the author is trying to obfuscate, but really because its all he knows for the most part.  "In most cases", King observes, "three or four out of every five, let's say - I know where I was when I got the idea for a certain story, what combination of events (usually mundane) set that story off.  The genesis of It, for example, was my crossing a wooden bridge, listening to the hollow thump of my boot-heels, and thinking of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff."  In the case of Cujo it was an actual encounter with an ill-tempered Saint Bernard.  Pet Sematary arose from my daughter's grief when her beloved pet cat, Smucky, was run over on the highway near our house.

"Sometimes, however, I just can't remember how I I arrived at a particular novel or story.  In these cases the seed of the story seems to be an image rather than an idea, a mental snapshot so powerful it eventually calls characters and incidents the way some ultrasonic whistles supposedly call every dog in the neighborhood.  These are, to me, at least, the true creative mysteries: stories that have no real antecedents, that come on their own.  The Green Mile began with an image of a huge black man standing in his jail cell and watching the approach of a trusty selling candy and cigarettes from an old metal cart with a squeaky wheel (vii)".  In the case of a story like The Mist the inspiration seems to have been of this same sort, for the most part.  

The way King tells it, he was doing nothing more than browsing through the aisles of a supermarket when the moment of inspiration just walked it right to him.  "In the market, my muse suddenly shat on my head - this happened as it always does, suddenly, with no warning.  I was halfway down the middles aisle, looking for hot-dog buns, when I imagined a big prehistoric bird flapping its way toward the meat counter at the back, knocking over cans of pineapple chunks and bottles of tomato sauce.  By the time my son Joe and I were in the checkout lane, I was amusing myself with a story about all these people trapped in a supermarket surrounded by prehistoric animals.  I thought it was wildly funny - what The Alamo would have been like if directed by Bert I. Gordon.  I wrote half the story that night and the rest the following week (750)".      

That's the point of origin account given, based on the author notes in his 1980s short shorty collection, Skeleton Crew.  There's no real reason to doubt his account.  I'm pretty sure King is just telling all he's ever really known about this story.  He's also one of those writers who isn't stingy about sharing the contents of his own personal library with fans and readers in general.  King often likes to drop the names of writers whose work has left him with a sense of inspiration or enjoyment.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that some of those books are short story collections.  I just wonder sometimes if any of those collections contain an entry by some guy known as H.F. Arnold.  Nobody knows him, that's a pretty sure guarantee.  The name is a drawn blank for most people, and I don't even know what he looks like.  He's just a name on a page, attached to a certain short story.  It's the contents of that story, however brief it is, that gives me pause.  It makes me wonder where writings like The Mist really come from.  Are there types of stories that get retold more often than audiences or artists think or know about?  Wouldn't it be funny if The Mist had an unknown inspiration?

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Suspense: Ghost Hunt (1949).

In my last post, I raised a question about the nature of Found Footage.  I was curious to know whether it was possible to trace its roots as far back as the Golden Age of Old Time Radio?  I don't think it's the sort of question many people bother to ask themselves, even among fans of the sub-genre.  I could be wrong on that.  However my own experience is that you can't make yourself curious about something you don't even know exists.  For most audiences, the Found Footage film had its big debut with the release of the original Blair Witch, way back in 99.  Like everyone else, I had no reason to suspect the sub-genre was a lot older than it looked.  There's even a nice bit of irony involved with my case.  I get to be even more of a punchline because I'd already listened to the story under discussion here today.  This happened way back sometime at the start or early mid-point of the 90s.  It was either in 91 or sometime during or prior to 1994.  It was really my folks who introduced me to the charms of yesteryear.  They did it through buying a compilation of what used to known audio as cassette tapes.  These were like the CDs of the analog era, except all the content was recorded onto spools of physical tape, rather than digital MP3s.  Anyway, one of these collections was a number of maybe three to five cassettes, with each side containing a 30 minute episode from a show I'd never heard of before. 

It was called Suspense, and after some digging, I've discovered that this was the closest thing to the Really Big Show of ancient, Dramatic Radio.  What's interesting to note is that I'm not sure of any TV show or series of this era that has been able to achieve the same height.  It's possible that a series like Breaking Bad comes close, yet even here, I'm sort of forced to remain unsure about that.  This is an irony that gets doubled when you realize Alfred Hitchcock had a hand in bringing Suspense to life.  It's a genuine, forgotten achievement.  Anyway, on one of the tapes my parents bought for me, there was one episode titled Ghost Hunt.  I was, and still remain, a very avid fan of the Horror genre.  It's what got me interested in reading books to begin with.  The fact that it could sometimes appear on TV, the movies, and now on radio was something of an added bonus that continues to this day.  Perhaps that's not so shabby an accomplishment when you consider how old a lot of that stuff is. 

I settled in, listened to the Ghost Hunt episode, had a good time, the worlds turned on its axis, as it always does, and things went on.  The irony comes in when Blair Witch  arrived on the scene.  Like a lot of folks in the audience, I was one of the very gullible ones who got caught up in that film's marketing ploy.  It was played with such brilliant perfection that there might have been a time when I was perhaps in the vicinity, on the verge of coming somewhere near to wondering if it was all true.  We all make mistakes, as the advancing years seem determined to prove to us all in various ways.  Even as a fake, though, whatever you want to say about its quality, what can't be denied is the skill with which the filmmakers were able to pull off their gambit.  It's kind of a small marvel, in its own way.  The real punchline, however, is just this.  I never saw, but rather listened to a story with what has to be more or less the exact same premise as Blair Witch.  To top it all off, the radio play beat Sanchez and Myrick to the punch by about 49 or 50 whole years.  The whole joke is perfected by a final revelation, one which might be surprising for the way in which it re-orients the nature of the Found Footage sub-genre.  That means there's plenty to unpack and examine here.  However, let's start one thing at a time.