Friday, April 15, 2016

Road testing the new book, part 4

Once again, I thought I’d run an excerpt of it my newly-finished-but-not-yet-revised book to see how it strikes peopleand how it strikes me when I look at it knowing that other people are seeing it too. The working title is Nation of Faith & Flesh: The Moral War That Shaped America, its nonfiction, it's coming from FSG in a year or so, and I’m still fine tuning the voice. Three earlier blog posts have brought us to the moment in early 1827 when Samuel F. B. Morse, painter and critic, is appalled to hear that a nearly-bare-legged French dancer has performed at New Yorks newest and most prestigious theater. 

As the ballerina spun back onto the stage on Thursday night, and then again Friday, Morse waited angrily for an upsurge of outrage from the decent people of the city, even as he knew it wouldn’t come. Of all the parties who failed to protest, none enraged him more than the newspapers. Too many people looked at the theater and saw only the cloak of false virtue it had wrapped itself in, the cloak that “conceals a mass of iniquity in its train, which, were it brought forth and exposed in its true colors, would cause the most lax moralist to shudder with horror.” The city’s journalists had the power to expose it, but they would not use it.
       From some of them he had expected nothing better: the Enquirer, published by Mordecai Noah (a Tammany chief, a Jew, and an occasional playwright), giggled like a procurer that Madame Hutin’s beauty was “fairly spread before the house,” that “she never lets concealment prey on her charms,” that she was “the naked truth itself.” But even the journals that affected moral uprightness—even the Commercial Advertiser, published by a member of Morse’s own Brick Church, even the Daily Advertiser, published by a grandson of the great evangelist Jonathan Edwards—either praised her artistry or said nothing at all.
       To Morse, the reason was clear: the publishers owed too much to the theaters that advertised in their pages. Fashion, mammon, and the press were united in a conspiracy to twirl a naked woman before the public in the guise of art. What the city needed was a newspaper honestly and solely dedicated to the public welfare. He was in no position to launch such a thing, but he knew people who might be. He could sound the trumpet blast to stir them to action: an open letter, a volcanic eruption of molten-hot, unchanneled words, in which he denounced the ballet, the theaters, the fashions of the wealthy, and the newspapers as offenses to morality, assaults on true art, and threats to public order. But more than that. The French ballet was a threat to the very survival of the American republic. His entire life had taught him so.
       Samuel Morse had grown up fighting his way out from under the shadow of an accomplished and famous father. The Reverend Jedidiah Morse had been the nation’s first great geographer and a pioneer of American religious publishing, who had tried to push his son into an apprenticeship to a bookseller so that he could help with the family business. Samuel had defied him to become an artist, and from then on he had struggled to define himself and fought to prove through glory or money that he had been right to rebel. That had turned out to be a long, frustrating fight.
       On his own in London, he had entertained theological and political ideas that his father condemned, but his experiences there had reinforced some of the ideas with which he’d grown up: that his young nation held a boundless potential but faced terrible threats, and that its survival depended on its own moral strength. He had arrived in 1811 and left in 1815, and so he had seen Britain fight its wars with Bonaparte and the United States, heard foreign calumnies that filled him with resentment, learned just how many aristocrats hoped to see American republicanism fail. He had seen angry, ill-educated mill workers rise in mobs to destroy their employers’ machines, and seen the ever more repressive Tories turn the violence of their army against them. In the end, he had seen the Crown and its allies hand France back to the same corrupt Bourbons, and the same Romanist priesthood, who had ruled it before its tragic revolution.
       Morse had sailed home more fiercely in love with his country than ever before, but also with sharpened anxieties about its vulnerability to both the rapacity of despotism and the rage of mobs. For the republic to blossom—for it to survive at all—required citizens of all classes to understand the grave responsibilities of liberalism and the civic virtues it required. His role in the nation’s future was clear to him: he would be the “bright star in a new constellation of national genius,” a Raphael or Michelangelo of the new age whose grand historical and metaphorical paintings would lift the American people toward an understanding of what they might be and what they must be.

In one arena, America’s art patrons had appreciated his gifts: he had earned a reputation as an expert portraitist, especially of men he admired for their accomplishments, men ranging from James Madison to Eli Whitney to that great reformer of New York City’s prisons and hospitals, the Reverend John Stanford. But he had never been a man who could be content with glorifying other men. And for his real work, for his grand, uplifting paintings, America seemed to care not at all. He had suffered a special humiliation when his old father had rented a gallery in Boston at his own expense to display his mighty allegorical nude, The Dying Hercules, and no one had bought it.
      Not only were the nation’s art patrons uninterested in his edifying subject matter, but their weakness for the romance and elegance of aristocratic European art left them with little interest in his classical severity. Even the wealthy tastemaker who had done more than anyone to establish Morse’s career in New York City had said that “He makes good portraits,” but “there is no poetry about his painting.” (That tastemaker was Philip Hone.) So Morse had nursed a growing frustration into which he had stirred his resentment of Americans who bowed down before European fashion and his fears for the state of the nation’s soul.
       The one bright light in his life had become Lucretia Pickering Morse, the lovely and peaceful New England girl he had married. She had borne him three children, which had been something of a mixed blessing; the itinerant life of the portrait painter had been anxious enough before he’d had other mouths to feed (and before his efforts to make his fortune with his mechanical inventions had only made things worse). But Lucretia had comforted him in the deepest of his disappointments and become a pole star in their New Haven home as he chased commissions up and down the country. She had also led him gently back toward his father’s Calvinist church.
       Then, at the beginning of 1825, Morse had received his greatest honor as a portraitist, one that had very nearly satisfied his ambitions as a patriotic symbolist. The Marquis de Lafayette had returned to America for the first time since the War of Independence that he had helped to win. No man had ever been given a more passionate or more universal hero’s welcome—and Samuel Morse had been commissioned to paint him. He had set off for Washington, leaving Lucretia with his parents to convalesce from the birth of her third baby.
       Many respectable Christians had expressed qualms about Lafayette for his notorious disbelief in God, and many tongues had clicked over his relationship with the striking twenty-nine year old Englishwoman named Fanny Wright who had joined him in Washington. For Morse, none of it could stain the man’s glory as a living connection to the nation’s birth and the indestructible defender of the grand old European liberalism that had helped create it. The Marquis had enjoyed the painter’s charisma and intelligence, and Morse had been honored by his interest. He had written to Lucretia every day with a renewed enthusiasm for his art and his patriotism.
       He had nearly finished the painting when the letter had come from his father. Lucretia had been growing stronger each day, so they had all thought, until the evening she had lain down for a nap and never awakened. By the time Morse had gotten back to Connecticut, he had been too late for her funeral, had found his own last letter to her (“with ardent affection as ever, your loving husband, Finley”) still waiting unread. She had left him with three young children he did not know what to do with, and she had left him with “this void, this desolateness, this loneliness, this heart-sickness…as if my very heart itself had been torn from me.
       It was then that he had cut his ties with his native New England, sent his children off to be raised by their mother’s family, and moved his life completely to New York City. He had lectured on the need for a truly American art, had rallied other young artists in a revolt against the Academy of the Fine Arts—the cultural fiefdom of the Livingston clan and their peers—to found the National Academy of Design. It was then, too, that he had turned more intently to his father’s demanding God; and when Reverend Morse died the following year, he was ready to pick up the old man’s torch.
       By the time Francisque Hutin showed her thighs, Morse knew that the virtues necessary to his nation were inseparable from the old New England virtues of hard work and strict education, sobriety and self-control. Now the dangers of vice and irreligion that he had dismissed as a bold young man roaming London stood clear and dark. They could only grow darker in a city being inundated by the unlettered and the foreign as its best citizens fell prey to the love of luxury.
       And in that particular dark, winter moment, the preciousness and fragility not only of the nation but of womanhood and the family must also have weighed heavily on his mind, for reasons more intimate than any political ideology. The night Madame Hutin danced, February 7, was the second anniversary of the night Lucretia Morse died.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Road testing the new book, part 3

Following up my last post, heres a chunk more of the first chapter of Nation of Faith and Flesh. It's early 1827 and weve just seen the brouhaha set off by a nearly-bare-legged Parisian dancer leaping onto the public stage, an event in which former mayor Philip Hone is emotionally invested.

Most of the audience had to trudge home over icy wooden sidewalks, slippery cobblestones, and stretches of half-frozen mud. Some crowded into hired coaches. The mayor and his party bundled up against the chill in his family barouche. All their chatter was about Madame Hutin. Had she really been “naked to the waist,” as one woman insisted? No, insisted another, the display was “no worse than anything else one sees in the theatre, and she dances beautifully.” Everyone agreed that something exciting had happened. Hone was in a merry mood as he bumped along Chatham Street, past workshops and stores shuttered and shadowy in the wavering light of the oil lamps. But after five blocks they passed the mouth of Orange Street, where quarreling voices and loud laughter rolled toward them through the night.
       Just one block away lay the five-pointed intersection that marked the heart of the neighborhood known as “the Collect.” That small area had become a large nuisance to the mayor, and he knew that it would only grow larger for his successor. Its cheap tenant houses were drawing poor laborers and immigrants, and scofflaws along with them, at a troubling rate. The past October, just after that well-regulated theater had opened so close by, the Evening Post had sounded the alarm about the area’s “vast collection of houses of ill fame, tippling shops, drunken persons, and other kinds of filth.” Then the Irish had run wild on New Year’s Day, barricading the streets and battering the hapless watchmen. The Collect was on its way to becoming one of those neighborhoods notorious in Paris and London but so far unknown in America, a neighborhood that might be more than a city without a police force could handle.
       Only three more blocks brought them to City Hall Park. To their left squatted Tammany Hall, where a few late lamps burned—democrats conniving to channel the restiveness of the Collect into their own power, Hone would guess—and across the road from it, encircled by the new gas lanterns in the shapes of elephants and lions and eagles that gave it a deceptive air of enchantment, City Hall itself. Beyond it, across the winter-brown lawn, Hone could see the oil lamps glinting in the mansions of Broadway—including the Astors’ and his own—where after-theater dinners and parties were already being prepared. And yet, a few blocks behind him roiled the Collect, crashing at its far edge into the blank back wall of the New York Theatre. Violently different worlds jostled each other in that compact city.
       If Philip Hone had taken a left turn at Tammany Hall, he would have entered yet another world. This was also largely a neighborhood of immigrants, but not Irish and not jammed into tenant houses. These were from Connecticut and Massachusetts, and they brought with them the familiar but peculiar ways of New England. Nassau Street was a dignified, tree-lined boulevard of solid buildings, all dark and silent now, asleep in the winter night. No one would move on this street until the first light of morning, when the bell in the high spire of the Brick Church would toll six. Then the plainly dressed men would arrive for work, the printing presses would roll, and the war would start.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse did not go to see Francisque Hutin dance. He made that clear from the start of his crusade. He’d had a very good idea what the show would be like and, from everything he heard on the morning after, he knew he’d been right: what the theater tried to sell as an artistic event was “to all intents and purposes the public exposure of a naked female.”
       What shocked him into action was not the exposure itself but the reaction of the people around him. He was appalled at the eagerness of purportedly respectable women to discuss the thing favorably—and in mixed company—when every one of them should have seen it as “an exposure which degrades her sex and robs them of that modesty which is their protection and their ornament.” He was enraged by the eagerness of the city’s social and political leaders to embrace a display that could only debase the public arts and further undermine the already shaky moral foundations of their society. Clearly, he had no choice but to lead an assault, not only on the ballet but on the corruption of society itself.
       Morse was no small-minded provincial. He was the founder and president of the National Academy of Design, the nation’s first serious lecturer on art, a well-respected painter—and still only thirty-five years old. His piercing gaze and grave speech were familiar in the city’s highest literary circles, where he seemed always eager for a lively argument. He was a religious man, but also a man of sweeping curiosity and ambition who had studied philosophy and science at Yale College, an amateur inventor who counted among his friends the nation’s leading authority on the still mysterious “electro-magnetism.” Nor was he indifferent to the cultural currents of Europe: he had studied at the Royal Academy of Art in London, and while there he had come to appreciate the stages of Drury Lane and Covent Garden. As a clever and opinionated young Yankee, he had attracted the interest of a remarkable range of prominent Englishmen: William Wilberforce, Christian reformer, foe of the slave trade, and friend of the king; the erratically brilliant poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and that atheistic, socialistic reformer of textile mills, Robert Owen.
       And yet, when Madame Hutin began to spin, she swept every other concern from his mind. Like Philip Hone, Morse saw her performance as an intimation of his city’s future—but he did not share the mayor’s joy about it. Like Hone, he worried about the influx of immigrants and ill-educated laborers, and like Hone he believed that people of knowledge and civility held a responsibility to direct the judgment of others for the good of the community. Like Hone, too, he wanted to help lead New York City toward its destiny, not only as a colossus of commerce but as a paragon of cultural and intellectual superiority. In fact, he differed from the mayor and his sophisticated circle only about the relationship of culture to morality; but that slim difference meant as much as the line between forces on a military map.

Road testing the new book, part 2

Following up my last post, heres a chunk more of the first chapter of Nation of Faith and Flesh. It's early 1827 and weve just seen the shemozzle set off by a nearly-bare-legged Parisian dancer leaping onto the public stage, an event in which former mayor Philip Hone is emotionally invested.

Hone’s newly completed tenure as mayor had lasted just a year, but it had been a monumental year. New York was rising on a flood tide. Not of water—although water was the source of it—but of money and humanity. The city had already been growing rapidly for two generations, faster than any other big city in the young republic, muscling ahead of Boston and Philadelphia as a center of commerce, finance, and industry. Then, in the fall of 1825, only fourteen months before, Governor Clinton had officially opened the Great Western Canal, that highway of water slashing nearly four hundred miles through stone and forest from distant Lake Erie to the Hudson River, ferrying the whole, incalculable wealth of the vast American interior past the docks at the tip of Manhattan. In its first year of operation, the canal had been even more profitable than its backers had predicted, nearly paying back its titanic cost. Now the winter had shut it down, but everyone knew that in a month or two, when the ice began to break, the surge of barges and wealth would be greater than any city had ever dreamed of.
  Already the city was outgrowing itself. There had been fewer than a hundred thousand people there ten years before, but at least seventy thousand more had crowded in since. How many more would come now? Every day they poured in by ship and ferry, from every state in the Union and half the nations of Europe, fighting for a piece of New York’s new wealth. The rasping and pounding of construction had become the music of the city, and this new theater was at the center of it. Laborers and immigrants crowded into the tenant houses that proliferated across the boggy neighborhood that stretched out behind the theater’s back, while another immigrant, a friend of Hone’s named John Jacob Astor, was rapidly transforming a respectable fortune into a colossal one by turning the farmland to the north into new neighborhoods.
  Right where Philip Hone sat, where theater patrons now packed themselves into boxes and rows, another sort of crowd had gathered just a few years before—crowds of great, stinking, pissing, moaning brutes, unwittingly brought together to die. This had been the slaughterhouse district until a group of wealthy landowners, Astors among them, had determined to plow it under with the city’s most elegant new neighborhood. The Bowery Road, so recently churned muddy by cattle drives from the pastures of Manhattan, now rolled like an imperial boulevard into the north and the future, to half-built neighborhoods where wandering lanes were giving way to a scientific grid of streets with numbers instead of names. 
  To anchor that boulevard’s southern end, where Chatham Street curved into it from the old city, the Astors and their allies had decided to build the New York Theatre. They had planned its opening for October, 1826—almost exactly a year after Governor Clinton had officially opened the Canal—as a monument to wealth and modernity. One thing alone made it a bright, hissing testimony to a new age: it was the first American theater built for gas lighting, that invisible power just then beginning to transform the urban night. But it was also the biggest theater in the New World, seating thirty-five hundred people within the body of a Greek temple, a white-pillared assertion of the power of reason and republicanism, with “scenery and machinery equal to anything in London.” It would present, they had promised, only the finest performances. It would never, unlike the other new theaters popping up, pander to baser tastes.

Mayor Hone had delivered an address upon the laying of its cornerstone. “No act of my public life,” he remembered, “lost me so many friends.” A growing body of influential citizens had been stirred to do battle against the city’s rising tide of vice and crime (especially those Presbyterian merchants who’d been pouring in from New England), and most had come to view theaters as nearly as pernicious as taverns and brothels—as much for the crowds they attracted as for what happened on stage. For the mayor, however, the theater was worth the political risk. 
  Hone was a cosmopolite, one who had made his fortune auctioning European goods, one who followed the artistic fashions of Paris and London, a dashing master of taste and ton who knew paintings and music and threw scintillating dinner parties. He had grown weary of Europeans mocking the United States as a land of farmers and religious cranks, and just as weary of Americans mocking New Yorkers for caring about nothing but money, food, and amusements. An annoying woman named Anne Royall had recently published a book of “sketches” of life in the various regions of the young United States (one of those books that no one would admit to owning but that everyone could complain about in great detail), in which she’d asserted that Boston was “unmistakably a century ahead of New York in intellectual refinement.” Hone wanted his city to use its wealth to make itself the glittering cultural jewel of the new world. 
  There was something, however, even more important than appearances. In culture, Hone knew that he moved at the vanguard of his times, but he knew just as well that in politics he was a vestige of lost era—the era when only men of property were allowed to vote. He had come of age in a city still dominated by the old, landed families that had run it since the days of the Dutch, those intermarried clans of Beekmans and Stuyvesants and Livingstons. When the merchant princes (among whom Hone liked to count himself) had risen to rival them, they had swiftly united their interests with the old gentry through bonds of marriage and real estate. But over just the past few years, bending before the democratic winds that swept the country, the legislature in Albany had been gradually expanding suffrage until soon nearly every white male would have the vote; and now a brushfire of angry egalitarianism was sweeping from the West with the inexorable Andrew Jackson. Hone himself had been installed as mayor only because an ugly feud had briefly split the corrupt and cupiditous democrats who were clearly taking control of the city. 
  He worried about the costs of sudden democracy. He had seen the growing restiveness of laboring men: the recent march of a thousand men along the docks in support of a stevedors’ strike, but also the vandalism of Mr. Stuyvesant’s garden, the riot that had erupted when the city had tried to round up the herds of pigs that ran free in the streets, the ugly demonstration of partisan anger in front of his own mansion on New Year’s night. He knew that if his class of people were to do anything to steer the city away from mob rule, they would have to do it not through their diminishing political power but through whatever cultural power they could wield. They would have to bring civility to the masses, educate and uplift them from mobhood to citizenship. 
  Good books could play a role in that—Hone was a great supporter of the Mercantile Library, where young clerks who had left their home towns and families for the big city could spend their evenings reading instead of loitering at taverns, wrestling matches, or brothels—and so could public arts that pointed the populace toward restraint, order, and high aspiration. At that cornerstone ceremony, he had been speaking to peers who shared his anxieties about the democratic future when he had insisted that in times of tumult it was “incumbent upon those whose standing in society enables them to control the opinions and direct the judgment of others, to encourage…a well-regulated theatre.” 
  Unfortunately, such people turned out to be too few to fill thirty-five hundred seats night after night, even in that most theater-mad city in the world. After two months of offering only the likes of Shakespeare and Rossini and Sheridan and Mozart, the New York’s management had cut prices for the pit and the upper tier and begun bringing in more dancing, popular songs, and Gothic melodramas. Still the seats did not fill—until now, three and a half months into the theater’s life, leapt Francisque Hutin of the Opera House in Paris. Here was an opportunity for New Yorkers to prove to themselves and the world that they could embrace artistic advancement as quickly as the Parisians, and by doing nothing more taxing than watching a young woman strike fetching poses.
  For three minutes, Madame Hutin spun and bounded with athletic abandon, and for three minutes the tastemakers of Gotham mused on her muscular calves and solid thighs. Then she leapt into the wings. Applause and cheers rose to the rafters, and not only from the pit and the third tier. The noise did not end until she bounded back out for an encore. 

Road testing the new book

Now that I've finally, really, actually turned in a complete draft of my book to my publisher, I thought I’d run an excerpt of it to see how it strikes peopleand how it strikes me when I look at it knowing that other people are seeing it too. The working title is Nation of Faith & Flesh: The Moral War That Shaped America, its nonfiction, it's coming from FSG in a year or so, and I’m still fine tuning the voice.

Chapter One
The Miserable Toys of Despotism

It may not have been the first battle fought over a Frenchwoman’s thighs, nor was it likely to be the last. But it was the first to launch a newspaper.
    She had been brought across the sea to dance the ballet at the grand new theater on the Bowery Road. The most cultured of New Yorkers had been anticipating her coming for weeks—Mayor Hone had been urging the city’s social leaders to turn out for her debut almost as though it were a civic duty. At last, in early February, the newspapers had been able to make the announcement: “Madame Francisque Hutin, of the Opera House, Paris, has arrived.”
    No one in the city had actually heard of Francisque Hutin, not even those who followed events in Paris, but everyone had heard of this latest French vogue, this new school of dance in which ethereal maidens leapt and spun to sentimental music, swept their liquid arms and floated on their toes. Fashionable Parisians could not get enough of it; after decades of revolution, war, and depression, it was a celebration of color, sentiment, gossamer delicacy, sweet harmony, illusive innocence, and sex. Their counterparts in Gotham, in those dark early weeks of 1827, were eager to make it their own—although in their minds it stood for something quite different.
    The house was crowded for a Wednesday night. Philip Hone, erstwhile mayor of the city, alertly poised and irreproachably dressed, surveyed the house from his private box and felt gratified to see all the neighboring boxes in the upper tier overflowing with the wealthy and cultured. But the boxes of the lower tier were full too, with the respectable husbands and wives of the middle class, and so were the cheaper seats in the pit, packed with young clerks and craftsmen. So, for that matter, were the cheapest seats of all, in the third tier above the boxes, where even laborers, black people, and unaccompanied women (along with those less respectable men who went looking for unaccompanied women) had come to see Madame Hutin dance.

    Of course, she would not appear early in the evening. First there had to pass the usual parade of musical acts, farcical sketches, and abbreviated plays that struggled to hold the attentions of a motley city crowd. But at long last, after a chopped-up version of Much Ado about Nothing, the orchestra sent up a sentimental folk melody to fill the vast space of the theater, and onto the stage bounded Francisque Hutin.
    Her dance was called “The Coquettish Shepherdess,” and after a coquettish bat of her eyelashes she bounded again with an athleticism astonishing for a female dancer. Then she hurled herself into a muscular pirouette. As she spun, her light skirt rose. And rose. And rose.
    No worldly member of the audience could have been surprised by the light gown she wore that bared her arms and lifted with her movements to grant a flash of stockinged leg. French dancers had been stirring minor scandals for thirty years with their filmy Grecian gowns, and popular actresses liked to play young Shakespearean males and Greek gods precisely so that they could wear breeches that displayed their calves. But few if any of them were prepared for what had lately become acceptable on the Parisian stage. Before seven thousand widening American eyes, Francisque Hutin kept spinning as centrifugal force, like the hand of an invisible lecher, revealed her calves, her knees, the fullness of her thighs, and, at least for an instant, even more.
    The audience did not remain in spellbound silence for long. A great chorus of male cheers swelled up from the pit. Claps and foot stamps met them from above. And in the middle, in the lower row of boxes, respectable middle-class wives rose indignantly from their seats and, proud and legless in the vast satin cones of their gowns, swept toward the lobby like bellflowers on a stream.
    One area of the house, however, was not so quick to announce its verdict: the upper boxes that held the people who shaped opinions and started vogues, the people whose opinion mattered most to Philip Hone. He knew art and valued civilization, and he understood what this performance meant to his city, how the whirling thighs of Madame Hutin embodied everything he yearned for New York to be.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Superman, Philip Wylie, and Young Writers' Dreams

I was recently asked by Dover Books to write the foreword to their reissue of Gladiator by Philip Wylie, a book Ive long had an interest in as both a historian of comics and a general commentator on American culture and history. I find Wylie complicated and interesting to think about, and it was a fun piece to write. 

Of all the artistic legacies a person might earn, I think the most bittersweet is to be remembered only for having inspired someone else to do something better known. I imagine Cimabue would have been thrilled to know that art historians would still be talking about him seven centuries after his death, until he realized that they weren’t talking about him as the great painter of his age but only as the guy who may (or may not) have taught Giotto to paint. Would Max Linder, who committed suicide when he thought his movie career was washed up, have been pleased to know that his work would still be shown in occasional film festivals nearly a century later—if he’d had to listen to himself always described as the sadly forgotten comedian who inspired Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd? It’s a legacy that means future generations will still come back in time to look at your work, but they’ll never really see it for what you meant it to be. They’ll always see it through the eyes of some third party—very likely someone you resent for outshining you.
    Philip Wylie, in his prime years, would probably never have imagined that he’d be a candidate for such a fate, let alone that he’d be the man mainly responsible for creating it. From the mid-1930s through most of the 1950s, he had a remarkable run as a writer: bestselling books of social commentary, literary novels of decent reputation, science fiction thrillers that got turned into movies, and a constant presence in the Saturday Evening Post and other major magazines. By 1963, however, when he agreed to be interviewed by the science-fiction historian Sam Moskowitz, the world’s attention was already clearly leaving him behind; which may be why he felt moved to complain so bitterly about how the creators of the comic strip Superman had stolen their idea from one of his early novels. He lived only another eight years, but by the time of his death, his own literary reputation was rapidly evaporating as Gladiator’s fame was rising among pop-culture historians in search of the hidden origins of the superhero.

    So it is that of all his forty or so published books, the only one in print is the one in your hand—not one of his bestselling, not one of his more highly regarded, not one of his personal favorites, but the one that was read by a teenager in Cleveland named Jerry Siegel, who borrowed some of its ideas to create a comic strip that Wylie considered a load of garbage.
    Siegel (and his artistic collaborator Joe Shuster) drew on far more than Wylie’s novel for the idea of Superman: the Doc Savage pulp magazines, a raft of other science fiction and fantasy stories, Douglas Fairbanks movies, Popeye, lots of things. But none of them have held the “missing link” glamor for comics historians that this odd little novel holds. A body of legends has grown up around the relationship between Gladiator and Superman, some spurious and some outright false (and some, to my enduring embarrassment, passed on in my own book, Men of Tomorrow). The truth is that Jerry Siegel never reviewed, or even mentioned, Gladiator in the fanzine he published in high school. If Wylie threatened to sue for plagiarism or Siegel signed affidavits claiming he’d never read the book, there is no record.

    What we do know for sure is that Siegel, in his unpublished autobiography, wrote that he “read and enjoyed Philip Wylie’s book Gladiator” and that, along with a great many other pop-culture items, “it influenced me, too.” (Courtesy of Thomas Andrae, author of Creators of the Superheroes.) We also know that there are many details shared by Gladiator and the first several months of Superman stories that are awfully hard to dismiss as coincidence. Most specifically, we know that the physical attributes of Wylie’s Hugo Danner—what we would now call his “superpowers”—were a unique combination at the time, and they were precisely, no more and no less, the same as those of the first incarnation of Superman.
    What Wylie did, essentially, was establish the “superhero” as we know it—or at least the superhero’s physical nature. He posited a rogue scientific experiment that gives a man unasked-for physical superiority: great muscular strength, the ability to leap vast distances and heights, tremendous running speed, and skin so tough that nothing less than an artillery shell could pierce it. Popular fiction was full of strongmen, and science fiction featured a few interplanetary characters who could jump high because of gravitational differences. But combining power with speed, creating a hero who could both lift and outrun a locomotive, was something new. We don’t usually see those two as going together (weight lifting isn’t in the decathlon), and the combination created a new template for across-the-board superhumanity. The addition of invulnerable skin cranked the idea up another notch. Hugo Danner was (to quote Will Murray’s excellent Gladiator of Iron, Man of Steel), “A quantum leap forward in the concept of the preternaturally-powerful protagonist.”
    Jerry Siegel gave Superman’s powers an extraterrestrial rather than chemical origin, but the powers themselves were the same as Danner’s; it would be a few years yet before Superman could fly instead of leap, longer still before he picked up x-ray vision, super-hearing, and the rest of it. Siegel also followed Wylie’s lead in suggesting that a man of such abilities could never fit in with normal humanity, that the rest of us could only make him an object of fear or curiosity, that many of us would try to find some way to exploit him for profit. But what Siegel chose to do with that realization was drastically different from what Wylie had done—and there opens the greatest difference between the characters, one that says a great deal about Philip Wylie and why his literary fate has been to play a supporting role in someone else’s origin story.
    He was born in Massachusetts in 1902, the eldest son of Edmund Melville Wylie, a Presbyterian minister of some renown. His relationship with his father was apparently difficult from early on, and he grew up defining himself in opposition to a certain kind of moral and conventional authority; he usually portrayed his father as intelligent but rigid, overly attached to his own righteousness, trapped in his own doctrine and ultimately hypocritical. Whatever mediating influence his mother might have brought ended with her death when Philip was five. His father remarried, but he didn’t get along with his stepmother.
    By his early teens, Philip was already striking dramatic postures of resistance to the worldview his elders were attempting to inculcate in him. “One evening during a thunder storm,” remembered his sister Verona Wylie Slater, Philip “was inspired to make an unholy experiment. He stood on a sloping rock, which jutted out into the lake near our summer home. Holding his face upward, he defied the Almighty to strike him with a bolt of lightning. The skies opened with a terrifying flash, but the bolt flew across the dark waters a mile away. We felt relieved, foolish, and very insignificant.” Wylie reconstructs that scene at a crucial moment in Gladiator, but in such a way that one is left suspecting that he felt less relieved than disappointed at being passed over by the divine wrath.
    Philip attended Princeton University, but in his third year he dropped out because of a conflict with a teacher. For a while he knocked around as a sailor, not the first bright young man who disliked authority to take up that job. Then he tried working in advertising and publishing, including some time on the editorial staff of the young New Yorker magazine, but it never took very long for him either to get fired or resign in frustration. So he staked his future on writing novels.
    The literary culture of the early 1920s provided a great deal of reinforcement for a young man with a desire to stand on metaphorical rocks during intellectual lightning storms. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street was the book of the age. F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose shadow stretched over Princeton when Wylie was there) was being called a voice of the modern generation. D. H. Lawrence and James Branch Cabell were fighting battles with the censors (mainly New England Protestants greatly reminiscent of the Reverend Wylie), cheered on by H. L. Mencken. A young writer was expected to unmask society’s hypocrisy, destroy sentimentality with brutal honesty, fling himself against convention with a “romantic egoism.” He should advocate hard science and reject religion, immerse himself in Freud and know Nietzsche. And he should suffer. He should, as Wylie said of his protagonist in an introduction to one edition of Gladiator, “share the isolation of geniuses and with them…learn the inflexibility of man's slow evolution.”
    Gladiator was Wylie’s first novel, written in 1926, when he was twenty-four years old. He submitted it to Alfred A. Knopf, H. L. Mencken’s publisher and a champion of challenging new fiction, who was taken with its author enough to buy it—but also leery enough to lay it on the shelf for a while and ask Wylie to write a more conventional novel to introduce himself to the world first. Ultimately, Gladiator would not be published until 1930, after Wylie had produced two novels based more or less on his own life, Heavy Laden and Babes and Sucklings, and in a rewritten form.

     I haven’t been able to discover anything about the original manuscript or how different it may have been from what saw print, but given Wylie’s complaint that Knopf pushed him to rewrite it “against my will and judgment,” I’m inclined to think that he did his best to preserve his original intent. Or let me put it this way: I find Gladiator much easier to appreciate if I read it as the creative eruption of an unpublished twenty-four year seized by a big idea than as the third novel of a twenty-eight year old who should have learned something from working with Alfred Knopf. Its charm is in its newness, its quality of discovery, and its painful, sometimes confusing collision of two very common but very different sorts of young male fantasy: breathtaking feats on the battlefield, the gridiron, and the public arena of crime and justice on the one hand; literary and intellectual acclaim on the other.
    In his childhood, Wylie was a great reader of H. G. Welles and other authors of those fantastical stories that would later be classified as “science fiction.” He came up with the idea for Hugo Danner (by his own report) while lamenting the inferiority of the human body to machines. He began speculating on what a man might do with a superhuman body, and if he’d been at a different point either in his own development of that of American fiction, he might have found his way to a fun adventure story, maybe something like one of Welles’s lighter novels, with a touch of social speculation or satire. By the time he reached his thirties, Wylie would demonstrate a comfort with that sort of storytelling, which contributed to his successful career. At twenty-four, however, pumping himself up for the solitary quest of the novelist, the temptation to climb onto that rock in the thunderstorm was just too great. Some years before his fellow Princeton alum, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” Wylie concluded that a man like Hugo Danner “would be foredoomed to vulgar fame or to a life of fruitless destruction.” And he spent a book proving it.
    Jerry Siegel, born twelve years after Wylie, coming of age after American culture had mostly dismissed its Twenties as an embarrassing youth, comfortable with himself as a lover of pulp science fiction and Hollywood movies, had no interest in writing a tragedy. When he saw that his superman would never be able to function as a normal human being, he also saw the obvious solution: Clark Kent. His hopelessly isolated hero would put on a pair of glasses and wink his way through the great in-joke of pretending to be one of us. Siegel also understood that what most readers would want of such an outlandish hero was an equally outlandish message: that our great problems were simple enough to be solved by a man who could lift a car over his head. For the young Philip Wylie, such a compromise with “the cynical piddling of modern society,” by either the protagonist or the author, would have been the height of the very hypocrisy that he had committed himself to fighting.
    In the early 1930s, frustrated by his experiences with Knopf and serious fiction, Wylie turned his energies to making a living off what he called “a bumper crop of crap.” Two of the books from that period would provide still more inspiration to the spinners of fantastical adventures: The Savage Gentleman from 1932 clearly inspired the Doc Savage pulps, which in turn worked some influence on Superman and other comic-book heroes, while When Worlds Collide, cowritten with Edwin Balmer the following year, probably inspired Flash Gordon and perhaps also Superman’s interplanetary origin story.  Over the next several years, an entire industry of comic books, comic strips, movie serials, and licensed merchandise grew up around superheroes. Most of those were spun straight out of Superman and probably owed nothing directly to Wylie (although with some of them, like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America, a man transformed by an experimental serum into a very Danneresque super soldier, one has to wonder), but they all rested, to some degree, on the foundation of Gladiator.
    By that time, however, Wylie himself had moved on. He tackled serious fiction again in Finnley Wren, then donned his own heroic garb in an assault on American sentimentality and mediocrity via his 1942 collection of essays called Generation of Vipers. For some years, he was a prominent presence in book stores and magazines, almost a household name. Then he faded, while Superman and his brethren only grew more numerous, more famous, more artistically complex, and more central to our popular culture. 

     I’m glad we have this opportunity to look back at his contribution to the superheroes—but I also suspect Wylie would appreciate it if we could leave that behind for a moment and read this first novel of his for what it was before Jerry Siegel discovered it: the self-conscious but heartfelt roar of a young man of wild ideas and wilder ambition, climbing onto a rock in the lightning storm of the first decade of the modern world.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year

I was blessed with a great 2015. I was able to write the bulk of Nation of Faith and Flesh, (enough that Ill surely meet my January 15 deadline for this draft). Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson and I made big progress on developing our upcoming collaboration, Lost Hero, so we should be able to move forward full speed early next year. Will Jacobs and I completed and saw published My Pal Splendid Man, a humor book wed begun to write as a labor of love many, many years ago. I was asked to write introductions to rereleases of a couple of things that matter to me, the animated Watership Down and Philip Wylies novel Gladiator. And my wife and I sold our house after twenty-four years, setting ourselves free to enter a leaner, lighter way of living that suits us well in this (mostly) post-parenting era of life.
       Some of these things were already on the schedule before 2014 ended, some were surprises. One, the selling of the house, didn't even seem to be a possibility when this year started, but its turned out so well that I want to pretend I planned it all along. This past year has been good for reminding me to trust luck and providence, and to take all my own plans with a grain of salt. I entered 2015 with a fair amount of trepidation, but Im looking forward to seeing whatever 2016 brings. I hope its good to us all.
       Happy new year!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Pal Splendid Man (more!)

Long ago, between our Beaver Papers and our Trouble with Girls, Will Jacobs and I started writing a series of short stories about the odd friendship of a young, would-be novelist named Will Jones and a superhero called Splendid Man. In part it was a tongue-in-cheek homage to the old comic books we loved, and in part it was a wry (and slightly autobiographical) look at the life and attitudes of an old-fashioned bookworm in the high-glamor Eighties. 
       We loved the stories but, life doing what it does, we didnt actually finish the book until about thirty years after wed first thought of it. Now, thanks to Atomic Drop Press, we are finally (just in time for the holidays!) releasing the complete My Pal Splendid ManLest the sample I ran last time gave the impression that the stories are all about Will and his splendid friend sitting around talking, heres a more action-filled sequence, the opening of the sixth story. If it intrigues you, you can find the whole thing wherever fine ebooks and print-on-demand books are sold.

Prisoner of Pox Pascal

Sometimes when my writing is going badly I like to torture myself by looking at the racks of paperback bestsellers. When I’m losing faith that I’ll ever be able to write another decent paragraph, let alone get published, I can’t resist the shot of envy and bitterness I get from scanning the glossy covers of all those Peter Benchley and Mario Puzo novels and thinking about the fortunes other writers have amassed by cleverly avoiding any sort of literary voice. Thus it was that I was striding into the foggy night toward the local 24-hour Walgreen’s, abandoning Chapter 68 of my latest novel about a man too passionate to fit into the everyday work world, eager to see what was new from Arthur Hailey or Michael Crichton or that literary immortal of the future, Stephen King.
        So intent was I on my own misery that I nearly crashed into the man standing on the street corner.  I jumped back and started to apologize.  Then I noticed his eyebrows.  Or, rather, his lack of same.
       “Pox Pascal!” I gasped. “What do you want with me?”
       “I want information that only you possess, Will Jones,” sneered the criminal mastermind.
       “I’ve got nothing to tell you,” I said.
       “I think I will be the judge of that, Will Jones.”
       “Judge away,” I said.  “But why do you think I’d cooperate with you?”
       “I have monitored you with my ultrascientific devices for months,” he said, “ever since you first became my enemy’s pal, waiting for the inevitable day when the stars would fall from your eyes like bolides and you would begin to see the flaws in the friend you once venerated!”
       “That’s ridiculous,” I said.  “Yeah, sure, he got on my nerves a little with that fake book stunt he pulled.  But there’s no one who doesn’t think Splendid Man is the greatest man in the world—and you’re the most nefarious!”
       “Really?  What about every citizen of the planet Poxor, where I am revered as a hero and your splendid pal is despised as a villain?” He moved a hand slightly, and in the air beside me appeared a giant plastic sphere, as big as my bathroom and as transparent as a soap bubble. “Won’t you join me on a trip to Poxor, Will Jones?  It might…broaden your horizons.”
       My hand snaked to my pocket and vibrated the teeth of my SOS Comb.  Let’s see the grinning fiend act so superior when Splendid Man came to my rescue, I thought.  Any second now, I thought.  Okay, I thought.  Any second…now?
       “A problem?” Pascal smirked.  “Is it your SOS Comb, perhaps, that isn’t working?”
       “You fiend,” I snarled. “You’ve no doubt rigged up a jamming device.”
  “Yes,” he chortled. “No doubt I have.”
     Before I knew what was happening, a hole had opened in the membrane of the bubble and Pascal had shoved me inside.  I found myself standing on an invisible floor within the odd vessel.  As I looked down through it, I saw the sidewalk receding beneath my feet.  We were taking to the air!  The rooftops and hills of San Francisco vanished as we gathered speed upward.
       I took a hard look at my companion, then.  The gleaming, hairless brows. The great crest of silver hair sweeping high above his head, as if to compensate for the naked forehead.  The penetrating blue gems of his eyes and the lips twisted with lifelong bitterness. The lab smock he always wore in case anyone should fail to recognize him as a scientific genius. I realized then what it was that this arrogant scoundrel must want from me, and I swore to myself that nothing, no bribery or coercion, could ever wring from Will Jones the truth of Splendid Man’s secret identity!
       I suddenly heard Pascal speaking. “There, before you! Poxor, the world I call my own!
       Sure enough, there was a planet looming into view as the bubble began to slacken its speed. Apparently I’d been so lost in my own angry thoughts that I’d spaced out on an entire lengthy journey through the vastness of the universe.  I hate it when I do that.
       “I imagine you know about the effects of greater gravitation and argon-free atmosphere on Earthlings,” he said, and slapped a tiny device on the back of my neck. “This device will radiate you with enough antigravitons to preserve your normal strength, while injecting enough argon into your bloodstream to prevent any unwelcome changes to your scrotum.”
       “You think of everything,” I said.
       “I’m a mastermind,” he said.  And with that, the membrane of the space bubble dissolved and we stepped out onto the veranda of Palace Pascal, the lone edifice rising from the vine-filled jungles of Poxor.
       “When I first came upon this planet, through a fortunate accident,” he was saying, “I found it entirely overgrown with these creepers and populated by a savage people. But upon further exploration I discovered the ruins of a great, hyperscientific civilization. Although no historical records remain of the civilization’s collapse, I can only surmise that the ignorant masses grew envious of the scientific elite and turned on them, heedless of the fact that their hubris would plunge them into ignorance and barbarism.”
       “More likely the elite tied itself to a short-sighted dependence on finite natural resources and ignored the need for a fair distribution of wealth and a solid foundation of social services,” I said.
       “Liberals,” he hissed. “Anyway.  What matters is that I alone had the know-how to bring the great devices of the past back to life and carve a new civilization out of the vines! I, Pox Pascal, became the savior of a world!”
       Sure enough, as he stepped to the edge of the stone veranda, a great roar went up from the plaza below.  There thousands of people in identical lab smocks bowed toward us chanting, “Pox!  Pox!  Pox!  Pox!  Pox!”
       “I’ll bet this is one of those times you wish your parents had given you a different name,” I said.
       “Any name is sweet when it is chanted in obeisance,” he said, with a sinister grin. “Imagine that this is a book signing at the American Booksellers Association Convention. Those peasants are the literature enthusiasts of Earth. And they’re chanting, ‘Will! Will! Will!’”
       I could see how this guy cut it as an evil mastermind. Sure, I knew I was being manipulated all the way. But I still felt my knees get weak at the thought.
      “I have influence with the New York publishing world, Will,” he said. “Do you not think there are criminal masterminds in the book business? How else do you explain the success of Sidney Sheldon? I can make things happen for you, Will.
       I pondered it. A multi-book deal. Maybe a National Book Award. An end to my temporary job waving a model-home sign on street corners. But I knew it couldnt be. “No thanks, I said. “I can become a literary success all by myself.
       He laughed derisively.
       “Okay. Then I’ll become a failure by myself.”
       He smiled, and I knew he could see through me. “Allow me to give you the tour of Palace Pascal, Will Jones.”
       He led me past the giant, blast-proof doors into his windowless sanctum sanctorum. On one wall were photographs of his heroic deeds as savior of Poxor, and on the opposite wall framed newspapers recording his dastardly deeds on Earth. Scattered everywhere were the fruits of his life of pillage: piles of jewels and stacks of cash, strange artifacts from many worlds, paintings by masters from Vermeer to Picasso.  Towering over all of it stood a line of giant statues of what I took to be his personal role models, the great plunderers of history. Attila the Hun. Hernán Cortés.  Blackbeard. Henry Kissinger.
       At a subtle move of his fingers, a mushroom-shaped flying chair cruised toward  me.  “Please, have a seat,” he said.  “We have much to discuss.”
      “Forget it,” I said, refusing to budge.  “Nothing will make me turn against my pal.”
      He made a noise with his tongue that might be best be rendered as, “Tsk tsk,” then added, “Don’t you see that you and I are of a kind, Will Jones?  We are men of intellect, men of culture.  Why should you give your loyalty to a man of simple physical might?”
       I sneered.  Pretty well, too, for a guy who doesn’t get a lot of practice sneering. “You’re trying to tell me that’s why you hate Splendid Man?”
      “I oppose him because I believe in the natural elite of the intellectual. Because I see through his phony democratism and moral absolutism.”
      “Really,” I said.  “Then it has nothing to do with…your eyebrows?”
       His eyes turned to stone.  “Then he admits that it was he who cost me my eyebrows?”
       “He says that’s been your tragic obsession, Pascal.  That while you were teenagers together in Turnipville, he used the heat setting of his Splendid Vision to burn away the spores of an alien mildew invasion and inadvertently singed your…”
       “Inadvertently!” Pascal raised a fist and roared in rage. “As if he couldn’t control his vision to the micron! Once I thought Splendid Boy and I might be allies, able to revel together in our superiority to the herd!  But when he burned away my eyebrows and left me a laughing stock at Turnip High, I knew the truth!  He was nothing but another high school jock tormenting the outcast brain! And it is high time you saw the truth too!”
        “Sorry,” I said. “Nothing you can do will ever induce me to reveal Splendid Man’s secret identity!”
        He rolled his eyes.  Which, from a guy without eyebrows, is a disconcerting sight. 

Continued in My Pal Splendid Man!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

My Pal Splendid Man (a sample)

Long ago, between the finishing of The Beaver Papers and the creation of The Trouble with Girls, Will Jacobs and I wrote most of a book about the friendship between a superhero and a would-be novelist named Will Jones. It was a sort of parody of the comic books of the 1960s that we loved, but it was also a satirical look, with some autobiographical elements, at the life and attitudes of a literary soul with old-fashioned ideals in the high-gloss, big-money 1980s. 
        We didnt finish the book then, or during the thirty years that followed, but not long ago we rediscovered what wed written, fell in love with it again, and decided it was time. Atomic Drop Press, who published the 30th Anniversary edition of our Beaver Papers and its sequel, have just brought out My Pal Splendid Man. Here's the beginning of the first story. If it intrigues you, you can find the whole thing wherever good print-on-demand books ebooks are sold!

Splendid Man's Literary Discoveries

I opened the window, moved aside, and vibrated the teeth of my SOS Comb. Splendid Man zoomed into the room before I could count to one.
  “What’s the trouble, Will?” he said.
  “I lost my damn keys,” I said.
  “Where did you last see them?”

       “I had them when I drove home after dinner,” I said. “But I can’t for the life of me remember what I did with them after that.”
       “That’s easily taken care of, Will. What time did you get home?”
      “About 6:30.”
“Well, then, I’ll just fly back through the time barrier and see what you did with them.”
“But Splendid Man, if you tamper with the past, couldn’t that screw up the future somehow?”

       “No, Will,” he said. “I’ve tried before to change the course of history, but it just doesn’t work. Like the time I zipped back through the time barrier and tried to stop the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and thus prevent the escalation of the Vietnam War. We know how that turned out. And besides, I’ll merely be observing the past, not tampering with it.”
  “Okay then,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
Splendid Man vanished in a blur and reappeared instants later. “Look in the garbage, Will,” he said.
  I did so, and sure enough, under the Burger King bag, there were my keys.
“You’d let so much trash accumulate in your car,” said Splendid Man, “that when you carried it all up, your keys got mixed in with it.”
      “Thanks, pal,” I said. “Listen, I hope you don’t mind me using my SOS Comb for something this insignificant.”
  “Certainly not. Feel free to summon me with your SOS Comb for any reason, not only because you’ve fallen off a tall building, have undergone a bizarre physical transformation, or are menaced by a motorcycle gang. And the same goes for the toll-free number at my Citadel of Contemplation on the moon.”
      “Appreciate it, Splendid Man,” I said. At the mention of his Citadel I felt a twinge of embarrassment about my own dumpy abode, but I figured if it didn’t bother him I wouldn’t let it bother me. “Hey, now that you’re here, can you stay a while? Or do you have to run?”
     “Fly, Will. I don’t think I do, but let me take a quick check.” He turned his body in a complete circle, holding his head at an odd angle. “Everything looks fine. There is a comet hurtling toward Earth, but I see that my Canadian pal, Northern Light, is already zipping off to dispatch it with his power medallion.”
      “That’s great,” I said, heading for the kitchen to mix a couple of drinks. “Why don’t you take a load off and we’ll talk.”
      “I’d love to, Will,” he said. “But on one condition.”
  “What’s that, Splendid Man?”
  “That you knock off this ‘Splendid Man’ business. Aren’t we good enough friends yet that you can stop addressing me by my title?”
      “Sure thing…Cal,” I said with a grin, using the short form of his native Strontiumese name. 
  When I returned to the living room Cal was sitting on my parents’ old couch and scanning the bookshelves that dominated my modest living room. He took a sip of his Manhattan and asked, “So, Will, are there any more books you can recommend for me to read?”
  “More books!” I said, my mouth agape. Just last week I’d recommended the entire Britannica Great Books series to him. “You don’t mean you’ve already read every volume you were interested in!”
“I’ve already read every volume, Will. Period. Haven’t I mentioned that, in addition to physical Splendid Speed, the argon-tinged atmosphere and lesser gravity of Earth grant astounding mental speed to all Strontiumese?”
      He had, in fact, mentioned that, and in precisely those words. But I still couldn’t get used to it. “And I guess Splendid Vision really helps navigate that tiny print,” I grinned.
      “That it does,” he said, in complete earnest. “And I must say, I enjoyed every page of every book.”
      I was afraid he would say that. Teaching the big lug some discernment was not turning out to be easy. “Okay,” I said carefully. “But surely you must have enjoyed some more than others?”
      He took another sip of his Manhattan, a slow one this time, and I sensed him stalling. For the first time I saw nervousness in those glacier-blue eyes. “Well, of course, I’m no expert…”
  “Just tell me what you think, Cal. No one expects you to be a connoisseur of literature yet.”
      He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “I appreciate that, Will. I’m a bit gun-shy after all the razzing I’ve taken from Catman, that calico-cowled nemesis of crime, about my taste in books. That’s why I value the way you’ve taken me under your wing. Metaphorically speaking.”
      I caught a twinkle in his eye. Before he met me, he would never have been talking about metaphors. “Don’t mention it, Cal. I’m so used to loaning books to friends and having them return them months later only half read. It’s a pleasure to have a pal who actually reads what I recommend.”
      “Oh, and I’m starting to get a lot out of them!” he said eagerly. “I thought I knew all about truth and justice until I read those Plato volumes.”
       I had a feeling youd like the Greeks, I said. “They appreciated the heroic.
        “And what playwrights! I had no idea great literature could be so entertaining. I laughed so hard reading Aristophanes’s Frogs that I would have busted a gut, if my internal organs, like my bodily exterior, were not invulnerable. Do you have anything else by him?”
       “I wish I did. But that volume includes all his surviving works.”
       “Surviving?” he asked. “You mean some of them have been lost to the winds of time?”

        “You could put it that way. All the great Greek dramatists—the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and the comedians Aristophanes and Menander—have been shown to have written far more works than still survive. Ditto for Plato, Aristotle, and the other classical philosophers. One of the great calamities of ancient history was the unexplained destruction by fire of the great library of Alexandria during Caesar’s campaign in 48 B.C., which resulted in the eternal loss of innumerable classics of literature and philosophy.”
      “Great Amundsen, Will!” he exclaimed, rising from his seat. “I had no idea! What a tragedy! All those lost works must have been magnificent. One thing I’ve noticed is that those ancient authors never seemed to write a bad book.”
      “You said it,” I snorted. “Of course, they were fortunate enough to live in an era when economics and art were in harmony, and an author was encouraged to be true to his vision. They didn’t have to contend with a short-sighted commercial publishing ‘industry’ devoted to snuffing the literary soul.”
      “Why, Will,” he gasped, “I’ve never heard you sound so bitter! Have you suffered another setback in your own literary career?”
      “You could put it that way.” I explained to him how I’d hit a creative wall in the middle of Chapter 38 of my new novel and how what I’d thought would be the consummation of my years of writing looked doomed to end up as just another item in my trunk.
      “Now, Will, you shouldn’t give up so quickly,” he said. “Don’t you think your whole perspective on your work will change once you’ve succeeded in getting published?”
      “Published!” I snorted. “What good is getting published if it means betraying my own vision to cater to the blind editors of New York? Even the writers who start out great are seduced into prostituting themselves in this modern world. Look at Norman Mailer! Tennessee Williams! Harold Robbins!”
      “But Will. I thought you told me that Harold Robbins has always been bad.”
      “That’s beside the point,” I muttered.
      He sat back down, took a swig of his drink, and looked at me with grave concern. “It sounds to me, pal,” he said, “as though what you need is some inspiration. Nothing lifts me out of the doldrums of self-doubt like remembering the sacrifices of the great heroes of the past. That’s why I keep life-size statues of Hercules, Samson, and Mother Teresa in my Citadel of Contemplation.”
      “It’s different with you. You can defeat Cerebriac as he plunders an alien planet in exactly the way a hero of the past did and people will say, ‘What a hero! Splendid Man is the new Robin Hood!’ If I use someone else’s plot they’ll say, ‘What a plagiarist! Will Jones is the new Jerzy Kosinski!’”
      “But Will, didn’t you tell me yourself that every writer draws from the classics? That, for example, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is a Sophoclean tragedy in the costume of the Jim Crow South?”
      “Words to that effect, anyway,” I grumbled. “But the last thing the world needs is another reworking of Oedipus.”
      “Fair enough,” he said, with a shrewd glint in his eye. “But what if you were to draw your inspiration from a classic that no one else living has read? Say, one of the lost works of the Athenian dramatists?”
      “Swell. Except where the hell am I going to read plays that have been lost for centuries?”
      “Centuries ago, that’s where!” He grinned and slapped my knee. “Didn’t you say they had them all in stock in the library of ancient Alexandria?”
      It took me a few seconds, but then I got it. “Of course! Your Splendid Speed can break the time barrier! You can actually go to ancient Alexandria!”
      “Oh, I’ve already gone, several times. But I have to confess I haven’t once stopped by the library. I guess I assumed that since I didn’t reside there, I could never be issued a library card.”
      “Then, for heaven’s sake, you’ve got to go read those ancient dramas!” I yelled. “And as soon as you come back to the present you’ll have to stop by and tell me what they’re all about.”
      “I have a better idea, Will. We can just zip off to 48 B.C. together and you can have a look around for yourself!”
      “Me? Go with you?” I gulped. “But wouldn’t I be…I don’t know…”
      “Buffeted to death by the temporal winds that rage along the time stream?” he asked.
      “Exactly!” I said.
      “Oh no, Will. I wouldn’t let that happen to you. I’ll just wrap you in my indestructible cape, as I do with my pal Bobby Anderssen, that albino cub reporter, take you under my arm, and fly you there safe and sound.”
      I jumped to my feet. “Then let’s go!”

Continued in My Pal Splendid Man!