Saturday, May 14, 2016

Perspectives of Creators

I recently discovered a recording of George Gershwin (1898-1937) playing a version for piano of his own composition Rhapsody in Blue, which was originally written in 1924 for piano and orchestra.  What a delight to hear the composer himself render some passages in very different ways than they are usually conducted--showing some humor here, and uptempo transitions there.  Of course it does not make for a definitive rendering of the piece, but it's always good to hear the creator's perspective, be it in music, or literature, or art. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Matters of Perspective: Dunsany and Yeats


In 1934 Lord Dunsany was presented the Harmsworth Prize from the Irish Academy of Letters for his novel The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933).  Dunsany (left), at 6 foot 4 inches tall, towers over F.R. Higgins (seated), who was on the board of the Abbey Theatre, and poet William Butler Yeats (right), looking small and parrot-like.  (Was Yeats really as short as he looks here?)

In his third volume of autobiography, The Sirens Wake (1945), Dunsany wrote:
Yeats had invented the Irish Academy of Letters [in 1932] and had omitted me, which was no surprise; though his reason for doing so was surprising, which was that I did not write about Ireland. I told one or two Irish writers that I too was going to start an Academy, an academy to honour the names of writers of the fourteenth century in Italy; for I said that, since writers work for posterity, it was not a bit too late to honour fourteenth-century writers now. Who, I asked, would they suggest?  Dante of course was suggested; but I was shocked. "Most certainly not," I said, stroking my hair as Yeats used to stroke his. "Dante did not write about Italy, but of a very different place. Most unsuitable!" 
Dunsany then admits that this "may have been the trifling sting that stimulated my energies" and he started writing his Irish novel, The Curse of the Wise Woman, on February 12th, 1933, and finished it three and a half months later, on May 27th.

When Dunsany was finally admitted to the Irish Academy, Oliver St. John Gogarty joked at the dinner:

Since this Academy was founded to keep Dunsany out we ought to dissolve it, now that he's admitted.

The details underneath this story are a bit more complicated.  Yeats initially proposed Dunsany to be an associate (but not regular) member, clearly a secondary status, and he apparently never sent Dunsany any invitation at all.  Dunsany only heard about it through press accounts, so naturally he was miffed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Intensive Research

A quote for the day:

“Intensive research, even by the most competent researcher, is wasted, unless the results are put together and printed. It would have been better to have written two or three solid monographs on one of the many scores of topics on which the accumulator had been pondering, than to have collected in one’s brain countless lights on all manner of historical subjects, whose correlation perishes when the brain is gone. Perhaps some later researcher may have to put it all together again.”         
Charles Oman, On the Writing of History (1939)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Dunsany and Machen on Their Publishers

For some years now, I have had in my head the idea that when Dunsany was approached in 1946 by August Derleth about Arkham House publishing an omnibus of some of Dunsany's earlier books* (published in the United State by John W. Luce & Company), Dunsany wrote back to Derleth, saying that he hadn't heard anything from Luce in over a quarter of a century, and he directed Derleth to "rob Luce without mercy." 

Except that's not correct.  What Dunsany actually wrote to Derleth, on the 11th of September 1946, is less tart:  "Luce has sent me no payment, or even a letter, for over a quarter of a century, and I do not imagine that any rights he may have had can survive that.  So you may ignore Luce." 

Why did that more deserving phrase carve its way into my memory so strongly?  The answer is that I have read it in a slightly different form elsewhere, and my memory had intermingled the details. 

Here is Arthur Machen, writing to Vincent Starrett on August 23rd, 1921, about some of his books not then published in the United States, including The House of Souls, published in London by Grant Richards:  "If you have the chance, rob Grant Richards without mercy. He has robbed me, so slay and spare not." 

The sentiments are pretty much the same in the letters of both writers, but Machen's phrasing is clearly more memorable. 

I'm glad now to get the wordings and attributions corrected. 



*Nothing came of this.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Faulkner's Vampire Screenplay

I bought the Winter 2002 (#42) issue of Oxford American when it had just come out, and as I was packing my book collection to move. Most of my books and papers were soon unpacked in the new house, but the magazines were only gradually sorted over the years.  I bought this issue because it published an extract from a screenplay by William Faulkner entitled "Dreadful Hollow," commissioned in 1945, towards the middle of Faulkner's Hollywood script-writing years.  One Faulkner scholar, Bruce Kawin in his Faulkner and Film, argues that "Dreadful Hollow" is something of a masterpiece.

I've now read the extract, and can't see how anyone could call it a masterpiece.  It is a patchwork of cliches, with a nineteen-year-old girl taking up a position as companion to the elderly Countess Czerner (of eastern European descent), whose housekeeper Sari makes sinister and cryptic remarks (wink wink).  They live outside of town in the Grange, a grim house like a castle that is shunned by all the village folk. The town is some two hundred miles away from London. You can count the cliches adding up, and this is only the first nineteen or so pages out of 159. 

If this screenplay would have been made into a film in 1945, it would have been perfect fodder for the talents of the folks behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the 1990s.  But it was never made into a film, and though Oxford American doesn't tell you, it's not an original Faulkner screenplay either, but it's based on a novel of the same title from 1942 bylined "Irina Karlova."  The novel and its pseudonymous author are well dealt with by John Norris in a illustrated post at his Pretty Sinister Books blog, so I'll merely refer the reader to it here

The Oxford American also noted that "Dreadful Hollow will be produced as a motion picture by Lee Caplin's Picture Entertainment Corporation."  Fortunately this came to nought.  Or perhaps unfortunately, as most of what Hollywood produces nowadays is unmitigated crap. Perhaps done today as a retro-picture, or a period piece, filmed in black-and-white, it could be released, and flop, and yet turn up again re-contextualized by the able hands of the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000. One can hope.   

Sunday, March 20, 2016

New Evidence on the Posthumous Editing of Robert E. Howard’s ALMURIC




In the April 1939 issue of Weird Tales, under the heading “Coming Next Month,” there was an announcement by editor Farnsworth Wright of the forthcoming publication of a new story by Robert E. Howard, who had killed himself nearly three years earlier.  It reads, in part:
Weird Tales, April 1939 blurb
Robert E. Howard, at the time of his tragic death, was working on a new novel for Weird Tales. He had completed a rough first draft, and nearly completed a revision which was to be his final version. . . .  So engrossing is this story, Almuric, that Weird Tales would not be playing fair with you, the readers, if we did not let you see it. Therefore we have pieced together the nearly completed final draft that Howard wrote with the final pages of Howard’s rough first draft, which contains a smashing denouement.  (page 152)

This statement leaves open several questions. Who did the editing?  Why?  And what precisely was done to Howard’s texts? 

The two manuscripts of Almuric—like those of all of Howard’s contributions to Weird Tales—do not survive.  The mysterious situation of Almuric has been explored by a number of Howard scholars, and the consensus opinion seems to be that expressed by Mark Finn in his Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard (updated and expanded second edition, 2011), when he writes of Almuric that it was “unfinished when Robert was alive and most likely completed by legendary pulp writer and friend of Otis Kline [Howard’s agent], Otto Binder” (page 379). The argument leading to this conclusion was made by Morgan Holmes in his invaluable article, “The First Posthumous Collaborator,” published in the final issue (December 2008) of The Cimmerian (pages 17-24).

Holmes makes many significant points—that Wright is probably guilty of editorial fabrication when claiming that Almuric was being written for Weird Tales (according to Holmes’s analysis it probably dates to early 1934, two years before Howard’s death); and that  the ending seems “almost criminally anti-Howardian” and that it exhibits “a sudden sea-change of style and theme of a sort unique in all of Howard’s work—the last chapter blithely undoes it all, giving us a finale filled with peace, brotherhood, and eternal friendship among formerly fierce, barbaric enemies” (page 17).  Holmes argues that the person who edited the text was unlikely to be either Farnsworth Wright (perhaps due to advancing Parkinson’s), or Otis Adelbert Kline (who took only a ten percent commission as agent, and not the fifty percent commission he would have taken had he done the job), and considers some other authors, settling at last on Kline’s friend, Otto Binder, primarily for stylistic reasons. 

The recent discovery of a typed letter settles the question of who, and some of the reasons for  why. In brief, it was Farnsworth Wright who did the editing.  On January 4, 1939, Wright wrote to Sam Moskowitz, giving information on future stories in Weird Tales, noting:

Beginning in the May issue, we are printing a posthumous interplanetary novel by Robert E. Howard, entitled “Almuric.” At the time of his death, Mr. Howard had completed a first draft of the story, and had done the greater part of the second draft. The novel is so striking that I thought it would be unfair to our readers if we did not given them a chance to read this. So I pieced together an ending from the first draft and used it to complete the second draft to make a complete story.

So there we have it. Who?  Farnsworth Wright.  Why?  Ostensibly to share the story, which Wright apparently admired, with the Weird Tales readership, but doubtless also to be able to parade Robert E. Howard’s name and writing in the magazine once more.

What precisely Wright did to Howard’s text will likely never be known.  Howard often wrote multiple drafts of his stories, so the idea of a second draft being a final draft is not necessarily true.  Howard seems to have abandoned the story himself, for whatever reasons, and moved on to other things.  One aspect of the ending (the strong-man-gets-the-pretty-girl) is at least foreshadowed throughout the text as published.  Almuric as a story is somewhat indebted to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and such an ending is not unlike what is found in Burroughs (and also found in the pastiches of Burroughs by Howard’s agent, Otis Adelbert Kline). Perhaps Howard originally wrote such an ending in his rough first draft, and as he worked on his second draft he could not see his way to a more typical Howardian ending, and thus the story was abandoned. 

The easy solution would be to blame the editor for the ending, as Holmes does primarily on stylistic points, but there is no actual evidence that Wright wrote or tampered much with the text.  By Wright’s own words there was a complete first draft, and a “nearly completed” (per the note in Weird Tales) second draft, or one with “the greater part” (per Wright’s letter to Moskowitz) of the second draft being written.  In both sources Wright states that he “pieced together” an ending from the first draft to complete the second draft. On the other hand, Holmes’s stylistic analysis of the final chapter is cogent and persuasive. Unfortunately the facts of whatever actually happened in the editing process are apparently lost to history. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

With Hide So Tough . . .

A few months ago I came across an interesting quotation:
Breathes there a man with hide so tough
Who says two sexes aren't enough?
It was attributed to one one Samuel Hoffenstein (1890-1947), whom I discovered to be remembered primarily as a screenwriter, having worked on the scripts for many movies, some credited to him like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, directed by Rouben Mamoulian) and Phantom of the Opera (1943), others uncredited, like The Wizard of Oz (1939).

I came to this quotation in some commentary on a Clifford Simak short story, "Mirage"  (variant title "Seven Came Back"), first published in Amazing in October 1950, because Simak's story concerns a race of aliens with seven sexes. I wondered whether the poem from which these lines came might be more interesting in full context.  Alas, that is not true.

Dorothy Parker approved; over 100,000 copies sold
The couplet is a complete poem in itself, number III. in a series of "Love-Songs, at Once Tender and Informative--An Unusual Combination in Verses of This Character," which is a section comprising some twenty-three poems in Hoffenstein's collection, Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing (New York:  Boni & Liveright, 1928), which went through a number of printings and editions. I can't see why the book was successful, as the poetry is quite tedious and there is a lot of it.  The first stanza of the opening "Proem" gives a fair sample:

How exquisite my sorrows look
Neatly marshalled in a book,
Hung on the iambic line
In an orderly design! 

I was not inspired to read further, so I cannot say whether Samuel Hoffenstein deserves to be remembered alongside of John William Burgon as a poet who is remembered for only a short line or two.  Burgon (1813-1888) won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford in 1845 for his poem Petra, which described the place of the title in an immortal line as "a rose-red city half as old as time."  (There is nothing else remotely interesting in the poem Petra, which I read years ago.  Burgon even lifted part of his line "half as old as time" from an earlier poet, Samuel Rogers.)