NBCC Reads: Gary Giddins

by Eric Banks | Dec-09-2010

Since 2009 the NBCC has sponsored NBCC Reads, a set of surveys drawing on the bookish expertise of our membership as well as former winners and finalists. This fall our subject was out-of-print books. We asked:

Which work of fiction or nonfiction would you most like to see republished?

The question elicited a large number of responses (and for many, a large number of books nominated for republishing). We also heard from a lot of respondents who named writers whose work has generally been unfairly eclipsed, as well as a few considerations of how changes in the industry might affect the fortunes of long out-of-print titles. We’ll be publishing specific responses in the days to come. We also hope to sponsor related panels from coast to coast. (Let us know if you'd like to set one up in your community.) First up, Gary Giddins, winner of the 1998 NBCC award in Criticism for his book Visions of Jazz, who wrote, "Only one? Not possible--this business of neglected books is a lifelong obsession of mine."

Fiction

1. The Third Pillar by Soma Morgenstern. Written in German in the United States and published in a superb translation by Ludwig Lewisohn (1955), this is a uniquely pitiless, satirical, visceral, terse, and magical fiction about the Holocaust, unavailable for more than half a century. Morgenstern’s close friend Joseph Roth has been reclaimed, but the light of rediscovery has yet to fall on one of Galicia’s most individual writers, also the author of the trilogy of Eastern Europe, Sparks in the Abyss, translated and published in the 1940s, but, along with the rest of his work, presently available only in German.

2. Singerman and its superior sequel This Man Is My Brother (published in England as Sons of Singerman) by Myron Brinig. Watching a little-known Bette Davis-Errol Flynn movie, The Sisters—which involves the inaugurations of Teddy Roosevelt and Taft, an alcoholic writer, a miscarriage, husband swapping, Montana society, the San Francisco earthquake, and a caring whorehouse—I kept thinking: Who the hell wrote this? Answer: a gay Jewish socialist who grew up in Butte, studied with Joyce Kilmer, and published 21 novels, and if that doesn’t disconnect your jaw in five places, consider that several of his novels were bestsellers, beginning with the 1929 Singerman (first page: a circumcision). His later work grew flabby and self-satisfied, but the earlier stuff, including Wide Open Town (mining and prostitution), Ann Minton’s Life (lesbianism and suicide), and The Sisters, await rebirth, especially the autobiographical Singerman diptych.

3. Come on Out, Daddy by Bernard Wolfe. My first choice when considering this list was Wolfe’s dystopian novel Limbo, but a publisher called Westholme brought that one out a few weeks ago. Limboand the jazz fantasia, Really the Blues, derived from conversations with the marijuana-addled clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, are Wolfe’s best books, but Come On Out, Daddy (1963) is one of the irreverently spacey of the many forgotten Hollywood novels. Wolfe, a secretary to Trotsky, who fictionalized the latter’s final months in Mexico (The Great Prince Died, 1959), merits a general reawakening.

4. Prince Bart by Jay Richard Kennedy. Another forgotten Hollywood novel, initially claimed by Farrar (in 1953) to be the publisher’s most important contribution to American lit. It isn’t, but it does possess blowtorch anger in detailing the fall of a youngish film star who drives his wife to attempted suicide and everyone else to distraction, based with gossipy irritation on the life of John Garfield.

5. Some Came Running by James Jones. Other than an abridged movie-tie-in paperback, this has been out of print since 1957, the year it appeared. It is longer than most phonebooks, self-important, jejune (the women are named Morehead and French), seriously wounded, and lacking in apostrophes, which would have added another 20 pages. But even in an era famous for while elephants of insanely fastidious inclusiveness, including Ross Lockridge’s Raintree County and John O’Hara’s From the Terrace, Jones was the ultimate cleanup man. Reading it is like bussing straight from a shooting war into a provincial hometown, marrying the local Clytemnestra, and dying by inches: great fun.

Non-fiction

1. The Great Audience by Gilbert Seldes. This prescient 1950 survey has one of the great leads: “Except for the makers of baby foods, no industry in the United States has been so indifferent to the steady falling away of its customers as the movies have been.” Seldes invented pop culture criticism in 1924, with his tour de force The 7 Lively Arts, and is a heroic figure who merits an appropriate treatment to restore the illustrated edition of the latter along with such long overlooked titles as The Great Audience, The Public Arts, and his weirdly Tocquevillian Mainland. No American critic is more influential and less read, with the arguable exception of Constance Rourke.

2. Troupers of the Gold Coast by Constance Rourke. The spellbinding account of nineteenth-century American entertainment, as traced in the unlikely rise of Lotta Crabtree, with a long aside concerning Lola Montez, is, like all of Rourke’s work, a foundational text—original, discriminating, wry, beautifully composed, and exceptionally well researched. Her 1931 masterpiece, American Humor, is available, but where are her indispensible studies of the theater, the Beechers, Audubon, and Davy Crockett (she created the platform for the Disney myth and didn’t even get an acknowledgment), as well as her posthumous essays.

3. The Complete Works, or very nearly, of James Gibbon Huneker. Wilson and Mencken loved him, and no one had as great an impact on American music, literary, and art criticism in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Famous for his infamous novel Painted Veils (an orgy at the opera) he also wrote innovative short fictions about music (Melomaniacs), a transcendently lyrical study of Chopin, a daguerreotype-like portrait of meeting Whitman, and a memoir, while turning out dozens of essays introducing American readers to Dvorak, Wagner, Conrad, Ibsen, Strindberg, Vermeer, Gauguin, and many others—he was an eagle scout discovering the glories of Europe, who conveniently died in 1921, relieving himself of the burden of having to deal with the homegrown stuff that Seldes and Rourke surveyed.

4. Clowning Through Life by Eddie Foy and Alvin Harlow. Initially serialized in Colliers in 1926 and 1927, and then published as a book shortly after Foy’s death in 1928, this is an exceptional account of the growth of entertainment by a comic who predated vaudeville. It is made especially savory by his apparently photographic memory in recounting such incidents as the New York draft riots, the Chicago fire, a lynching, Dodge City under the baleful eye of Wyatt Earp, and the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903. A few touchups notwithstanding, subsequent research has borne out Foy’s recollections and cannot topple the immediacy of his voice.

5. The Divine Comedy by Dante via Laurence Binyon. Not exactly non-fiction, but the favorite translation of Pound, who reportedly advised Binyon, and the subject of a splendid essay by Robert Fitzgerald: this terza rima adaptation was a high spot in the Viking Portable Library until the 1980s, when it was replaced with a more conventional translation that lacks Binyon’s poetry and drive. How can this masterwork, completed in 1943, languish out of print?




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