writing


Whibley, Charles. “The Oldest Guide-Book in the World.” Book review of J.G. Frazer’s 1898 translation of Pausanius’s Description of Greece. Review appeared in Vol. LXXVII of MacMillan’s Magazine (No. 462), November 1897 to April 1898, pp. 415-421. Google Books has a PDF file of this magazine available for download.

Genial History Channel and PBS host Tony Perrottet is hardly the first person to stumble across this ancient tome, but his Web site makes it sound as if the Description of Greece, by the Greek author Pausanias, had lain dormant for 1,800 years until Perrottet unearthed it several years ago in the New York Public Library. His Web site also makes it sound as if the guide had been written by a Roman, or at least with Roman tourists in mind. But if you want to read some really savage critiques of Perrottet’s work, check out this Amazon page.

Enough of Mr. Perrottet. He has, no doubt, already laughed his way to the bank, bad reviews or no. And, I suppose, the profits publishers make off titillating, middle-brow pablum like his enables them to produce works of quality that may not turn a profit until the next millennium.

More than 100 years ago, reviewer Charles Whibley said that the Description had already spawned a cottage industry of European scholarship, the results of which “might fill a library.” Whibley takes a look at what was then the latest contribution to that library, J.G. Frazer’s six-volume, heavily annotated English translation of the Description. English majors like me know Frazer as the author of the foundation work on the modern study of folk tales, The Golden Bough. My English professor made it sound as if this earlier work would be harder to find than the Holy Grail, but I snagged a copy from the McKeldin Library without having to face so much as a single rude French castle guard or a trick question on the air-speed velocity of swallows.

Reading The Golden Bough filled in a lot of gaps for me on European history, and from Whibley’s article, it looks as if Frazer’s translation of Pausanias could fill in a few more. Pausanias began collecting accounts of Greek folk customs before Frazer was even a glint in his great-great-great-great…great-grandfather’s eye, and Frazer finds parallels for each account in the Description in cultures around the world, Whibley says.

Frazer’s work also quotes other ancient historians, whose writings indicate that the tradition of travel writing began long before Pausanias set out for the Greek Isles in the second century A.D., and some of them were Greek. One such predecessor practiced his craft with a lot more verve than did Pausanias, Frazer says. Dicaearchus, a contemporary of Aristotle, “was as jaunty a tourist as ever wore a tweed suit or slung a field-glass over his shoulder,” Whibley quotes Frazer as saying. For all its detail, the Description often comes across as dry, lacking a sense of humor or enthusiasm, Frazer says.

Dicaearchus slings barbs at the people of Athens and other Greek city-states with the same panache movie critic Davey Marlin-Jones exhibited in the 1970s when he trashed bad films, in the days before Hollywood’s p.r. juggernaut co-opted the business of reviewing movies, and now, books. Pausanias could never write the way his Greek antecedent did, Whibley says. “[H]e is, in truth, a Baedeker, body and soul.” I just saw A Room with a View on PBS, so I know that that means “a reliable but unadventurous guidebook that all the British tourists took with them to Italy at the turn of the century.”

Whibley admits he doesn’t know much about this elderly Greek (these links may help broaden our understanding), but he does know that Pausanias “belonged to that class which is born middle-aged…. Were he alive today he would tramp around Europe with a kodak and a green butterfly net, and if he were persuaded to write a book, the book would have to be hidden away for two or three hundred years before it attained its proper value.”

That’s pretty much what I’m hoping for with my work. I’m probably more like Pausanias than Dicaearchus. Somehow, somewhere at some future date some clever Tony Perrottet type may get rich and famous off my intellectual property, while I spend the rest of my life wearing the same pair of white Nikes I’ve had since 1998. I don’t care. I just want what I write to be good. Don’t get me wrong; I’d like the money, but I already have a nice wife, a nice house, a nice cat, and a nice family. Someday, I may even have a nice job again, in which case I’ll probably have to stop blogging.

Fearnely, Fran, ed. I Wrote on All Four Walls: Teens Speak Out on Violence. Toronto: Annick Press, 2004.

I’m helping this kid I know deal with some guys who are pushing him around at school. I hope it’ll do some good. This book contains the stories of nine Canadians who had problems with bullies as teenagers or who had been bullies themselves. I’ve only gotten through the first two, Sue and Don. Sue had problems with other girls giving her a hard time, and then she joined a gang.

Don was a bully pretty much right from the start, though he did encounter violence from other kids from time to time. He still seems to have a ways to go to change his behavior. Both Don and Sue had parents who criticized them; Sue’s parents treated her especially harshly. Don’s father would criticize the way he played hockey.

For the sake of argument, I am using the theory of parenting styles Mary Pipher lays out in Reviving Ophelia (p. 83—“Families: The Root System”) as the baseline to judge Sue and Don’s childhoods. If I read her correctly, there are three ways to screw kids up royally and one way to make sure they turn out okay. Reading their stories with Pipher’s formula in mind, it seems inevitable that Sue and Don would have had the problems they’ve experienced, and passed on to others.

When Sue was growing up in China, her parents criticized her constantly. They were also very strict with her. Her father wanted her to be a proper lady, and he controlled her movements very closely. He also began beating her when she tried to tell him some of the unpleasant comments she had heard her stepmothers say about him behind his back. This combination of high control and low acceptance leads to an “authoritarian” parenting style, Pipher says. She goes on to say that it produces children who lack confidence and social skills. Sue had few friends in school. Some of those friends turned on her. One of them killed herself. After that, Sue began cutting herself every day. When her father sent her to live with her brother in Canada, he began beating her, too, but fear of violating cultural codes about “family business” kept her from telling anyone about it.

Don’s parents fit the classic “absentee” mold Pipher describes. Absentee parents mix low acceptance with low control of their children, a combination that Pipher says produces delinquents and addicts. Don says he drank hard and partied hard in his adolescence, so that covers the addiction part. As for the delinquency aspect, Don relates one chilling tale of a day at work at a factory when he and a friend tied a weaker and more passive coworker named Vince to a pillar on the factory floor, blindfolding their victim with duct tape. The two then argued about how long they should wait to untie Vince. They walked out and left him there alone for several hours. When Don and his friend returned and untied Vince, the third young man ran out of the factory and never came back.

American fiction 1900-1945

Career woes continue to plague “weird fiction” author H.P. Lovecraft, in this latest installment of the notes for the screenplay that will, at some future date, lead to a motion picture, tentatively titled The Providence Detective Agency.

Lovecraft and his new bride, Sonia, continue to have professional and financial setbacks. In 1924, she leaves to look for work in the Midwest, and he pursues the life of a bachelor. At first, Lovecraft enjoys his new found freedom. One night, he stays up until dawn on an impromptu architectural tour of Manhattan with his literary buddies, the Kalem Club, so named because all its members’ last names begin with the letters K, L or M. But penury wears Lovecraft down, so much so that he loses weight, and the novelty of his all-nighters wears off as he finds it hard to maintain a stable creative output.

The following comments are based on notes I am taking as I read Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters, edited by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz.

Page 138 — Sonia closes her hat shop. She goes to work at another millinery. Her new employer, the Bruck-Weiss Millinery, asks her to prepare a letter that will go out to all of her clients, letting them know that she has taken a position with another establishment. Next, she gets two weeks off. This makes Sonia think her boss is going to sack her, but not before this “woman with more ability than conscientiousness” tricks Sonia into giving Bruck-Weiss her client list. “Such is modern business, as practiced by the rising and exotic commercial oligarchy of bad manners and vacant background” that has taken over the rag trade, Lovecraft writes.

Pages 139-140 — HPL tries writing ad copy for new companies, though the companies haven’t asked for these ads and apparently don’t even know they’re being written. Salesmen will then take the brief pieces he writes and try to sell them to the companies in question. Lovecraft doesn’t express much enthusiasm for the venture: “Rapid hack work is demanded…. These business vistas turn swiftly to mirages….” He hasn’t given up hope, though that hope sounds vague and tenuous: “I can see myself…with an actual income and possible future….”

Page 141 — HPL gets a temporary job addressing envelopes in Samuel Loveman’s bookshop, March 1926.

Page 143 — Poverty forces HPL to go on an austere diet of bread, beans and cheese. Three days’ worth costs 30 cents. He drops nearly 50 pounds, going from a robust 193 pounds to a bony 146 pounds. He tries to make it sound like he’s doing it for his health. “[M]any vigorous Chinamen live on vastly less,” Lovecraft says.

Page 144 — In the evening of August 21 and the morning of August 22, 1924, Lovecraft goes on his predawn architectural tour of Manhattan. He notes the differences between lower Manhattan and the rest of the island: below 14th Street, remnants of its colonial past survive, and a few farmhouses remained on Mott and Mulberry Streets at the time Lovecraft wrote this letter to his aunt, in September 1924. He and his friends visit the Planters’ Hotel, the home of Edgar Allan Poe “in seedy old age,” and Tom’s Chop House, “which has been open continuously since 1797.” Lovecraft finally heads home at around 8 a.m.

Page 147-148 — Lovecraft visits Samuel Loveman’s apartment, where he meets Hart Crane, who lives in the same building. In the same September 1924 letter, Lovecraft describes looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. He remarks on the weird lights and sounds of the port: “Fog horns, ships’ bells, the creaking of windlasses….” It turns out Crane is working on a poem about the Brooklyn Bridge.

You know you’re not working for a newsgathering organization when:

  • The owner of the company comes around and tells everybody to stop making so many long-distance calls.

Actually, that’s the only warning sign I can think of today. If that’s not enough to make you look for another job, you must be in a coma. I was in a coma.

New York, March 1924.

Wedded bliss for Lovecraft and Sonia Greene quickly gives way to the realities of supporting themselves in the big city. Her hat business fails, and Lovecraft is a washout as a salesman.

124-125: Weird Tales publisher J.C. Henneberger hires HPL to ghostwrite a story in which an Egyptian tour guide ties up Harry Houdini and traps him in a pyramid, just to see if he can get out. Henneberger says he heard the story from Houdini himself. Houdini is “supremely egotistical,” says Lovecraft, who doesn’t believe the story is true.

126: HPL marries Sonia Greene, 3.3.1924, in NYC. Writes his aunt on 3.9, suggesting marriage may have been an escape from boredom or a way to quell thoughts of suicide.

127: He also hoped marriage would stabilize his finances. It seems like he really likes Sonia, though. He credits her with bringing him out of his funk, making him want to live and work.

128: Sonia likes him, and everyone else bores her, he says.

130: Lovecraft says he may find work with a Miss Tucker, from old Baltimore stock. She works for a journal called The Reading Lamp. He says she’ll get him a job in publishing.

131: He and Sonia go to a “Dago joint” for dinner.

Sonia wants a cheap wedding ring. He persuades her to get a more expensive one. He says he’ll pay for it with the money he makes off the next Weird Tales job.

132: Following their civil ceremony, HPL and SG have a formal ceremony at NYC’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, at Broadway and Vesey. It makes him feel really British or something.

134: No more “facial trouble.” He tells his aunt he can shave now just like everyone else. What was the facial trouble? Folliculitis? Ingrown hair? Jesus, that must’ve hurt.

Sonia makes Lovecraft do Walter Camp exercises.

Sonia’s millinery business fails, and HPL can’t find a job.

136-137: Lovecraft tries a job in sales, working for a debt collection company that serves businesses.

“A gentleman born and bred has very little chance for success in such lines of canvassing salesmanship…where one must either be…magnetic…or boorish,” Lovecraft says. He quits before the week is up. His boss, a Mr. Bristol, wants HPL to write letters for him.

You know you’re not working for a newsgathering organization when (and this is all purely hypothetical, mind you):

1. You pitch your editor an idea for a column in which you would review products for people who work in industry X. The pitch goes something as follows: “So, the way it works is, companies would send us press releases on their products, and we call up people working in the industry who’ve actually used whatever it is we want to write about, and we just print whatever they say.”

And your editor responds: “What if the companies don’t like what we write?”

2. The company won’t run ads in its newsletters because it says that would compromise the publications’ objectivity.

3. Your editor makes you rewrite a story so that it matches the marketing copy for a new product your company is trying to sell. Your company says the product can do X. Your editor tells you to write a story about doing X. You call three sources and ask them if they think people need to do X. Two say no. One of those two sources knows your company’s reputation (bad), and he says, “People don’t need to do X, and even if they did, your product wouldn’t help them anyway.” A third source says maybe people should do X, but only if doing X won’t cost anything.

You write a story saying what your sources said. You show it to your editor. She gets mad and tells you to call someone else. You don’t have time to do it, but you do it anyway. Your fourth source says people can do X if they want to, but they don’t have to. You think that seems a little closer to what your editor wants to hear, so you run it by her. She gets even more upset.

Finally, you hear from a coworker that another company is working on a product very similar to your company’s product. You think, this may be my ticket out. You call someone at that company and ask her if people need to do X. She says, “My god, yes, it is absolutely essential that people know how to do X.” You add that to your story. Your editor is relieved, but when she does your evaluation, she notes that you sometimes had a hard time coming up with appropriate material.

4. Newsletters have no news.

5. “Editors” have no reporters working under them.

6. Your boss actually says, “There’s no ‘i’ in team.”

813.52 American fiction 1900-1945

At this point in S.T. Joshi’s Lord of a Visible World, Lovecraft’s mother has just died. Depression hits him so hard he can hardly move. Before long, however, he recovers. At his aunt’s urging, he attends some meetings of the United Amateur Press Association and quickly rises to the top of the group’s leadership structure. Membership in the group not only brings him out of his funk, but also out of himself: he begins to come in contact with the world beyond Providence. Even if it repulses him at first, the change may do him good in the long run.

Lovecraft was not unique in his open, unashamed bigotry. Ezra Pound was a world-class anti-Semite. Actually, Abraham Lincoln was no great fan of non-whites, either. Sometimes it seems hard to believe that things have changed as much as they have, even if it’s not very much.

85—HPL writes about suicide. He put it off while mother was alive—now he wants to go through with it

says only his mother understood him, maybe Galpin
he admired her for speaking French, playing music and painting

2nd graf—depressed—no interest in things because he can’t talk about them with his mother
postmodern—“This bereavement decentralizes existence—”
no one pays attention to him now

86—never displays emotion
for a time, couldn’t even get dressed
at little, had trouble walking, but still no emotion—somaticized his pain
met with UAPA member at aunt’s urging

87—spirits seem lifted
fond of Sonia Greene, a Russian Jew who recently immigrated to New York City and joined the UAPA

88—shows her around Providence
89—she’s not Anglo
she meets his aunt—they hit it off
has to apologize to aunt for amateur journalism’s “extreme democracy and occasional heterogeneity”
has dinner with Sonia at hotel
more sightseeing

[If I ever write this story, I will have HPL saying stuff like “nigger” and “chinaman” a lot, just throwing words like that into everyday conversation without a second thought. I will try to find examples of HPL and contemporaries using words that would be totally unacceptable today. To my Protestant (Lutheran? Methodist? Presbyterian? Who the fuck knows) grandmother, even my nice, white wife took a little getting used to because she’s Catholic.]

90—Sonia is smart, sophisticated and hard-working, even though she’s a non-Aryan

91—she is “certainly due to make the greatest stir in amateurdom of any recent recruit; for unlike the majority, she takes the institution seriously enough to put real cash into it . . . ”

typical New Englander—At this point, he hasn’t traveled further from his home base than Hampstead, N.H.

Sonia gets along with HPL’s aunts despite “racial and social chasm”
She seems to have $

[My impression, baste on one of the HPL books at the Newton Free Library, is that of a nervous man, someone who has a hard time keeping still, and not in a good way. Yes, he has a lot of energy, which explains all the writing, but he doesn’t display emotion, and so his anguish (which I’m not necessarily sympathetic to) comes through in other ways—shaking, nervous tics, difficulty making eye contact (this is all supposition which should be supported with more documentation). He is sympathetic because he is trying to keep it under control, always minding his manners. Never phony—not sophisticated enough for that. Less Vincent Price, more Boris Karloff, but even more genuine, no cliché. Youthful enthusiasm fighting for dear life.]

H may have found SG’s independence intimidating and threatening, and certainly alien to his culture

93—goes to NYC for 1st time in April ’22
meets SG in Penn Station
they meet Loveman
H reads “Hypnos” to warm reception

94—insomnia

95—loves MOMA—Greece, Rome, Egypt

98—infatuated with NYC like I was with Boston 20 years ago—cool little green trains on the T. Ten punishing years here has taken that out of me.

[Here’s where he starts to get really objectionable, offensive and unsympathetic; is he beyond redemption?]

102—horrified at Lower East Side

“We walked—at my suggestion—in the middle of the street, for contact with the heterogeneous sidewalk denizens, spilled out of their bulging brick kennels as if by a spawning beyond the capacity of the places, was not by any means to be sought.”

103

“ . . . a bastard mass of stewing mongrel flesh without intellect, repellent to eye, nose, and imagination.”

104—Poe house

105—knows Cyrillic alphabet

106—goes to Cleveland Aug. ’22
visits Loveman, Galpin
meets Hart Crane, bookseller Geo. Kirk
(then to NYC)

107—Loveman collects antiques, rare books

108—hideous drawings of Clark Ashton Smith—“grotesque, unutterable things”

109—no headaches or depression

114—loves Marblehead—that figures, fucking hellhole

115—announces his support for Mussolini

116—ready to accept anything as long as it’s true

“democracy . . . is a false idol”

“there is no earthly reason why the masses should not be kept down for the benefit of the strong, since every man is for himself in the last analysis”

This and the following quote really give a sense of what drives HPL. His every-man-for-himself nihilism probably springs from at least the following three sources:

1) His interest in science, which leads him to reject religion and an Earth-centered view of the universe. Rejecting those beliefs probably put him at odds with the Classical poets and philosophers he loved, as well as his family.

2) His ignorance. He may have been thoroughly modern in rejecting belief in God and belief that the universe revolves around the Earth, but he was also thoroughly New England in not knowing or caring much about the rest of the world. (The success of any story I write, at least artistically speaking, hinges on whether he comes to care more about the world beyond these six tiny states.)

3) Family problems: His family’s financial setbacks following the death of his father, the cause of which still stirs up debate more than 100 years later. His mother’s death causes HPL to go into a deep depression.

4) Personal setbacks in school, career and relationships.

118—“the blood of a million men is well shed in producing one glorious legend”—this is HPL’s thinking in a nutshell—a proto-neocon ideology. Every time I wonder under what rock the Bushes, Cheneys and Rumsfelds of this world crawled out from, I think of this quote.

[Again, the key thing to look for, the frame on which the rest of this story hangs, is whether this thinking changes, how much, and why. If the change is not that deep or lasting, you may not have much of a story.]

“Freedom of press and speech sound well—but these vague principles cannot be allowed to interfere with the fight of a race for the values which are its only solid possessions.”

No wonder he was depressed. He was delusional. People want to live, even if they don’t look like you. When you push them down, they push back. WWII should have proved that, but there are still and probably always will be people out there who think their race or religion or economic system is better than someone else’s race or religion or economic system.

If HPL had ever bothered to speak to any of the immigrants he avoided on the streets of NYC, he might have found many of them were just as conservative as he was.

119—“Ease, amusement . . .”—that’s all that really matters.

119-120—writes cover letter to Frank Baird to Weird Tales—says he doesn’t care if his stuff gets published. He even denigrates (or damns with faint praise) the magazine—gets published anyway

Loveman edited 21 Letters of Ambrose Bierce.

121—paraphrase: “I don’t expect much from the likes of Weird Tales. Only Machen can write scary stuff.”

“true art is obtainable only by rejecting normality and conventionality in toto”

122—“Only a cynic can create horror—for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a driving daemonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, and longs to pull them to pieces and mock them.” [That’s why I thought Alien worked.]

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