Open Seas: American Bacchanal

juan2

Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde by Loren Glass. 272 pp. Stanford University Press, 2013 [latterly republished as Rebel Publisher by Penguin, 2018].

Barney Rosset’s Grove Press published some of the most important and controversial writers of the 20th century and almost single-handedly conquered literary censorship in the USA. It did this with bravura and style. So where are the tributes, the retrospectives, the museum exhibitions? A small group of recent books and documentaries have begun to counter the strange neglect of Grove’s legacy. Loren Glass’s Counterculture Colophon, republished in paperback as Rebel Publisher, goes beyond Grove’s famed obscenity trials and explores its successful dissemination of avant-garde literature in postwar America.

In my twenties I used to find old Grove Press titles in obscure corners of Gould’s Book Arcade in Sydney’s Newtown. It was appropriate. Proprietor Bob Gould was a veteran Trotskyite and anti-war activist who’d battled Australia’s embarrassingly provincial censorship in the old days. That regime had been tougher, more narrow-minded, and more enduring than in the USA. Several times raided by the New South Wales Vice Squad, Gould had been charged in 1969 for selling posters of erotic Aubrey Beardsley drawings. After a long and ridiculous trial he was fined fifty cents.

Literary censorship effectively ended in Australia with the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972, although films were still occasionally banned. In his later years Gould would sit white-bearded and gruff behind the front counter of his chaotic, warehouse-sized bookshop. The shop was a perenial haunt for seekers of the happy oblivion of late night browsing under cold white flourescent bulbs. The size of his inventory was in absurd excess of anything manageable or sensible — a million or so disorganised books, towering in the shadowy upper-floor aisles or spilling across the dirty linoleum. In my experience he never refused to buy or exchange a pile of old books. His acquisitional habit was nothing short of a mania. “Bob wanted to have more books than anyone else on the planet,” his daughter Natalie told the Guardian in 2017. That’s why I consider it a matter of quiet pride that Gould once deemed my own book-buying habits as “pathological.” (I was at the time rummaging in a box beneath a trestle table at a huge charity book sale; Gould, evidently on his own scout, had lifted the tablecloth and squinted at me with disdain.)

Those Grove Press books I discovered in the vast depository at Gould’s were relics of the US censorship wars and its bacchanalian aftermath. Many had been printed in the US long before the Australian Government would have permitted their import. I was intrigued by the mystery of their trans-Pacific journey to Newtown. Gould sold categories of books that would never turn up elsewhere in Sydney; he’d also at some point acquired caches of books published behind the Iron Curtain by Progress Publishers (Moscow) and Seven Seas Books (Glinkastrasse, East Berlin). Most of these titles had sat on his shelves for years with pencilled prices oblivious to inflation.

1950s and 1960s Grove editions are worth collecting if only for their consistently stunning dust jackets or paperback covers designed by Roy Kuhlman, which should be as fetishized, reprinted, and monographed today as Reid Miles’s contemporaneous LP covers for Blue Note. Over the years I’ve bought a smattering. Although I can’t say I got around to reading them all, they give a representative indication of the publisher’s mission. (None of these books, you may notice, was written by a woman.) I’ve owned Grove’s unexpurgated editions of classic banned books—Henry Miller’s Tropics (1934-39), Quiet Days in Clichy (1956), and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (1949-59), Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal (1949), and Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves (1922-27). I bought Breton’s Nadja (1928), Ionesco’s plays, Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948), André Pieyre de Mandiargues’s The Girl Beneath the Lion (1956), and Borges’s Ficciones (1956) and A Personal Anthology (1961). Grove also published young American writers, and because its imprimatur seemed a sufficient recommendation I ended up with either the very good or the very dated (and sometimes a mix of both): Robert Gover’s Here Goes Kitten (1964), Michael Rumaker’s Gringos (1967), the Tales of LeRoi Jones (1967), and the works of San Francisco Bay Area novelist Floyd Salas, whose novels Tattoo the Wicked Cross (1967) and especially What Now My Love (1969) remain on my shelves. In fact, I ended up publishing Floyd’s more recent work when I edited the journal Contrappasso. Probably the best of all my Grove bargain buys were The Olympia Reader (1965) and The Evergreen Review Reader 1957-1967 (1968), two fat anthologies derived respectively from the backlists of Maurice Girodias’s Paris-based English-language press and Grove’s wonderful house journal. The range of important international writers in each, amid the odd merely pornographic item, is extraordinary.

Loren Glass’s Countercultural Colophon draws on Max Weber’s concept of a ‘charismatic community’ to explain how Grove functioned under Barney Rosset’s leadership. Grove seems to have been less a commercial business—although it had its share of bestsellers—than a creative manifestation of Rosset’s lifelong political agitation and enthusiasms for sex and experimental art. Born to great wealth, Rosset was both an admirable class traitor and a singularly heedless businessman. He ultimately “squandered his entire fortune on Grove Press.” Bravo.

In the 1950s avant-garde art was slowly seeping into the American mainstream. Glass cites Serge Guilbaut’s research on abstract expressionist painting and how it contributed to New York’s eventual dislodgment of Paris as the international cultural centre. Grove’s literary activities down in Greenwich Village paralleled this historic shift. Glass writes:

“Grove effectively siphoned cultural capital from Paris to New York in the 1950s and 1960s, reprinting and translating authors it had acquired from Éditions de Minuit, Éditions Gallimard, Éditions du Seuil, and the Olympia Press, thereby establishing a reputation as the premier American disseminator of European avant-garde literature, especially drama. However, Grove championed the idea of an indigenous avant-garde as well, providing an early publication venue for the Beats, the New York school, and the Black Mountain school, publishing multiple scholarly studies of American jazz, adopting abstract expressionist designs for its book covers, and affirming the San Francisco Bay Area as itself a ‘cultural capital’ in a burgeoning national scene.”

According to Guilbaut, the wide acceptance of the American avant-garde in the McCarthy era relied upon the supposed political neutrality of both its intellectual champions and the aesthetics of abstract expressionism itself. Grove, however, was increasingly a vehicle for radical politics alongside its radical literature and essentially repoliticized the avant-garde in the countercultural 1960s.

Glass’s chapters, grounded in the cultural politics of the postwar world, cover a variety of Grove’s activities. They published a stunningly cosmopolitan ‘world literature’ that ranged from the novels of Beckett, Genet, and Alain Robbe-Grillet—the “triumvirate of Parisian late Modernist literary innovators”—to works that emerged from “the decolonization of the European empires and the inception of the American century.” Grove promoted leading international experimental playwrights (Beckett, Artaud, Ionesco, Arrabal) and sold countless books by “marketing the printed text in conjunction with student performances.” Meanwhile Grove’s numerous biographical and critical works celebrated and helped to cement their canon of contemporary writers.

The obscenity trials are covered in detail, and so is Grove’s support for radical politics (Latin American revolution, Black Power, and the Post-Colonial struggle) through the publication of books by Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Régis Debray, and many others. Grove’s attempt to transform the movie business was far less successful, although its American distribution of the sexually explicit Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) became a controversial hit after a brief banning in 1969. Glass elaborates the important contribution Grove made to academic film culture in the USA by publishing the scripts and critical commentary on the most important foreign language art films including Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Rashomon, and The 400 Blows. Pre-VHS, these books “provided a curriculum for film studies courses during this foundational period; it also helped establish the cinematic text as a legitimate object of close reading modeled on the formal analysis of literary texts.” Glass identifies these books as the prototypes of the deluxe DVDs released by the Criterion Collection.

Although remarkably progressive in its publication of explicitly homosexual works by Genet, William S. Burroughs, and John Rechy, Grove’s support of radical emancipation was not unlimited. It published few women writers, its company structure was male-dominated, and its relentlessly libertine agenda was sometimes at odds with the contemporary feminist movement. Opposition to Grove’s “popularization of pornography” did not only come from the church and conservative groups. “By democratizing access to previously forbidden texts,” Grove had made the question of obscenity “more directly accessible to political, rather than moral or aesthetic, critique.”

Nevertheless, Rosset’s successful legal campaign to defend his right to publish the unholy trio of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and The Naked Lunch enabled freedom of the written word in America. Counterculture Colophon is a worthy but not uncritical study of a rare independent publisher who transformed American culture.

Edinburgh, May 2020

[Header image: detail of Roy Kuhlman’s cover design for Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Parama]

 

 

Open Seas: From the Clyde to Silverado

John_Atkinson_Grimshaw_The_Broomielaw_Glasgow

The Amateur Emigrant & The Silverado Squatters by Robert Louis Stevenson. 231 pp. Folio Society, 1991 [1883, 1892, 1895].

Throughout my life I’ve often found myself, purely by chance, in the former haunts of Robert Louis Stevenson. When I was a blonde-haired lad of five I scurried across the white beaches and slid down the cascading waterfalls of Western Samoa, his ultimate destination. This was no precocious literary pilgrimage across the Pacific from Sydney; my mother won this trip to paradise in a competition run by a brand of canned tropical fruit. Ironically, amid the wild bananas and pawpaws of Samoa, I quickly discovered canned fruit was passé. The Samoan kids showed me how to pierce a freshly fetched coconut with a machete blade and drink the milk fresh out of the shell.

I was also taken the long way up Mount Vaea, above Vailima, to visit Stevenson’s tomb, famously engraved:

Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

More recently I compared 1980s Samoan experiences with Nicholas Rankin, a decidedly more intentional follower of Stevenson’s itineraries, indeed the author of the excellent Dead Man’s Chest: Travels After Robert Louis Stevenson (1987) . We discovered he’d beaten me to the tomb by three years. In contrast to us both, the peripatetic Paul Theroux didn’t bother to make the climb up the hill when he visited Vailima, grumbling in The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) that graves depress him, destinations “for pilgrims and hagiographers.”

When I moved to Edinburgh I again found myself in Stevenson’s old vicinities. I briefly lived up the street from his school in Canonmills and worked around the corner from 17 Heriot Row, the Stevenson family home from 1857. But Edinburgh, suffering “one of the vilest climates under heaven,” was not for the sickly yet adventurous Stevenson. “For all who love shelter and the blessings of the sun,” he wrote, “who hate dark weather and perpetual tilting against squalls, there could scarcely be found a more unhomely and harassing place of residence.” He sought epic New World landscapes and Pacific island landfalls, as well as the “virginity of sense” granted to the outsider. Valuable stuff for a writer. My apparently reverse Stevensonism—fleeing the sun of the Pacific for Scottish gloom—is probably just another form of the same seeking.

Stevenson’s permanent departure from Scotland was not until 1887, but back in 1879 he’d boarded the SS Devonia for New York City and almost immediately taken the Union Pacific railway to San Francisco. His quest was to marry Fanny Osbourne, but Stevenson doesn’t mention that in his account of the journey, The Amateur Emigrant. He claims a journalistic objective, “an anxiety to see the worst of emigrant life.” He followed it up with The Silverado Squatters, an account of his colourful honeymoon. These books were not originally published entire or in chronological sequence. The Silverado Squatters appeared in 1883, the same year as Treasure Island, but The Amateur Emigrant was not published as a complete book during Stevenson’s lifetime. The ‘Across the Plains’ section was published as a stand-alone book in 1892. The author’s account of his Atlantic crossing, which appeared in a posthumous 1895 essay collection, was by then significantly abbreviated by his over-cautious editors. The earliest complete publication from the Amateur Emigrant manuscript was in From Scotland to Silverado (edited by James D. Hart, 1966), which not only coupled it with its sequel but included between them a four-part essay ‘The Old and New Pacific Capitals’ (i.e. Monterey and San Francisco). The Folio Society’s 1991 edition of the two books also restores the full manuscript text of The Amateur Emigrant (plus some lost passages from the 1883 magazine serials of both books) but strangely omits the buffering essay. I usually find Folio Society volumes cumbersome and pretentiously designed, but it is a thoughtfully edited text, a necessity for books with such a complicated textual history.

I admit I’ve not yet sailed in Stevenson’s wake from Scotland to America, so I had a lot to discover. The first part of The Amateur Emigrant, the Atlantic crossing, is an intellectually rigorous and cliché-busting set of observational essays on the motives and aspirations of the Scottish diaspora in the late 19th century. Stevenson vividly sketches the Devonia‘s dreadful steerage conditions of claustrophobic confinement, illness, and indifferent neglect by the ship’s officers. The common grub is porridge and “soup, roast fresh beef, boiled salt junk, and potatoes.” He elects to travel by second cabin, and explains why the extra two guineas is worth paying—supplied bedding and dishes, a table (upon which he wrote ‘The Story of a Lie’), and marginally better food. Officially a gentleman, he’s entitled to a grim ‘Irish stew’ and what appear to be the scrapings of plates from the saloon. He can choose between coffee or tea; the only perceptible difference is “a smack of snuff in the former” and “a flavour of boiling and dishcloth in the second.” Instead of mere duff twice a week he’s entitled to “a saddle-bag filled with currants under the name of plum-pudding.”

Suppressing his slight snobbery, Stevenson enjoys the community of the steerage passengers and their nightly singing, dancing, and tale-telling. He confesses hostility when a couple of saloon class passengers deign to visit down below. The poor emigrants defy Stevenson’s expectations. They are neither young nor adventurous, but “for the most part quiet, orderly, obedient citizens, family men broken by adversity, elderly youths who had failed to place themselves in life, and people who had seen better days.” They’d suffered hard times. “We were a company of the rejected; the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in one land, were now fleeing pitifully to another; and though one or two might still succeed, all had already failed.”

I have Scottish ancestors whose New World emigrations—to Australia rather than to the United States—both pre- and post-date Stevenson’s sailing on the Devonia. No plum-pudding for them; whether they were large families with babies feverish with pneumonia, or loners like my grandfather’s grandfather, they were all squashed into steerage. The latter, a Shetlander, emigrated around 1865 after an obscure youth as a lowly ship’s trimmer that had taken him to far-flung locales “beyond the telegraph cables and mail-boat lines,” as Conrad would put it in Lord Jim. Perhaps he’d already glimpsed the Pacific. I can’t particularly speak for the extent of my ancestors’ desperation nor their motives beyond a better life under the eucalypts, but Stevenson here provides a provocative glimpse into contemporary ordeals.

The second half of The Amateur Emigrant is titled ‘Across the Plains’ and recounts the rail journey across the continent. Stevenson was seriously ill and this leg of the trip was sometimes as uncomfortable as the Atlantic crossing. Awaiting a ferry across the Hudson River to the Jersey City railway terminal, cramped inside a chaotically crowded shed, he saves a child’s life from a crashing barrowful of spilled boxes. He is pushed along in a “dense, choking crush.” On board, the plains of Nebraska provoke a more existential dread in their endless monotony. Stevenson essays his fellow travellers and condemns the widespread “a priori” hatred of the Chinese, who are assigned to their own carriage.

The Silverado Squatters is a kind of sequel that picks up Stevenson’s Californian adventures in what would later be considered Jack London country. Stevenson had by now married Fanny and acquired a stepson, Lloyd (a future literary collaborator). The family decide to squat in an abandoned mine above the Napa Valley. Again, we learn almost nothing about Stevenson’s private life or the reasons for this unusual honeymoon. Resembling The Amateur Emigrant, the format is a series of thematic essays on his encounters and observations, with evocative sketches of this part of California. He visits a petrified forest exhibited by a far-drifting Scot and speaks to early Napa wine growers. Around Silverado he meets a set of frontier characters including a Jewish family—Stevenson here somewhat uncritically indulges in antisemitic stereotypes—and a class of “Poor Whites or low-downers.” One of these, a lazy handyman, a veritable “Caliban,” stirs the grumbling Tory in our narrator. The mine itself is remote, perilous, but perched over a spectacular natural landscape. At night the sky is so breathtaking “it seemed to throw calumny in the teeth of all the painters that ever dabbled in starlight.” Most magical is Stevenson’s account of the season’s one-off occurrence, the silent “sea fogs,” a rush of clouds into the mountains. It is, he writes, “as though I had gone to bed the night before, safe in a nook of inland mountains, and had awakened in a bay upon the coast.”

These are powerfully evocative writings. I’ve never been as far north of San Francisco as Silverado—I’ve merely cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito—but precedent suggests I will again find myself walking in Stevenson’s footsteps up the mountain.

Edinburgh, May 2020

[Header image: detail from The Broomielaw, Glasgow (c. 1889) by John Atkinson Grimshaw]

Open Seas: Carlos Fuentes on Reflection

2015-07_k1_CDMX_830

The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World by Carlos Fuentes. 399 pp. Houghton Miflin, 1992; TV series written and presented by Carlos Fuentes, produced by Michael Gill. 5 episodes, 295 minutes. Sogotel, 1992.

Carlos Fuentes was not only a highly regarded novelist and intellectual but also a wildly charismatic explicator. He was perfect for the educational small screen. In fact, with such learning and panache, he sometimes seems too suspiciously perfect. In the very funny César Aira novella The Literary Conference (1997), a mad scientist attempts to clone an example of human perfection; he duly seeks the DNA of Carlos Fuentes (“the most unassailable and undisputed genius there could ever be; his level of respectability touched on the transcendent.”). Alas, the scientist accidentally clones Fuentes’s tie and plagues the landscape with giant silk worms. In addition to a lifelong commitment to left-wing causes, Fuentes was also a cosmopolitan bon vivant—Savile Row suits, luxury hotels, celebrity friends. He was famously dismissed by the Mexican critic Enrique Krause as a ‘guerrilla dandy’.

I admire Fuentes the man as well as his preference for point collars, but I’ve sometimes found his fiction to be a slog. That is true even of The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), generally regarded as his best work. The experimental aspects of this Citizen Kane-inspired novel, which represent a corrupt politician’s dying consciousness by alternating between the first, second, and third person, strike me mostly as a set of self-consciously Modernist gimmicks. And as far as self-consciously Modernist gimmicks go, I found the book far less engaging than, say, Mario Vargas Llosa’s theoretically more challenging-to-read Conversation in the Cathedral (1969). Fuentes’s prose, at least in translation, can be baroque and opaque. Nevertheless, persistently intrigued, I’ve pushed through a handful of his books (Aura, The Good Conscience, Burnt Water, Diana, Vlad) and I’ve always kept a copy of his massive, self-styled magnum opus Terra Nostra (1975) on the shelf—unread, I admit, but hopefully not unreadable as some say.

Fuentes’s ambition was extreme. From what I can gather Terra Nostra attempts a synthesis of the entirety of Hispanic history in the form of an experimental novel about Philip II and El Escorial. Elsewhere he pursued a similarly encompassing mission. I have seen the list of readings assigned for a class he taught in Fall 1987 called ‘The Spanish American Tradition: History and Fiction’, a fat book of philosophical and historical extracts from Isaiah Berlin, Max Weber, Neruda, Nietzsche, Hegel, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc. I hope Harvard has kept tapes of the lectures.

The Buried Mirror returns to Fuentes’s epic vision in a much more conventional work of cultural history. This multimedia project was occasioned by the Quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. It adopts the format minted by Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation (1969)—the large-budget documentary series hosted by its writer in a variety of scenic international locations, with an accompanying illustrated book. In light of the apparent ease of Fuentes’s cosmopolitan transit, it’s unsurprising he was commissioned to write and host this series in both Spanish and English editions.

I watched The Buried Mirror before a stint living in Buenos Aires. It was a useful crash course in Spanish American cultural history and also directed me to the best café in Plaza Dorrego, where I spent many afternoons reading at Fuentes’s table by the window. More recently I read the excellent book version, which definitely transcends the banal convention of the prosified television script. Fuentes emphatically describes the book as “not an outcropping of the series but a biography of my culture, which is really (I understood as I wrote it) a biography of myself.” Entirely complete in itself, the book has wound up the enduring incarnation of the Buried Mirror project; nearly thirty years later the TV series has fallen into obscurity (my low quality DVD copy, produced for educational institutions, had to be acquired through inter-library loan). Although originally written in Spanish, the book strangely does not credit an English-language translator. Perhaps Fuentes did that himself. His extensive annotated bibliography attests to “fifty years of reading” in this field.

Amid the celebrations of 1992, Fuentes’s guiding question was if Hispanic America had anything to celebrate? After all, it was a time of “inflation, unemployment, the excessive burden of foreign debt. Increasing poverty and illiteracy; an abrupt decline of purchasing power and standards of living. A sense of frustration, of dashed hopes and lost illusions. Fragile democracies menaced by social explosion.” Nevertheless, Fuentes’s answer is affirmative. What can be celebrated is an inclusive cultural tradition reaching back into the deep past of Iberia and absorbing influences from Jewish, Arab, and African sources (among many others). In The Buried Mirror, Fuentes follows enduring themes, symbols, and motifs, with occasional autobiographical asides. We meet him at the Gran Café de la Parroquia in Veracruz, where his father drank coffee, and outside his childhood residence in Washington, D.C.. Fuentes’s cultural canon does not seem particularly revisionist or radical, even to a cultural outsider like myself, although I was happy to be directed to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, José Guadalupe Posada, and Eugenio Lucas Villamil. Fuentes is always on hand to furnish confident—perhaps too confident—interpretations of his case studies. He is a booster of the first rank. For the on-camera segments of the English language version, he seems to be translating his Spanish commentary on the fly, which means his delivery is often halting as he reaches for equivalent words with customarily emphatic gestures.

The project is divided into five parts/episodes. ‘The Virgin and the Bull’ canvasses pre-modern Spain, through the Moorish period and the Reconquista, to Columbus. ‘Conflict of the Gods’ switches to the indigenous American world and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. ‘Children of La Mancha’ leaps back and forth across the Atlantic in the days of the Spanish Empire, exploring Cervantes, Velázquez, Goya, and the Baroque in the New World. Fuentes is especially insightful explaining religious syncretism via sculpture in Latin American churches. ‘The Price of Freedom’ covers the arrival of Latin American independence, tyrannical governments, and eventually the Mexican Civil War. By ‘Unfinished Business’ Fuentes’s commentary starts to drag. Rightly full of condemnation of US military interventions in the latter half of the twentieth century, the filmed version rambles as the author outlines his personal vision of a prosperous future Latin America.

“The mirror has power,” Fuentes says. “It can harness the sun, and it can show us ourselves.” The ruling metaphor of the title suggests that Spain and Spanish America have ceased to look at each other, ceased to recognise their deep-seeded cultural affinities and to imagine mutual futures. He asks: “Is not the mirror both a reflection of reality and a projection of the imagination?” He has no shortage of useful mirrors to summon from the Hispanic cultural tradition—Velázquez’s Las Meninas, the mirrors buried with the dead in Mesoamerican tombs, etc.—and is not hesitant to extend the metaphor: the pyramid of El Tajín in Vera Cruz with its 365 steps is, he declares, a “mirror of time.” He wonders if the failings of Spanish America as of 1992 can be alleviated by ceasing to follow Anglo-American and French political and economic models, and instead to forge something new grounded in the traditions of Spain and the New World. Nevertheless, this post-colonial vision of Hispanic unity is vague. Should it be based on Roman law? Or the supposed democracy of Spanish towns?

Spanish America has much changed since the pre-NAFTA days, but I think The Buried Mirror is worthy of revival. The book is easy to find but the documentary should be remastered in HD from the film source to make it viewable for contemporary audiences.

Edinburgh, April 2020

Open Seas: Welles on the March!

johnbrown

Marching Song: A Play by Orson Welles with Roger Hill; edited by Todd Tarbox. 178 pp. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Like a few other American giants—Mark Twain and Duke Ellington come to mind—Orson Welles left behind vast archives of unreleased work in varying states of completion. He’s been dead for thirty-five years but we’re still catching up with his oceanically ambitious—albeit frequently frustrated—creative life.

The latest rediscovered Welles work is Marching Song. This play about the radical abolitionist John Brown was written in 1932 with some help from Welles’s teacher and lifelong friend Roger Hill. It was only staged twice in 1950 by the amateur drama club at Welles’s alma mater, the Todd School for Boys. Its publication caps a decade’s worth of posthumous treats including the Too Much Johnson workprint (amusing silent comedy sequences filmed in 1938), the half-hour Merchant of Venice intended for TV (1969), and, most prominently, the Netflix reconstruction and completion of his feature The Other Side of the Wind (1970-76). Meanwhile, paintings and drawings from Beatrice Welles’s personal collection have been exhibited and published by Titan Books as Orson Welles Portfolio, and two books of transcribed conversations remind us that Welles was one of the world’s great talkers. Not a bad haul for Welles fans—and more pieces to fit into an unfinishable jigsaw puzzle.

One of those books of conversation, Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts (2013), was edited by Hill’s grandson Todd Tarbox. Now returning with his edition of Marching Song, Tarbox argues for a better recognition of Welles the writer, and wishes that Welles’s “newspaper and magazine articles, radio and print essays, movie scripts, speeches, and letters were bound between the covers of a book.” Welles certainly deserves a Heminges and Condell to compile this notional Orsonian First Folio, although it’s certain to be thick as a telephone book. In the meantime Tarbox has made a laudable gesture towards that ambition with this slim volume, a very good quarto indeed.

Writing was an essential first step of the creative process for almost everything Welles made for film, television, radio, or stage, but he only occasionally wrote specifically for publication. This is why despite a scattering of published books in various languages—plays, screenplays, dubiously-credited novelizations—Welles’s writing exists in relative obscurity. Perhaps inspired by Shakespeare’s example, he seemed not very concerned with his writerly legacy. Only a few of his plays were actually published, namely Moby Dick–Rehearsed in 1956 and a volume bundling two short plays (The Unthinking Lobster and Fair Warning) in French translation in 1952. Others, such as Time Runs… (1950), were performed but never published. A number of additional plays await both premiere staging and publication, an opportunity for enterprising theatre directors. (I examined the late 1950s cold war comedy Brittle Glory at the Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin a few summers ago.)

Written by a seventeen-year-old, Marching Song is by definition juvenilia, although that might not mean very much when speaking of the precocious Orson Welles. Tarbox’s volume contains the complete play accompanied by reproductions of Welles’s set sketches and photographs from the 1950 Todd Troupers production (directed by Tarbox’s father, Hascy). There is also a long and engaging introduction by Tarbox that explores Welles’s crucial relationship with Hill. It quotes in full poems Welles wrote for school publications as well as generous passages from the Highland Park News column he wrote as a teenager—including a lively dispatch from Japan. Most valuable of all are the letters Welles wrote to both Hill and his guardian Maurice Bernstein on a painting tour of Ireland in 1931. We encounter the boy in thrall to Irish culture and on the verge of his first professional experience on the stage (“Scores” of additional letters from Welles’s youth, once in the collection of Beatrice Welles, are now archived at the University of Michigan.)

Marching Song‘s 1857-59 setting predates the action of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles’s back-to-back recreations of post-Lincoln America. The play is unsurprisingly ambitious. Welles’s sketches illustrate his plans for innovative sets and lighting. Keeping in mind the preliminary condition of all of Welles’s scripts, certain to be transformed by the happy “accidents” of production, this extant draft is a tad talky and expositional, with a swollen dramatis personae. It is no apparent lost masterpiece, although with its speculations by journalists on the true nature of John Brown, a charismatic and dangerous ‘great man’, it certainly seems like a model for future Welles dramas.

Tarbox’s epilogue, ‘The Social Conscience of Orson Welles,’ helps contextualize Marching Song as an early entry in Welles’s long agitation for racial justice. He includes fifteen pages of transcripts from Welles’s 1946 radio commentaries on the scandal surrounding Isaac Woodard, a black World War II veteran brutally blinded by a policeman in South Carolina. It is valuable to have these stirring texts in book form for the first time. The epilogue makes a helpful supplement to Michael Denning’s study of Welles as a radical political artist in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996).

Edinburgh, April 2020

Originally published at Wellesnet: The Orson Welles Web Resource on April 6, 2020.

Header image is a detail from The Last Moments of John Brown (1882–84) by Thomas Hovenden at The Met. Public domain.

Open Seas: Twain Goes West

slade

Roughing It by Mark Twain. 590 pp. Penguin, 1981 [1872].

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that Mark Twain is best read in dog-eared, mass-market paperback. You can keep your fancy collectable and critical editions — no point wearing white tie and tails to a hootenanny. That said, I once maintained more elevated bibliophilic tastes and over the years owned various pseudo-deluxe Twain anthologies such as the Folio Society’s shiny slipcased Treasury and a tall, half-leatherette collection from Readers Digest. My shelves once displayed a handsome pair of blue and grey cloth volumes (Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer) liberated from a Nelson-Doubleday set of complete novels. But my attitude changed recently when I read Roughing It in handy, democratic paperback format on the Brussels-Paris Megabus route. It did fine. Shortly after that, back home in Edinburgh, I decided to sell my copy of the unexpurgated Autobiography (the first pedantically annotated volume of three). The book dealer was admiring but despaired of its massive bulk and, with apologies, refused to take it. No shelf space.

Roughing It may be a hefty six hundred pages but, like all Twain’s travel books, should ideally fit in your pocket. Sure, the Iowa-California critical edition of 1972 features an excellent map of the American southwest on its endpapers, but it’s too cumbersome for the bus and especially the Megabus — and the stagecoach, for that matter. This is a book to read on your own travels or while lying on the beach. Tolerant of extended gaps in reading, it’s useful to have on hand for an idle moment.

Twain wrote his various books of comic memoir out of order. Roughing It narrates a fanciful version of his “variegated vagabondizing” from 1861-67, chronologically following the period he would eventually set down in Life on the Mississippi (1883), the story of his early manhood. In 1861 Twain went west with his brother Orion Clemens, newly crowned Secretary to the Nevada Territory. Twain covers episodes from his ill-fated career prospecting for gold and silver, his days as an often-desperate newspaper columnist in Virginia City, and his arrival in San Francisco. The book is relaxed enough to include such asides as a contemptuous history of the Mormon church. The last chunk of the book recounts his travels to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) in 1866. Plenty of humorous chapters can be read as self-contained fictions — ‘Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral’, ‘Bemis Finds Refuge in a Tree’, the story of the bandit Slade.

Roughing It is endlessly interested in the details of how things worked. “Information appears to stew out of me naturally, like the precious ottar of roses,” he writes. Here is the Old West in all of its grit, hardship, and natural majesty. It is not, as Twain puts it, “a pretentious history or philosophical dissertation.” Nor does it dwell on his personal life or development throughout these years. For that reason it pleasantly, rather than compellingly, rambles from place to place, adventure to adventure, joke to joke. The extended Hawaiian section, largely reworked from newspaper articles, would really be more suited to a separate book (the original articles were indeed posthumously  published as Letters from Hawaii in 1966). A reasonably satisfying conclusion to Roughing It is provided by Twain’s first success as a lecturer back in San Francisco, although ‘lecturer’ may be misleading; by the account here, he was a prototypical stand-up comic. The book itself, like a string of routines, endlessly delivers the punchlines. The young Twain’s observations and exaggerations are grotesquely racist on occasion, more concerned with pandering to the prejudices of his nineteenth century readership for laughs than with anything else.

I’m surprised this big baggy book has not been more frequently adapted for film and television. There’s no shortage of dramatic episodes, ambuscades, and ironic reversals — all set in the epic landscapes of the American southwest. A fine comic western could be strung together from this raw material.

Twain rarely flags as an entertainer, but this kind of episodic book inevitably tempts anthologists to dig for choice nuggets. In addition to Life on the Mississippi, Twain wrote three travel memoirs in a similarly expansive and picaresque format: The Innocents Abroad (1869), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Following the Equator (1897). Charles Neider was the prominent Twain anthologist of the mid-20th century (in 1959 he edited the most readable version of the Autobiography from that mountain of rambling dictations more recently published verbatim, and in that unwieldy and shelf-clogging format, by the University of California). Neider selected his preferred moments from all five memoirs and put together 450 pages as The Travels of Mark Twain (1960). For casual Twain readers, backpackers and bus riders, it might be just right — and it is available in paperback.

Edinburgh, April 2020

Publication: Essay on Welles’s Conrad Adaptations

conrad-books

My new article at Bright Lights Film Journal, based on archival research at the University of Michigan and the Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin: At Sea, In Port, Up the River: Orson Welles’s Conrad Adaptations

See also a related interview with Ray Kelly at Wellesnet: Orson Welles’ fascination with the works of Joseph Conrad

Part of this work was presented at the Joseph Conrad Society conference in London in July 2019. See a report at Unproduced Orson Welles ‘Surinam’ script to be detailed by Matthew Asprey Gear at literary conference

Moseby Confidential: an extract, reviews, and podcast appearances

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 2.26.03 PM

Read an extract from Moseby Confidential: Arthur Penn’s Night Moves and the Rise of Neo-Noir at Bright Lights Film Journal: The Birth of Night Moves: Alan Sharp on the Edge of America

Reviews

Tony Williams at Film International
Jonathan Kirshner at Midcentury Cinema
Andrew Nette at Pulp Curry
Don Herron at Up and Down These Mean Streets
Andy Wolverton at Journeys in Darkness and Light

Podcast interviews

The Projection Booth (26 Sept 2019)
Films(trips) (31 Aug 2019)
Filmwax Radio, Episode 563 (4 Jul 2019)

*

For more information see the book page at Jorvik Press