Tag Archives: Henry Miller Tropic of Capricorn

Henry Miller

 

 

‘Henry Miller’

 

A downloadable Word document of this essay is attached above.

 

 

 

In my late high school years, I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover, which I found in my father’s bedroom — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts. I had never heard of Miller.

I got interested in the book and eventually took it to my bedroom across the hall. I kept it for weeks. My father eventually noticed this and commented on it, but he did not insist on my returning the book.book.  (This showed a certain appreciation of my intelligence and/or curiosity as well as, perhaps, literary tastes; and what might be viewed as a degree of practical wisdom on my father’s part.)

The reason I kept the book is that I liked Miller. At first, I noticed the sexy parts – there were lots of them. I was a teenager curious about and inexperienced in sex. The “good parts” were explicit, more so than other naughty books that I had hitherto peeked at. Besides being erotic, they were well written, amusing, and fun.

Soon — very quickly — I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I found that I enjoyed the sex scenes not only for their explicit erotic content, but also for the humor and the good, zesty writing.

Tropic of Capricorn is part of a trilogy that also includes Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring. I have never read Black Spring, which features surrealistic writing. I have read goodly portions of Tropic of Cancer but must admit that I have never read it in its entirety — I dipped into the book without reading it sequentially from beginning to end. Cancer is better known than Capricorn, but I prefer the former book and think it is underrated. In my opinion, it is by far Miller’s best book. I would deem it a classic of American literature. Few, it seems, would concur.

Tropic of Capricorn is an autobiographical novel, taking the reader from the point where Miller is in New York working for a telegraph company modeled on Western Union (where Miller actually worked) to the end of the book, where Miller gives up his conventional workaday life with a wife who bores him (and makes him feel like a captive) and leaves for Paris.

The book has an irresistible narrative flow and momentum. It seems to be written off the cuff — is written pell-mell as if someone were speaking in that fashion — yet it is constructed with a prefect authorial “ear”; pitched at just the right level and tone (or narrative voice); fashioned so that one episode follows another with undeniable cogency. It’s like a piece of music that is irresistible to the mind and ear.

I kept reading Miller. I spent a great deal of time reading him in my senior year in college — neglecting my studies — and then continued to read him avidly for another year or so. I basically devoured him.

While in college, I read the first two books of Miller’s trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion — Sexus and Plexus — and enjoyed them greatly. Some critics thought these were disappointing books, poorly written and a big comedown from the Tropics. One of these critics was Miller’s (and Anaïs Nin’s) friend Lawrence Durrell. But I liked them, to put it mildly. There were plenty of rollicking sex scenes and lots of colorful characters drawn from Miller’s own life. I think Miller helped (note that I say helped) to liberate me sexually and give me a healthier appreciation of sexuality. It was eroticism (one would have said then, pornography) plus damned good writing.

I went on to read other works of Miller, including much of his nonfiction, which did not have sexual content, and got a real feeling for his range and scope – as well as appreciation for his intellect (to an extent). I say “to an extent” because my admiration for Miller is not primarily admiration for his essays or theories. He was, however, a man with a keen intellect and a man of wide reading and knowledge. He was basically self educated, having only briefly attended college. His interests included music and art as well as literature. He was an amateur pianist and painted thousands of watercolors that are now in major collections.

Miller once wrote (I forget where) that he used to go to bed every night listening to Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Reading this, I felt kinship with him, since the Egmont Overture has never failed to inspire me.

Miller dropped out of City College after a semester. One reason, he said, perhaps flippantly, was that he couldn’t bring himself to read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Again, I felt kinship with Miller. In my junior year in college, I took an English course which included The Faerie Queene; I had great difficulty getting through it.

In the second semester of my senior year in college, I took an independent study course, Readings in Henry Miller, with Professor Sacvan Berkovitch, a brilliant up and coming American Studies professor who had a distinguished career.

I have a collection of books by and about Miller (some of them rare) and some by and about his literary circle.

I do, however, find it hard now to get back into him.

I recently tried to read Crazy Cock, one of Miller’s early trial novels, but gave up after a few pages, which I reread several times in the vain hope that I could get into the book. It is a failure, which I’m certain that Miller himself in his later years would have conceded. He hadn’t found his narrative voice yet. A critic once remarked somewhere that Miller had to write in the first person. (Crazy Cock and other early, then unpublished novels by Miller were written in the third person.) I agree.

I recently reread portions of Miller’s Plexus. I was surprised at how well the book stood up after all those years (meaning the forty-five plus years since I read it), and how well written it is, in my opinion. The characters are well drawn, the narrative flows, the language is just right. Miller very skillfully mixes narrative with exposition; anecdotal material with riffs of a quasi-philosophical nature. The characters are drawn from Miller’s days in New York; you can tell that they were real people – with their idiosyncrasies exaggerated.

One gets the impression – it seems that this was the actual truth – of Miller pounding away at his typewriter, writing at a furious pace. I believe (this is an aside) that it is probable that Miller nowadays would be diagnosed as bipolar.

I have read some of Miller’s letters. One gets the same impression. He can go on for ten or twenty pages. It can get tedious. It can also be spellbinding.

My favorite Miller letter is a long one he wrote on March 9, 1930 to Emil Schnellock, a commercial artist who was a lifelong friend of his, beginning when they both were students at P.S. 85 in Brooklyn. In the letter, Miller describes his first Sunday in Paris: “Perhaps the most wonderful Sunday of my life!”

Miller was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan and was raised in Manhattan and Brooklyn (his father was a tailor); he worked in Manhattan as a young man. The anecdotes and characters he relates and portrays from his New York City years – mainly the 1920’s — are colorful and engrossing. He was a raconteur’s raconteur. His books reflect what it seems was a time when New York was peopled by colorful characters, rich and poor, of various ethnicities. Miller’s prejudices are plain for all to see. Yet, you get the feeling that he was not a mean or vindictive person. I feel somewhat the same way about Miller’s attitude towards women, for which he has been attacked harshly by feminist critics such as Kate Millet. He denigrates women; he also worships them.

My former psychiatrist, Ralph Colp Jr., once said about Miller that he was a “born writer” — it was, in my psychiatrist’s opinion (which I think is dead on), indisputable fact. The way he put it was that — whatever one might say pro or con about Miller (whom my psychiatrist in fact admired as a writer), whatever critics or guardians of public morals might say against him — one thing had to be conceded: he could WRITE.

I have seen two films based on Miller’s works: Tropic of Cancer (1970) and Quiet Days in Clichy (1970), both set in Paris; and a third, Henry and June (1990), also set in Paris, about Henry Miller, June Miller (Miller’s second wife, his Beatrice), and Miller’s lover and fellow writer Anaïs Nin, in which the lead actor, Fred Ward, does a very good job of portraying Miller. (Quiet Days in Clichy — a short, whimsical work — was one of my favorite Miller books.) I thought the film Tropic of Cancer was just so so, and was a letdown. Quiet Days in Clichy, I recall, was well done. The film was a sincere attempt to catch the essence of Miller.

Henry Miller died at his home in Pacific Palisades, California on June 7, 1980 at the age of 88. I read his obituary in The New York Times. I felt a genuine sense of loss and was saddened that we wouldn’t have him around to amuse and goad us any more. He was a free spirit who referred to himself in Tropic of Cancer as “the happiest man alive.” Reading him made me feel liberated, better about myself, and happy. It seems that this has been the case with many of his other readers.

One criticism I would make of Miller is that at a certain point in later life he stopped developing, as a writer. This point was made by Miller’s former Paris friend Alfred Perlès in a book by Perlès that seems to be forgotten: My Friend Henry Miller (New York, 1956). Perlès felt that, after Miller returned to the United States from France, he lost an important source of stimulus and became “stagnant.” I agree. I think that there was something about the challenge of living a hand to mouth existence while experiencing a tremendous surge of sexual and social liberation, cultural novelty, and intellectual stimulation in Paris during the 1930’s (as Perlès noted) that brought out the best in Miller and enabled him to achieve a literary breakthrough whereby he produced many of his best works.

Miller was given at times — not surprising in view of his prodigious output and method of composition — to making fatuous statements. He would get carried away by his enthusiasms. He titled an essay about his lover Anaïs Nin “Un Être Étoilique” (A Heavenly Being). This was overpraise for Nin.

Miller was regarded, besides being the writer who managed almost single-handedly to break down barriers against obscenity, as a forerunner of the Beat Generation. I never considered him to be a beatnik or proto-hippie.

Yet, once in the early 1970’s, I picked up a hitchhiker, a bearded hippie. It turned out he was an intellectual and we started talking about writers. I mentioned that Henry Miller was one of my favorite writers, thinking he would have never heard of Miller, much less read him. “Henry Miller is one of my all time favorites,” he said.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     June 2016

 

 

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‘Addendum:

 

The following exchange of emails with Thomas P. Riggio, Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut, occurred in November 2016, subsequent to my posting of the above essay.

 

 

Roger,

Your journey with Henry Miller is very interesting. During my teaching years, I used to be the only one in a large department who assigned books by Miller. I became an object of discussion among the bookstore managers. As a result, I remember members of my department, often very liberal and well educated types, dismissing his work as pornography.

I was a big fan of his work, and like you, think Capricorn is his masterpiece. I recall that my students had very polar reactions to his work — many (especially men) felt him as a liberating voice and others (mainly women) were turned off by him. It got to the point, beginning with the culture wars of the 1990’s, where I found it not worth the angst to teach him any longer.

By the way, apropos of your references to Spenser, I’ve always thought that the figure of Una in Capricorn and elsewhere — the idealized figure of virtue, truth etc. — was a reference to Una in The Faerie Queene … writers sometimes talk trash about some of their influences to throw readers/critics off their trail. Though, that said, I can’t imagine Spenser as among Miller’s favorite writers.

Black Spring has a lot of good writing in it, including the essay on childhood and relationship to his tailor father. The writing is very unlike the style of the two Tropics.

Glad to learn you are a fan. Yes, I can see that he would be harder to read as we age. He touches everything in us, and youthful hormones are not the least of them.

P.S. Do you know his comments on Dreiser in The Books in My Life? And, did you know his first unpublished book [Clipped Wings], written at the telegraph office, was inspired by Dreiser’s Twelve Men?

 

 

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response by Roger W. Smith

 

Thanks a lot for your feedback. Some thoughts, in no particular order.

Regarding the hassles of teaching Miller, because he was pornographic, I also have a blog post about the so called “dirty books” I encountered as an adolescent (without really reading most of them). See Roger W. Smith, “‘dirty’ books” at

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/07/02/dirty-books/

 

I had an outstanding high school English teacher … he was a realist and knew that it wasn’t worth fighting the authorities to teach books like The Catcher in the Rye and Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which there was the occasional obscenity or sex scene.

I’m glad you agree with me about Tropic of Capricorn. A friend of mine, Charles Pierre, a poet living in Manhattan, was a voracious reader who would put me to shame, he was so well and widely read, steeped in the classics, fully conversant with poetry and with challenging modern authors (e.g., Thomas Pynchon). Henry Miller was by no stretch of the imagination his favorite, but I was surprised when he told me one day that he was reading Black Spring. He commented on how impressed he was with the brilliant writing (read, style).

Of course, we know that Kate Millet had Miller in her sights and, in part, made her reputation attacking him. Regarding Miller’s misogyny, though it didn’t bother me, she had a point.

The Una-Spenser-Miller reference of yours is intriguing.

I didn’t know at the time when I was becoming a Miller fan that Miller was a Dreiser fan. As a matter of fact, I was almost completely unaware of Dreiser, aside from the fact that there was a paperback of Sister Carrie on my older brother’s bookshelf; it was on his syllabus in college.

I was recently looking for Miller writings about Dreiser. It turns out there is very little.

Many of Miller’s works are hard to come by, very hard, if one can even identify and find them. I found that some scholar or other published a comprehensive two volume Miller bibliography not long ago: Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources (1979) and Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Primary Sources (1993-94). It may have been a limited print run. Very few libraries seem to have the book, and, if they do, they usually do not have both volumes.

I am a bibliophile and book collector, but I am not an antiquarian and I don’t collect books for profit. I found that both volumes of the Miller biblio were available for sale on the Internet. I purchased them. They were in mint condition. They are fascinating to browse.

I have read that early works by Miller — trial works, as it were — either came close to getting completely lost or, in some cases, can not be found. For example, I think the ms. of “Clipped Wings” has been lost.

I read that some early writings of Miller such as Crazy Cock were unearthed from the possessions of Miller’s second wife June, who may have possibly become reclusive in old age. I believe she survived Miller.

I did put one post about Miller and Dreiser on my Dreiser blog. See

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/07/03/henry-miller-and-dreiser/

 

I am ashamed to admit it! I was actually a fan of Anais Nin for a while. I bought some books by and about her and Miller at the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. A little while later, after my short lived enthusiasm for Nin had waned, Dr. Colp made a remark to me, which I feel is true, “she’s unreadable.” One word that seems to apply to her diaries is solipsistic.

I never really read Lawrence Durrell.

I am vaguely aware of Miller’s comments about Dreiser in The Books in My Life. Thanks for reminding me about them.

Miller was never the type of writer to appeal to academics — there seem to be very few scholarly papers or monographs about him. It is interesting to hear that you actually taught him.

Nowadays, it seems quite possible if not probable that curriculum watchdogs would not approve of his works as passing ideological muster.

I did know about the influence on Miller of Dreiser’s Twelve Men. See the post of my Dreiser site at

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/07/03/henry-miller-and-dreiser/

 

 

“My Early Reading”

 

 

My mother always loved to read and had great taste in literature.

She told me that she read avidly as a child. She was a voracious reader.

She loved Little Women, a classic and a real girl’s book. She was very affected by the scene where the girl character Beth dies.

Another book that my mother particularly liked when she was growing up was The Swiss Family Robinson. It’s a story about a shipwrecked family on an island that has to start life all over again. It was first published in German in 1812 and was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.

I believe that my mother also loved Heidi.

 

 

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My mother’s all time favorite novel, she told me, was All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. I have the book but have never gotten around to reading it myself. I did skim a copy which my mother had. There was a striking sex scene a couple of pages long that was not that explicit but which I found interesting at the time when I read it. In it, a woman goes upstairs in a house and initiates sex with a man. She says to him, ‘I came up.” He has trouble getting her dress off, unloosening the hooks.

There was good literature on my mother and father’s bookshelf in the living room, most of it my mother’s. There were also excellent art history books that my mother had.

One of my mother’s books was a paperback anthology entitled New World Writing, a sort of literary magazine in book form. It was a compilation of short pieces representing the best new literature from the previous calendar year. I used to think, what is that book about? It was of interest to my mother.

One book on my parents’ bookshelf was the Modern Library edition of War and Peace in the translation by Constance Garnett. My father told me that he had read it in its entirety during a summer which he and my mother spent at Lake George in the 1940’s.

There was another book I recall on the living room bookshelf, a collection of short stories by Erskine Caldwell, a Southern writer who wrote about plain, simple people. He had a very simple, down to earth style. I read one of the stories, “A Swell Looking Girl.” To put it succinctly, it shocked me (which does not mean that I thought it was necessarily a bad piece of fiction).

It’s a very simple story about a young man in a town somewhere in the South who has just gotten married. He is very proud of his young bride and wants to show her off to his male neighbors. So he has her come out on the porch and then (eventually) lifts up her dress. She is nude underneath and completely exposed. The men all say “that sure is some swell looking girl” and gradually leave. That’s the whole story.

The story seemed remarkable to me because of the thought of complete female nudity in the open. It was kind of understated the way it was written, but very daring.

Another book on my parents’ bookshelf was James Joyce’s Ulysses, in the Modern Library edition. I was intrigued by it without reading it (which would have been quite difficult for me then; it still is now). I asked my mother and father about it once at the dinner table. I doubt they had read much of it, but they did explain to me the use by Joyce of stream of consciousness. This interested, intrigued me very much.

Later, when I was in high school, my church youth group, Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), had a conference in which one of the workshops was on sexuality. In the flyer for the conference, in the place where there would be a description of the workshop, instead of a description of the workshop per se, they simply quoted the famous concluding words of Ulysses:

…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

This caused quite a stir. Some adults were alarmed. They already thought that these LRY conferences, with adolescents staying together away from home at a conference site with little or no supervision, were a de facto invitation to licentiousness.

My reaction to the Ulysses quote in the flyer was that this was powerful writing of a high order that impressed me. It did not arouse prurient feelings in me.

 

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There was a book on child development on their (Mom and Dad’s) bookshelf by an eminent child psychologist, I think it was Gesell.

I enjoyed skimming it. I liked to see what was expected of normal development in my age group. In the various chapters, there would be various lists, for example, common activities for a given age group.

When I was age 12, I looked at the appropriate chapter and noted an item: For boys that age, a common activity was playing baseball with oneself. I had been doing precisely that. At that age, I used to go into our front yard with a plastic bat and whiffle ball and hit the ball, tossing it out of my hand. I had made up a fantasy team with a fantasy lineup and I would announce — I can’t recall whether it was out loud or as a silent sort of interior monologue — the progress of the “game” as I took my swings. As noted, I had made up a fantasy team, but I think it included myself as one of the players. But I didn’t want to inflate my “role.” I pretended I was a shortstop with modest but decent power and a fair batting average.

 

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In my late high school years, I read Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts — which I found in my father’s room. I got interested in the book and eventually took it to my bedroom across the hall. I kept it for weeks. My father eventually noticed this and commented on it, but he did not insist on my returning the book.

The reason I kept the book in my room is that I liked Henry Miller. At first, I noticed the sexy parts. There were lots of them; they were quite explicit and erotic. They were well written, amusing, and fun. Soon I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I enjoyed the sex scenes on two levels, for their explicit erotic content and for the good, zesty writing.

Tropic of Capricorn is part of a trilogy that also includes Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring. I have never read Black Spring, which features surrealistic writing. I have read goodly portions of Tropic of Cancer but never finished it.

Cancer is better known than Capricorn, but I prefer Tropic of Capricorn. It is a basically autobiographical novel taking you from a point where Miller is in New York working for a telegraph company modeled on Western Union (where Miller actually worked) to the end of the book, where Miller, who has become liberated, gives up the conventional life and leaves for Paris. The book has an irresistible narrative flow and momentum.

I kept reading Miller and spent a great deal of time reading him in my senior year in college, neglecting my studies, and then continued to read him avidly for another year or so. I read the first two books of the trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion, Sexus and  Plexus, and enjoyed them greatly.

Some critics thought these were disappointing books, poorly written and a big comedown from the Tropics. One of these critics was Miller’s (and  Anaïs Nin’s) friend Lawrence Durrell. But, as I have said, I liked them. There were plenty of rollicking sex scenes and lots of colorful characters drawn from Miller’s own life. I think Miller helped (note that I say helped) to liberate me sexually and give me a more healthy appreciation of sexuality. It was eroticism plus damned good writing.

I went on to read other works of Miller that did not have sexual content (including nonfiction) and got a real feeling for his range and scope (and an appreciation for his intellect, to an extent).

In the second semester of my senior year, I was shopping around to take some independent study English courses. (I needed some extra courses to graduate.) You had to get a professor to accept you and approve the course. I took Readings in D. H. Lawrence, a horrible course with a Professor Swiggart, and Readings in Henry Miller with Professor Sacvan Berkovitch.

Sacvan Berkovitch was a young, brilliant, up and coming, chain smoking American Studies professor who later migrated to Harvard. I had taken a survey course in American lit with him which I don’t recall much of. I do remember that we read Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. We were assigned The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. It was long and I couldn’t bring myself to read it.

Anyway, to get back to the Readings in Henry Miller course, two of my roommates at Brandeis decided that they wanted to take the course too. We had exactly one meeting with Professor Berkovitch, who was a nice guy, near the end of the semester, and that was the course. He could see from the discussion that we had some knowledge of Miller’s development and were seriously interested in him, and he said we could forgo writing a paper, which, per the norm, was required in independent study courses. He gave all three of us a grade of B.

I have a whole collection of books by and about Miller (some of them rare) and some by and about his literary circle, but find it hard now to get back into him. I recently tried to read Crazy Cock, one of his early trial novels, but gave up after a few pages.

Another erotic book that I eventually became acquainted with was Lady Chatterly’s Lover. I knew of the book but hadn’t read it until my senior year in high school. That year I attended a Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) conference in some nearby town in Massachusetts and was staying over the weekend in someone’s house. There was a paperback copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover in my room and, during downtime on a Sunday morning, I read some of it.

I grew to like and admire D. H. Lawrence, but I like several of his other novels a lot more than Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Nevertheless, when I first read it (parts of it, that is, the “good parts”), I was favorably impressed. It was my first exposure to Lawrence. And, some of the sexual language and sexual descriptions were new to me. It gave me a desire for sex and got me thinking about it in more explicit terms. Yet, I knew it was not just a “dirty book.”

 

 

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Some comments about children’s and young adult literature, from my experience.

My exposure to such literature was through my mother. She had such good taste and read to me a lot. She chose splendid books for us. It was such a pleasure to be read to (in bed) by her because she enjoyed it so much herself, and, of course, my Mom was so warm and nurturing anyway.

How did she find the time to read to me? (It was always to me alone.)

One of our first books was Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. When The House at Pooh Corner, a sequel, came out, my mom was delighted and read that to me too. How I loved the nonsense rhymes of Pooh, the idiosyncracies of characters like Piglet and Eyore, and funny touches like the character who had a sign on his door, “knock if an answer is required, ring if an answer is not required.” My mother and I used to laugh out loud. I had such a warm and fuzzy feeling when she was reading to me.

 

 

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We had several wonderful books compiled by the children’s book editor Olive Beaupré Miller. These included a multi volume set, My Book House, and the book Nursery Friends from France. I especially liked the latter book, which my mother took great pleasure in reading to us from. It had wonderful color illustrations. It was a compilation of songs, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales.

 

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We had The Arabian Nights in a nice edition (which I still have). I particularly liked the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp.

In the second or third grade, I decided I wanted to read a real book. My parents had one on their bookshelf: The Flying Carpet by Richard Haliburton. It was a popular book by an aviator who flew around the world in the 1930’s. I “read” the whole book through, every page, but I did not (was incapable) understand it. But I was very proud to say that I had “read” a book.

There was a novel about gypsies that I read at that time. All throughout, I didn’t know what the word “gypsies” meant and couldn’t pronounce it.

The Book of Knowledge was an excellent encyclopedia for children. My father and mother bought a complete set from an encyclopedia salesman in around 1953. They were excited when the books arrived and I recall them opening the boxes. The encyclopedia had the usual articles and also literature. There was a story in it, “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, that I loved. It made such an impression on me. It was so touching.

When I was around eight years old, I asked my father to explain baseball to me. He said, well, we have this new encyclopedia, that’s what we bought it for, so let’s do it the proper way. He turned to the article on baseball in The Book of Knowledge and began to explain the game to me. I recall that were diagrams showing the layout of the field and the positions. He might have explained the principle behind a force play, to give an example.

It was in the Agassiz School in Cambridge that I really began to read for myself, a lot. I loved being able to do it.

We were encouraged to read. In the front of the room, there was some kind of display on the top of the wall in colored paper which involved Indian headdresses and feathers. Kids’ names were on each headdress and you got another feather each time you completed a book. I was the leader. Most of the books I read, as I recall, were in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. They were popular biographies written especially for children that focused on the formative childhood years of the subjects. I loved those books. I recall reading the ones about Davy Crockett, Meriwether Lewis, Johnny Wanamaker, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth, among others. I remember anecdotes about Lou Gehrig growing up in Yorkville in Manhattan and fighting a neighborhood bully and about Babe Ruth (called George as a youth) attending the Christian Brothers school where Brother Matthias encouraged him in baseball; I seem to recall that Ruth as a a schoolboy had the difficult task of playing catcher as a lefthander for a spell.

At a fairly early age, I read the classic Black Beauty (originally published in 1877) by Anna Sewell. This book made a very strong impression me. Not long ago, as an adult, I purchased it as an audiobook and “read” it again. It is very well written.

The story is told in the first person by the horse, Black Beauty, who is the narrator. The novel recounts the story of Black Beauty’s life as it is experienced under a succession of different owners, or “masters.” Some of the owners are cruel.

All I recall from reading the book as a child, the impression the book made on me then was that Black Beauty’s life was one of unremitting misery: an unending progression from one cruel master to another, with the course of the horse’s life leading to an inevitable decline. This characterization is true of a lot of the plot, but not all of it, as it turns out. When I first read the book, though I was greatly impressed by it, it seemed to me unbearably sad and gloomy. That it undeniably is, in places, in the sections where the horse is overworked and mistreated. But why did this impression predominate with me? I think because that view of Black Beauty’s life jibed with my view of own life as a sad one in which I was often mistreated. The scenes in the book of this nature were the ones that stuck in my mind.

Much to my surprise, I discovered, when I listened to the audiobook later, as an adult, that the novel actually ends happily, with Black Beauty in good circumstances, and that in other sections of the book, Black Beauty does have good masters (in contrast to many sections of the book in which the horse is cruelly mistreated).

I started visiting the Cambridge Public Library children’s room when I was very young. My mother and father were very liberal about giving us independence and let me walk there myself after a certain age. It was sort of a long walk. I loved being able to find and take out my own books.

At the library at around this time (fifth grade), I borrowed a science fiction book the title of which I do not remember. The story was about people who were involved in time travel. There were two main parts to the book. In the first, the main character or characters traveled back in time to the Stone Age. They encountered two hostile groups, the Cro-Magnons and the Neandertals. The time traveler(s) were befriended by the wise Cro-Magnons, who helped them to escape perils. In the second part of the book, the time traveler(s) went forward in time, in a rocket ship, overcoming things like aging with the aid of Einsteinian physics. I was totally engrossed in this young adult novel.

I also read a Tarzan book — I think it was in the sixth grade. It involved a tribe of African warrior women who took men (or threatened to) as prisoners in their fortress. There was something titillating about this to me. Imagine being in the hands and under the power of an exotic woman!

There was a popular, respected series of history books for young readers, the Landmark Books. In the sixth grade, I read the one on Benjamin Franklin and loved it. Around that time, the animated Disney film Ben and Me, which I liked, was popular.

In the sixth grade, I read my first classic work of fiction, Oliver Twist. I can date this because I recall we were still living in Cambridge at the time. I don’t believe I finished it.

There is a key section in the novel where Oliver Twist, who had been forced to join the arch villain Fagin and his gang of boy pickpockets, escapes. He is taken in in a house where he is comfortable and protected. But then he looks out the window one day and there is Fagin peering in at him. Fagin has found out where Oliver is and gets him back. This scene really scared me.

Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks with a Circus, is a wonderful novel by James Otis. I read it when I was around 11 or 12. Toby runs away to join the circus. At the end of the book, his pet monkey, Mr. Stubbs, dies. It was such an incredibly sad scene. How it moved me!

Around this time (sixth grade), I had thoughts about becoming a forest ranger. I was a fan of Smokey the Bear. I think, in retrospect, that I may have been attracted to the career of forest ranger because I was a bit of a loner and the idea of a career with a lot of solitude appealed to me. Anyway, my parents gave me as a gift a young adult book about forest ranger careers.

 

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Also at this time, when we were still living in Cambridge, my parents gave me as a gift The Fireside Book of Baseball, an anthology, and later they gave me The Second Fireside Book of Baseball. I still have these books and treasure them.

These two anthologies were full of great baseball writing, from journalism to fiction. There was work by outstanding sportswriters, like W. C. Heinz’s “The Strange Career of Pistol Pete,” about Dodger outfielder Pete Reiser whose brilliant career ended abruptly due to injuries. There was a spellbinding story by Zane Grey, “The Redheaded Outfield,” which is lyrical and poetic.

There were wonderful photographs. One, for example, showed second basemen Bobby Avila and Red Schoendienst completing  double plays. Scheondienst is leaping over the runner at second base and leaning on the runner’s shoulders, draped over him, as he makes the throw to first. The photo made such an impression on me that I tried to reenact the play with a friend.

 

 

Bobby Avila doubleplay

 

 

 

Red Schoendienst doubleplay.jpg

 

 

There were great editorial cartoons. One, for example, by Willard Mullin of the New York World-Telegram, was about the “phantom double play.” There was a depiction of an infielder pirouetting around second base like a ballet dancer while making the throw to first and neglecting to put his foot on the bag. The caption read, “The double play is a thing of real beauty. …  Let’s not cheapen it with the phantom phonies.” See my post at
https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/10/18/the-phantom-double-play/

I spent hours with the Fireside books and derived great pleasure from them.

When I was about 11, I started reading young adult sports fiction, mostly about baseball, though I do remember reading one about sandlot football players. The books would frequently have a moral. For example, I read one which concludes with the protagonist, in a key game, admitting to the umpire, who had called him safe, that he was really out. The protagonist gains in moral stature.

Around this time, I read a series of baseball books for young adults by Duane Decker, the Blue Sox series, about a fictional professional baseball team.

 

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I also read the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley and enjoyed them very much.

When I was around 12, we had a dog, Missy, a shepherd collie who had puppies and who died suddenly and tragically, devastating me; I was so devoted to her.

 

 

Missy ca. 1958

 

There was an excellent series of factual, how to books for young adults published by Random House, the All-About Books. I read the one on dogs, avidly and studiously. The different sections (topics) would always have a subsection: if you have a dog in the city. I wondered what that would be like.

There was a lot of material, as would be expected, on how to care for your dog. There was also a lot of information about the different breeds. I became expert at identifying them.

 

 

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Some additional items from my childhood and young adult reading.

“Little Black Sambo.” This is story which we took delight in that my Mom would read to us:

The Story of Little Black Sambo is a children’s book written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, and first published by Grant Richards [who, by the way, was an editor for Theodore Dreiser] in October 1899 as one in a series of small-format books called The Dumpy Books for Children. The story was a children’s favorite for more than half a century though criticism began as early as 1932. The word sambo was deemed a racial slur in some countries and the illustrations considered reminiscent of “darky iconography.” Both text and illustrations have undergone considerable revision since. (Wikipedia)

The Story of Little Black Sambo is a simple, illustrated children’s story about a young Indian boy who outsmarts four tigers that threaten to eat him. After Sambo saves himself by giving each tiger an article of his gaudy outfit, the tigers argue among themselves over which of them is the grandest. Eventually, the tigers chase each other around a tree so fast that they simply blur into butter, which Sambo takes home and uses on 169 pancakes that his mother, Black Mumbo, makes for him. (from a plot summary on another website)

I recall there was something about pancakes. My mother liked pancakes. She often made them for us.

Uncle Wiggily was a series of children’s books by Howard R. Garris. My mom introduced us to them. I loved them.

Uncle Wiggily is an elderly, avuncular rabbit who wears spectacles, and there are a lot of other animal characters. The books are lighthearted and fun. The color illustrations were superb.

Make Way for Ducklings is a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. It was my  mother (you guessed it) who introduced us to the book. The story is about a duck family led by a mother duck that walks around Boston. They wind up at the Boston Common and ride on the swan boats. The plot is simple and charming; the black and white illustrations are superb (very realistic but simple and just right for children). The book won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for McCloskey’s illustrations.

The book was excellent in every respect, but what made it particularly enjoyable was that it was set in Boston and ends with the ducklings on the Boston Common. I used to love to go to the Boston Common and loved the swan boats.

Babar the Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff. My mother purchased Babar and read it to me numerous times. I was absolutely charmed by it. The color illustrations were wonderful. My Mom loved Babar too, naturally.

Dr. Seuss. These books were a kind of late discovery in my elementary school years. My mother introduced me to them, I believe. The ones I liked were The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and Scrambled Eggs Super! Many of his most famous classics hadn’t come out yet.

 

 

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Some of my other favorite boyhood reading.

The short story “Alibi Ike” by Ring Lardner. It was in the Fireside Book of Baseball, which I have discussed above.

“Alibi Ike” is a gem of a story. I believe it is one of the best short stories ever written. It is told in the first person by an illiterate baseball player, one of Alibi Ike’s teammates. (Ring Lardner was a sports columnist.) The tone of the story is pitch perfect, and it has an irresistible narrative flow. It ends with the memorable words (spoken by Alibi Ike) “they claim it helps a cold.” (One has to read the story to know why this is a perfect ending.)

When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote a short story that I modeled closely on “Alibi Ike,” writing in the same run-on narrative style. It was about a one armed pitcher. Our teacher let me read part of it to the class. They liked it.

Also in the anthology The Fireside Book of Baseball there was an excerpt from Mark Harris’s novel The Southpaw. It’s a baseball novel, written, as is “Alibi Ike,” in the first person. The narrator, Henry Wiggen, is a star rookie pitcher for the New York Mammoths, a team modeled on the Yankees. The narrative style, the prose, the rhythm and pacing are, again, infectious. Harris invents a whole team, and in an appendix there is a roster. There is a lot of humor. The first baseman on the fictional team, the Mammoths, is Sid Goldman (modeled on Hank Greenberg?), who is Jewish. The main character, Henry Wiggen, gets invited to the Goldman family home in the Bronx for dinner. He eats strange (for him) Jewish food such as what he calls “filter fish.”

There are two or three sequels that Harris wrote to The Southpaw. Recently, I tried to read one or two, but didn’t find them nearly as good.

 

 

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A final comment about reading. It goes without saying how pleasurable and profitable it can be. How you can do it anytime, anywhere at little expense. (I think that books at current prices are still a great bargain.) How great it is to curl up with a book and how it is something you can always resort to when you are lonely or can’t sleep.

I think that to love reading, you have to begin by doing it because of intrinsic interest in the topic and because you are anticipating pleasure, not because you regard it as a duty. You should read whatever you like to; it could be books about sports, entertainment figures, lowbrow fiction, whatever you really and truly want to read.

Whenever (and this comment pertains mainly to classics) you are restricted to encountering good books only as school assignments, when that’s the only place where you encounter them, the game is lost. If you think that classic books are those that you are required to analyze and write essay exam questions on, and nothing more, you will probably not enjoy them in later life. My counsel to all readers, especially young ones, is read whatever you want to read, as much as you can. Seek a level where you have a genuine interest and read at that level. An interest in the best books will often follow.

I am very appreciative that my parents established a sound foundation for enjoyment of reading. They communicated it naturally, like one might convey to one’s offspring an enthusiasm for sports. Reading was seldom a chore for me, and only then, infrequently, from assignments in school. Good literature was something I came to appreciate naturally, while at the same time feeling I could read whatever I liked. I was able to develop my own interests this way, like reading baseball books, for example. I developed highbrow tastes gradually, without being aware that I was doing so.

 


— Roger W. Smith,

   August 2015