11 December 2013

The Revolt of The Oyster

by David Edgerley Gates

Don Marquis, who died seventy years ago, is probably best known for ARCHY AND MEHITABEL, but he published some thirty-five books, and his daily newspaper columns were widely read. THE REVOLT OF THE OYSTER came out in 1922, a collection of what are best described as Shaggy Dog stories (some of them in fact told from the dog's POV).

This post, though, isn't really about Don Marquis, that's just a loose hook. I first ran across THE REVOLT OF THE OYSTER in my grandmother Ada's summer house on Salters Point, near New Bedford, on Buzzards Bay. Anybody who's ever rented a vacation cottage remembers that they're often furnished with old Agatha Christie paperbacks, say, or Louis L'Amours, or the Hardy Boys, and I remember going down every year to Ada's house, until I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, and every year I'd go straight to the bookshelf and take out the Don Marquis again. I never took it home with me. I always left it there for the next summer, a talisman, or a touchstone, if you will. I associated the book with that particular place, the smell of the ocean, the light on the water, the house itself, with its porches overlooking the seawall, my grandmother's sister, my Aunt Al, sitting in her room by the windows, playing her endless games of solitaire.

Hancock Pt. library
My other grandmother, my mother's mom, had a cottage up in Maine, at a place called Hancock Point, across from Mt. Desert Island. The way it seems to me now, although I may be misremembering those long-ago summers, is that we'd spend July at Salters, and August in Hancock. Hancock had a little seasonal library, most of the books out-of-date, on loan or donated, and there was a children's wing on one side, a great place to spend a rainy day. The book I checked out every year was THE BEARS' FAMOUS INVASION OF SICILY, and again, I connected it particularly to Hancock Point. I never thought to read it, or even try to find it, anywhere else. It was that physically specific.

Memory is of course inexact, and it shifts under our
feet. Also, we invest old favorites with our own imagination. Was the BEARS book really any good? I really only remember the drawings, which were wonderfully evocative. You could probably say the same thing about the Babar stories---if you look at them from a grown-up perspective, are they an apology for French colonialism? I'd rather no project this kind of moral re-reading into them. It stifles delight. And we were innocent of politics, then. We were kids, after all, and maybe less demanding. We satisfied ourselves by entering an unfamiliar world, one that we inhabited, and populated, that became more familiar over time. If, in fact, not the books, per se, that sense of wonder we recall, that first encounter. It brings back to me the smell of the piney woods, or the salty rocks, or a fire in the fireplace, on a stormy night. My childhood, in a word, a time and a place that no longer exists.

This isn't loss, or regret. It's more a kind of conjuring trick, an act of reimagination. We're never going to be nine years old again, but we can visit, and when I read THE REVOLT OF THE OYSTER, it becomes, for me, a trip to Ada's house by the shore and the world of summers gone, a game of solitaire, shuffling the cards.

10 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

I know what you mean. For me, the books were my Aunt's Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and John Dickson Carr, many of them WW-II soldier editions. I'm not sure why, but military editions were published in 'landscape' mode so that the book was about 3½ inches high by 5½ or so wide with paper that seemed to yellow as you read.

The other place I enjoyed in my teens was the stone and stained glass library in our county seat. As the sun streamed in, it felt like a religious experience. My family lived in a different township that had no library, so I rented a post office box for the sole purpose of being able to check out books. That library card was second only to my drivers license.

Janice Law said...

what great titles- and illustrations.
There is something magical about finding great old books that are on no one's reading list- especially if they have pictures.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Lovely post, David. I read and reread my Aunt Anna's Georgette Heyer books, of which later Regency romances are but pale and humorless imitations, whenever I visited. When Aunt Anna died at 96, I took the crumbling paperbacks home, where I had to read them with a bandanna on my lap to catch the brittle flecks of discolored paper. More recently, I've replaced the most disintegrated of them with Kindle editions, though I may finally have outgrown them.

Fran Rizer said...

David, I agree with Janice that you've used great titles and illustrations.

I can remember events from when I was three years old, but I don't remember any children's books from my childhood though my mother was the oldest of nine children and my younger aunts and uncles say she read to all of us.

My earliest specific book memory is reading HUCKLEBERRY FINN the summer between second and third grades. I went from Twain to Charles Dickens and cried my eyes out for Oliver Twist.

When my sons came along, I read
children's books to them as well as my grandson, but my personal childhood favorites remain Twain and Dickens. My grandson's early favorite was a book called THE DOGS' PARTY and a little later, The BFG.

Thanks for rekindling the memories.

Eve Fisher said...

My Kentucky grandmother had a 1964 Reader's Digest Condensed Book that had "Too Young to be a Grandfather", "The Hand of Mary Constable" (Paul Gallico), Edwin O'Connor's "I Was Dancing", Richard Byrd's "Alone", and Dick Francis' "Nerve", as well as a biography of Woodrow Wilson. I read it cover to cover every time we went to visit her. Two mysteries, two cynical comedies, and two (auto)biographies... I'm sure it had some influence. But I can still remember the plots, the illustrations in the book, and I can even remember some of the lines. But I had to re-read it, cover to cover, before I went down to the little public library in that town and get others.

Robert Lopresti said...

I love Archy but have never read OYSTER. Learned about Marquis from the radio show of Jean Shepherd, same guy responsible for the movie A CHRISTMAS STORY.

Can not recall books visited in memorable locations, unless you count the attic, where there tiny copies of Shakespeare and weird old, arguably racist, books about THE STORY OF CORN, WHEAT, RUBBER, etc.

Elizabeth said...

I spent the summers at my grandmother's house in Connecticut. I read all the books in her attic, which were the complete(?) Agatha Christie, the Wizard of Oz books, the James Bond series, and Nancy Drew.

I'm glad you got the chance to read Louis L'Amour. He was a cousin on the other side of the family & I love his work.

Anonymous said...

VERY cool piece! For me, the book was "Rose of Old Harpeth" at my maternal grandmother's house. I can still see the cover. Imagine my joy to recently discover the book is available at Project Gutenberg! (And yes, reading it transported me once more to that flat in the old Victorian house, with African violets thronging every windowsill and a yellow canary singing as sunlight spilled in every morning.)

Jeff Baker said...

Wonderful post! Just the other day I was wandering through our downtown Library and remembering when I'd been in it when they first opened it when I was about 10, now some 40 years ago! For an instant I was in my head re-reading what my 10-year old self read.

Dixon Hill said...

Every year, during most of grade school, on the first day of school, I went to the school library to check-out Midway: Battle for the Pacific by Wade C. McClusky, who flew a dive bomber in the battle. (I may have spelled the author's name wrong; haven't seen the book in decades.)

Leigh, I think soldier's editions were probably produced to those dimensions in order to fit into a rucksack pocket. A book of your stated dimensions would have fit neatly into the side pockets of my dad's ruck, which was issued in the final years of WWII. And, I know I always looked for books that would fit in a ruck or thigh (BDU pants) pocket easily, when going on deployment for extended periods. The book you described would certainly fit the ticket.

--Dixon