Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts

08 January 2021

Sherlock Holmes: Brilliant on Paper

Fate or William S. Baring-Gould hath decreed that the January of every year must be devoted to the pursuit of Sherlockiana. So maybe it’s worth sharing that I made the acquaintance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes sometime in the mid-1970s, when he appeared under the tree one Christmas, dolled up in cheap wrapping paper. He resided in a curious boxed set containing six paperback volumes that probably set Santa back $7.50.

To be honest, I had tried to make sense of Holmes when I was even younger, paging through a heavy hardcover I’d found in my school library. I didn’t enjoy my first rodeo with the gentleman from Baker Street. Back then, I was under the sweet impression that one read books by starting at page one, and proceeding thenceforth until you reached the final page. Page 1 of that musty, water-stained hardcover meant starting with A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel. Critical to the canon, to be sure, but probably not the best jumping-off point for a fourth grader. Bored and overwhelmed, I returned the book to the library and promptly forgot about Holmes.

But years later, I was older and had begun consuming Ellery Queen novels like they were bags of potato chips. It helped that the covers of the Holmes paperbacks were enticingly illustrated by an artist identified only as ANDERSON. The Holmes in these images was a pale, hatchet-faced genius. But if I had started at A Study in Scarlet again, I probably would have given that genius a pass for the second time. I was saved by the mostly unlikely component of a book that a kid would ever care about: the introduction.

Each of these books bore a short intro by a famous mystery writer. Ed McBain, for example, introduces A Study in Scarlet by pointing out how often in this maiden adventure Holmes (that is to say, Doyle) mocks policemen and police work. McBain hilariously describes what would happen if the men of the 87th Precinct took Holmes in for questioning, and charged him with defamation.

Joe Gores, who introduces The Memoirs and who spent a dozen years as a real-life private investigator, lovingly pokes holes in Holmes’s skills as a private consulting detective.

P.G. Wodehouse, who made a career out of skewering the British upper crust, theorizes in his introduction to The Sign of the Four that Holmes must have deep pockets since no one ever seems to pay him very much to solve their little problems. Wodehouse riffs on this for a while before revealing his theory about the source of Holme’s filthy lucre: Holmes was in fact Moriarty all along!

All great stuff, by great writers, but it was all lost on me, because in 1975, I had yet to enter the squad room at the 87th precinct. I knew nothing of Jeeves and Bertie. I sure as heck had not read a single adventure of The Executioner (author Don Pendleton intro’d The Hound of the Baskervilles), nor The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (written by Nicholas Meyer, who introduced The Return…).

No. The only introduction that caught my eye was the one opening The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It was a now-famous essay by Frederic Dannay in which he tells how a loving aunt presented him with a library copy of The Adventures to pass the time when he was a bedridden with an ear infection. I had no idea that I was reading the words of one-half of Ellery Queen. I was utterly clueless about the nature of their authorship. The name on the cover of the book said Ellery Queen, and in my ears I heard the voice of the late actor Jim Hutton:

I opened the book with no realization that I stood—rather, I sat—on the brink of my fate. I had no inkling, no premonition, that in another minute my life’s work would be born…


I started on the first page of “A Scandal in Bohemia” and truly the game was afoot. The unbearable pain in my ear…vanished! The abyss of melancholy into with a twelve-year-old can sink…forgotten!
The rest, of course, was history. “Ellery” reads the book in a single night, wakes the next morning, drags himself to the library with a throbbing ear, and begs a librarian to let him have more Holmes, even though he does not yet have a library card. He leaves with The Memoirs, A Study in Scarlet, and The Hound, and devours them each in turn. Well, this was promising, I thought, diving into the very first adventure myself.

I enjoyed that fogbound world a good deal, perhaps not as much as the young Dannay. I just didn’t grasp a lot of the finer plot points. Some of the endings struck me as ambiguous, as if the world’s adults had conspired to leave kids in the dark at every turn. Even today I don’t think the Holmes stories make ideal reading for kids. (A future column on this assertion is in the works.)

But still, I treasured that little boxed set and its colorful covers. It never occurred to me until years later that I had not read every single Holmes adventure. For some reason, probably having to do with cost, Ballantine had omitted three further books—The Valley of Fear, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book—from the set. I didn’t discover them until college, and it was a delight to find that the hansom cab had kindly consented to stop for me one more time. This time around, I understood the nuances of Holmes’s world far better. I loved the prickly old coot.

My childhood boxed set was lost during one of my moves, and I had to wait for the Internet and online bookselling to be invented before I could be reunited with another version of them. This set lives face out on the top of my living room bookshelves. All I have to do is glance up to see Holmes sneering down at me. “You will not abandon me again,” he seems to be saying, and I swear that I shan’t, ever.

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By the way: Years ago I acquired Baring-Gould's Annotated Holmes and, slavishly, the newer annotation by Leslie S. Klinger—though I have to admit that they are more suitable for bench-pressing workouts than long nights reading in front of the fire, all the while cutting off circulation to your femoral arteries.

However, by far the best ebook version of the Holmes canon I’ve found is the one published by Top-Five Books, which includes all the stories and all the illustrations that appeared when the stories were first published. Check it out here.

See you in three weeks!

In these pandemic times, two of the three volumes in my Annotated Sherlock Holmes (Klinger edition) serve as Denise's laptop stand in her Zoom corner (seen through her ring light).

18 December 2020

The Greatest Christmas Mystery, Ever, Part II

The thing every author creates that marks a work as their own is also the very thing they cannot see. Fans and critics might well rave about a writer’s “style,” but those writers have no clue what these mad people are talking about. A writer can try to imitate another writer’s style, but not for long. Inevitably, the thing that makes a writer unique eventually outs. That’s why those Sherlockian pastiches never really nail Doyle. Close, but no meerschaum pipe.

Writers love to lament quirks of their style. But when they do that, they’re really moping about defects that are painfully obvious to them. When I edit my work, I try desperately to excise the stuff I hate about my writing. I know, for example, that I overuse words like “concoct”—not to mention “desperately” and “excise.” And sure, there are tons of junk words I search for during an editing pass that have been culled, I might as well confess, from previous columns on that subject right here on the Sleuthsayers blog. (A tip of the hat here to Messrs. Lopresti and Floyd.)

But let’s face it: no matter how much I tinker with my paragraphs and sentences, the Joe-ness within me inevitably spills onto the page. I have no idea, for example, how my use of definite and indefinite articles differ from some other writers. And I have no clue how my use of phonemes (don’t ask) punctuate the Joe-itude. For every quirk I prune away, I lay down a thousand more tells that taint the prose with what can probably be described as a sort of invisible literary fingerprint.

And modern scientists can lift those prints.

Toward the end of the 19th century, descendants of a man named Henry Livingston Jr. went public with the shocking truth, as they perceived it: Clement Clarke Moore had claimed authorship of a poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, written by their ancestor.

Livingston (1748-1828) was many things in life—a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a surveyor, a justice of the peace, and an inveterate poet. When Livingston’s first wife died, he married and fathered children with another woman. It was to this second crop of kids that Livingston—who lives in the literature as a light-hearted, jolly fellow—is believed to have first read his Christmas poem sometime between 1807-09. The family suspected that a visitor to Henry’s estate in Poughkeepsie brought a copy with her to New York City, where it somehow ended up in Moore’s household.


Of course, there’s no proof of any of this. Livingston’s original text, with numerous cross-outs—was said to have been preserved in the family for decades, until it was lost in a house fire in Wisconsin in the 1840s.

But we do have those marvelous words. If Livingston wrote the poem, his invisible fingerprints would be all over it, wouldn’t they? In 1999, a descendant convinced a Vassar professor to begin a textual analysis of the poem, comparing its signature quirks to other known examples of Livingston’s and Moore’s poetry. After a long study, the first prof, Don Foster, said yep, Livingston did it!(1) If that weren’t enough, a second professor—MacDonald P. Jackson, professor emeritus at the University of Auckland—subjected the work of the two men to numerous tests, producing a 2016 book in the process, ultimately finding for Livingston.(2) I urge you read Professor Mac’s work, if long asides on phoneme pairs, attributive adjectives, and high- and low-frequency words—and the syllables that love them—run to your taste.


The thing is, we should have known all along. I can’t help imagining Hercule Poirot or Ellery Queen or even the aforementioned Mr. Holmes pegging Moore as the malingerer after a long weekend in the country with him.

On paper, the dude looks temperamentally incapable of writing such a poem.

Item 1: In 1799, New York passed a law allowing for gradual emancipation. That meant that all enslaved persons in the state had to be freed by 1827. Clement Clarke Moore—a biblical scholar, a man of the freaking cloth—held onto his enslaved persons till the very end. The year A Visit from St. Nicholas was published, 1823, Moore owned five human beings. They had to be pried from his grip at the very last gasp of the manumission law. To make matters worse, Moore was rabidly against abolition and went to his grave in 1863 objecting to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Item 2: When Moore sold his Chelsea property in Manhattan, he did it in such a way to exclude working class New Yorkers, and did everything in his power to create an atmosphere modern Americans would associate with a gated community, banning everything from stables to factories to retail shops within the confines of Chelsea’s boundaries. When city fathers announced they wanted to run Ninth Avenue through his estate, he railed against it, saying it was a plot to appease the working class.

Item 3: When scholars speak of Moore, they use words like stodgy, stuffy, elitist, narrow, unplayful, or curmudgeonly. His other writing, especially the other poems he wrote, express a weirdly moralistic tone. He doesn’t really seem to like children. In one of the Christmas poems in his ouevre, Santa comes off like a dick—mocking the children for whom he has left a sackful of coal. As you read this poem, Moore appears in your mind’s eye, sadistically flexing a switch, as if prepping to whip a naughty child’s backside. In 1995, when the New-York Historical Society mounted an exhibition devoted to the poem, the museum’s curator confided to the New York Times, “He was clearly a prig. He had a very closed mind.”

I don’t have to tell you that scholars, academics, and museum curators choose their words very carefully.

Does this sound like the kind of man who could effortlessly write about sugar-plums and dozing tots? In the poem we all know and love, Santa comes to life as a pipe-smoking, soot-covered, working class hero, i.e., a “peddler just opening his pack.” That is not a portrayal you’d expect from the pen of a man who hated filthy tradesmen and their tobacco with equal venom. Could a guy like this really breathe life into a right jolly old elf?

If the modern academics are correct, suddenly tiny bits of the story surrounding the writing of the Christmas poem make a whole lot more sense.

No wonder Moore didn’t want his children and guests to share the poem he read them in 1822. No wonder he downplayed his “creation” for two decades, claiming the poem as his own and inserting it into a published collection of his poetry only after his children pushed him to do so. No wonder he claimed the poem was easy to write. (Trivial works usually are, aren’t they? Compiling a Hebrew-English dictionary, as Moore had, is far more mentally taxing.)

I might add that before Moore published the poem in his collection, he wrote a strange letter to the editor of the Troy, New York, newspaper that first pubbed the poem anonymously. Moore asked if editor Norman Tuttle knew who the author of the poem was when Tuttle first released it in the pages of his publication in 1823. Speaking as a writer myself, that is a very weird question for a writer to ask of his own work. As Livingston descendants and researchers point out, such a query only makes sense if Moore was trying to suss out if the coast was clear before he formally claimed the poem as his own.

Maybe it’s time for us to face facts. Maybe Moore wasn’t a brilliant-but-humble genius at all, as I hinted three weeks ago. Maybe he was just another hypocritical, moralizing, enslaving churchman. A man who willfully perpetrated one of the most outrageous thefts in the history of U.S. literature.

Not the “Poet of Christmas” at all. More like the plagiarist who stole Christmas.

Signed first edition? I think not.

Happy New Year to you all! See you in three weeks.

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(1) Author Unknown, by Don Foster (New York: Owl Books/Henry Holt, 2000). Chapter 6, beginning page 221, on the Santa Claus poem analysis.
(2) Who Wrote The Night Before Christmas?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question, by MacDonald P. Jackson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016).
See also:
* Henry Livingston, Jr.: The Poet You Always Loved, by Mary Van Deusen (Wrentham, Massacusetts: Val Alain Publishing, 2016).

27 November 2020

The Greatest Christmas Mystery, Ever (Part I)

Every year in December, a curious event used to take place at the Church of the Intercession, an Episcopal congregation located in upper Manhattan. Local children would meet for a Christmas musical pageant capped off by a poetry reading. Later, everyone traipses to the cemetery across the street, places a wreath on a grave, and sings carols before returning to the church for some snacks.

Until this, our pandemic year, this tradition has happened virtually unchanged every 24th of December for more than 120 years. The oldest continuing tradition in New York City, they call it. Older than, say, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The grave that has drawn congregants for more than 100 years belongs to a man named Clement Clarke Moore, who died in 1863.


In life Moore was a professor, a religious scholar and theologian, an occasional poet, and, curiously, a savvy real-estate developer who founded a Manhattan neighborhood called Chelsea, named after and built on land that once belonged to his family. But that’s not why anyone remembers Moore on this night. No one drags their child to a freezing cemetery to celebrate the life of a man who wrote a 1,000-page scholarly text entitled *The Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, in Two Volumes*. No. Moore is remembered because when he wasn’t busy cranking out his alefs, bets, and gimels, he apparently found time to write A Visit from Saint Nicholas, also known as ’Twas The Night Before Christmas.

For much of his life, Moore downplayed the poem associated with his name. When he first read those immortal lines to family and friends gathered at his home one Christmas, he strictly admonished them not to share it outside his residence. One of his guests nevertheless snuck out a copy and sent it to a newspaper in Troy, New York, which printed it anonymously, a common practice at the time. Countless other newspapers followed, and reprinting those lines became an annual tradition.

Like many writers, Moore wanted to be remembered for his “serious” work. Later in life, whenever someone cajoled him to tell how he came to write the classic poem, he related the same story. One day in 1822, he went out to buy a Christmas turkey and saw a fat Dutchman sitting in a carriage smoking a long clay pipe. Inspired, Moore rushed home and dashed off the 56-line poem about a plump, “jolly old elf” in a feverish bout of creativity. The poem literally poured from his pen—without a single correction necessary.

Even today it’s hard to quantify how important the poem is. Every culture in Europe has its own tradition of a Christmas “gift-bringer.” The English have Father Christmas, the French Père Noël. Icelandic children are visited by 13 mischievous Yule “lads”—tiny dwarves who leave children sweets or rotting potatoes, depending on their behavior. The Dutch had Sinterklaas, a homegrown version of Saint Nicholas, the kindly, fourth-century Turkish-born Catholic bishop who was regarded as the patron saint of sailors, pawnbrokers, reformed thieves, brewers, and, last but not least, children.

Though centuries had passed between the life of the real Saint Nicholas and the creation of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version was and still is visibly religious: he’s a dour-faced man who wears a bishop’s miter on his head, and carries a bishop’s crook in his hand, the symbol of a shepherd leading his flock.

Every culture’s gift-bringer behaves differently. My mother grew up in Italy believing in La Befana, an old witch who flies her broom into every Italian home on the eve of the Epiphany (January 6th). Every year on December 5, the night before the traditional Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, Dutch children leave carrots in their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas’s white horse. Come morning, they find candy in those shoes if they have been good, a bundle of twigs if they have been bad.

The American Santa observes a totally different protocol, and everything we know about him was sketched out for the very first time in the poem we’re discussing. The poem codifies Santa: how he looks, which night of the year he visits, how he transports himself to your house, how he enters and leaves the dwelling, how he behaves while there, the precise number of his reindeer, and their names. So it’s not too crazy to suggest that the author of A Visit from Saint Nicholas wasn’t just dashing off a delightful little poem that day, he was building American culture.

And none too soon, if you believe the historians. At this time in history American cities were struggling with a very scary Yuletide dilemma. So much so that the upper-crusters who bought plots of land in Moore’s tranquil enclave Chelsea had come to dread Christmas. December in 1820s New York City was like frat-boy central. It wasn’t uncommon for idle, laid-off workers to kick in the doors of wealthy homes and to demand pocket money in exchange for a bawdy song. But then, sometime during that decade in New York City, the weeks of unceasing hooliganism abruptly stopped.

Because Santa.

At least two historians* argue that the city’s fathers conspired with the media machine of the time (newspapers and weekly magazines) and retailers to promote a new sort of tradition. Christmas was no longer about giving pocket change to the less fortunate. It was about a visit from Santa Claus and giving presents—not candy or fruit or homemade sweets but store-bought presents—to children. In doing so, responsible adults were ostensibly reenacting the story of the Christ child receiving gifts in the manger from the three Magi.

Once this powerful tradition took hold, a family man could no longer afford to be idle at the end of the calendar year. He had to stay off the streets and gainfully employed if he was going to be able to afford presents for his children and, as the tradition morphed, for every other member of his family. Societal pressure eradicated one tradition and ushered in another. This New York-style Christmas quickly spread to the rest of the nation, aided by women’s magazines and impossible-to-ignore retail advertisements in every influential American publication.

America needed Santa. Needed his benevolent, calming influence to correct and redirect a societal ill. But it would be wrong of us to say that the Santa of A Visit from Saint Nicholas was nothing but a potent and irritating tool for conspicuous consumption.

The poem should be celebrated on its own merits. If you’ve ever read poetry or essays written by amateur writers from the founding era of the United States till about the era of the Civil War, you’ve probably been bored to tears or scratched your eyes out. The Christmas poem is nothing like that. The writing’s clear, its images crisp. It’s probably the most famous American poem. Amazon currently lists no fewer than 732 versions of this public domain book. It’s the book every Christmas-celebrating kid ever born must receive at some point in their lives, along with The Grinch and The Polar Express.

But so few people know the story of the classic’s origin—or why they should even care. If you want to go “meta” on this, you could say that once upon a time a sweet genius conceived of a way to sidestep the messy Catholic-Protestant rift and get back to the joy of the old pagan Yule. Stripping away the baggage of Old World religions, this nimble writer created a magnanimous secular magician who brings presents to worthy children every year without fail. Sans miter, sans crook, sans religious robes, this Santa is, frankly, the perfect, nondenominational gift-bringer for a nation of immigrants. How lucky we are! How truly blessed, that this magical tale was bequeathed to us by a humble New Yorker whose name we hardly know but whose words still give us all the feels!

There’s just one problem with everything I’ve just told you.

It may all be a bright shining lie.

I'm partial to the Charles Santore edition.

* * * 

* Sources for this article include two wonderful books: The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday, by Steven Nissenbaum; and Christmas: A Biography, by Judith Flanders.

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. See you—with the conclusion—in three weeks!

06 November 2020

"We Gather Together" with Denise Kiernan

This week, rather than do actual work, I am ceding this space in part to my lovely and brilliant wife Denise Kiernan, a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, a narrative nonfiction history titled We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, A President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, arrives in stores next week.

Denise was given 50 minutes to complete this short survey, and permitted access to a No. 2 pencil, a cup of coffee, and a large glazed doughnut to assist her in nailing down her answers. And yes, the doughnut was local and organic. We’re not animals.

* * *

The publisher says this book is “the biography of an idea.” What’s the idea? I thought it was about Thanksgiving. I’m so confused.
What is thanksgiving, really, but an idea? How’s that for vague? The book looks at American history through the lens of our culture’s relationship to giving thanks. But first, obviously, we stop in Ancient Rome. The idea is one of communities and cultures coming together in gratitude, and how that timeless practice evolved into the American holiday of thanksgiving and how that, in turn, has changed over the years. And guess what? That holiday is primed to evolve again.

At the heart of the book is a lady in black. (Sorry, this is a mystery blog, and I just wanted to make her sound mysterious.) But she does always wear black. And she edits a magazine. And she has opinions, causes, crusades. Many of them, in fact. Can you tell us about her?
Sarah Josepha Hale was the O.G. influencer. She was a widow (hence the black wardrobe—not much mystery there) with five kids and no formal education who went on to edit Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the most influential magazines of the 19th century. She wrote about what to wear, how to cook, who to read. The Lady’s Book “editress”—as she called herself—wielded a unique kind of power and influence at a time when she didn’t even have the right to vote. But she didn’t do so only to sell copies of her magazine. She created anthologies of the writings of other women, highlighting and sharing their talents. She gave invaluable boosts to some men as well: Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow. She used her media pulpit to raise funds for libraries, veterans and their widows, monuments to their memory, and more. In doing so, she encouraged others to follow her lead. Her influence—despite the limits put on her at the time by her gender—has carried through to this very day. So yes, she is and was one of the most prolific writers I’ve ever encountered: poems, novels, recipe books, hostess manuals, anthologies of notable women, book reviews, you name it. Reading about her made me seriously question what the hell I’ve been doing with my time.

What are some of the newfangled ideas Hale promoted—and are any of them still in practice?
Despite her noir attire—see what I did there?—she promoted the idea of brides wearing white, à la Queen Victoria. She wrote a little ditty called “Mary’s Lamb” (i.e., “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) which remains one of the most-sung rhymes in all American kid-dom. She also thought Christmas trees would catch on, and promoted them to her readership. Jury’s still out on that one, I suppose.

You’re writing nonfiction, so there’s research involved. Can you tell us about some of the cool stuff you found as you were digging? And please brag about what a great little shopper your husband has become in pandemic times, buying strange old magazines online for your researching pleasure.
Learning about how Hale published a lot of people before they were “big” names—Washington Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne—was fascinating. Oh, that reminds me: My husband, who is constantly bragging about his online shopping prowess, somehow neglected to pick up a very specific vintage copy of a certain little magazine for me. [That original copy of Hales magazine is very expensive, and rare book dealers are chiselers!—Ed.] My husband does, however, buy white and brown rice by the ton, and invests in various Harry Potter miniatures for our Christmas village. I, on the other hand, insisted on the North Pole-dancing elves in the seedier part of our planned holiday burg.

Everyone knows the story of how Lincoln grew his beard because 11-year-old Grace Greenwood Bedell wrote and told him to Go Forth and Be Hirsute. Why don’t more people know of Hale’s connection to Honest Abe?
Well, I wouldn’t agree with you that everyone knows the Abe-Grace-Beard story. But I hear you. As far as Hale and Lincoln are concerned, all I can say is that there are many people throughout history who played integral roles in key events of the American story who get little or no credit. Starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fictionalized version of thanksgiving took hold and caught on. An ebon-clad widow who edited a women’s magazine and wrote letters just didn’t catch on. However, Hale is the reason we celebrate this holiday at the same time year after year.

We here at Sleuthsayers burn candles at the feet of our patron saint, Edgar Allan Poe. What can you tell us about his association with “The Editress,” Mrs. Hale?
Hale and Poe (and his small family) resided in Philadelphia at the same time. He was editing Graham’s Magazine in the same period when Sarah Josepha Hale was editing Godey’s. Hale was one of the very first publishers of Poe’s work, and arguably not only introduced him to a much wider audience, but also enjoyed the best relationship of any editor with this rather troublesome writer. Before Hale ever ran any of his work in full, her magazine reviewed one of his first books, and though describing his prose as “boyish,” nevertheless said the then-unknown author showed “genius.” Shortly after publishing that assessment, Hale received a letter from her son, David, who attended West Point with Poe. David asked his mother to consider more of Poe’s work, and she willingly did. Poe also proposed to write—and Hale accepted to edit—a long-running gossip column that poked fun at several literary figures in New York City. That scathing column immediately stoked controversy among the literati and forced the publisher of Hale’s magazine to issue what we would today consider the classic disclaimer: “the opinions expressed herein are those of the author, not the publisher.”

[Okay, Joe, just FYI: I’m done with the coffee. Switching to wine. –DK]

Is it true that several women in the Midwest, upon reading a certain story of Poe’s in the pages of Godey’s Magazine, either a) had their hair turn green overnight, or b) systematically walled up their husbands in farmhouse walls?Okay, yes, the most famous of Poe’s works that appeared first in Hale’s magazine before achieving much greater acclaim was “The Cask of Amontillado.” [Oh yeah—my intrepid online-shopping hubby also failed to find that particular publication for me as well. But hey—I have a fun Borgin & Burke’s replica to set up in my village next to the “Elf”-inspired Gimbel’s department store that stands around the corner from our Scrooge & Marley’s counting house.]

Your book spans (literally) the dawn of time to the present day as it contemplates the power of myth and the benefits of embracing gratitude. Can you tell us anything more about Hales magnificent obsession?
What can I say? The woman liked a well-cooked bird. Sarah Josepha Hale accomplished much in her lifetime, but her crowning achievement was convincing a president, Abraham Lincoln, to establish a national day of thanks after writing to ask four of his presidential predecessors—as well as numerous governors, ambassadors, and the like—to do the same. Her fascination with the idea of Thanksgiving started early and first appears in her novel, Northwood, published in 1827, in which she describes a “Thanksgiving supper surrounded by a large family” and an indulgent meal in which … “The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting.” And, and, and. On it goes. The woman liked a fancy meal and the table setting to match it. She never relinquished the idea, and in the 1852 reissue of Northwood, there is a pointed update. One of her protagonists announces that although Thanksgiving was not yet a national holiday observed throughout America, he felt certain that … “I trust it will become so … When it shall be observed, on the same day throughout all the states and territories, it will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness.” At a time when the country was deeply divided, nothing seemed more important to Hale than officially recognizing gratitude. It took her decades, but she is the reason this nation celebrates a day of thanks.

Which figure in your book would you love to invite to Thanksgiving dinner and have a socially distant beverage—or share a greasy little drumstick—with?
Poe. No question.
Wait—Frederick Douglass.
No, scratch that…Sojourner Truth.
Oh! Oh! Oh! M. F. K Fisher.
Never mind. Will you leave me a drumstick this year?

All this talk is making me hungry. What’s for dinner?
You can have the rest of my doughnut.

Can you tell the nice folks about your tour in closing?
I hit the virtual road on Tuesday, November 10, talking about We Gather Together with different interviewers for every event. Autographed bookplates are available from a variety of independent bookstores, and I am available on the interwebs for the foreseeable future, such as it is.





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Join me in three weeks, when I will blow your minds about that magical, wondrous holiday, Christmas!


16 October 2020

The Macabre (True) Story of the Sunshine Lady, with an Appearance by Mr. Poe

It’s my unfortunate predilection to use my wife’s speaking gig and book tour absences as opportunities to eat and drink inappropriately. That alone can explain why and how I found myself a year or so ago in the darkened back bar at the Poe House in Hendersonville, North Carolina, a “quaint” town not far from where I live. The Poe House is an Edgar Allan Poe-themed tavern that is part wine bar, part music venue, part cocktail joint.

Poe and alcohol did not mix...well. Eight years before his death, Poe wrote a letter hoping to clear himself after W.E. Burton, a former employer whom Poe despised, circulated rumors of Poe’s drunkenness.

“I am temperate even to rigor,” [Poe wrote.] “At no period of my life was I ever what men call intemperate…. My sensitive temperament could not stand an excitement which was an everyday matter to my companions. In short, it sometimes happened that I was completely intoxicated. For some days after each excess I was invariably confined to bed. But it is now quite four years since I have abandoned every kind of alcoholic drink—four years, with the exception of a single deviation…when I was induced to resort to the occasional use of cider, with the hope of relieving a nervous attack.”

Whatever the truth, it has certainly not stopped barkeeps from using his lugubrious mug to decorate various drinking establishments. I’m getting good at ferreting out such places, and I’ll get to them all someday.

Red Death. In a glass.

On this occasion, as I sipped my Mask of the Red Death*—a beverage containing Tito’s, pomegranate juice, grilled lemon, rosemary simple syrup, with a rosemary sprig—I continued to peruse the Poe House cocktail menu**, which featured drinks with names like Amelia, Absinthe Drip, Virginia Clemm, Poe-a-Tree, Tales of Mystery, That Girl, Insanity, and Brewed Nevermore (your basic coffee and bourbon concoction).

“You don’t have a Sunshine Lady cocktail?” I asked the bartender. 

“Is that a Poe story?”

“No,” I said. “It’s a Hendersonville story.”

If you spend time poking around the Oakdale Cemetery just off Hendersonville’s main drag, you will eventually encounter the most boring tomb imaginable. A rectangular, above-ground sarcophagus covered on all six sides with concrete. This is the final resting place of one Lelia Davidson Hansell***, who endures in local legend as the Sunshine Lady.

Charlotte Oberver, 1926.

She was born in 1861, and hailed from a wealthy family whose name graces a nearby college. She and her husband, Judge Charles P. Hansell, lived in Thomasville, Georgia, but resided in our mountainous region 18 months before the end of her life. Judging from Mrs. Hansell’s death certificate, I suspect that her relocation was in order to avail herself of the region’s “breathing porches.”  This is where one came to sit, and to breathe mountain air, theoretically extinguishing toxins lodged in one’s lungs. In this case both air and porches proved insalubrious. In December 1915, Mrs. Hansell expired at the age of 54 from pulmonary tuberculosis.

Then things got seriously weird. Edgar Allan Poe weird.

The story goes that Mrs. Hansell abhorred the notion of being confined to a tomb for eternity. She  extracted from her husband a promise to bury her in such a way that the sun would always shine upon her face. Acceding to her request, he entombed her in a sarcophagus topped with blocks of prism glass. This is the glass you find embedded in sidewalks of great American cities. “Vault lights” allowed daylight to illuminate the basements of major buildings in the age before electric light. Prism glass was clear when installed but turned purple as its manganese content aged.

I lived in Hendersonville—aka Hendo, aka Hooterville—for a year when we first moved to the South. The Sunshine Lady became one of my brief obsessions. I’d poke around the web whenever I had a spare moment, looking for specific details, and wrote a short story inspired by the tomb.****

I learned that for decades the Sunshine Lady became Hendersonville’s most morbid attraction. I found mentions of the grave in 1930s-era WPA Guides to North Carolina. I read accounts of children selling cups of water outside the cemetery gates, instructing tourists to rub a few drops with their fingers on the scuffed glass blocks in order to better peer at the tomb’s occupant. And I’ve found articles in which longtime residents swore that when they were children themselves they’d still been able to gaze upon the corpse’s skeletal countenance, framed by a beautiful mass of auburn hair.

I have no idea if that’s true or even possible, though Mrs. Hansell’s obituary praised “her character of unusual beauty.” The examples of prism glass I’ve seen are very opaque, but admittedly I’ve only seen aged specimens.

Eventually, the town fathers got tired of this hideous spectacle. A local historian writes, “Many people expectorated on the glass and for sanitary reasons the top will be covered.”

Guess they got tired of buying water from the local kids.

The San Francisco Examiner, 1927.

But I’m sure there were other reasons they altered the tomb. If I may be permitted to speculate, wise Appalachian soothsayers probably foresaw that one day this sleepy Southern town would be a mecca for people seeking microbrews, homegrown apples, quilted handbags, homemade country pickles and preserves, antiques, and cute carvings of black bears. Hooterville could no longer be known as the place where people came to gaze upon the grinning face of death.

In 1937, the tomb was refurbished. It looks to me like a couple of thick skim coats of concrete did the trick, but it’s entirely possible they replaced the glass blocks with cinderblock. Who knows.

I do know that it’s the creepiest thing we’ve got around here, and I could not sleep the night I first heard the story in a local coffee shop. How much of the tale is true? How much embellished? I suppose at this point it does not matter. What does matter is that an enterprising bartender simply must dream up a suitable drink to honor the city’s most morbid resident—and fast. My nerves are so shot I might be forced to guzzle cider.

* * *

* “Mask” was used in the title when Poe’s tubercular nightmare first appeared in Graham’s Magazine in 1842, a month after he quit his post as the magazine’s editor. It’s been “Masque” since 1845 on.

** Alas, no Amontillado on the menu.

*** I’ve seen her forename spelled as Lela, Lelia, and Leila. The obit says Lelia, but the death certificate says Leila. I hate history.

**** My short story treats the whole legend as a ghost story. Download it free 'til the end of the month right here. And Happy Halloween!

See you in three weeks!

25 September 2020

Wooden-legged Playboy Bequeaths America a Cherished Ideal

Hey, did you all have a rockin’ Constitution Day last Thursday? A great American day off, complete with outdoor grilling, parades, flags, and late-night fireworks? Yeah, me neither. And not because of the pandemic.

Constitution Day (Sept. 17th) is the federal holiday Americans don’t know. Two hundred thirty-three years ago, 74 men were invited to Philadelphia to consider replacing the weak Articles of Confederation that was proving disastrous for the new American states. The nation was bankrupt and had no treasury or military to speak of. Despite this, citizens were deeply suspicious of a plan to hammer out a new system of government. Only 55 men answered the call. After nearly four months of debate, only 40 (39 representatives and the convention’s president George Washington) signed the resulting document on September 17, 1787, and embarked on a campaign for ratification.

It’s sort of like the story of the Declaration of Independence, only more forgettable. The Fourth of July has everything going for it. A rag-tag band of rebels overthrew a king! In contrast, the Seventeenth of September presages an ugly, querulous slog to durable nationhood. Americans argued about the Constitution in 1787. And they argue about it today.

Jefferson fatuously declared that the men of the Constitutional Convention were “an assembly of demigods.” Yeah—they weren’t. But sometimes imperfect people can conceive a more perfect union. Let’s take, for example, my favorite Constitution signer, Gouverneur Morris.

Gouverneur Morris
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

He hailed from a rich New York family whose family seat was located at Morrisania in the Bronx. Six feet tall, Morris was witty, fit, and imposing, and once served as a body double as the French sculptor Houdon shaped marble into the form of George Washington. There’s just one limb Houdon had to dream up out of his own imagination: Washington’s left leg.

You see, in his twenties Gouverneur Morris lost his left leg in a carriage accident. He wore a wooden prosthesis for the rest of his life. (The New-York Historical Society preserves the pegleg in a glass case next to FDR’s leg brace.) A rumor at the time held that Morris had really lost his leg while leaping out of a window to escape an angry husband.

Morris’s bedroom exploits are legendary. In his diaries, Morris recounted steamy encounters with numerous women in passageways, carriages, even a Parisian convent. He did not discriminate. He dallied with young and old, married or single. He once hooked up with a pair of sisters. He did it in the Louvre, which then served as an apartment complex for nobles. The author of the best Morris biography, Richard Brookhiser, reveals that the language in Morris’s diaries are loaded with euphemisms.
“They performed ‘the rites’; he conferred ‘the joy’; they did ‘the needful.’ They ‘sacrificed to the Cyprian Queen [Venus]’; they ‘performed the first commandment given to Adam, [i.e., be fruitful and multiply] or at least we used the means.’ Over and over, Morris boasted, like a teenager (or at least, like a teenager who knows Latin), that he was suaviter in modo, fortiter in re—gentle in manner, resolute in the deed.”
At one point Morris exclaims of a woman: “What fine materials for seduction!” In another passage, he writes that he and his partner “brightened the chain together.” (Brookhiser explains that one brightens a chain by, ahem, rubbing it.) After spying Dolley Madison in a low-cut dress, Morris wonders if she is “amenable to seduction.” Yes, Dolley was happily married, but Morris dismissed fellow signer James Madison, architect of the U.S.’s three branches of government, as “shriveled.”

So that’s the hormonal side of the man. Like a peripatetic Zelig, he also popped up at key moments in history and used his brains to set things to rights. During the American Revolution, he traveled to Valley Forge to check on Washington’s troops, was gob-smacked at what he found, and lost no time describing to Congress the “naked, starving condition” of their army. He developed the U.S.’s decimal-based monetary system, employing the word “cent” to replace the British “penny.” Living abroad after the war, he bore witness to the horrors of the French Revolution and lent money without expectation of repayment to nobles fleeing their homeland. He was at Alexander Hamilton’s bedside when the man died of the bullet lodged near his spine, and later delivered Hamilton’s eulogy. Pressed into service for his hometown, Morris laid out a scrupulously logical street plan for New York City, which satisfied his apparent love of precision and mathematical order, and playfully mocked the European design of Washington, DC.

When in his teens, Morris knocked over a kettle of boiling water and scalded off most of the flesh from his right arm. The nerves were most likely damaged, and the limb remained scarred and impaired for the rest of his life. Considering his double blow—the loss of a leg and the disfiguring of his arm—one would expect Morris to be a bitter man. On the contrary, he was generally happy and took pains to write letters consoling friends and acquaintances in their times of need. And while his father, mother and family all owned slaves, he held no enslaved persons of his own, and in one of the 173 speeches he made at the Constitutional Convention (the most of any signer) he railed against the institution, calling it a “curse of heaven.” Late in life, the old bachelor shocked his family by marrying a woman twenty-two years his junior who had been implicated in the murder of her illegitimate child by another man, her adulterous brother-in-law.

Morris was indeed colorful, but why bore you with his exploits? History is filled with the deeds of dead white men. We certainly don’t need more of them, even if they are accomplished, wooden-legged scoundrels.

If you must know, my thoughts fly to Morris because of one paragraph he wrote. One single graf. He’s remembered as the “penman” of the Constitution, and for translating passages in the founding document from dreadful legalese to normal English. In a famous example, he cut 61 words down to 36. The original preamble read, We the people of the states of … and proceeded to name each of the states in attendance at the Constitutional Convention. Morris retooled the first paragraph, throwing in a few of his own masterful touches:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
His stylistic choices are significant. During the debates, Morris had insisted that the president should be chosen not by Congress but by the citizenry. (The Electoral College is the vestigial compromise the framers made on that point.) Nevertheless, Morris arguably exacted his revenge. In one stroke, he wrenched the power of government from the states and bestowed it upon the people.

When the document flew to those states for ratification, the Virginian Patrick Henry—who declined to attend the Constitutional Convention, famously saying that he smelled a rat—pounced on the three words Brookhiser dubs Gouverneur Morris’s “greatest legacy.”

“What right had they to say ‘We, the People’?” Patrick Henry demanded.

Sigh. Nothing changes.

* * *

See you all in three weeks! If you can forgive a little BSP, I hope you’ll check out the trailer my wife created for our own book about the Constitution signers. I append the video here more for its cheerful animation and comedy than anything else. We were just learning how to use the software back then, and wanted it to sound like a modern-day political ad.

And yes, while I am the perpetrator of two books on the signers of two U.S. founding documents, I’d be the first to admit that they are works of political humor and wiseassery. For a serious look at Morris’s life, see historian Richard Brookhiser’s Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution (Free Press, 2003).

04 September 2020

Horses, Booze, and the Great Mint Julep Cup Conspiracy

Athlete with a taste for water only.

(Photo by Sheri Hooley via Unsplash)

It never fails that in the presence of galloping horses, human beings become parched and feel the need to drink heavily. At least, they do in the South, birthplace of the legendary icy-sweet mint julep. The julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, which is normally held in May but was postponed to September 5—tomorrow—because of the pandemic. Historically, 120,000 juleps are mixed, served, and drunk at the Derby each year. This year, the horses will run without the presence of fans, so the legions of thirsty humans will have to fend for themselves.

Drink me.

(Photo by Adam Jaime on Unsplash)

As it is mixed today, the cocktail calls for four essential ingredients: a heaping mound of crushed ice, simple syrup, bourbon, and mint. And that cup. Without the cup, the drink is tasty but unremarkable. A kind of Slushee, or snow cone, for grownups who favor bowties, seersucker suits, and wacky hats. But when that sprig of mint is tucked into the top of a copper, pewter, or silver cup frosted with condensation, suddenly we’re in food porn heaven.

A few years ago, I went looking for a (cheap) pair of those cups at the local mall, but struck out at every store I visited. I did find many of those copper Moscow mule cups that are all the rage these days. Finally, after searching in vain amid her employers’ stock, a very nice sales woman shook her head and told me, “You know, I think mint juleps are a really Southern thing, and we’re just not very Southern here in Asheville.”

That would be Asheville, North Carolina, the so-called “Paris of the South,” and the Appalachian hometown of Thomas Wolfe.

But I received her meaning. There’s South, and there’s SOUTH.

Compelled to take my investigations elsewhere, I was surprised to find that there was an entire body of lore surrounding the beverage, not to mention the cup. Ponderous food encyclopedias informed me that “julep” is derived from a Persian word, gūlab, meaning rosewater, and refers to a syrup made from that infusion. One must always endeavor to hold one’s julep cup by the bottom or top rim, never the sides, lest your sweaty mitts hasten the drink’s inevitable melting.

Since the 1940s, the quintessential Derby accoutrement has been a pricy sterling silver cup made by Wakefield-Scearce Galleries, out of Shelbyville, Kentucky.

How it came about: Times were tough because of WWII. Seeking a way to make his particular Derby cup irresistible, Mark J. Scearce the Elder hit upon the idea of producing ones marked on their undersides with the initials of the current U.S. president. He got the idea from a tradition that dates to 1300 CE and the reign of Edward I, when British silversmiths were required to stamp an official “hallmark” on the bottom of their pieces to indicate the degree of the silver’s purity.

True, at the time Scearce was developing his cups, FDR may have seemed like he’d been appointed for life, but most presidents had only served eight years, max. On that basis alone, Scearce’s cups would theoretically be limited edition items—and thus highly collectible.

LBJ so loved this tribute that he bought tons to give as gifts.

The first ones Scearce offered for sale were stamped with an American eagle and the initials of one HST. From that moment forward, each new White House occupant received a Shelbyville cup of his own. If an incumbent was reelected, Scearce added the Roman numeral II to that president’s initials.

Roman numeral II, indicating Clinton’s second time at bat.

The Scearce family continues the tradition to this day, and other firms such as Tiffany have gotten into the act. A new Scearce sterling silver presidential cup will currently set you back $850. (A $65 pewter option bears the initials of the current governor of Kentucky.) People collect Scearces and trot them out—see what I did there?—for their own annual Derby parties. Scearce cups that show up in estate sales or on eBay are often a few hundred dollars cheaper, and are snapped up quickly by people starting their own collections. The most desirable ones are those whose sides are not monogrammed with the initials of the previous owner. The least desirable are ones that are dinged, tarnished, or no longer watertight, possibly due to julep-induced fracases.

I’ve never seen an HST online, but DDE, LBJ, and JFK are surprisingly common. I have a theory about this. The older the cup, the more likely its first owner has sipped his or her last julep, and the lonely cup is seeking a new quaffer.

When it comes to “collectibles,” I typically follow a look-don’t-buy approach that has served my wallet well. But, based on my bourbon-infused research, I can say that if you’re a big spender and spy a RMN or JEC or GRF, grab it. For some reason, they are scarcer than RWR or RWRII. Right now it’s tough finding an GHWB, WJC, or GWB. I presume the original guzzlers are still knocking those back.

Of course, since this is 21st-century America, even innocuous things such as mint julep cups have become heavily politicized. I’ve read stories about people who will only collect cups denoting presidents of a particular party. Or, if their host is an equal-opportunity collector, a reveler will pounce on the president who aligns with their politics, even if that president espoused policies the current party would disavow. The more recent the president, the hotter the emotions. Thank goodness the mint julep is a cold drink.

Now. Everyone needs a conspiracy theory, and this is mine: I believe some heavy-hitter eBay vendors occasionally obscure a certain president’s name, possibly for fear that 50 percent of their potential American buyers will not consider buying the cup on offer. I have no proof of this. I just find it odd that a seller will occasionally explain that the initials on the bottom of a particular cup stand for Better Hold On. If someone is buying a vintage Scearce cup, wouldn’t they know better?

Better Hold On, my horses fanny.

I look forward to the day when the second-sip market is rife with cups paying tribute to Don’t Just Tipple, Daily Jowls Tremble, Dastardly Joke Tool, or something equally clever. That would be sweet, gūlab-flavored justice, indeed.

As summer’s days wind down, I wish you all the frostiest of cocktails. Let us depart on the words of author Frances Parkinson Keyes, whose most famous book, Dinner at Antoine’s, was a mystery set in New Orleans. Elsewhere in her oeuvre, she wrote:
“I have heard it said that the last instructions which a Virginia gentleman murmurs on his deathbed are, ‘Never insult a decent woman, never bring a horse in the house, and never crush the mint in the julep.’”
Go and bruise gently, friends.

(Photo by Ari Augustian via Unsplash)

* * *

See you all in three weeks.

14 August 2020

I Miss My Summers With Mr. Poe

“Whenever I go back to Charleston, I think of Poe,” Pat Conroy’s narrator says in the opening to The Lords of Discipline, and I sorta, kinda know how Will McLean feels. Edgar Allan Poe was a fellow who was constantly on the move—evading creditors, chasing gainful employment, trying to get his sorry ass paid—but he doesn’t immediately spring to mind whenever I am in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore.

But on those hot, humid summer days when Denise and I have escaped to the South Carolina beaches which are closest to our home in Western North Carolina, I cannot help think of Poe. He was barely 19 years old when he signed up for a five-year enlistment in the army, and ended up transferred from Boston to Fort Moultrie, on the very tip of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. The fort was built in 1776 to defend Charleston from British attack, and wasn’t decommissioned until 1960, 184 years later. Moultrie is famous for being built out of felled palmetto trees (South Carolina’s beloved state tree). Those truncated trunks were so spongy that British cannonballs bounced right off ‘em.

My pet whelk, Lawrence.

Poe was on Sullivan’s for all of 13 months, from 1827 to 1828, before finagling a way out of his five-year commitment to attend West Point. At Moultrie he worked as a clerk. They needed a man who could read and write, and that was certainly our boy Eddie’s wheelhouse. Though he managed to rise in rank from a private to a regimental sergeant major, the highest post a non-com could attain, he never answered to his real name. See, while in the army, he called himself Edgar A. Perry. By one biographer’s estimation, it was his fifth such alias, donned to ditch creditors he’d left behind in Richmond (where he’d gambled away $2,000 he didn’t have) and Boston (where he’d just self-published his first book of poems), and heaven knows where else.

Boat-tailed grackle.
Lovely, iridescent, thieving birds that I hope to see Nevermore.

Years later, the time he spent in the Charleston area blossomed into three different stories. The most famous of these three pieces—and the most celebrated in his lifetime—was “The Gold Bug,” first published in three installments in 1843. It’s often lumped in with his detective stories because the main character treats us to feats of ratiocination, but don’t get hung up on that. It’s a buried treasure/secret code story, complete with long discussions of alphabetic frequencies, references to Captain Kidd’s gold, a mysterious gold-winged beetle, and a Black sidekick who speaks in what today reads as racially offensive dialect.

In 1840, while an editor at Alexander’s Weekly Messenger in Philadelphia, Poe challenged readers to stump him by submitting their best cryptograms to the paper. Cryptographic puzzles were a hot genre at the time. He promised to decode each and every one, no matter the difficulty. Of course, you’d have to keep buying the paper to see if the editor picked your code, and if he had been able to “unlock” it. Week after week, Poe always did. Either he was a genius, or he banked on the fact that most semi-literate Americans of the 1840s were only capable of one type of code: the substitution cipher of the A=1, B=2 variety. “I have lost, in time, which to me is money, more than a thousand dollars in solving ciphers,” he would later gripe.

In the story, he describes Sullivan’s Island this way:
“This island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the marsh-hen... 
Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed, the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of this western point, and a line of hard, white beach on the sea-coast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle so much prized by the horticulturists of England.”
“The Gold Bug” was insanely huge in its day. The Dollar Newspaper paid Poe $100 ($3,400 in 2020 dollars) for the piece, the most he likely ever made from any of his stories. The tale was printed at least five times by the paper, was spun off into a terrible play, sparked a quickie pamphlet of Poe tales, and launched its author on a brief speaking career. Alas, pirated versions sold 300,000 copies—none of which profited Poe a cent. Because of course they wouldn’t. Our Eddie had a date to keep with poverty, misery, and the gutter.

Modern Sullivan’s Island is pristine, pricey, and popular with beach-trekking fugitives from nearby Charleston, Mount Pleasant, and from anywhere up and down the East Coast, really. Nearby Gold Bug Island is the site of fancy lowcountry weddings. Beachfront property sells in the millions. Fort Moultrie is a National Historical Park whose gift shop sells Poe paperbacks and tedious nonfiction about the outpost’s strangest literary resident. Summer parking on “SI” is near impossible, but maybe you’ll get lucky and get to park your rental car or golf cart on Goldbug Avenue, or Raven Drive, or the main drag, Poe Avenue.

You might be moved to browse the books at the Edgar Allan Poe Branch of the Charleston County Library, housed in a four-gun military battery that dates to the Spanish-American War. Perhaps you will buy your sweetheart something shiny at the jewelry store called Goldbug. Or else you will wait until they call your name and seat you inside or on the sunny porch of Poe’s Tavern, on Middle Street, where the walls are decorated with the most massive collection of Poe art, movie posters, and old magazine ads imaginable. (Who knew that the cousins behind Ellery Queen did Poe-centric ads for Ballantine Ale back in the day?) The tavern’s owners operate two additional locations in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, and Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Hark! Methinks I hear the clogging of my tell-tale heart!

There are no fewer than 10 burger or chicken sandwich varieties on the menu, ranging from the Raven to the Gold Bug, the Gold Bug Plus, the Pit & Pendulum, the Amontillado, the Annabel Lee, the Hop Frog, the Black Cat, and the Sleeper. I usually go with the Tell-Tale Heart: a big-ass burger with a fried egg, bacon, and cheddar. I wash it down with a Poe lager, and we do not depart those shores until I have bought yet another Poe’s Tavern T-shirt. What does it say about me that most of my clothing these days has originated in bars? Perhaps Poe is not the only one destined for the gutter. But, ahem, I digress.

The only Edgar I
ll ever really need.

If Poe saw his little sand spit today, and beheld his twitchy face painted onto the bricks above the fireplace in the tavern, he would probably threaten a lawsuit—for slander, libel, copyright infringement—as was his wont. In distant realms now, he probably confers daily with recently departed licensing attorneys.

Perhaps some summer when our own hideous bug becomes less horrific, I will meet you all on Eddie’s not-so-forgotten island. Until then, I leave you with a touch of Conroy’s poetry on the subject. The Lords of Discipline passage concludes thusly:
“I like to think of [Poe] walking the streets of Charleston as I walked them, and it pleases me to think that the city watched him, felt the shimmer of his madness and genius in his slouching promenades along Meeting Street. I like to think of the city shaping this agitated, misplaced soldier, keening his passion for shade, trimming the soft edges of his nightmare, harshening his poisons and his metaphors, deepening his intimacy with the sunless wastes that issued forth from his kingdom of nightmare in blazing islands, still inchoate and unformed, of the English language.”

* * *

I’ve been on a Poe kick recently because one of his longtime editors, the self-described editress of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Josepha Hale, is the subject (along with the Civil War, Lincoln, and the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday) of my wife’s next book.

The book doesn’t pub until November, but Dutton just released the cover this week. In the months to come, I’ll share more about what I’ve learned about Mrs. Hale’s strangest contributor.

See you all in three weeks! Until then, you can find out more at Denise’s website.

24 July 2020

Live from the Basement: My new book!

One of the most challenging aspects of publishing a book is promoting the darn thing. I am told that in the days when triceratopses took long three-martini lunches, publishers did most of the heavy lifting to get a book noticed by its target audience. But as long as I’ve been dealing with book publishers—an appalling twenty or so years now—books have sunk or swum primarily based on the efforts of their authors.

Call me nuts, but I feel that as authors have learned to do more of the publicity and marketing, the more professional publicists and marketers at various houses have unlearned their jobs. A few years ago I was stunned to hear a freelance publicist—someone one of my ghostwriting clients had hired to help him promote his new book—say with utter seriousness that it was hard to get a journalist to return her phone calls. If you’re charging an author $100 a hour, you shouldn’t be telling them how hard it is to do your job, nor raising the faint possibility that other professionals don’t take you seriously.

But that’s the world we live in. Twenty years worth of publicists in the book business believe that they have fulfilled their responsibilities once they have fired a press release into the ether. They never need to get a response to succeed at their job or collect a paycheck. They just have to email it. Which is wonderful, if you have been trained to do your job without ever picking up the phone.

Now, thanks to the crazy apocalyptic world situation, the world’s book publicists and marketers are about to unlearn even more of their jobs. Authors of all stripes are trapped at home, unable to do even the most basic of book tours. They can’t visit bookstores or libraries. They can’t do those book lunch things that local authors are always being invited to do. (“We can’t pay you, but you can sell copies of your books—and we give you a boxed lunch!”)

So authors are turning to the next best thing. It was already fairly easy to do Skype visits with far-flung book groups. Now virtual events via Skype, Zoom, or Crowdcast are becoming the norm. I had my doubts that a virtual event would bring in crowds, but I realize now that I’m jaded, and prejudiced in favor of live bookstore events. When my wife recently told a friend in Boston about a virtual bookstore chat an author friend of ours was doing for her nonfiction book, Boston Pal became excited to share this with her friends via social media. “Everyone’s crawling the walls,” she said, “and they are desperate for things to do while the kids are watching TV.”

This is probably something I don’t appreciate since I don’t have kids. But virtual bookstore visits and chats are really helping book lovers right now cope with the weirdness of enforced family time.

Here’s what I’m also realizing: The potential is there for authors to reach an even bigger audience than they ever could before. Back in the day, when my wife’s publicists put together her book tours, they’d be very selective about which stores they sent her to. Some stores could be relied upon to sell lots of books, but they didn’t have the floor space to host a visiting author. Every Big Five publicist who books authors knows which stores have the space or the resources to book a larger one, and they steer their top authors to those stores almost exclusively.

But these days, literally any entity—big, small, or in-between—can host an author if they have access to a Zoom account. So book tours in 2020 are limited only by the patience of the author. How many days, afternoons, or nights are you willing to sit in front of your computer and talk about your book? Can you team up with other authors to present an hour of readings, à la Noir at the Bar?

Here is what these authors are learning: They’re learning how to present themselves in front of a camera, which is a different animal than doing a live performance. Some are learning how to set up a camera, and record and edit videos on their own.

I saw two videos recently—from well-known authors in the mystery genre—that showed me just how much the publishing world is changing. The first one appeared in my Instagram feed, marked “Sponsored,” which is code for advertising.

Who was this author who was advertising on Instagram? John Freaking Grisham. I’m linking to his videos here, in case Blogger decides to stop embedding Instagram videos. In the one I’m sharing here, Grisham talks about his writing shed from the backyard of his home in central Virginia. In subsequent videos, he’s speaking to us direct from his garage. And he’s openly telling his fans that he’s “hiding on the farm.”

The videos are not high-tech, not slickly produced. And why would they be? Like everyone else confined to their home these days, Grisham cannot risk having an army of filmmakers traipsing through his house and yard. He’s shooting these chats himself, and possibly passing the footage on to someone else to edit them for him. But I kinda doubt it.

David Hewson, author of the Nic Costa mystery series and other books, has always impressed me with his technical skills. Two of his self-pubbed books teach writers how to use the word-processing software, Scrivener and Ulysses. One of the videos on Hewson’s recently launched YouTube channel employs slick animation to discuss the principles of storytelling.

Recently I stumbled upon this video of Hewson’s, promoting his newest book, Shooter in the Shadows, and found it utterly delightful.

That’s all I’ll say about it. I don’t want to spoil it for you.

“Tough times in the writing business,” Hewson told me via email from the UK, “but my feeling is you have to do what you can to stay out there. It’s a real problem how to keep in touch with people at the moment...”

Just watch a few minutes of Hewson’s video, and see if you aren’t charmed at the notion of a writer walking around his neighborhood in Kent, wielding a selfie stick and talking about his book. Notice how the humorous asides break up his monologue, and how he manages to make his protagonist’s dilemma feel compelling. He knows his plot well, and he knows just how to hit the points that will resonate with mystery fans. This is a book I would definitely read. And I’m not too sheepish to say so. Pun intended.

Bottom line: If Hewson and Grisham are doing it, maybe I gotta try it too. Stay tuned.