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

12 March 2021

The Joy of Monotasking


When my wife and I hang out in the backyard at the end of a day, inevitably our conversation turns to productivity. How can we get more things done without driving ourselves crazy?

Over the years, we’ve devoured a number of books that promise to help their readers crack this nut. Two of our favorites are books that have, in a certain sense, sparked mini-movements. Getting Things Done, by David Allen, inspired legions of developers to create software that embodies Allen’s principles: religiously collect all your to-dos in one place so you can routinely process things in one go; if a task can be done in two minutes or less, freaking do it now and don’t waste time adding it your to-do list!


Deep Work, by Cal Newport, is more of a manifesto. He argues that human beings do their best work when they think deeply about a project, and ruthlessly keep their workplace and time free from distractions. His official definition:
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
The challenge facing any professional today, he says, is fighting to accomplish this deep work. It’s bad enough that we all have to contend with mindless admin or household tasks, but now we’re bombarded with ceaseless emails, the promise of “free promotion” if only we’ll become slaves to social media, and the fatuous lie that is multitasking.

In contrast, Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, famously responds only to emails he thinks are worth it. (We know this from personal experience. Denise and I have tried to lure him into doing an interview. No response.)

He did, however, talk to a reporter for the New York Times. It’s a wonderful chat, archived here. In trying to explain why ceaseless interruptions by social media and email are making us miserable, he says,
“…the culprit here is network switching. Human brains take a long time to switch. If you’re going to put your target of attention on one thing and then switch it to a new target, that takes a while, right?”
And later he adds:
“And then if you wrench your attention back to what you were trying to do, it creates this whole pile-up in your brain, which we experience as a loss of cognitive function. We also feel frustrated. We feel tired. We feel anxious. Because the human brain can’t do it.”
I greatly enjoy Deep Work’s opening anecdote. Newport describes how Carl Jung got some of his major books and academic papers written. Jung built a Spartan, two-story stone tower in Bollingen, in the woods overlooking Lake Zurich, and used it to escape from the obligations of clinical practice, academic lectures, and the temptations of Zurich’s coffeehouse scene. (He later enlarged the house, but you can see the original design here.) He conceived that tower not as a vacation home, but a place to which he escaped to get work done. Alone, away from others, Jung walked in the woods, thought deeply, and managed to get a lot of writing done. The ideas born at Bollingen are today regarded as the strongest counter-arguments to Freudianism. 

If you want to write, you need to think. Sometimes deeply. Even if what you’re writing is playful. I have heard of some people who can write while playing classical music, or jazz, or whatever, in the background. I’ve heard of a mystery writer—was it Stanley Ellin or Robert L. Fish?—who could bang away happily on his typewriter while his kids were inches away, playing in their pool. I believe all these stories, but I can’t say I necessarily admire such skills.

Some of the best advice on writing is sitting on the windowsill facing Denise’s desk. She describes them as a “A list of do’s, a list of don’ts.”


One, as you can see, is Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules of Writing, which I don’t need to go into, because it’s sparked tons of other columns in the mystery world. (One of my favorite follow-up essays half-joked that Leonard probably had forgotten he had a deadline for a piece for the New York Times, so he sat down the day the piece was due, and quickly banged out those 10 rules, machine-gun-reporter-style, never expecting that so many other writers would later obsess about them.)

The other little list Denise treasures is culled from the work of Henry Miller. It’s a work schedule Miller hammered out in the 1930s to help him get one particular book done. I’ve made the image big so you can read his rules, but you can find the complete list at numerous websites, like this one.
 
 
It’s worth thinking about how Miller’s approach might apply to your own work. If you want to get a task or specific project done, you work on it until completion. You resist the urge to do all the other Bright Shiny Ideas that are bouncing around your brain, and which always seem so much more exciting and promising than the piece of crap you’re trying to write right now.

And yes, Miller’s rules may not apply to the one big project you’re working on, nor are they for every writer. This is, after all, Miller’s list. But still, when I read his rules, I feel seen: Work on one thing at a time until finished. Start no more new books. Work joyously. Go out and see friends. (Boy, so I miss that in the long malaise that is 2020-21.) But also: when you cannot create you can still work. Yes, yes, yes! Man, is he right about all of that.

I don’t know if Professor Newport has ever seen this list, but I think he would approve. At the end of Newport’s interview with the Times, he’s asked for book recommendations, and he tosses off a few, observing that by necessity literary work is the epitome of deep work:
“there’s really no way to produce real insight in writing at that level without actually just having the ability to be alone with your own thoughts and observing the world, and just letting that percolate and letting that move, and trying to craft and move and work with it.”
I like that. Also, for some reason, writing this post reminded me of our man Curly, played by Jack Palance, in the 1991 movie, City Slickers. Remember his genius piece of advice?


I recently watched another sort of clip; an interview with one of John Steinbeck’s sons. Thomas Steinbeck said his father would take time every morning to sharpen 24 pencils because he hated the distraction of having to stop his work and sharpen them in the middle of whatever he was working on. I suspect that anyone who’s ever written knows the real reason Steinbeck sharpened those pencils. He was procrastinating, because sometimes writing is terrifying, especially if you have struggled with depression and self-doubt, as Steinbeck did.

Nevertheless, I went out that day and ordered a box of 24 pencils. They’re (relatively) local-to-me pencils, made by the good folks at the Musgrave Pencil Company, in Shelbyville, Tennessee. They’re made of cedar, come in a fragrant cedar box, and smell marvelous when you take the time to sharpen them.

So I guess my advice this week is to take the advice of other writers and thinkers. Stay safe. Work joyously and recklessly. Work on one thing that freaking matters to you right now. Heaven help you if you start a novel or story with the weather! And take the time to smell the pencils.


 
____________________

See you in three weeks!

— Joe

19 February 2021

The Day I Hung Up My Fedora Forever


I was about 10 years old when I got my first business cards. I “printed” them up myself, laboriously writing them in longhand with pen on index cards I swiped from my Dad.

D’AGNESE DETECTIVE AGENCY, the first line read. After that came our home address in Jersey. There ended my originality. The rest of the copy is tattooed in the brain of anyone who loved mysteries as a kid: 25 cents per case, plus expenses. No case too small.

I don’t know how many of these cards I wrote up. But it was a lot, because I remember discarding a few of my Dad’s pens along the way. Some cards started in black or blue ink, but finished in red. Then I pressed my younger brothers into service. We dropped those cards into every home mailbox or mail slot in the neighborhood.

I set up my office in the garage. We always had some folding chairs tucked away in a closet; I appropriated a couple for myself and my operatives. My Dad had a very large metal gasoline can in the garage—also perfect, also fortuitous—which became my desk of sorts.

I don’t know how long I had to wait for my first case, but when it materialized, it came in the form of two big kids. I can’t be precise about their ages, or mine, because childhood memories are forever and ageless. One of the kids was the friend of our older, big-kid neighbor, Clint.

Big kids suck.

“Someone stole my bike,” he told me. “I need you to find it.”

As soon as his lips closed, a shocking thought passed through my head: What the hell was I doing? I had no freaking idea how to be a detective. How does one even begin to track a stolen bike?

“Do you have any suspects?” I said.

My client didn’t get a chance to respond, because at this point one of my brothers insisted on seeing the color of the fellow’s money. “It’s 25 cents!”

“Yeah, I know,” the big kid said. “I read those books too.”


Book #1 in the Series. Note the gas can!

The books in question, as you’ve no doubt guessed, were the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries that were written so wonderfully by a man named Donald J. Sobol over the course of 49 years.

Sobol wrote other books in his lifetime, but the Brown mysteries—about Leroy Brown, a kid sleuth who solved cases out of his garage in a small fictional town in Florida—will always be his claim to fame. The Brown books each contained about 10 short mysteries.

I hate dreaming up clues for the stories I write today. I’m terrible at it. Sobol’s genius was boiling every single case down to some abstruse factoid that revealed which person in the story was a liar. Things like which way water flowed in the Amazon basin, or the fact that dogs can’t see color, or the fact that fire never burns downward, only up. (I just made these up. They are not Sobol-approved.) No one in the stories, not even grown-ups, knew this kind of trivia, but Encyclopedia always did. That’s how he always nabbed the perp.

I never did read all the Brown books. My childhood ended before Sobol finished crafting them. But many years later, I had the chance to read the first volume of his Two-Minute Mysteries series, which were wickedly short newspaper puzzlers not unlike the ones in Woman’s World magazine today. Sobol published three books culled from this one syndicated mystery column, which he began writing for newspapers in 1959.

But here’s what blew my mind: In the same way that Raymond Chandler “cannibalized” his short stories and their plots in later novels, or the way Ellery Queen repurposed their old radio scripts for later books, Sobol clearly tapped some of his old Dr. Haledjian newspaper shorts for later Encyclopedia Brown material.

Because clues are just that precious.

None of this helped me, by the way, back in the 1970s. The Case of the Purloined Bike didn’t have a single critical clue to guide me. (I wouldn’t have spotted it if it had.) As I recall, the case fell apart when the client threatened to steal our bikes, mine and my brothers. Isn’t that just like a big kid?!

Terrified, I fled my newly hatched office for the safety of my upstairs bedroom, bolting the door. If the world was not going to challenge my ratiocinative abilities, I would not be a party to its madness.


Book #29 —the last in the series.


My younger brother, who has always been physically bigger than me, fought off the big kids with a stick and locked the garage door. He’s the only hero of this story.

I never had another case. But some months later, a commuter on the bus to the big city plopped down next to my father one morning and innocently asked, “Are you a detective?”

My father spluttered that he was no such thing.

The woman showed him my business card.

“That’s gotta be one of my idiot kids!” he told her.

“I thought so,” she said. “But I thought I would ask. I need someone to find my sweater. I can’t find it anywhere.”

Where was this paragon of clienthood when I needed her?

By rights my story ends there. But many years later, when I was working at the children’s publishing company, Scholastic, I had the chance to interview Sobol, who lived in Florida, by phone.

I found him to be incredibly down to earth. He chuckled when I told him about my detective agency. I was not the only grown-up who’d shared such an anecdote with him over the years. Pulling some questions from old bios of him, I asked if he still fished or golfed. He laughed. He said most days he was lucky if he got up from his desk and made it to the refrigerator.

At the end of the interview, I mentioned in passing that our children’s magazine would be reprinting one of the Brown mysteries to accompany the Q&A I was writing.

In a line that sort of presaged my own future, Sobol replied, “Am I getting paid for this? I mean, if it’s just a few bucks, no big deal. But if it’s $25, send me the check.”

His last Brown title was published a few months after he died in the summer of 2012, at age 87. The best estimate I’ve found says the Brown books have sold more than 50 million copies—and counting. That should keep us in budding detectives until the end of this century, at least.

Count me out.

* * * 



See you in three weeks!



29 January 2021

Drinking With Archivists


I have a lovely real-life mystery for you today, but what I really want to talk about is cardboard boxes and what’s hidden inside them.

I’ve written lots of nonfiction, particularly in the self-help/financial/memoir genres, for various ghostwriting clients. But I’ve never done the sort of books my wife writes—deep narrative nonfiction. I was probably in high school the first time I learned the difference between primary and secondary sources. But I had to live to my fourth decade before I ever touched a primary source worth writing about.



By now I’ve tagged along with Denise on research trips to three university libraries, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, two National Archives facilities, a bibliophilic organization in New York, and a presidential archive. And she’s trained me to be a half-competent researcher of online resources. I’ve come away with a profound respect for the work she and archivists do, as well as fostering a deep geek love for old stuff tucked away in new boxes.

Nothing beats holding a letter that was written by hand with a fountain pen a hundred years (or more) ago. Every thing about the artifact screams history. The grain of stationery, its postmarks, and its postage stamps are just the beginning. Sometimes letters are written on the highly ornate stationery of exotic hotels and resorts that are long gone. Other times they’re written on corporate stationery of businesses—such as carriage manufacturers and ice delivery firms, to choose two examples—that barely exist anymore. Sometimes you find poignant sentimental items—dried flowers, coiled human hair, or faded scraps of fabric—tucked into those letters.


Practicing one's penmanship:
"I long have loved you from afar..."

I love the way old letters were folded to get them down to the size of an handmade envelope. Or the creative methods correspondents employed to reduce the total weight of the envelope, and thus the required postage. When they got to the end of a page, they’d maybe turn it upside down and write in between the lines, or diagonally across their previously written text, confident in that their confidante on the other end would be able to decipher it all.


"My dear Paul: I hope you can freaking read this..."

Researchers must quickly learn how to decipher the handwriting of the person they’re researching. But it’s hit or miss. I have found it easy to read the scanned letters (online at the Library of Congress) of Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Declaration of Independence signer, Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey. They had crystal-clear penmanship. But the letters of Edith Bolling Wilson, second wife and widow of Woodrow Wilson, scrawled in chicken scratch with an unsharpened pencil? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Meanwhile, as you pore through these marvelous treasures in archival boxes, the clock is ticking. A friend whose wife earned a doctorate in art history told me how he’d accompany her on research trips to various libraries and archives because “research is a family effort.” He’s totally correct.

Time and money are working against you. You’re usually visiting a new city to access these precious archives, crashing with friends or staying at a hotel. You’re eating out. Maybe you have a flight out of town in three days, and you can’t spare another day researching because you have to be at another facility on Thursday. You get to the archives right when it opens, and you read through lunch. When the library closes, you’re out the door, wired and starved. Your eyeballs are fried, sunlight feels alien, and your smartphone feels like the most artificial thing you’ve ever touched. My time in archives have transformed me into a stationery snob.

Archivists instinctively describe their collections in cubic feet. A banker’s box, roughly 1 cubic foot, can hold about 2,000 sheets of paper. A Hollinger box, on the left down there, holds about a third of that. But in my experience, if you hit a World War II-era box filled with onionskin stock or carbon copies, each of those boxes actually holds about 63 million sheets of paper.


There’s only so many hours in a day. Using finding aids, you can target your search. But sometimes you go on fishing expeditions, hoping to find materials no researcher has ever laid eyes upon. I found that if I worked my butt off, I could maybe get through one full box in a day, or three or four of the smaller ones, if I could single out just the specific folders we thought would be most likely to hold what we were looking for. But because you’re human, you can only survey so much.

Sometimes, archivists are bursting to share juicy tidbits with you, like the time an archivist brought Denise a copy of a report by a young medical doctor, Charles Augustus Leale, who attended a certain tragic theatre performance in Washington, DC, in 1865. Leale was the first doctor to touch Lincoln after that fatal shot, and managed to get the president’s breathing started again. Leale’s account was only discovered by a researcher in 2012. The account perfectly fleshed out a chapter in Denise’s latest book.

To write her first book of this type, my wife accessed the Department of Energy records pertaining to the Manhattan Project held at the National Archives facility in Morrow, Georgia. Fans of the book still occasionally ask if she came across the names of their relatives who worked on the project.

“No,” she says. “But you’re welcome to try finding them yourself. We only got through a handful of boxes, and there are 5,000 more boxes in that collection.”

Math geeks: If you use the conservative estimate that one cubic foot contains 1,800 sheets of paper, that means that one collection alone consists of at least 9 million sheets of government paper. Archival budgets being what they are, most of those boxes have never been opened and processed since they were entrusted to the National Archives. There are tons more books about the Manhattan Project to be written, I assure you. Just not by Denise.


(Naval District records, RG 181, NARA, Morrow, GA)

Which is, by the way, why archivists drink. And when they do, they tell wonderful stories about things they’ve found rooting around the records. One such mystery is the one beginning above. It’s a pair of ads that ran in the New Yorker magazine in November 1941. Taken at face value, they’re just promoting a parlor game. But if you’re in Naval Intelligence in August 1942, and you see German words, references to air-raid shelters, and random letters and numbers, you start thinking secret codes “of a possible subversive nature.”

(Naval District records, RG 181, NARA, Morrow, GA)

"Attention of the Atlanta Zone Intelligence Officer was called to the fact that the dice shown in the various ads contain the numerals 12-7 and 24 and 5. It is to be noted that 12-7 would be December 7th, and 24.0 is practically the latitude of Pearl Harbor."
(Naval District records, RG 181, NARA, Morrow, GA)

Are we really to believe that America’s enemies were communicating via pricy ads in a New York literary magazine? Lieutenant Commander J.L. Laube of the Sixth Naval District certainly thought so. He suggested that someone track down the person who placed the ads on behalf of this mysterious New York publishing company.

Poking around online, I’ve located a few defunct businesses that operated under the same (admittedly common) name. Indeed, several modern publishing companies use the same moniker. (People really like the word monarch, apparently.)

When our friends at the archives first mentioned the ads to me, I knew they had the makings of a decent short story, even if the real-life investigation ended quite prosaically. But that’s the thing. I don’t know how the real-life story ended. Just one more scrap of paper would have satisfied my curiosity. Beginning, middle, and end.

Don’t worry. I’ve got this. That sheet of paper is somewhere in a cardboard box in Morrow, Georgia. I just have to page through a couple of million sheets to find it.

Or I could make it up. That, my friends, is the beauty of fiction.

* * *
 

See you in three weeks!

Joe

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.

* * * 

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.

Livingston

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.

Moore

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.

* * * 

(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.

Moore


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.

Website: Denisekiernan.com

Instagram: Instagram.com/iamdenisekiernan

Twitter: Twitter.com/denisekiernan

Facebook: Facebook.com/DeniseKiernanAuthor

* * *

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

—Joe






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.

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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)

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See you all in three weeks.