Kingman Brewster, David Diamond, and other people who used to own our books

Not many of the books in our library were virgins when we got them.  Emsworth is not unwilling to shell out for new books, but by the time we realize we want a book, the hardcover edition has usually been out of print for decades.  Our library is full of books that used to belong to other people.

We feel connected to those people.  They liked the same authors we like, and if they wrote their names in their books, they surely cared about books and were proud of their libraries.  That’s all to their credit.

People used to put their names in their books as a matter of course.  And they took care with their libraries:  a sticker inside the front cover of an 1898 illustrated edition of James M. Barrie’s The Little Minister reads “Private Library of Bertha L. Field/No. 108.”  Bertha catalogued and numbered the books in her library!  A faded pencil inscription on the opposite page reads “November 23 – 1900.”  Book owners used to be possessive, too:  inside the front cover of our copy of Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front someone originally wrote, in pencil, “This book belongs to Lance Cox,” but those words were lined through by someone who wrote, underneath, “Says you — It belongs to me — Mary Jane Gordon.”

Of many of the original owners of my books we know only their names from their inscriptions.  A copy of Frank Norris’s The Octopus was inscribed by “Bernadette Dickler/K.S.N., Summer 1915.”  James Thurber and E. B. White’s ‘s Is Sex Necessary? was once proudly owned by Catharine F. Strowger.  Sidney Torme, with prescience, once paid $3.50 for a new first edition of John Updike’s The Poorhouse FairMarianne Thornton: A Domestic Biograph, E. M. Forster’s biography of his great-aunt, published in 1956, once belonged to “Grace and Alfred Harris/Cambridge/April 1957.” 

Our books have been all over North America.  Theresa Agnes Cleary, of Chatham, Ontario, used to own a first Canadian edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Helena.  Everett V. McKay Jr. (1925-1990, as a Google search reveals), of Louisville, Kentucky, acquired John Steinbeck’s The Pearl on “16 March 1949.”  Robert K. Coe, Jr., of Whitewater, Wisconsin, once owned J. M. Barrie’s play Quality Street.  Hannah and Samuel Guggenheim, former owners of a 1939 edition of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, were fellow Rochesterians, though I didn’t know them.  Another Rochesterian, Alice L. Connors, of 9 Penfield Road, once owned G. K. Chesterton’s 1922 book What I Saw in America.

Some names inspire curiosity. What kind of man might someone with a Dickensian name like Ira F. Jagger, of Albany, New York, once the owner of a first American edition of P. G. Wodehouse’s Money in the Bank, have been? We found him with a Google search: he was a trust officer in an Albany bank whose wife Olive wrote poems.  He died in 1946, five years after he put his name in the Wodehouse book. 

Other previous owners of our books have had various degrees of celebrity.  Perhaps you’ve heard of Kingman Brewster?  No, not Kingman Brewster, Jr., the law professor who was president of Yale during the troubled 1960s, but his father, Kingman Brewster, Sr., who bought a copy of Emerson’s Representative Men when he was a sophomore at Amherst College.

Using a quill pen, young Mr. Brewster signed his copy “Kingman Brewster/Amherst Coll./Alpha Delta Omega House/Sept 26th 1904.” We learn from the indispensable Wikipedia that Mr. Brewster graduated from Amherst with academic distinction in 1906 and from Harvard Law School in 1911, and that he is a “direct lineal descendant” of the William Brewster who came over on the Mayflower. Who did Emerson identify as “representative men”? Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakepeare, Napoleon, and Goethe.  We especially recommend the essay on Shakespeare.

Academics tend to collect books.  Cornelius Weygandt (1871-1957), an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, bought J. M. Barrie’s Courage, a thin volume containing the text of a speech given by the novelist and playwright at St. Andrews University on May 3, 1922.  Dr. Weigandt had already made a name for himself with a 1913 book, Irish Plays and Playwrights, which is still in print and available on Amazon; later in his career he published a number of books on the culture of the Pennsylvania Germans.  We look forward to adding a Weygandt book or two to our library.

But book collectors come in all types.  Edwin Thanhouser, former owner of a 1928 printing of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge at San Luis Rey, made a lot of money running a motion picture company in New Rochelle, New York from 1909 to 1917 and later collected art; his Bayville, Long Island home was called “Shorewood.”  He had a picture of the house engraved on a sticker that was pasted inside the front cover of the Wilder book (and presumably all the other books in his library); it reads “Edwin Thanhouser/Shorewood.” Just before the title page is the undated autograph of “Marie Thanhouser,” who was his wife’s sister, written with a fountain pen.

Occasionally an inscription gives a whiff of drama, often when the book was a gift. What else can you think of a (price-clipped) Christmas gift of Thomas Mann’s The Beloved Returns: Lotte in Weimar, inscribed “And May He Come/Very Soon — for You/Rudy dear/Christmas 1943.”  Another wartime gift, apparently from a lady who’d been nursing a man long enough to know that he needed intellectual stimulation, was Albert Jay Nock’s 1943 book, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, which was inscribed “With kindest greetings and best wishes/To our Prize Patient/Frank Smith/Desired — to needle his thinking & only a touch/Lilly Pulsifer.” 

And consider this romantic gift of a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Basil and Josephine Stories, inscribed, on the inside cover, “To my Vicki — (see overleaf!), and then, on the overleaf: “September 9, 1973/For my Vicki — /with much love and a little nostalgia . . ./Your Clark forever.”  The stories had originally been published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1928 and 1929.  Had Clark and Vicki read them together, 44 years earlier?

Another J. M. Barrie book, a 1916 American edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, was a gift to “Guinn Hale/from the officers of the O.S.T.S.”  Could that have been the Old Smythetown Temperance Society?  The imagination runs wild.

Some previous owners knew, or at least met, the books’ authors.  August Wilson personally inscribed an edition of his play Seven Guitars “for Dr. Rosemarie Beston/with all best wishes./August Wilson/3-13-97.”  Did they meet at a book signing?  Was the playwright was a guest speaker at Rochester’s Nazareth College, where Dr. Beston served as president from 1984 to 1998?  Oddly, she evidently didn’t want this autographed edition for her own library; in July 1997 she gave it to the college library, which eventually didn’t want it either. 

And the library of distinguished composer David Diamond, a Rochesterian, who died in 2005, included the works of master playwright Edward Albee, most of which are now in our library.  According to an 1999 biography of Albee by Mel Gussow, Diamond and Albee took “an almost immediate dislike to one another” when they first met in 1952; apparently Albee had made disparaging remarks about Diamond’s music.  But in 1958 a mutual friend insisted that Albee send Diamond a copy of his (then unproduced) play The Zoo Story.  “To Albee’s astonishment, the composer was unhesitating in his enthusiasm.”  Diamond wrote Albee a long letter praising the play, offering to help peddle it to contacts in the theater world, concluding “PS/May I keep the copy you sent me?”

We don’t know what happened to Albee’s manuscript, but when The Zoo Story was published in 1960, Diamond got a copy and stamped his  name it it.  A year later, Diamond clipped and pasted a picture of a photo of Albee out of a magazine opposite the title page of his copy of Albee’s The American Dream.  The friendship between the older composer and the younger playwright was alive alive 15 years later; in Diamond’s copy of The Lady from Dubuque (published in 1980) we found a telephone message, dated “Dec 18 11 56 AM ’75,” to Room 918 from “Ed Albee/221 3319.”  We picture a New York hotel desk clerk pulling the message out of the slot and passing it along to Mr. Diamond.  The composer kept a small “With the Compliments of the Author” card in his copy of Gussow’s biography, probably for a bookmark; he wrote a few words in the book’s margin at page 102 amplifying an anecdote in which the biographer had quoted Diamond.

It’s nice when you see that a book owner didn’t forget about a book once he’d first read it.  A 1940 printing of Willa Cather’s 1922 novel One of Ours also has David Diamond’s raised-seal stamp on the title page.  Many years later, in 1973, when the Post Office issued an 8-cent commemorative stamp featuring “Willa Cather/American Novelist,” Mr. Diamond licked one end of it and pasted it in his book on the opposite page.  It’s still there.

Missing books repurposed in Christmas still lifes

Whenever we can’t find a book, it’s usually — well, sometimes — because the wife of our bosom has repurposed it for decorative use around the house.  This is never more likely than at Christmastime, when her seasonal knickknacks come out of storage and she wants books to complement new still life arrangements. 

Consider, for example, the small scene just above (now dismantled; Christmas is over). Central to the arrangement is a useless gadget called a Weinachtspyramide (her folks are German) that makes a propeller-like thing revolve when the candles are lit and generate rising heat.  As a decorative item, it could have stood alone.  But the still life artist in our home saw that its organic character would be enhanced by mounting it on a pair of brownish books and garnishing it with a green wreath on the wall above.

One of those brown books was an old, cheap collection of six Shakespeare plays that we value because it was our father’s.  It was in this volume we first read OthelloBelow the Shakespeare is a 1902 edition of an 1834 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton entitled The Last Days of Pompeii, a story inspired by an enormous, nightmarish, 15- by 21-foot painting by the Russian painter Karl Briullov, also famous in its day. We picked it up (cheap) at a used book shop a year or so ago, thinking that we’d like to find out why the now-obscure Bulwer-Lytton used to be so popular. We haven’t read it yet — there was no hurry, and anyway we’d lost track of the book till we spotted it under the Weinachtspyramide several weeks ago.

You know Bulwer-Lytton: he began his first novel, Paul Clifford, with the immortal line “It was a dark and stormy night,” which not only inspired Charles Schultz but also gave rise to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

On the living-room buffet, propping up a clock (by no means antique), saluted by one of the Magi who seems to have wandered out of his creche, and flanked by a Christmas candle, we found three books by the late Alfred B. Harbage, the Shakespeare scholar whom we belatedly discovered in 2010.  These volumes (especially Theatre for Shakespeare) were the year’s most notable additions to Emsworth’s Shakespeare library. And Professor Harbage’s A Kind of Power: the Shakespeare-Dickens Analogy was also the most valuable addition to our Dickens library in many years.  We’ve appreciated Professor Harbage as much for the pleasure of his prose as for his insights and his scholarship.  To the left of the still-life scene is part of Emsworth’s Christmas present: a vintage set of the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. We’ve been enjoying these volumes tremendously: not just the stories and poems, which are still mesmerizing, but also some of the hack work he wrote for the penny magazines, which is also fascinating in its way.  We’ve now read, for the first time, Poe’s only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

In another collage of miscellanies, next to the living room fireplace, we found a 1937 Somerset Maugham novel entitled Theatre. Frankly, we’d forgotten we had this book too, even though Maugham is one of the reasons we’re going to read the Bulwer-Lytton book. They’re both formerly popular authors whom nobody reads anymore — except Emsworth, who loves Maugham’s short stories and thought Maugham’s 1943 novel The Razor’s Edge one of the best things he read in 2010. (His Cakes and Ale, which we read a couple of years earlier, was also a pleasure.) If Maugham, then why not Bulwer-Lytton?

William Harnett's "Old Models": probably no coincidence

The still-life artist to whom we are married paired Theatre with, appropriately, a stray collection of O’Neill plays, the plaster bust of Schubert that used to sit on our piano, and a cello (strictly decorative).  The fact that she and I saw William Harnett’s 1892 still life “Old Models” in the wonderful new American wing of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts just before Thanksgiving is surely no coincidence.

A still life on our library desk consisted, with elegant simplicity, of a creche (also imported from Germany) and an arrangement of seven volumes of George Eliot’s novels that we snatched up (a steal!) on a Sunday afternoon ramble through central New York last fall.  Over the course of the last month the seven Eliot books could have been seen in several different configurations of lying down and standing upright.

We were especially happy to rediscover on a bedroom dresser, in situ, Volume II of a vintage edition of Granville-Barker’s classic Prefaces to Shakespeare. Now that Christmas is over, we’ve reclaimed it, re-read Granville-Barker’s preface to Romeo and Juliet, and reunited the book with Volume 1. In perhaps her most explicit homage to her favorite still-life masters (Chardin, Cezanne, and the aforementioned William Harnett), our domestic still-life artist had matched it with a volume of de Maupassant, some greenery in a pewter vase, a Christmas lantern, and our wedding picture.

What Martin Chuzzlewit owed to Measure for Measure

Now we’re finding the footprints of Shakespeare everywhere. Several months ago (see this post), we mentioned something that various scholars have observed: the main plot of The Old Curiosity Shop follows that of King Lear. In Lear, of course, the old king rashly gives up everything to his unworthy elder daughters, then finds himself a homeless wanderer and a fugitive, stripped of his reason. He’s restored to peace and sanity by a reunion with his youngest daughter Cordelia before first she, then he, dies.

Charles Dickens

Something a lot like that happens in The Old Curiosity Shop. Little Nell’s grandfather foolishly fritters away everything in gambling dens and lapses into senility, then becomes a wandering fugitive, protected by Little Nell. In a small Shropshire village, the old man finds peace and follows Little Nell to the grave.

We hesitate to think we’re the first to notice that the main storyline in one of Dickens’s less popular novels, Martin Chuzzlewit, is even more closely related to a Shakespeare play. And by no means have we surveyed the vast field of Dickens criticism. But we haven’t seen the relationship between Chuzzlewit and Measure for Measure noted anywhere else.

In Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna, blaming himself for letting morals decline during his lenient rule, and also quietly outraged by the hypocrisy of one of his chief deputies, concocts an elaborate plan for putting things right. He starts by announcing that the deputy, Angelo, will take over his job (absolute ruler of Vienna) while he’s gone on a long trip. Everyone else thinks Angelo is a paragon of virtue, but the Duke knows better; he’s disgusted with Angelo for jilting a young woman and meanly casting aspersions on her character — all because a dowry he had expected from her family had been lost.

Angelo and Isabella

The Duke arranges to stay around town in disguise. Sitting in the Duke’s chair, the self-righteous Angelo takes a hard line against fornication and sentences young Claudio to death for bedding his fiancée before they could be married. But when Claudio’s sister Isabella comes to Angelo to make a personal plea for her brother, Angelo himself is overcome with lust. He refuses to pardon Claudio unless Isabella yields herself to him.

Isabella tells Angelo that to save Claudio, she’ll come to his bed, but the duplicitous deputy gives secret orders for Claudio to be executed anyway. In the nick of time, the watchful Duke emerges from the shadows, springs into action, saves Claudio from the chopping block, exposes Angelo as a hypocrite, and oversees a series of weddings.

The main plot of Martin Chuzzlewit (of course there are various minor plots) has striking parallels. Old Martin Chuzzlewit, wealthy and powerful, is regretting some of his failings (especially his relationship with his grandson and heir, young Martin Chuzzlewit); he’s also revolted by the hypocrisy and pretensions of his relative Seth Pecksniff. He concocts an elaborate plan for putting things right in which he pretends to withdraw from the scene by seeming to fall into senility, pretends to trust Pecksniff as his only friend, and lets Pecksniff speak and act for him. Pecksniff has a great reputation for benevolence and for skill as an architect, but old Martin knows Pecksniff for a colossal hypocrite and a fraud.

Pecksniff rises to the bait. To ingratiate himself with old Martin, he drives away young Martin, who had been his architectural student and who had become engaged against old Martin’s will to the old man’s young secretary and companion, Mary Graham. Found out by his faithful assistant and greatest admirer, Tom Pinch, Pecksniff expels him as well on the lying pretext that Pinch has improper intentions on Mary.

Old Martin gives Pecksniff his comeuppance in an illustration by Wray Manning from our Heritage Press edition of Martin Chuzzlewit

Pecksniff then makes unwelcome advances toward Mary Graham (Victorian sensibilities required Dickens to be far less explicit here than Shakespeare was with Angelo and Isabella). He blackmails Mary by threatening harm to young Martin if she complains of him to old Martin. In the ripeness of time, old Martin emerges from his feigned state of incapacity to expose Pecksniff publicly as a liar and a hypocrite. He reconciles with young Martin and gives his blessing to a series of weddings.

At the heart of both Shakespeare’s play and Dickens’s novel, therefore, is a morality tale of the exposure and punishment of a hypocrite. Parallels abound, but the most important are these:

(a) in each story a powerful senior figure appears to leave the arena, but in fact continues to manipulate people and events from the shadows, like a Greek god;

(b) he confers authority to act for him on a supposed paragon of virtue who is in fact a hypocrite, expecting that the hypocrite will expose himself by abusing his authority,

(c) in the course of his stewardship, the supposed paragon lusts after a virtuous, much younger woman and blackmails her with threats of harm to someone she loves, and

(d) the senior figure reappears and presides over an melodramatic, orchestrated denouement in which he exposes and disgraces the hypocrite.

Barnard's portrait of Pecksniff

Not coincidentally, the schemes for exposing Angelo (in Measure for Measure) and Pecksniff (in Martin Chuzzlewit) as hypocrites both seem unnecessarily complicated. Why couldn’t the Duke simply have stripped Angelo of his position and made him marry the girl he had jilted? And why did old Martin need to pretend to be taken in by the unctuous Pecksniff — why should he have had anything to do with Pecksniff at all? One can only assume that the Duke conferred authority upon Angelo — and that old Martin did the same with Pecksniff — so that their falls would be all the greater.

The schemes of the puppet-masters also seem shockingly unkind; the games go on too long. Even if one grants that Claudio has done wrong by bedding his fiancée before their marriage, Claudio’s punishment seems disproportionate. Claudio is made to believe that he is to be executed at daybreak, and the Duke himself, in the guise of a clergyman, visits Claudio to assure him that he is going to die.

In the same way, in Martin Chuzzlewit, though we rather enjoy seeing selfish young Martin taken down a peg, we feel that old Martin’s “tough love” has gotten out of hand when young Martin comes within an ace of dying of malaria in the swamps of America.

But it’s the blameless — the women and the womanish — in both tales who get the worst of it. Neither the Duke (in Measure for Measure) nor old Martin (in Martin Chuzzlewit) seems to care about the collateral damage flowing from their schemes. It’s bad enough that the Duke blithely lets Isabella believe that her brother is truly in danger of execution. But the Duke also lets Isabella bear the insult of Angelo’s demand for sexual favors, and he seems not to care that she must face the moral dilemma of whether to sacrifice her virtue to save her brother’s life. Claudio’s betrothed, Juliet, is another victim; she is actually in labor when she is told that her lover and the father of her unborn baby is about to be executed.

Pecksniff with old Martin Chuzzlewit

In the same way, old Martin makes the innocent Mary Graham believe that she and young Martin will never be married; worse yet, he lets Mary endure Pecksniff’s groping and leering and the insult of his blackmailing. Like Isabella in Measure for Measure, Mary too is made to face a moral dilemma: should she expose the old goat to old Martin, as justice and her honor requires, when to do so will harm young Martin, to whom she owes her love and loyalty? The decent Tom Pinch is another collateral victim; old Martin Chuzzlewit stands passively by while Tom is stripped of his employment and driven from Pecksniff’s doors.

William Charles Macready. This portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Knowing that Measure for Measure wasn’t especially popular in Dickens’s day, any more than it is now, we got to wondering how the play came to make such an impression on the novelist. As a young man Dickens was constantly at the theater, but he was only twelve years old in 1824, the last time Measure for Measure was played in London before Martin Chuzzlewit was written. One can assume that Dickens was familiar with all of the Shakespeare plays, but the references to the plays in his novels suggest that as a creative writer Dickens was impacted mostly by the dozen or so Shakespeare plays that he saw performed, the ones frequently performed at Drury Lane or Covent Garden, like Macbeth and King Lear.

We think, after a little research, that the answer probably has to do with Dickens’s close friendship with the distinguished actor William Charles Macready. As we noted in an earlier post, Dickens was even more than usually immersed in Shakespeare during the period (1837 to 1843) when he was writing Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Martin Chuzzlewit. And on June 16, 1837, Dickens was introduced to Macready, the leading figure in London theater, a pre-eminent Shakespearean actor, and a student of Shakespeare. They promptly became close friends.

Over the next 40 months, Macready recorded in his journal at least 31 occasions in which he spent time with Dickens — dining with him and sometimes Mrs. Dickens too, going here and there with Dickens, consulting with Dickens about Macready’s theatrical projects, reading new plays recommended by Dickens, being visited by Dickens in his dressing room after performances, being toasted by Dickens at the Shakespeare Club. (Among other things, Macready advised Dickens of the “utter impracticability” of adapting Oliver Twist for the stage.) Dickens clearly reveled in his friendship with Macready; he dedicated Nicholas Nickleby to Macready and sent him an inscribed copy.

In the latter part of 1837 Macready took over the management of the Covent Garden Theatre and made Shakespeare a staple of its repertoire. Macready’s journal indicates that Dickens became personally involved with Macready’s work at Covent Garden, which included revivals of Macbeth, King Lear, The Tempest, Henry V, and other plays. It also records that Macready wrestled with whether some of the lesser-known Shakespeare plays could be effectively performed as written; he studied The Winter’s Tale closely and mounted it at Covent Garden in the latter part of 1837, but rejected Timon of Athens outright.

One of the plays that Macready was considering was Measure for Measure. The play was not nearly as obscure as Timon; in fact, Macready himself had played the part of the Duke at Drury Lane in 1824. On several dates in August 1837, Macready noted in his journal that he was laboring over the task of memorizing (or perhaps re-memorizing) the Duke’s lines.

In the end, Macready didn’t revive Measure for Measure at Covent Garden after all, nor, apparently, did he ever perform the role of the Duke on stage again. But given the new intimacy between Macready and Dickens at this time and for the next several years, it is no stretch to infer that Macready and Dickens discussed Measure for Measure and the character of the Duke, vetted ideas as to how the play might be staged, and perhaps even rehearsed lines together, thus impressing the story of the play on Dickens’s creative subconscious.

Measure for Measure wasn’t played again in London until 1846 (without Macready). In the meantime, Dickens picked up the threads of Macready’s aborted project and transformed the sixteenth-century story of the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella into the nineteenth-century story of old Martin, Pecksniff, and Mary Graham. The first of 20 monthly installments of Martin Chuzzlewit appeared in January 1843.

Shakespeare in Nicholas Nickleby

Macready as Shylock

We’ve spent a lot of time digging into Shakespeare in the years since we last read Nicholas Nickleby, and this time through the novel we paid a lot more attention to what Dickens said about Hamlet, Othello, and theater in general.

Dickens’s interest in Shakespeare was probably never higher than while he was writing Nickleby. Among other things, it was in 1838 that his close friend, the actor William Charles Macready, put on the first King Lear in two hundred years that actually used nothing but Shakespeare’s original text, with Lear’s fool restored to the play and without the “happy ending” that seventeenth- and eighteen-century directors had substituted for Shakespeare’s.  The novel’s episodes involving an ensemble of provincial touring players give us an idea of what was on Dickens’s mind, drama-wise, during this period of his life.

Nickleby let Dickens get in some licks about some of his pet peeves.  For instance, there was apparently a lot of nonsense passing for Shakespeare “criticism” in the 1830s, just as there is now. We meet, briefly, Mr. Curdle, who

had written a pamphlet of sixty-four pages, post octavo, on the character of the Nurse’s deceased husband in Romeo and Juliet, with an inquiry whether he really had been a ‘merry man’ in his lifetime, or whether it was merely his widow’s affectionate partiality that induced her so to report him.

One can only wonder what Dickens would have thought of some of the arcane titles of masters and doctoral theses being written today.

And there was apparently also misguided sentiment for Shakespearean actors of bygone days:

“It’s not as if the theatre was in its high and palmy days . . . the drama is gone, perfectly gone. . . . What man is there, now living, who can present before us all those changing and prismatic colours with which the character of Hamlet is invested?” exclaimed Mrs Curdle.

‘What man indeed — upon the stage,” said Mr Curdle, with a small reservation in favour of himself. “Hamlet! Pooh! ridiculous! Hamlet is gone, perfectly gone.”

William Hogarth's 1745 portrait of David Garrick as Richard III. Perhaps it was the Garrick era of Shakespearean acting that the Curdleses were nostalgic for.

Dickens and his friends at the Shakespeare Club, which was active during 1838 and 1839, must have passed at least some of their time making fun of drama purists who insisted that plays exhibit Aristotle’s “unities.” We couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Curdle’s notion of “the unities” wasn’t much different, or any more precise, from what devotees of a certain modern-day cult think and say about “diversity”:

“I hope you have preserved the unities, sir?” said Mr Curdle.

“The original piece is a French one,” said Nicholas. “There is abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, strongly-marked characters—”

“—All unavailing without a strict observance of the unities, sir,” returned Mr Curdle. “The unities of the drama, before everything.”

“Might I ask you,” said Nicholas, hesitating between the respect he ought to assume, and his love of the whimsical, “might I ask you what the unities are?”

Mr Curdle coughed and considered. “The unities, sir,” he said, “are a completeness—a kind of universal dovetailedness with regard to place and time—a sort of a general oneness, if I may be allowed to use so strong an expression. I take those to be the dramatic unities, so far as I have been enabled to bestow attention upon them, and I have read much upon the subject, and thought much. . . . — I don’t know whether I make myself understood?”

“Perfectly,” replied Nicholas.

Dickens’s point, of course, was that great plays like Hamlet and Henry V, not to mention then-new plays like Victor Hugo’s Hernani, paid no regard to the “unities” whatsoever and succeeded because of their “abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, [and] strongly-marked characters.”

And Dickens clearly had affection for actors who went above and beyond in preparing to play their roles. As his character Vincent Crummles says,

“We had a first-tragedy man in our company once, who, when he played Othello, used to black himself all over. But that’s feeling a part and going into it as if you meant it; it isn’t usual; more’s the pity.”

Dickens presumably would have appreciated modern-day “method” actors like Robert Duvall and the late Marlon Brando who spend months immersing themselves first-hand in the culture of their characters.

We had failed to notice, until we saw it pointed out in this fine essay by Dr. Paul Schlicke, that the principal storyline in The Old Curiosity Shop resembles that of King Lear.  We can’t detect any such direct correlation between Nicholas Nickleby and a Shakespeare play.  Still, when we read the speech in chapter 61 in which Nicholas tells his sister Kate that the two of them will grow old as bachelor and old maid together (“But rich or poor, or old or young, we shall ever be the same to each other, and in that our comfort lies”), we felt certain we were hearing an echo of Lear’s wonderful speech to Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.”

And Dickens wrapped up this novel the same way that Shakespeare ended several of his plays: with arbitrary weddings for all the deserving characters. Dickens didn’t prepare us for the mating up of Miss La Creevy and old Tim Linkinwater any better than Shakespeare prepared us for the pairing of Paulina and old Camillo at the end of Winter’s Tale (still fresh in our mind from seeing this year’s wonderful production of that play in Stratford, Ontario; see this post).

Peter Ackroyd’s case for the Stratford man

We hardly ever buy books when they’re freshly published, which is why we’re only now getting around to Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography, which came out in 2005. It was a Father’s Day gift this year from our Goneril, the eldest of our three daughters.

Now, Emsworth has grave doubts as to whether the subject of this “biography” was actually the author of the “Shakespeare” plays and poems. (See this post, and this one too.) We think it far more likely that Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers.  But we still think Ackroyd’s book is a worthy read.

Peter Ackroyd is a Stratfordian, and like most of his kind he deals with the “authorship” question mainly by pretending to ignore it. His book barely mentions Oxford at all. But Shakespeare authorship was surely on his mind, because good portions of this “biography” amount to an advocacy brief on behalf of the traditional candidate. 

The Cobbe Shakespere portrait

Not that it’s a bad brief. We grant that Ackroyd cites a few circumstances that affirmatively tend to link the Stratford man to the writing of the plays. But they’re not nearly enough, in quality or quantity, to convince Emsworth. A lot of what Ackroyd gleans about the writer from the internal evidence of the plays and sonnets — which is his main technique — simply can’t be related to the man from Stratford. Indeed, Ackroyd sometimes admits as much.

For instance, Ackroyd says there is so much woodland imagery in As You Like It and other plays that the playwright had to have been a country boy (as the Stratford man was), not a city boy. There are so many references to gloves and how they’re made, he says, that the playwright must have known a glover (it’s known that William Shakespeare’s father was a glover).

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

That is the sort of thing Oxfordians do, too. They point out (to take two examples out of a great many) that whoever wrote Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew almost certainly had first-hand knowledge of the geography and customs of Italy (as de Vere did) and that the playwright had first-hand knowledge of the ways of royals and noblemen (as de Vere had).

Often as not, though, what Ackroyd takes from the plays doesn’t match up to anything we know about the life of the actor from Stratford, which of course isn’t much. Because the plays are riddled with references to falconry, Ackroyd says, the playwright must have known a lot about it — so he infers that, at some point, William Shakespeare must have worked as a tutor for a nobleman who kept falcons. And from the fact that there’s a lot of legal terminology in the plays, Ackroyd concludes that William Shakespeare must have spent time as apprentice to a solicitor in Stratford.

The world's best-known female lawyer was a fictional character in The Merchant of Venice. This "Portia" is by the Victorian artist Henry Woods.

This is just guesswork. There’s no other evidence that the Stratford man ever worked as a tutor or ever studied law. On the other hand, it is known that as a boy Edward de Vere was tutored by Sir Thomas Smith, who was devoted to falconry, at Smith’s estate at Ankerwycke. It is also known that de Vere was actually admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1566 to study law.

Some of Ackroyd’s other points are a bit of a stretch, too. For instance, stage directors are sparse in the Shakespeare plays, from which Ackroyd infers that the playwright himself was at the company’s rehearsals to tell the rest of the players what to do. But that’s something that might strike you only if you already assumed that William Shakespeare, the actor, wrote the plays.  Ackroyd correctly notes that strife between brothers is a theme in Shakespeare plays (for instance, Edgar and Edmund in King Lear, Prospero and Antonio in The Tempest, Orlando and Oliver in As You Like It) — from which he posits that William Shakespeare, the eldest boy in his family, had trouble with his younger brothers. It’s pure speculation; there’s no other evidence of it.

For all this, we don’t hesitate to recommend Shakespeare: The Biography. Peter Ackroyd is a gracious writer; we know him from of old as the author of our favorite biography of Charles Dickens. Like all Shakespeare “biographies,” only a fraction of his book deals directly with its ostensible subject; this book is essentially a history of the London theater from 1580 to 1620.

But it’s still full of interesting things we didn’t know. And many of the chapters of this book are excellent essays about the plays; Ackroyd’s pleasure in writing about something he loves is transparent.

Political correctness takes a hunk out of Peter Pan at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Banished from Neverland

Just when you think that political correctness has done its worst, some fresh horror comes along. What possible excuse could the Stratford Festival have for banishing Tiger Lily and the Indians from Neverland?  

Among all the fantastic denizens of Neverland, the Indian princess is by far the worthiest. Captain Hook murders his own men when the whim strikes. Peter Pan is impossibly vain and selfish. The Lost Boys tell lies about the mothers they never knew. The crocodile is a monomaniac. Amidst these villains and rogues, Tiger Lily alone is decent and heroic.  

James M. Barrie’s Indian princess is the essence of courage under pressure. Captured by the pirates, tied to Marooner’s Rock to be drowned by the rising tides, and facing spiritual torture, Tiger Lily stands resolute, as Mr. Barrie tells us in Peter and Wendy (his novelization of his play):  

Her hands and ankles were tied, and she knew what was to be her fate. Yet her face was impassive; she was the daughter of a chief, she must die as a chief’s daughter, it is enough. She was to be left on the rock to perish, an end to one of her race more terrible than death by fire or torture, for is it not written in the book of the tribe that there is no path through water to the happy hunting-ground?  

A prototypical feminist, Tiger Lily is in control of her own sexuality. From Peter Pan, Act II:  

She is the belle of the Piccaninny tribe, whose braves would all have her to wife, but she wards them off with a hatchet.  

Accomplished in woodcraft, she is a natural leader. Again from Peter Pan, Act II:  

TIGER LILY comes first. She puts her ear to the ground and listens, then beckons, and GREAT BIG LITTLE PANTHER and the tribe are around her, carpeting the ground.  

As the Indians track noiselessly along the warpath, Barrie shows us Tiger Lily “bringing up the rear, the place of greatest danger.” She is “proudly erect, a princess in her own right.”  

From a 1907 book

And to her friends, Tiger Lily is loyal to the death. Grateful to Peter Pan for rescuing Tiger Lily from the Marooning Rock, the Indians guard the home of the Lost Boys and suffer heavy casualties when the pirates attack.  

What finer fictional role model could a girl have? What better symbol of feminist empowerment? No wonder that young women clamor to play this strong, brave, virtuous, loyal heroine.   

But there’s no Indian princess in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2010 production of Peter Pan, which we recently saw.  Yes, there is a female character named Tiger Lily who is part of the “Marooning Rock” scene, but she’s not an Indian princess, does not lead a band of braves, and has no “Indian” characteristics.  Out of an absurdly misplaced sense that she and the other Indians are offensive to native Americans, director Tim Carroll has cut them out of the play and replaced them with preening, bare-bellied “Amazons”. 

The cover page of a 1915 book illustrates the three-way balance of power on Neverland

Consider the violence this does to the integrity of the play. First, it distorts the balance of power in Neverland. Anticipating Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four by 45 years, Barrie created a violent world with three powers in perpetual states of war and shifting alliances. But the Stratford show has only the Lost Boys against the pirates.  The nameless Amazons have no higher profile than Neverland’s mermaids, wolves, or fairies.  

Eliminating the Indian princess also destroys the parallels between the Darling household and the fantasy island. The play is so constructed that the actor who plays Mr. Darling, who pretends to be a stern master in his house, can also play Hook, who is a bona fide tyrant. (For example, Christopher Newton played both parts in the Shaw Festival’s 1987 Peter Pan.) The actress who plays the patient Mrs. Darling can also play the stoical, virtuous Tiger Lily. (In the Shaw Festival’s 1987 Peter Pan, Nora McLellan played both parts.) Indeed, the playwright means us to understand that, in the children’s imaginations, their parents are Hook and Tiger Lily.

But in the Stratford show, Mrs. Darling has no counterpart in Neverland.  In fact, the faux Amazon “Tiger Lily” jumps into the play as a fantasy projection of a character invented solely by Mr. Carroll for this show: Lily, the narrator’s (Mr. Barrie’s) maid.

The base of the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Park, which we visited on our trip to London several years ago, is composed of a jumble of the magical and wonderful people of Neverland

Most important, replacing the Indians with bland “Amazons” violates the premise that Neverland and its inhabitants as the ultimate projection of the children’s fertile imaginations. Even in their Bloomsbury home, the fantasy life of Wendy, Peter, and Michael is so powerful that pretense can hardly be distinguished from reality. The children imagine the dog Nana as a nurse — and she is a nurse. They imagine their father as an overgrown child, and that is just how he behaves.  

In Neverland, where the children’s imaginations rule absolutely, the world of the nursery reappears, transformed. We need only look around Neverland to know just what toys the Darling children have in their nursery, what games they play in nearby Kensington Park, and what children’s books they burrow into on rainy days. Especially the books — luridly illustrated memoirs of bloodthirsty pirates! Picture folios of exotic, stupendous beasts (like wolves and crocodiles)! Stories of sailors, sirens, and mermaids! Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales! Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans.  Stories of strange, un-Englishlike peoples and their strange ways in the far corners of the world! Stories of the British empire, its frontiers, and its heroes! And more than one volume in the children’s library, surely, about the diverse customs and ways of North American Indians.  

Mary Martin and Sondra Lee as Peter Pan and Tiger Lily in the 1960 musical adaptation

When children play, anything is possible, including a world co-inhabited by such unlikely real-world companions as mermaids, pirates, wolves, and Indians.  But who would really suppose that “Amazons” were part of the Darling children’s fantasy world? The toy chest and doll house in their nursery surely included wooden pirates, tin soldiers and sailors, mermaids, fairies, cowboys, and Indians — but what girl ever played with “Amazon” dolls? In 1904, middle-class English children learned Greek mythology, but one can’t imagine that these children would ever have been taught about giant female warriors who (according to legend) cut off their right breasts so as to facilitate the use of bows and spears, and who (again according to legend) kept men as slaves and mated with them once a year to propagate the race.  

And the Darling children would never have dreamed up the provocatively dressed creatures in the Stratford show. (One blogger who saw Peter Pan in Stratford thought the Amazons looked like Xena the Warrior Princess.) It may be that in today’s hypersexualized culture, prepubescent children may fantasize about dressing up like Lady Gaga. But these were Victorian children.  

(Curiously, the Amazons are played by actresses of ordinary size who hardly suggest the plus-size women warriors of legend. While Mr. Carroll’s concern for the feelings of native Americans does him credit, he was apparently unconcerned that women like our wife might think the Amazons were there only as eye candy for male patrons like us.)

And did the Stratford Festival think for a moment that today’s kids would have any idea who “Amazons” were, or know anything about their mythical matriarchal society? The kids will instantly recognize the pirates, the mermaid, and the fairy Tinkerbelle. The Amazons will only puzzle them.  

Perhaps Brit director Tim Carroll was merely casting about for a people so imaginary that no modern-day people could possibly be offended. But if putting Tiger Lily on stage might offend people, it’s time for people to adjust their sensitivity meters. 

In writing Peter Pan James M. Barrie never set out to show us anything “true” about native Americans, pirates, fairies, mermaids or anyone else.  What Mr. Barrie did set out to do was to show us how highly imaginative children think when they play. As Mr. Barrie announced at the beginning of his play, “All the characters, whether grown-ups or babes, must wear a child’s outlook on life as their only important adornment.” The Indians, like all the other characters in Peter Pan, are only playmates who behave in accordance with the arbitrary and ever-changing rules of children’s play, as illustrated in this wonderful scene from Peter and Wendy:  

Should we take the brush with the redskins at Slightly Gulch? It was a sanguinary affair, and especially interesting as showing one of Peter’s peculiarities, which was that in the middle of a fight he would suddenly change sides. At the Gulch, when victory was still in the balance, he called out, “I’m redskin to-day; what are you, Tootles?” And Tootles answered, “Redskin; what are you, Nibs?” and Nibs said, “Redskin; what are you Twin?” and so on; and they were all redskins; and of course this would have ended the fight had not the real redskins, fascinated by Peter’s methods, agreed to be lost boys for that once, and so at it they all went again, more fiercely than ever.  

Does Peter Pan — as Mr. Barrie wrote it — include caricatured elements of native Americans? Of course it does — and wildly inaccurate stereotypes of mothers, fathers, pirates, and mermaids, too. In conceiving Tiger Lily and her people, these Victorian children jumbled together all the romantic and exotic bits of information they thought they knew about North American Indian tribes. What else would children do? 

All that is true in Peter Pan is its portrait of three children’s fantasy life. That’s more than enough. 

Aside from missing Tiger Lily in the show — no small point — Emsworth thought that the Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan was pretty good entertainment. See this post

Peter Pan at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan is not a stage version of the Disney movie, nor is it the dreadful musical play version that schools often do. It’s the original.

Two minutes before showtime, the only empty seat in the Avon Theater was right in front of us.  A woman explained to us that when her little son saw the gauze screen veiling the stage, he remembered a movie that had scared him, began crying, and had to be taken out.  The boy never did see the splendid sets or costumes or any of the wonderfully choreographed action of Peter Pan in person; he watched it all on the lobby monitor with his grandmother.

This was a shame, we thought afterward, because this was just the sort of Peter Pan that a fainthearted child could safely enjoy.  The Darling children’s father (Sanjay Talwar), lampooned and patronized by his wife and children, is neither formidable nor fearsome.  The pirates are lovably cartoonish, and the bumbling, benign Captain Hook (Tom McCamus) won’t inspire nightmares.

As for Neverland’s savage Indians — wait, this Peter Pan doesn’t have any Indians!  — merely playful, posing, sexy “Amazons”.  We’ll have more to say in a later post about this alarming capitulation to the tyranny of political correctness.  (Here it is.)

J. M. Barrie

In short, even though this Peter Pan is still a ripping children’s adventure tale, it’s painted in broad strokes and scrubbed of whatever might either offend or stimulate. And it betrays the influence of decades of Disney and Pixar cartoon features. An essay in the program reminded us that Peter Pan topped one drama scholar’s list of the finest English language plays of the twentieth century.  (Emsworth, who is devoted to J. M. Barrie’s novels as well as to his plays, would rank it nearly as high.)  But this production does not suggest nearly enough of the psychological complexity of this dark play — too little of what puts Peter Pan in the ranks of plays like PygmalionDeath of a Salesman, and Fences.

At the Shaw Festival in 2000 we were fortunate to see a Peter Pan that did, indeed, mine the riches of James M. Barrie’s play, a show that is among our most memorable theater experiences.  We will remember the Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan, on the other hand, mostly because it was our eldest grandson’s very first play.

Boy and swan along the banks of the Stratford-on-Avon

Our excursion to Stratford, Ontario with this seven-year-old was a great success.  He tolerated the long drive and back with admirable patience, had fun trying to feed the swans along the river, was mesmerized by the play, and thrilled at the swordfights and the crocodile. And he never ran out of questions.  Were these real pirates?  Is Captain Hook really dead?  Does the man write a different play every night?  (In this production there’s a narrator — not J. M. Barrie’s idea, but intended to represent him — who sits at a table to the side of the stage writing the play, which unfolds in his imagination before our eyes.)

Michael Therriault as Irving Berlin in the 2009 Broadway musical “Tin Pan Alley Rag”

There’s still a lot to enjoy in this show, including plenty of clever sight gags and fine acting from the entire large cast.  Michael Therriault bucks the tradition of casting a slender woman as Peter Pan; he is lithe and acrobatic, vain and cocky, with a strong stage presence.  Our grandson noticed right away, though, that Mr. Therriault doesn’t look much like a boy.  We had to agree; in fact, the 36-year-old actor is a good deal closer to his grandpa’s age than to his. We also noticed that the diminutive figure of Michael, the youngest of the Darling children (played by Stacie Steadman), was not very boyish.

We thought Sanjay Talwar was a riot as Mr. Darling and that the ensemble work of the Lost Boys was immensely entertaining.  Sara Topham was an excellent Wendy — although the way she delivered some of her lines gave me flashbacks to The Importance of Being Ernest, in which Ms. Topham played Gwendolen Fairfax last year in Stratford (see Emsworth’s thoughts on that worthy show).

Sara Topham last season as Gwendolyn Fairfax

J. M. Barrie’s original 1904 stage play has no part for a narrator, but this show does (James Kirriemuir, who, unlike the other actors, is miked for sound). The narration is, at least, still the playwright’s prose, for the most part, taken either from his detailed stage directions, which help make the original play a joy to read, or from Peter and Wendy, the tremendously popular novelization of the play that Barrie himself wrote five years later.  Still, we felt there was too much of it.

Why a narrator at all?  We suppose Brit director Tim Carroll saw it as a device for speaking directly to the patrons; at one point the narrator invited us to chime in on which of several episodes in Neverland they’d like to see played.

But Peter Pan already includes the most famous bit of audience participation in modern theater: the moment when, with the fairy Tinkerbelle’s life hanging in the balance, Peter Pan asks the children in the audience to clap if they believe in fairies.  We thought having Mr. Barrie address the audience detracted from the thrill and uniqueness of the “save Tinkerbelle” moment.

We missed the play’s final coda (Mr. Barrie wrote it but regarded as optional) in which Peter returns to take Wendy back to Neverland for “spring cleaning” after she has grown up and has a daughter of her own.  But this wistful, sentimental scene did not belong, perhaps, in a production like this.

As promised, Emsworth’s thoughts on the Stratford Festival’s thoroughly disgraceful capitulation to political correctness — a Peter Pan without Tiger Lily, the Indian princess! — are at this post.

More broadly, Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on the entire lineup of shows at the Stratford Festival in 2010 are at this post.

Another new take on Hamlet: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

To our surprise, we’ve read two novels in the last year that riffed off Hamlet.  The first was John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, a clever “prequel” to Hamlet that used Shakespeare’s characters (see this Emsworth post). The second was a fairly new, equally clever, popular novel urged upon us by our wife: David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

David Wroblewski

Unlike Updike, Wroblewski invented his own characters for Edgar Sawtelle, and he set his story in central Wisconsin, not Denmark, but he purposefully took his plot directly from Hamlet. As a result, nearly all the characters represent figures from Hamlet; in fact, some of their names deliberately evoke Shakespeare’s characters. Edgar’s mother, for example, is not “Gertrude,” but “Trudy.” Edgar’s uncle (who becomes Trudy’s lover) is not “Claudius,” but merely Claude. Just as Prince Hamlet’s name was the same as his murdered father’s, Edgar’s name is the same as his father (“Gar”), who is also murdered.

If you’re into Shakespeare, part of the fun of reading Edgar Sawtelle is figuring out which character corresponds to which Hamlet character, and which scenes correspond to which scenes in the play. The royal court’s trusted adviser Polonius, for instance, becomes the Sawtelle family’s trusted friend Dr. Papineau, a veterinarian who advises the Sawtelles on their family business of breeding and training dogs. Laertes becomes the vet’s son Glen, who blames Edgar for his father’s accidental death. The reader is startled to realize, a third of the way through Edgar Sawtelle, that Ophelia is represented by Edgar’s dog, Almondine.

One might well ask whether the essential plot of Hamlet truly has such universality that it merits retelling. When we think of the core stories and legends of our culture — Oedipus and his complex; Ulysses and his long journey home; the Prodigal Son; Hansel and Gretel; the quest for the Holy Grail, to name a few — we think of motifs that trigger sympathetic vibrations deep within us: a boy’s intense, jealous love for his mother, a child’s fear of being left alone, a young man’s wanderlust, the universal yearning for the transcendent. These themes appear and reappear in our literature.

But what of Hamlet‘s story?  Does each of us have a primal fear that our uncle will murder our father to marry our mother?  We all have mothers, we’re all afraid of being abandoned, and we all feel at times that we’re born to wander, but how many of us have nightmares in which our uncles replace our fathers in our mothers’ beds?

The part of Hamlet that resonates, of course, is his dithering and equivocation, his procrastination, and his self-loathing. We can all identify with indecision, and in Edgar Sawtelle Mr. Wroblewski duly makes young Edgar vacillate over what to do after he learns that his uncle has murdered his father. But here the story is strained; noble deeds decisively performed may be expected of a prince, but Edgar is just a boy.

And so Mr. Wroblewski’s gimmick of recycling key elements from Hamlet doesn’t always work — especially with ghostly occurrences.  Those were part of Prince Hamlet’s world, but Edgar Sawtelle is the story of secularized, twentieth-century Americans living somewhat unconventional but nevertheless thoroughly American lives on a farm in Wisconsin, a world where otherworldly manifestations have no place. When the deceased Gar appears to his son Edgar as a ghost, and when other unnatural events occur, one can’t help feeling that the supernatural has been forced into a story where it does not belong, merely because the author concluded that a “re-telling” of Hamlet had to have a ghost.

Other elements seem forced, as well. Because Hamlet includes a scene in which Prince Hamlet persuades the traveling players to re-enact on stage the scene in which Claudius pours poison in his brother’s ear, Mr. Wroblewski wrote a scene in which Edgar’s trained dogs re-enact the scene in which Claude injects his brother with poison. The scene taxes our credulity. And again: in the middle of Hamlet, the prince is dispatched off to England by his uncle. In Edgar Sawtelle, young Edgar is also exiled — but where Hamlet’s adventures away from Elsinore occupy very little of the play (and occur offstage), Edgar’s wanderings around rural Wisconsin (an odyssey that during which, un-Hamlet-like, Edgar learns important truths about himself) occupy a quarter of the novel.

The last few pages of Emsworth’s softcover edition of Edgar Sawtelle included something he has never seen in any book: a transcript of a fawning interview with the author about how he wrote the book (it took him 10 years). Sample (and remember that Edgar’s dog Almondine represents Ophelia): “”That being said, your ‘Ophelia’ is the first one I’ve ever really understood emotionally.” “Thanks very much. I’m very proud to hear you say that.”

We rolled our eyes, figuratively speaking, when we learned from this interview that Mr. Wroblewski (who was 48 years of age in 2008 when this, his first and only novel so far, finally came out) spent a good deal of time talking about it in a masters program writer’s workshop. One thing he and his fellow work-shoppers must have fussed over was whether readers would stay interested in a novel whose twists and turns would necessarily be so predictable.  There was no need to worry.  Either because or in spite of the advice Mr. Wroblewski got from his workshop, Edgar Sawtelle is a first-class page-turner; we know what’s going to happen, but we’re desperate to know how. The prose is excellent, the characters are truly drawn, and Mr. Wroblewski’s powers of description are fully equal to his powers of narration. The book is a keeper.