I SAW YOU WITH LAST NIGHT?
Here at Surinam Turtle Press it has been our pleasure to lead a revival of interest in the works of Gelett Burgess (1866-1951). A Bostonian by birth, Burgess became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, but was invited to leave that post when it was learned that he had personally wielded a sledgehammer in the demolition of a self-glorifying statue erected by dentist and temperance advocate Henry Cogswell.
Academia’s loss was popular culture’s gain, as Burgess forged a lengthy and prolific career as editor, publisher, versifier, cartoonist, and author. His novel Lady Méchante was published by the Frederick A. Stokes Company in October, 1909. By this time Burgess was already well established in the popular prints, and the book received considerable attention.
Two of our editorial interns here at the Surinam Turtle Press wing of Ramble House World Headquarters, Ms. Asenath Gilpin and Mr. Caleb van Hopkins, having shown particular interest in Burgess, were asked to research this author, particularly with regard to the publication of Lady Méchante.
Ms. Gilpin was the first to produce an historical document dealing with the book. This anonymous notice appeared in The New York Times.
THE “BEST SELLERS”
Gelett Burgess Gives a Commentary
on Things Literary.
NOT in a long time have “best sellers,” magazines, and modern “literature” generally received such a satisfactory and thorough trouncing as in Gelett Burgess’s new book, Lady Méchante, published by the Frederick A. Stokes Company. Every feature of modern American life is satirized in the book, in the concluding chapter of which the heroine picks out a coal heaver named Haulick Smagg and makes him a society leader in six months, but neither in the “roasts” on the Four Hundred, on modern art and music, on Carnegie Hall, on “bohemianism,” on Colonial and Revolutionary societies, or anything else is there a harder hit than in those passages where Mr. Burgess dissects what vacuous-minded headline writers on certain newspapers call “Bookland.”
Wrestling Brewster Bradford, whom the author uses as a target for his satire of the Mayflower descendants and other historical and genealogical societies, is a Bostonian and a writer. So subtle and refined is his art, however, that he is able to sell his stories only to The Atlantic Review and The North American Monthly. His greatest ambition is to write for Munsey’s.
“Do you like Munsey’s?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Like it! Why, I adore it, and that’s no mere figure of speech. Why, people read that magazine; they don’t leave it on the lower shelf on the library table or send it to the lighthouse man. They gloat; they devour. Women read it, and it’s women who make fame and fortune for writers. God! If I could ever take up that magazine, with its picture of a slim, anemic female on the cover, with the blurb underneath: ‘I consider this number of my magazine about the hottest piece of pie that was ever shoved over the counter. It has snap and go and pepper and brains in it. Read it and see if I haven’t got Kipling locked into the coal cellar ringing up information.’ If I could find a story of mine underneath that cover I’d know I’d made good!” He strode up and down the room in his excitement.
“Still, there aren’t many who can turn out the sort of fiction that you are capable of. Why, it’s equal to George Meredith, it seems to me. You have the true literary instinct.”
“That’s just the trouble. I don’t want the true literary instinct. I want to write one of the Six Best Sellers. I want to appear in that immortal list of names for at least one month, in at least one town.”
“I suppose you would get more royalties,” said Lady Méchante, leading him on.
“Royalties be hanged! I’d get more fame, hot off the saucepan, made while you wait. I want to be able to go into the public library at East Bend, Iowa, and take down my novel off the shelf and find it read to a frazzle—worn and torn and sticky with chewing gum, half the leaves gone, the covers loose—and scrawled across the title page: ‘This is a good book!’ That’s the test of literary success.”
The book reviewer and critic is thus defined by the author:
“But you must get good reviews,” said Lady Méchante. “That ought to console you some.”
“Reviewers! There’s no such thing left as literary criticism. Why, I knew a girl on The Boston Ledger who is a friend of the literary editor. She takes home six volumes a week. Two she reads herself; she gives one to her grandmother, one to her mother, one to her little sister, and one to the Irish cook. They tell her what they think about them, and she writes it down and turns it in. No, there’s only one reviewer worth considering.”
He shook his finger at her.
“And that’s the little girl in Terre Haute who goes down to the bookstore and rummages the counter till she finds a book with a pretty girl on the cover and illustrations by Misty, plenty of conversation, and a happy ending—the little girl that takes it home with a box of caramels, pins a blanket over the transom of her door, and sits up and reads till 3 o’clock, and then talks about it next day. That’s who I want to write for. There’s a string of ’em from here to San Francisco, all reading the same book at the same time. I’d like to marry one of them and find out what they’re like. Perhaps I could get an idea how to sell more than twenty-five hundred copies of them.”
And what is possibly the author’s own experience with the editing of editors and publishers follows:
“Why, you have set your name in American literature!” Lady Méchante protested.
“I’d rather set my name in The Woman’s Comrade. I never saw a girl in a street car reading one of my books. Why, even when I do sell one the publisher is frightened to death of my copy. In the last one they made me expurgate three dots—. . .—that they said were too suggestive. Could my heroine have a ‘laughing devil in her eye’? Not much. They changed it to ‘laughing light.’ They made her go home at 10 o’clock instead of 11, and forbade her to wear silk stockings. The natural inference was, of course, that she went around barelegged. Publishers didn’t care, so long as it wasn’t mentioned. I don’t care, either. If I could invent a woman who had nothing but head and hands, I’d do it, too. The trouble is, I suppose, I know too much about society to write about it successfully, and I’ve seen too many real women with characters and brains to be able to draw the paper dolls the little girls want nowadays. But I’ll do it, by Heaven, if I have to get my little niece to help me! I’ll sell in the Middle West yet. But I’ll have to get a bottle of pale blue ink to write with.”
Mr. Burgess has already added two good, hard-working words (“goop” and “bromide”) to the vocabulary of American slang. With his invention of the word “smaggs” and “smaggery,” as illustrated by the society coal heaver’s uncouth actions, he has coined for the especial use of publishers and magazine editors another epithet.
Returning again to the charge, the author gives this vivid title picture of the modern methods of literary “bunco-steerers” and the search for “discoveries”:
Before he had turned his third corner Lady Méchante had, in an idle moment, planned for him a literary career. She knew what marvelous chances the beginner had in America; how often, while the work of the old established writers was rejected, the first sign of a new writer from Ypsilanti or Barriboo would be hailed with wild acclaim by the editors. The manuscript might be rejected, but the author would be welcomed with complimentary letters, requesting the sight of all future work; and, if the second contribution were tolerable, special envoys, literary confidence men, were sent out to lunch and dine the newborn celebrity. Blurbed into a moment’s scintillating fame, how many a young star she had seen rise, glitter, and fall back into the dark to perish in the black unknown. How many prize-winners had been discovered, touted, and left by the wayside! She hands to Smagg, the ex-coal heaver, a poem of hers for criticism. He condemns it, because, though almost entirely Anglo-Saxon, it contains one word of Latin derivation.
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Not to be outdone by his colleague, Caleb van Hopkins burrowed deeper into the files of that distinguished newspaper and located a second notice of the book. It was dated December 18, 1909 and appeared under the byline of Hildegarde Hawthorne. When Mr. van Hopkins produced this item we were inclined to assume that “Hildegarde Hawthorne” was a pseudonym, and an amusing one at that. But Mr. van Hopkins astonished us by discovering that there was a real Hildegarde Hawthorne, granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne and a poet and author in her own right. We are pleased to report that the distinguished author and editor Jessica Amanda Salmanson has edited a collection of Hildegarde Hawthorne’s ghost stories.
We are pleased, then, to present Miss Hawthorne’s review of Lady Méchante.
GELETT BURGESS’S LADY MÉCHANTE
Hues of London, San Francisco, Boston, and New York
Reflected in a Whimsical and Satirical Tale.
By HILDEGARDE HAWTHORNE.
CLOSE upon the visible and ordinary existence of every day impinges another life, hardly a caricature, rather a twist of the usual features, & whimsical over-accentuation, a Jack of certain emphasis commonly observed. Resembling perhaps as much as anything the shadow flung by the chance juxtaposition of two bits of bric-a-brac and a fluttering candle flame, that wavers, pretends to live, and dances oddly, growing large or small at the wind’s will. The old Gothic carvers caught this mischievous view and chopped it into stone that centuries later is still plastic to the understanding eye, exciting the curious fancy with a wink or a scowl of humorous comprehension that flits across the habitual and necessary gravity imposed by the powers that be, and sets the responsive observer to climbing ladders disappearing in the clouds.
In literature there have also been expressions of this same ignis fatuus, flitting airily over life’s marshlands, unreal, yes, if reality consists in oil and a wick, but certainly there, shimmering, moving, beckoning. It is here that “Alice In Wonderland” belongs. Here, too, “The New Arabian Nights.” And here we must put Gelett Burgess’s latest book, “Lady Méchante.” The story is as impassible as the transformation scene of a pantomime or the activity of a table riding the air of a séance chamber; but it is also as indisputably and evidently as interesting as either.
The wall upon which the fantastic shadows of Lady Méchante and her companions play is variously tinted with the hues Of London, San Francisco. Boston, and New York. But what of the wall? It is the dance we follow. Occasionally it grows somewhat too intricate and wearies with its too involved pattern; but the next moment some quite unlooked for pas soule or a desperate struggle over some deliciously absurd prize sets your pulses keeping time again to fancy’s bells, whose chimes for the most part succeed in drowning any whirring of the pantomime’s machinery that must once in a while obtrude. A glitter of satire aids the movement of the creatures of this wind-blown dance, and we see a variety of queer gestures made by a vast array of important and solemn personages and convictions, once the flickering candle sets their twisted shadows loose.
As you read you are quite likely to dance yourself, and a sort of follow-my-leader game ensues, a slapping: of imaginary ditches and climbing on sliding sand banks, a breathless hurrying down lanes that have no turning, preferring rather to vanish into thin ether, a joyous plunging into beckoning distances. Odd words are whispered or shouted, persons appear and disappear with expressions disconcertingly knowing or unbelievably blank. Certainly, whether Lady Méchante is busy robbing the Mayfair youth of some of its gilding, or organizing the rare experiments of the Hypnotist Club, or doing a turn or two in maddest Boston, or even cultivating the lower orders in New York, she sets a pace that keeps the reader breathless.
To tell the plot of a story of this sort would be as impossible as it is always ungracious. It all lies in the moment’s illusion, and the reader must bring a susceptible spirit, a capacity for excellent fooling, to thoroughly enjoy it. There is no one now writing who can do this sort of thing as does Mr. Burgess, while the excellence and flexibility of his English are a delight, and his rallying of modern fad and foible inimitable. The chapter entitled “The Book of Bosh” will give thoroughpaced joy to many, and Haulick Smagg smudging his coal-blackened hand across the face of the beau monde to as many more. Read it, you who like to take moments off, and if there is something about it of the small boy “showing off,” why, that but adds to the amusement.
~LADY MECHANTE. By Gelett Burgess. Illustrated by the author. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, $1.50.
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We will say no more. Not one but two major notices in The New York Times indicate the seriousness with which Mr. Burgess and his works were taken. We recommend Lady Méchante unreservedly as a brilliant, pointed, hilarious, suspenseful volume, deeply rewarding more than a century after it was written.
The present edition, in departure from our usual practice of setting new type for each Surinam Turtle Press or Ramble House publication, is a facsimile of the 1909 edition. The decorative design work of that volume, along with Gelett Burgess’s own illustrations, can only add to the enjoyment of the modern reader.
—Richard A. Lupoff